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ANC stalwarts reject policy conference in battle for heart of the party

Ahead of the ANC’s policy conference, the group of stalwarts calling for a consultative conference said it would be futile to participate in discussions over the next week. They want to take matters into their own hands. By GREG NICOLSON.

Weeks before he was assassinated, Chris Hani spoke about the ANC’s 1969 Morogoro consultative conference. It came after he and six others were accused of mutiny for writing a memorandum on the party’s challenges. It was a defining moment for the ANC and Hani said “our criticism created a crisis within the movement which jolted them up”. The ANC, Umkontho we Sizwe, and SACP was in the midst of changes and challenges. Looking back to the conference, OR Tambo wrote to Joe Slovo: “I cannot help feeling it was the starting point of a new phase in our strategy – at the very least, a new and welcome element.” Consultative conferences aren’t new to the ANC.

On Thursday a group of ANC stalwarts said they would not attend the party’s policy conference after their call for a separate consultative conference was denied. The ANC will gather on Friday while voter support is in decline, party leaders are inundated with allegations of corruption, and factions jostle to elect their preferred leader. It would be futile trying to have a frank conversation on confronting the party’s challenges during two days at the policy conference, the stalwarts said.

The group of 101 ANC stalwarts has been pushing for a consultative conference since late 2016 and had agreed to using two days during the policy conference to discuss the party’s many challenges. ANC stalwart Murphy Morobe on Thursday said: “There was no intention of allowing a real consultative conference.” He said there was a “total failure” to work together with ANC leaders to plan the discussions and it was clear the ANC had no intention of pushing for a separate conference or preparing for the two-day discussions.

“The longer the crisis in our movement and country is not confronted head on the deeper the crisis will become,” said Morobe, speaking at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg. He noted the ongoing allegations of state capture. “The leadership is very much akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand and hoping the problems will solve itself.” For the ANC to confront the rot in the party members and alliance partners need to have frank discussions. Doing that at the policy conference would be like “using a thorn to take out another thorn”.

Mavuso Msimang, also part of the stalwarts group, said it’s only the party’s leadership that isn’t concerned about the state of the ANC. They had rejected a chance to try and address the problems.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe claimed on Thursday that the veterans wanted to dictate the terms of the conference, despite it being an ANC-run event, and wanted leadership rather than branches to engage. He said the party had provided an opportunity for discussion but the veterans had rejected it.

Mantashe might have also missed an important opportunity. According to author Hugh Macmillan, in 2008 the secretary general said the Morogoro, Kabwe and Polokwane conferences all came after periods of dissatisfaction but heralded party reforms and consolidation. The first two events were consultative conferences and in retrospect it’s hard to say Polokwane achieved either reform or unity.

In discussions on the consultative conference, it appeared a particular faction of ANC leaders scuppered the event. According to reports the ANC Women’s League’s Meokgo Matuba, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, State Security Minister David Mahlobo and ANC Youth League president Collen Maine spoke against the conference in March.

Mantashe said the two days assigned to discussing the state of the party will still go ahead at the policy conference with other formations invited, but it’s unclear exactly when or what will be discussed. While the 101 stalwarts said they would not attend, some will be at the conference in other capacities.

Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said there are issues the ANC still needs to address after the municipal elections – problems with candidate lists, assassinations, and the turmoil in Tshwane. He said Cosatu hoped those issues would be addressed during discussions, but the federation wasn’t significantly invested in the how of how they’d come up at the policy conference. Pamla said it was more concerning that the ANC cancelled the alliance political council meeting, which was recently due to take place. He said they are going into the policy conference weakened and divided, without an opportunity to discuss issues beforehand.

The ANC stalwarts clearly noted the claim they were trying to subvert party structures and Morobe said they have a high regard for branches. They encouraged branch members to take up the issues and for regular ANC members and supporters to challenge what’s happening in the party.

Just as the stalwarts on Thursday were trying to influence the policy conference, they’ll also try to influence the ANC’s elective conference in December. Mongane Wally Serote said the stalwarts will hold a consultative conference in September and invite delegates from across the country. The Eastern Cape ANC recently held a consultative conference. “We hope that given what has happened in the Eastern Cape there will be a rolling action on the basis of provincial consultative conferences which must culminate in a [national] consultative conference in September,” said Serote.

President Zuma’s leadership has faced harsh criticism recently and there have been efforts to silence accusers or question their commitment to transformation. “It is not acceptable. We believe that other members of the ANC, members of the alliance and supporters, shouldn’t be made to remain silent and feel they can’t voice their views on issues so crucial to this country and their own lives,” said Morobe. “How can we ask to be silent when to do so would be a betrayal of everything our fallen comrades fought for?”

“Silence will only allow the crisis to deepen and lead to the demise of the ANC and everything the ANC stood for.” Yet any potential for an effective Morogoro moment appears distant. DM