/ 8 July 2007

A bump on the road to Polokwane

Last week’s ANC policy conference brought to mind a traditional proclamation: The king is dead. Long live the king!

However one interprets the minutiae of ANC pronouncements on the next leadership selection, three things can be said. First, Thabo Mbeki will not be South Africa’s president come 2009; second, the internecine war for the presidency of the ANC will continue right up to the last moment; and third, Mbeki and his policies, many of which are deeply unpopular in the ANC rank and file, triumphed at Midrand. The status quo remains.

This outcome was hardly the result of manoeuvring by Mbeki loyalists. The ANC’s programmatic and policy course has been largely unchallenged since 1994. But the conference did reveal a more fundamental problem that should concern the most forward-thinking among the ANC leaders: a glaring inability on the part of delegates to provide credible alternatives to economic and social policies with which they disagree.

The recommendations (or lack thereof) made at the conference remain unofficial until they are either adopted or rejected at the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane in December. Effectively, this means that, over the next six months, party branches can propose changes, introduce new ideas and reject any of the existing recommendations.

But judging from the debate at Midrand, the “two centres of power” issue is likely to occupy the branches over the next half year. The social and economic policies spearheaded by Mbeki’s government (not necessarily by the ANC) will remain largely intact.

The ability of the majority of the 1 500 delegates — presumably the cream of the ANC crop — to vigorously question and examine policies appeared seriously wanting. Delegates were stridently critical of, for example, “monopoly capital”, but they could propose no alternatives. This compelled what the ANC Youth League labelled “the technocrats” — directors-general and Cabinet ministers — to micromanage the policy debates and, in the absence of plausible suggestions from the floor, the documents as presented to delegates on day one barely changed.

Judging from the conference, the survival of the ANC’s bottom-up value-system has become less about political mobilisation and more about economic education, as the partiality of the best ANC brains — currently pooled at the top (read: Pretoria) — will usually prevail, whatever their ideology.

The post-1994 exodus into government and the public sector has become a growing concern for leaders in Luthuli House, but only now are they talking about formal political education for ANC members. ANC officials concede that part of the reason the succession battle has spun out of control is their failure to educate the membership on the organisation’s historical ethos, leaving a vacuum into which populist rhetoric has rushed.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the policy conference. By the end of the event, succession semantics had trumped the twin social ills of poverty and unemployment as talking points. Of course succession is the talk of the moment, but the inability of delegates to engage at any depth with policy issues will have a longer lasting effect on the future of the ANC.

A four-hour commission led by Minister of Public Works Thoko Didiza was a case in point. The 125 delegates on hand were hardly short of material. Their agenda included globalisation, gender, race, the developmental state, monopoly capital and the tripartite alliance as they related to the ANC’s strategy and tactics document. Minister of Education Naledi Pandor spent about 15 minutes prefacing the discussion on globalisation by describing its effect on the ANC-led government in a bid to promote debate. When no delegate took the floor, she exclaimed: “I thought that would prompt some hands?”

The discussion on monopoly capital revolved around delegates trying to persuade each other about whether it should be described as an enemy, a threat or just a hindrance. This ended with the bland and predictable expression of support for ownership of the country’s natural resources to be further addressed. Delegates unremarkably discussed gender and race, agreeing — wait for it! — that patriarchy and racism were ongoing problems.

Notable for their tone, if not their likely effect, the delegates’ economic and social policy recommendations included:

  • The ANC should formally adopt the interventionist strategies the state has been practising for some time, including increased infrastructure spend and defining the “development state”.
  • The ANC does not support a basic income grant but the child support grant could be increased to include children up to the age of 18.
  • An education summit should be convened to discuss free basic education.
  • Floor-crossing and the nine provinces would be retained.

Other substantive issues — such as how to bridge the economic divide, agrarian reform, the state’s property expropriation rights and regulation of private party funding — received perfunctory nods from delegates, with little suggestion on how to address these issues.

Conference participants did register their dissatisfaction with the way things are done from the Union Buildings, saying the powers to appoint provincial premiers, mayors and the Cabinet should be devolved from the presidency to ANC structures.

But Mbeki’s legacy, and indeed the real issues facing the ANC, are less about whether the president has appointment powers, and more about the (in)ability of the party’s grassroots to shift the design and direction of policy coherently.