A teary eyed South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa reacts after he was announced President of the African National Congress (ANC) party on December 18, 2017 at NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg during the 54th ANC National Conference.
JOHANNESBURG - One of the great limitations of the ANC’s quinquennial elective conference is simply the tragedy of timing.
The conference was supposed to fulfil 2 key issues – the policy stance and position of the party; and of course, the leadership race.
Since its unbanning in 1990, the ANC has had to navigate its way from a liberation movement towards a governing party. Its awareness of this transition is well known. The first document of great import after the unbanning was its transition blueprint called "Ready to Govern". At the heart of the document was the realisation that since its inception 80 years before, its mission had been to unseat the then colonial and apartheid governments. With the impending demise of apartheid came the realisation that the consequence of being in government is, of course, governance itself. "Ready to Govern" formed the ANC’s policy guidelines for a democratic South Africa. Policy formulation, therefore, sits at the heart of the ANC’s permanent quest to master the transition from a liberation movement to a governing party.
Given the importance of policymaking in keeping the ANC intact, this aspect of the conference is far more important than the leadership contest. The mid-year policy conference goes some way towards acknowledging this. However, the policy conference simply seeks to summarise a compendium of policy proposals – reforms, ratifications, revisions and amendments – and the December conference has the authority to sign off on such policies once the branches have deliberated on them.
Unfortunately, the scheduling of the conference inevitably sees the leadership battles take centre stage and policy discussions relegated to an afterthought. This was evidenced by the fact that traditionally, there is a press briefing to communicate all policy proposals that have been accepted or rejected by the conference. This time around, the briefing on international relations was cancelled at the last minute due to logistical challenges. Given the importance of the ANC’s international relations position for the country at large, this was a disappointing development.
In this week’s conference, the ANC plenary was dominated by a more militant stance of the ANC Youth League. Thus the more controversial policy positions were vigorously debated and in most cases, adopted. The ANC has resolved to downgrade the Israel embassy to a liaison office. Since the proposal was tabled in July, there has been some spirited lobbying by the Jewish community for the ANC to reconsider its stance. To complicate matters, since the proposal emerged at the policy conference, the ANC had never actually defined what a "downgrade" would entail. We now know the former embassy is now a "liaison office" and this is a significant blow to the relations between the Jewish community at large and the ANC. In response, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies has condemned the decision taken by the ANC and labelled it as "detrimental" and an exhibit of how the ANC’s international relations agenda has been "captured" by organisations including the BDS movement.
While one can understand that the ANC views this position as being consistent with its long-held stance on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, it is worth noting that the new ANC president is well known for his proximity to Jewish business (as evidenced by the support he enjoyed in his election rally in Soweto). He now has to mend fences with the Jewish community while also avoiding an explicit rejection of policies adopted at the conference. This will definitely not be easy.
To exhibit just how intractably complicated the Israel question is, consider that just a week before the ANC’s decision on Israel, no lesser an authority than Donald J Trump had unilaterally announced a decision to declare Jerusalem as the official capital city of the state of Israel. Such a pronouncement went against the universal consensus that a two-state solution is the only viable choice for peace in the region. Naturally, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu was happy about this Trump decision. The rest of the world was, predictably, up in arms as this was interpreted as a way of inflaming tensions in the volatile Middle East. This decision itself was universally rejected by the United Nations General Assembly a day after the ANC conference ended.
Clearly, the issue of Israel and Palestine remains a polarising point of debate across the world and not just in South Africa. But as it stands, the ANC has taken a decision that now must be translated into action. My immediate suspicion is that behind closed doors, the new ANC president will seek to find a stay of execution for the implementation of the resolution. ANC delegates have notoriously been slow at following up on whether deployees act on conference resolutions. Ramaphosa might just find it to his advantage to continue this historic cleavage between resolutions and execution.
Khaya Sithole is a chartered accountant, academic and activist. He chaired the Lesedi Education Endowment Fund during the FeesMustFall crisis.