On Monday the African National Congress (ANC) will release discussion documents for its national general council (NGC), currently scheduled for October ("currently scheduled" because it's been delayed already, and when an ANC event has been delayed once …). These documents formally set the parameters for the issues that can be discussed. Generally, they are the first indicator of how ANC policy, and thus government policy, could change over the next five years. They are also usually bluntly honest about the state of the country and the party itself. This year, there are plenty of issues that need sharp, honest debate. But what should we be looking for, and what should the party be trying to do at a national policy level? By STEPHEN GROOTES.
It is one of the enduring strengths of the ANC that it publishes a discussion document long before a conference and sends it to each of its branches for members’ perusal. Before conferences, the ANC also holds big press events featuring the people who wrote the documents, to get to real nub of the proposals. This means policy ideas should have been thoroughly interrogated before delegates actually pronounce on them. You can say many things about the ANC, but in this, it is open and transparent.
With all of that said, implementation is, of course, another story. From resolutions that ANC deployees in government should step down when formally charged with corruption, to those pushing for “radical economic transformation”, to declarations that the National Development Plan will be the new blueprint for policy, many decisions are honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
This time around, perhaps the biggest possible shift in policy will revolve around the economy, and a possible move to the right for the party. At the Alliance summit held just last month, the ANC, along with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), agreed: “While public resources must play the major part, a different relationship between state and communities must be fostered. Our grassroots organisational structures must play a leading role in mobilising communities to appreciate that freedom comes with rights and responsibilities.” This has been seen as perhaps the start of the biggest shift in the party’s policies since 1990. Of course, it depends on who you ask, but perhaps, just perhaps, this is the start of the ANC telling its supporters that it is up to them to improve their lives, with a possible reduction of the state’s role in the economy.
The first test of whether this will happen is the publication of these economic documents. If there is no reference at all to such a shift, then it would seem that those who wrote them have gotten cold feet, and are stepping back. If they are included, and considering the SACP and Cosatu have both agreed, it is likely that they they will be, then this really is the start of a real shift.
Also important will be what the discussion documents say about mining. Mining and nationalisation were the main issues at the previous national general council, in 2010. The young lions were in their prime and their momentum seemed irresistible. Now, the main question is what the ANC will decide on how to keep the mines operating at all. The National Union of Mineworkers, which will probably have had a say of some sort in the formulation of these documents, says 11,000 of its members have been told they could be retrenched, mine managers have bluntly told the government that mines can no longer function, and the government doesn’t seem to have many answers.
No doubt the word “beneficiation” is likely to feature in this section. But as any miner, economist, or factory worker will tell you, to turn what comes out of our ground into a finished product, requires electricity. Which means that until Eskom sorts out load-shedding, there’s very little we can actually do on that score.
Which brings us of course, to electricity as an issue on its own. Don’t hold your breath for much here. The ANC has tended to stay away from specifics on the Eskom crisis in public, apart from Gwede Mantashe’s repeated injunctions for the utility/corporation/economy-killer to get the Medupi, Kusile and Ingula power stations up and running as quickly as possible. It is unlikely that these documents will say much, for the simple reason that there is no quick and easy way to make that happen, and to end load-shedding. It is also not in the ANC’s interests to dwell on load-shedding, because it may remind people who’s fault this was in the first place.
One of the hallmarks of these documents in the past has been their honesty. In 2012, ahead of Mangaung, the section on “organisational renewal” spoke candidly about the problem of corruption among government leaders. The publication of these papers can often be the ANC’s moment to be honest with itself: they’re drawn up by groups of people, which gives everyone a little bit of protection, and thus there are no consequences for saying what would normally be career suicide. Towards the end of President Jacob Zuma’s second term, it’s important to see whether they will be as honest on these issues as they have been in the past. There is no reason to think they won’t, but if they’re not, it would indicate that the internal culture of the ANC is changing, possibly not for the better.
There are of course certain areas of policy where the ANC does need to start making changes, but probably won’t cover in these documents. An obvious example is the criminal-justice system. Academic after academic has pointed out that the system of appointing national police commissioners should change, while almost anyone who is not part of the ANC believes that the process of appointing a national director of public prosecutions should be about more than what the president wants (including then president Kgalema Motlanthe). It seems extremely unlikely that the ANC will pursue this.
On Sunday, the Sunday Independent, which appears to have seen part of these documents, suggested that the state could be in for a big ‘shake-up’. According to the paper, there are likely to be changes to the provinces ahead of the 2019 national and provincial elections, and possibly even to the powers of municipalities. Considering that such changes have been suggested before, this is likely to be correct.
However, this would be a huge move for the ANC, and possibly impossible to implement. Firstly, there would be a huge fight within the party, there are now provincial “strongmen”, in places like Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape, who are unlikely to take kindly to any kind of change to their fiefdoms. The patronage networks in these places are strong, and able to resist change. Then there are the views of opposition parties, changing the powers of the provinces, or their boundaries, requires a change to the Constitution. Which means two-thirds of the National Assembly has to agree. The Democratic Alliance is unlikely to support any change to the situation in the Western Cape. And there is also reason to believe that Gauteng could well be up for grabs by a coalition of opposition parties in 2019 (the ANC won it with just 53.4% last year), so it would hardly be in the interests of any of those parties to vote with the ANC on this issue.
And it almost goes without saying that any plan to increase the powers of municipalities is madness, considering the incompetence they have exhibited in dealing with things like water supplies and electricity management.
In the end, the people who have drawn up these documents have had a chance to stop and think, to put aside day-to-day politics, and to be honest. It will be interesting indeed to see if they have picked up the baton. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma at the Presidential home in Pretoria, South Africa a week after the ruling ANC won 62% of the local election vote. May 26, 2011. Photo Greg Marinovich / Storytaxi.com
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