ANC policy conference unlikely to achieve much


ANC president Jacob Zuma celebrated his 75th birthday at Walter Sisulu in Kliptown on 12 April 2017.

Anyone who hopes that the ANC policy conference, which gets under way in the south of Johannesburg today and concludes on July 5, will fashion new, workable and sustainable policy proposals to address crippling unemployment, grinding poverty and structural inequality in South Africa, is on a fool's errand.

Granted there will be a lot of talk and rhetoric. In fact, the nomenclature of an ANC steeped in radical-sounding and revolutionary theory and practice will be on steroids when the party rank and file comes together today. 

According to party officials, no one will be bullied and no view will be disallowed - it will be veritable festival of ideas if party bosses are to be believed. "We want to lock everyone in and get to consensus," said ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte on the eve of the policy gathering. She was speaking at a media briefing on the state of readiness yesterday.  

Nine discussion documents spanning all policy areas have been developed as a basis for deliberation and discussion among the delegates. These include:

1. Strategy and tactics (The ANC's vision of what kind of society it wants to build and the route to it)
2. Organisational renewal (designing the ANC into a modern political party)
3. Communications and the battle for ideas
4. Economic transformation
5. Education, health, science and technology
6. Legislature and governance
7. Social transformation
8. Peace and stability
9. International relations

But it is economic policy that is likely to dominate the five-day event, as the party grapples to determine how to grow an inclusive economy that will have to absorb the multitude of young people, many of whom are unskilled and jobless. Youth unemployment stands at double the rate of general unemployment, with conservative estimates putting joblessness at well over 27 percent. Moreover, the negative economic outlook amid a recession and threats of further economic woes - with ratings agencies taking a dim view of ongoing political instability linked to growing corruption and state capture, as well as a deeply divided ANC - set the scene for a potentially divisive policy conference that could well be highjacked and turned into a proxy battle for political control of the ANC. 

The party holds its elective conference in December when it elects a new president. And while the party's leadership has tried to put a lid on the battle for the top job, all factions will have none of it, with many already involved in lobbying and jostling for power. A series of policy issues such as the emotive land question, radical economic transformation, gender-based violence and deracialising of the economy are going to see delegates doing battle over just how the ANC moves forward and, more importantly, how to hold onto power as it gears up for the 2019 general election.This is an event that has been hugely influenced by the party's bruising defeat in three major metros, including the richest one, Johannesburg, the administrative capital, Pretoria, and the ANC's heartland, Nelson Mandela Bay.

That the ANC is deeply divided is no longer contested by anyone who is a halfway decent observer of the political landscape in SA. One only has to do cursory desktop research to see how leaders of the party, many of whom also serve in the Cabinet, are at war with each other over some of the most fundamental policy questions affecting commanding heights of the economy. The policy mess around the mining charter that is now the subject of urgent court action on the part of the Chamber of Mines, which forms part of business - a key partner in the social compact involving the state, labour, and community organisation - is the latest example of the policy incoherence which besets the governing party. And while patronage has long replaced ideology as the key driver of divisions in the ANC, historically those fights and battles were conducted and driven by ANC leaders inside the party.

Enter state capture, linked to the all powerful Gupta family, and what now emerges is the creation and operation of an alternative centre, which is increasingly seen as the real engine of ideology even undermining the Cabinet, as was the case when Faith Muthambi, the former Communications Minister, simply ignored a legal and binding cabinet decision regarding the encryption of set top boxes in the long drawn out and still unresolved digital migration process. Muthambi is part of President Jacob Zuma's inner circle and has consistently defied the ANC and policy dictates from Luthuli House.  As did her counterpart in Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, a well-known Gupta functionary. This segues into the charge by the ANC stalwarts that the party in its current form lacks integrity and, more importantly, have been replaced as the driver of policy making. The 101 veterans are in fact boycotting the conference's first two days, which have been set aside to look at some of the internal integrity of the party. Instead, they will gather later in the year and hold their own meeting to assess the ANC. 

This policy conference also comes amid an open revolt against the continued leadership of Zuma, with many MPs being lobbied to cast him out before his term ends in 2019. At the centre of their revolt is the belief and knowledge that he has now become the largest impediment to any hope the ANC has of retaining power in 2019. The political liability that is President Zuma also impedes any genuine effort to address the necessary policy discussions and decisions that the ANC needs to grapple with, given that Zuma has become the cheerleader for populism and efforts to undo constitutional provisions tied to how the economy is managed. This accounts for the disconnect between what is on paper and what makes up political rhetoric on any policy debate on land, radical economic transformation, race and the building of a developmental state.