And the political test of conferences like the one currently under way in Midrand.
The results are erratic, not least because the party’s distributed approach to policy generation relies on an increasingly degraded capacity for thorough reasoning at Luthuli House, and because clear leadership is needed to identify plausible strategies amid the disparate and conflicting strands of argument – not to mention the tangle of jargon that imprisons too many of the ANC’s best minds.
The legitimacy crisis confronting the top leadership and the dominance of electoral considerations in the permanent war of the post-Polokwane era seem to result less in the opening of space for internal democracy than in a race to the populist bottom – something the ANC has, for the past two decades, been extraordinarily successful in avoiding.
Nowhere are these problems clearer than in the misguided and dangerous rhetoric of the “second transition” laid out in the 2012 strategy and tactics document that was supposed to be the keystone of the policy framework debated in Midrand this week.
In his opening address on Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma made the extraordinary claim that the structure of the economy was unchanged since 1994 as a result of compromises with white capital made in 1994. He argued that those compromises now needed to be unwound in order to deal with the growing crisis of unemployment, inequality and poverty.
Of course, too much economic power remains in white hands, and there can be no doubting the urgency of lifting more South Africans out of the miserable circumstances in which they have been immured for far too long. But the truth is that the structure of the economy has changed out of all recognition since the early Nineties, when Anglo American and Old Mutual bestrode the JSE and comfortable cartels ruled just about every market. Meanwhile, the redistributive structures created by the ANC have had real impacts, at least in the area of cash grants, where the simplicity of the mechanisms involved limits the scope for mismanagement and corruption.
We can, and should, debate why the economy has not changed more; why it has not become more dynamic, more equitable, more capable of growth and employment generation. The diagnostic report of the national planning commission – which drew in some of the smartest ANC-aligned thinkers around and has the effective endorsement of the presidency – offers some nuanced answers. Perhaps the president himself has not read it.
The crisp point, however, is that in calling for a second transition Zuma – and the document – sought to substitute the idea of revolutionary, epochal change for the work of examining the ANC’s governance record and fitting its broad social-democratic vision to the very difficult global conditions we are likely to face for several more years. Again, much of this work had already been done by the national planning commission, as is repeatedly acknowledged in the discussion document, if not in Zuma’s speech.
Something, however, is still working in the old party machine. Delegates from across the succession divide stood up to reject the second transition, to point out that economic and political change are fundamentally entwined and to call for reflection on the ANC’s record.
The collective intelligence of a 100-year-old movement is still capable of rejecting some of the most patently foolish ideas that it generates.
Can it come up with good ones? And, more to the point, can it turn them into successful action on the part of the state? The conference had not been concluded by the time the Mail & Guardian went to press, but the evidence was not encouraging. Certainly, no clear vision of South Africa’s future under the ANC had emerged, or looked likely to.
The Polokwane process pitted the strong, centralised leadership of Thabo Mbeki and his core team in the ANC’S powerful national working committee against hugely diverse interests – unionists, communists, oligarchs and the party’s youth league – combined in opposition to the incumbency.
The cash that flowed, the relationships that were broken, the revelation of just how much abuse it is possible to get away with in the pursuit of power have permanently damaged the ANC.
There is no real clash of values or of ideologies now, just a swirling and confused battlefield where contending barons fight for turf and temporary alliances coalesce and break down around a paranoid king.
It is hard to believe that any of the possible outcomes in Mangaung will fundamentally change this arrangement.
If, as seems inevitable, the result is the election of a leadership that lacks substantial internal and popular legitimacy, then the temptations of populism will only grow – and so will the failure of governance that demagogy seeks to cover up.
Some very clever and principled people remain in the ANC. They tend to keep their heads down and to try to nudge the party in the right direction, arguing that they cannot do so if they poke their heads too far above the parapet and have them shot off.
They may have been right once. No longer.
The ANC they seek to save is exhausted and it will collapse entirely if they do not make a bid for real power now. If they fail, they can join the rest of us in the cold outside, working toward the future that the ruling party used to believe in.