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ANC policy conference: deeper polarisation and a stalemate for South Africa

President Jacob Zuma at the opening of the ANC’s 5th national policy conference in Johannesburg. EPA/Stringer

South Africa’s governing African National Congress’s previous four policy conferences have given a very good indication of what the policy resolutions will be at the national conferences that follow. As a result it was possible to anticipate whether changes in policies or continuity would characterise the next five years, several months before the final conference.

Can the same be expected of the ANC’s 5th policy conference?

The ANC’s National Conference, held every five years, is its highest decision-making body in terms of electing its leaders and adopting policies. A policy conference is held a few months before the national conference to prepare draft policy resolutions after extensive debates.

Traditionally, ANC policy conferences have been dominated by economic policy matters. More recently the issue of organisational renewal has also taken centre stage. At the last two National Conferences (2007, 2012) two sets of candidates (“slates”) dominated the proceedings. The result is that policy matters have increasingly become shorthand – or soundbites – for support for different candidates.

In 2007 then president Thabo Mbeki was regarded as neo-liberal and Jacob Zuma as pro-poor and pro-workers. The same applies this year: radical economic transformation – or white monopoly capital – is a code for Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who President Zuma prefers to succeed him. The code for supporters of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is state capture, an inclusive economy and radical socio-economic transformation.

What this means as one analyses the essence of the 2017 policy conference is that focus is no longer primarily on policy. Rather it’s on policy as a means towards a political end – succession.

Challenges facing ANC and South Africa

The boycott by the ANC stalwarts and veterans and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Council overshadowed the first conference days. President Zuma’s opening speech defiantly delegitimised their call for a consultative conference. (The ANC held national consultative conferences only three times in its history, in 1962, 1969 and 1985 while it was banned and mainly in exile at critical stages in its history to resolve important issues). Zuma also challenged his opponents in the ANC and accused them of being responsible for factionalism in the party and its organisational malaise.

ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, on the other hand, tabled a controversial diagnostic organisational report which could not be suppressed by Zuma’s supporters. The first part of the proceedings was therefore at best a quasi-consultative conference with no tangible results but rather posturing by the two main blocs in the ANC.

ANC and South African presidential hopefuls Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Siphiwe Sibeko

Nine discussion documents have been published as the basis of the policy discussions. Do they present an accurate picture of the state of the nation and the policy remedies South Africans expect?

The issues that the ANC as government has to address are well-known but often clouded in managerial jargon. One can reduce them to three overarching challenges.

The ANC is, firstly, engulfed in a crisis of credibility and integrity – even one of legitimacy despite its electoral majority. Unethical governance, egoistic tendencies and a decline in the ethos of service provision are all contributing factors. The policy conference’s organisation renewal mandate is therefore of paramount importance.

Secondly, the ANC has to engage directly with the economic downward spiral – the current recession, credit downgrading and low foreign direct investment. South Africa is also increasingly in competition with new African and other emerging markets. The domestic economy relies on mining as its primary source of foreign currency earnings while its contribution to the GDP continues a long pattern of decline. Agriculture too has been a major source of job creation. But that too is in decline. South Africa’s economy is changing while government policies aren’t keeping abreast.

Thirdly, a social crisis characterised by inequality, unemployment, family dysfunctionality, crime and drug abuse appears to have entered a vicious circle without effective government counter strategies. The gap between rural and urban life experiences is widening while the ANC’s panacea for it – namely land ownership – has not yet produced tangible results.

What do South Africans expect of the ANC and has the conference engaged with these ideals? In a generalised and simplified form, South Africans want to trust the public domain and want to see moral leadership. They want to have hope for the future and are willing to work together even under difficult circumstances. The Mandela era galvanised national pride and South Africans want to return to that. They also want to see a society based on fairness and with democracy that delivers positive results for them.

The ANC’s slogan of “a better life for all” does reflect some of these ideals. The National Development Plan (NDP) in principle also endorsed them. But the devil is in the detail. Both the NDP and the ANC’s strategy and tactics document tabled at the conference depend on a “developmental state” for implementation. The developmental state (as represented by post-war Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and others) is therefore the cornerstone of the ANC’s approach.

But it’s premised on a public sector with strong human and governance capacity as well as widespread consensus on how private-public partnerships can be used to stimulate and coordinate the economy. It also requires consensus on national priorities.

These premises are weak in South Africa and a policy conference is meant to address them.


The main shortcomings in the ANC’s approach to policy are twofold. The first is that it concentrates almost exclusively on policy objectives but very little on policy strategies: how to achieve them; how to manage and coordinate policies. Government officials are often without a policy roadmap.

The second is that the ANC’s historical legacy places on limits its policy imagination. “Colonialism of a special type” is still the point of departure of the latest strategy and tactics document. A neo-colonial form of it is contemplated but even this makes exploration of options beyond its confines very difficult. At the same time socio-economic conditions in South Africa are changing radically. This includes urbanisation and the growth of the black middle class.

The National Policy Conference hasn’t recommended significant policy changes. The leadership changes in December 2017 might herald new policies. But this policy conference doesn’t provide South Africans with any basis of what might be possible. It has been too preoccupied with leadership succession.

The outcome is probably a deeper polarisation within the ANC and a consolidation of “two ANCs” with no pivotal decision making centre. This effectively amounts to a stalemate. This will be experienced in both the NEC and the national cabinet.

The National Conference is the only remaining constitutional mechanism that can make a difference. But the 18 months after December and before the 2019 general election might be too short to rescue the ANC.

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