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All eyes on ANC policy conference

President Thabo Mbeki is to deliver the opening address at the African National Congress’s policy conference in a bitterly cold Midrand, Gauteng, where delegates started arriving on Wednesday morning.

About 1 500 delegates are expected at the four-day meeting, called to debate how best, in the words of party spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama, to “take forward the ANC’s programme of building a better life for all”.

But it takes place against intense behind-the-scenes jockeying over the leadership of the party, and coincides with a bitter public-service strike.

Providing a framework for the debate will be 13 discussion documents that have been widely circulated since early this year, including the controversial strategy and tactics document.

The documents will be discussed in sessions behind closed doors, and an indication of the importance attached to strategy and tactics — which seeks to set out the party’s political vision and a broad plan of action — is that most of the first day’s programme will be devoted to it.

This document is expected to be the target of an all-out attack by delegates from the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, who will be pushing for more radical economic policies and a recognition of the working class as the driving force of the “revolution”.

Business Day reported on Wednesday that job creation in South Africa’s formal economy slowed sharply in the first quarter of the year, and that the new jobs figures are likely to provide ammunition for the ANC’s left-wing allies to attack the party’s business-friendly policies at the conference.

Addressing a pre-conference media briefing on Tuesday, Ngonyama dismissed suggestions that the ongoing public-service strike would affect the tone of the conference. “It is not going to have an impact on the content [of the discussions] and the environmental interaction even at the social level among the delegates,” he said.

He did, however, criticise what he said were the insults that had been levelled at “the leadership of our country” during the strike. “We can do better in respecting our president and those that we put in positions of responsibility,” he said.

Leadership

Another issue expected to produce vigorous debate is that of the so-called “two centres of power” — whether it is desirable for the leader of the party and the leader of the country to be different people.

If the conference decides against it, it will be a body blow to Mbeki’s chances of being re-elected as ANC president for a third term at the party’s national conference in December. This debate will pit provinces such as the Eastern Cape, which has already decided it wants Mbeki back for a third term, against others including KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Mpumalanga.

Also on the agenda are discussions on a review of the electoral system, the future of the provinces, the desirability of floor-crossing legislation, a restructuring of the hierarchy of the courts to give overall supremacy to the Constitutional Court, and proposals for a review of the structure of the ANC itself.

The organisational review document suggests increasing the size of the party’s 60-member national executive committee, and calls for “effective regulatory architecture” to improve accountability and transparency in the funding of political parties.

Decisions taken at the policy conference are not binding. They will, according to Ngonyama, be formulated as “draft resolutions” and fed back to individual branches for further debate before the party’s national conference in Limpopo in December.

“The policy conference does not adopt policy, but it provides an opportunity for detailed and intensive consideration of the various policy challenges facing the movement and the country,” Ngonyama said.

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