President Jacob Zuma used his closing address to the African National Congress policy conference on Wednesday to plead for unity when he argued against a winner-takes-all approach to the party's leadership race, which comes to a head in December when the governing party elects his successor.
Zuma departed from his traditional closing address and went into "commissar" mode. He advocated for a change to the ANC constitution, warning of splits that occurred when he came to power in 2007 in Polokwane, trumping former president Thabo Mbeki. Zuma backed a proposal that seeks to enlarge the ANC top six. He said whoever loses the contest to replace him should become one of two deputies in the party. The conference made two proposals to enlarge its leadership coterie. The one Zuma is backing includes the election of two deputy secretaries-general, which will see the ANC top six extended. The other, which proposes only one additional deputy secretary-general, is among the ways in which delegates proposed that the ANC's top brass should be changed in order to end the intractable factional fights that have divided the ANC down the middle.
That Zuma came out batting for the extended top six can be interpreted as a sign of weakness on the part of his faction after it lost almost all the key policy debates, including the much-contested debate on how to characterise the nature of capital in South Africa. The concept of white monopoly capital was defeated after a heated debate among the more than 4,000 delegates.The ANC's policy czar of old Joel Netshitenzhe told a media briefing that nine of the 11 commissions had agreed during discussions on the party's strategy and tactics to drop the race tag in the definition of monopoly capital.
Tilting the scales in Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa's favour was also the fracturing of the so-called Premier League, which traditionally consisted of Free State, North West, Mpumalanga and sections of Kwazulu-Natal. However, Mpumalanga appears to have moved over to the CR 17 (Ramaphosa) faction after David Mabuza, the provincial leader, withdrew his initial objection to a devastatingly critical diagnostic report tabled by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. The latter didn't mince his words and outlined the impact of corruption, the Gupta leaks and money on the moral and ethical image of the governing party. The Premier League tried unsuccessfully to stop Mantashe from tabling the report.
Zuma's crowd also lost out on the land policy debate. Instead of radical expropriation without compensation and a change to the constitution to effect its sought changes, the delegates opted for the view that the issue was an ongoing one that must be debated in the branches. The narrative of radical economic transformation and white monopoly capital has been unmasked for what it really has been appropriated for -- a ruse by those in the Zuma faction that seek to invoke the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty to pull the wool over everyone's eyes as they use their proximity to power to access largesse in the state for their inner circle.
The attempts to enlarge the top six to accommodate factions is short-sighted. While it could allay fears of opposing factions and ensure the spoils of office are shared, it only avoids a split, it doesn't address the other drivers of the division. These include the efforts to capture the state for private gain on the part of the Zuma faction and its ties to the Gupta family and the president's son Duduzane. It also doesn't send the right signals on rooting out gatekeeping, the use of money to corrupt and gatekeep the ANC branches, many of whom are set up to function as conduits of patronage, from local government level to other spheres of the state and its entities and parastatals.
On the Reserve Bank, the conference recommended that the central bank should be 100 percent owned by the state. The government must develop a proposal to ensure full ownership in a manner that does not benefit private shareholder speculators, the resolution read. The recommendation was uncontested by the opposing faction because it can be argued that it did not propose a change in the Reserve Bank's mandate, which is provided for in the Constitution. The private shareholders do not, in fact, decide on policy, not even on the appointment of the governor and deputies. In most countries central banks are 100 percent state-owned, including in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Moreover, unconstitutional efforts to engineer a change in the Reserve Bank's mandate on the part of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane is being challenged by the finance minister, the Reserve Bank and Absa.
As I have said before, the policy debates had several dimensions, one of which was that they served as a proxy battle for leadership contestation. In fact, Zuma's proposal can be read as his faction having concluded that it is unlikely to get its candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, selected in December. It explains the push from ANC KwaZulu-Natal leader Sihle Zikalala, who is seen as one of the main proponents of this proposal.
Jeremy Cronin, the SA Communist Party's second deputy general secretary, put his finger on it when he said the ANC policy discussions were superficial and didn't go far enough to address the ANC's and the country's pressing problems. This despite more than 4,000 ANC delegates converging on the showgrounds at Nasrec this week. Instead, the gathering was plagued by ongoing bickering and obfuscation over terminology and lexicon that sought to mask the actual driver of the divisions among the party faithful: power and patronage tied to who controls the ANC.
Too little interrogation
The 11 commissions in which the exchanges were often heated turned into spectacle as those aligned to Zuma stuck to a script regurgitating a narrative developed by the agency hired by the Guptas, Bell Pottinger. They packed the economic transformation commission and the strategy and tactics commission, hoping to intimidate and tip the scales in their favour. So desperate were they that men were brought in as part of the women's league delegation, as well as civil servants from state agencies tied to those with links to the Zuma and Gupta families.
Another weakness of the debates was that they were devoid of any genuine interrogation of the ANC's own record in government. Much of the five days were spent discussing the economic, social and political policy deficits as if the ANC is yet to assume power. Which brings me to the level of denial and arrogance that permeated the elaborate press briefings, which were so carefully choreographed to ensure that as little as possible was interrogated by the media. While coming out on the side of media freedom and freedom of speech the ANC's own inability to have a coherent message on the outcomes of the discussions was another sign that efforts to forge unity were superficial at best and a failure at worst. While pro-Zuma delegates tried to get those who disagreed with them disciplined and silenced, leaders such as Netshitenzhe, Derek Hanekom and key leaders in Gauteng and elsewhere stood their ground and continued to argue against efforts to have a set of policy proposals imposed by a faction tied to Zuma.
While the policy conference was a small victory for those in the ANC who want a change from the Zuma years, it remains to be seen whether they can take the elective conference in December. Zuma plays a long game. He is patient and he is very adroit at palace politics and intrigue. But while Zuma can never be underestimated or written off, he too can't relax. The vote of no confidence in him is set for 8 August. Mass action by civil society and the ANC's own allies against state capture is likely to make it more and more difficult for Zuma to tighten his grip and see his anointed successor take his place as ANC president. Expect things to get rough between now and December.