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ANC policy anarchy – its leaders are too weak to lead, or too weak to take over

Protesters expressing their view of President Jacob Zuma’s government ahead of the ANC National Policy Conference. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Disputed resolutions, deferred decisions and policy uncertainty were the prime bequests of the policy conference of South Africa’s governing African National Congress to the troubled organisation. Hot on the heels of these incongruities were opaque proposals on how the ANC will act on wobbly state institutions that need to implement policy, and porous pitches on improved ethics and integrity.

Even more, the proceedings confirmed that the ANC leadership is in stalemate. Leadership is in transition and factional leaders lack the authority to steer policy in directions that will address the country’s massive delivery backlog.

To the question: is President Jacob Zuma leading the ANC onto a path of implosion, the verdict is a sad but unambiguous “yes”. The conference confirmed that the president and his faction are not letting go – neither of their ambitions to determine Zuma’s successor, nor of their efforts to make “radical economic transformation” their platform.

The conference confirmed that the ANC recognises that the cancer of corruption and capture afflicts it badly. Yet the organisation remains stunted in finding ways to deal with it.

While the conference opted for unity, it’s a unity that precludes cutting out the cancer because it’s embedded in a faction that’s not budging. It will do everything in its power to retain power. That includes gambling with the conference’s policy outcomes.

The policy conference was, in effect, a six-day war over policy. Factional forces manoeuvred relentlessly to secure influence and power. The epitome of this deep factionalism was that Zuma in his closing address put forward a “power-sharing” proposal. His intervention tried to influence delegates to campaign for sharing the top ANC leadership positions. But the president’s factional interests meant that his proposal carried little weight.

Affected by the succession campaign, the overall outcome was approximate policy anarchy. It was directed by leaders who were either too weak to lead or too weak to take over.

Stalemate state of the ANC

The national policy conference , held every five years, is the ANC’s precursor to the December national elective conference that also adopts the final policy resolutions to supplement or substitute previous policy.

The character of the conference itself revealed a great deal about the indecisive and stalemate state of the current ANC. Unlike previous ones, there was no reliable stream of reports containing draft resolutions. And it failed to deliver consensual recommendations on crucial matters.

Several of the media briefings were delayed or rushed due to ongoing contests – some rhetorical, some ideological – between factions in commissions. The Secretary General’s report, which mentioned the problem of how Zuma has allowed the Indian-born Gupta family to wield undue and corrupting influence, was tabled. But it was immediately discredited by the pro-Zuma faction.

Some media briefings, like the pivotal report and proposed resolutions on legislature and governance – which presumably put the spotlight on issues of corruption, capture, and lack of cadre capacity – never happened. The briefing on organisational renewal was largely made up of a shopping list of issues that had been discussed. Very little else.

Policy certainty was a mirage. The best indicators of future policy were to be found in the subtly changing balance of forces in the succession contest for national ANC leadership. This was the price that the ANC and its factions paid for its short-term goal of unity.

The factional struggle was clearest around the battle over the terminology of “radical economic transformation”. Under this umbrella lay issues such as land expropriation, the mining charter and the role of the Reserve Bank. Where resolutions on these matters materialised, such as “monopoly capitalism” winning vis-à-vis “white monopoly capitalism”, the battle was merely deferred. The reported losers proclaimed that party branches, and thereafter the December conference, would be the next battleground.

Share of contested positions

Previous ANC policy conferences have also had their fair share of contested positions. Five years ago the fight between whether South Africa finds itself in a “second transition” or in the “second phase of the transition to a democratic society” was resolved.

Ten years ago the divisive question was whether then president Thabo Mbeki could contest for a third term as ANC president. Opposing factions compromised, deciding that the ANC president should “preferably” only run for two terms. This was followed by the Polokwane national conference at which Mbeki lost to Zuma as party leader.

If the ANC still has the power to self-correct – or ensure that its centre holds – it certainly didn’t show at this recent policy conference. The need to be radical and ensure equity and justice were conflated with the opportunistic appropriation of “radical economic transformation” for factional succession and continued capturist control of the South African state.

A compromise position of “radical socioeconomic transformation” – a long-standing and considered to be sufficient pivot of the ANC’s ideological stance – was announced but rejected by those supporting the president, including some of the so-called Premier League members (a group of provincial party leaders) and the party’s youth and women’s leagues.

This policy conference will be remembered for an ANC in disarray, plagued with internal dissent. It was a policy conference with ambiguous, unresolved policy stances. It ended without a definitive positioning on reconnecting the party with South African citizens and voters. This was the price the ANC paid to keep two powerful factions in the same broad church.

Chances are that the conference exacerbated rather than ameliorated the credibility of the ANC in the eyes of voters. The best hope for this haplessly acting ANC at this stage is not self-correction, but that opposition parties will make mistakes that surpass its own.

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