ANC policy conference is overrated

What plan? President Jacob Zuma received the National Development Plan but it seems to have quietly been buried. (David Harrison)

What plan? President Jacob Zuma received the National Development Plan but it seems to have quietly been buried. (David Harrison)

It’s hard to justify excitement about the upcoming ANC policy conference despite the media being all over it like a bad rash.

I will be broadcasting reluctantly from the conference and feel obliged to sacrifice at least one column to sheepishly opine about it, if for no other reason than to explain my lukewarm interest in it.

First, the policy conference isn’t really a game-changer. In theory, the party evaluates existing policies and deliberates on changes.
These, in turn, are meant to feed into the policy-making processes in the state.

Given that the ANC, for the moment, still matters hugely to our society (for better or worse), it’s not imprudent to pay attention to policies it adopts about itself and its future. Or so you might think.

Spare yourself the energy of mistakenly ascribing such earnestness to the policy conference. It doesn’t take on anything near these levels of actual significance. You simply need to look at the relationship between past policy conferences and subsequent realities to know this. There is a bigger chance of Nelson Mandela rising from his grave than the much-punted “decade of the cadre” ever happening, despite a resolution at Mangaung to that end.

The ANC is not very good at implementing even good policy ideas that it has adopted. So why should we invest so much money, time and energy in following their debates about policy closely?

Every policy conference debates organisational renewal. Is there any sign of organisational renewal in the ANC? Of course not. If anything, there is a perpetuation of old habits and a reproduction of the organisational cultural norms that were first identified as inimical to a slick, modern, parliamentary democratic party years ago.

The ANC, despite policies to the contrary, is eating itself up rather than renewing itself. This raises a blunt question: If the ANC itself doesn’t take policy resolutions -seriously, why should you and I take their rehearsal of policy debates seriously?

Take another example — the National Development Plan (NDP). In the aftermath of Thabo Mbeki’s recall, there was a nominal attempt made to keep the likes of Trevor Manuel around for a little while to try to calm the markets. He is a steady hand, so the argument went, is well-loved internationally and would be a kind of placeholder for Mbeki inside a Jacob Zuma-led government.

Now recall the insane number of hours spent debating the NDP as a policy document by everyone and their grandmother inside the ANC and the country at large. Millions of taxpayer money was spent to enlarge the executive to accommodate Manuel and the Mbeki losers of the war in Polokwane.

Where is the NDP now? It has died silently. No one talks about that awkwardness these days. We simply accept, quietly, that the country will not get any returns on the resources invested into shaping and adopting the NDP.

The track record of the party, both inside the state and in terms of how it conduct its affairs as a political party, show that we should disinvest our energies when they have these arcane debates.

There are two important insights here. First, unless and until there is adequate political will to implement policies adopted by the party faithfully, the policy conference is not all that critical to our lives.

Second, and related, it is more important that we pay attention to realpolitik. Who is in the state? What is happening inside the state? Which parts of the state apparatus are functioning well, despite the weaknesses of the party itself? Can business, labour and civil society leverage those few political principals and civil servants in the state who are committed to delivering on agreed public policy mandates?

These questions, for me, are of far more relevance to our collective fate than working painstakingly through the work of the subcommittees at the ANC policy conference.

The bottom line is that we, as a country, do not have a policy problem. Some policies should be tweaked. But “policy” is not our nexus problem.

Our greatest problem is looting. It’s that simple. Furthermore, we have a bureaucracy that’s not sufficiently fit for purpose. We have too many ANC politicians in the state who have been, with their consent, corrupted by business, and especially corrupted on a grand scale by the Gupta family.

That means we have a rotten leadership that hamstrings the functionality of the state. The ANC policy conference isn’t going to deal with this reality head on.

So what should you look out for over the next few days?

The most useful thing about the ANC policy conference is also the hardest to get right. It is using the conference to work out who has the upper hand in the leadership battle. The policy conference is a dress rehearsal for the elective conference.

There is a caveat. Be careful of how pundits and reporters exaggerate the meaning of every single gesture of every politician. I have already seen exaggerated comments about the “strategic intent” behind Zuma changing the day and time when he will deliver his main conference speech.

A week is a long time in politics. We know that. Six months is even longer. So, although the conference does give us some material to work with as we head towards December, we will have to wait until then before we know who won the battle of the slates.

If you are tempted over the next few days to change channels when we bore you with over-analysing the ANC policy conference, don’t feel bad. The country and the ANC will still be in crisis next week. Sadly.

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