South Africa

ANC Policy Conference 2017: Commissions hand a strong policy defeat to President Zuma

By Stephen Grootes 4 July 2017

It is not a secret that very few people at the ANC’s Policy Conference are there for the policy issues. They’re there for the leadership contest, policy being a mere proxy for power. This happens in many democracies – policies are tied to personalities, and ours is no different. And in our context, it is obvious that a conference like this, with the ANC in the “fraught environment” it is in, was always going to be about power. So when the party’s Strategy and Tactics Commission reports that nine out of the 11 commissions have rejected a formulation on the economy proposed by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters, it is inevitably going to look like something very important may be happening. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

During big conferences such as this one, the leadership of the ANC likes to control the debate. You can’t blame them. They do this by getting commissions on different subjects to first agree on a resolution. That resolution goes to the plenary session. In that session, debate can be limited through the dark arts of chairing. Then the chair of the commissions reports back to the assembled journalists, reporters and ANN7. Which means that the identity of the chair is key. In the case of the first commission to report back, the Strategy and Tactics Commission, the chair is Joel Netshitenzhe. The former head of policy for Thabo Mbeki, someone who is known for being a policy wonk’s policy wonk. Who, when he left government, literally started his own think-tank.

He was very careful at the press conference to make the point that at a policy conference, you can’t claim that the adoption of certain resolutions means there are victors and vanquished. Instead, these discussions continue, at the branch level, until the December conference. He knew exactly how what was coming next was going to look. There was some boring praise about the “focus” and the “incisive” nature of the debates within the commissions. The kind of thing you’d expect from a person who was once the head of GCIS.

And then came the moment, the point at which he came to know how this conference wanted to characterise the nature of our economy. Bear in mind, Zuma’s supporters (and by Zuma, we mean, you know, both him and her), had come here, it seemed, pretty determined to make this all about “white monopoly capital”. There is a nice argument about whether this is really an ANC phrase, or a Bell Pottinger-ism. But this phrase was their standard.

Netshitenzhe dashed their hopes.

“Nine out of those 11 commissions said the phenomenon of monopoly capital is a global one. And it manifests itself differently in various parts of the globe. That relationship that we were describing would apply whether it were Japanese or Indian or white, or whatever category you can think about.”

And there was more:

“We cannot run away from the reality of white dominance in the economy, in the context of assets, of income, of the professions….”.

It must surely be, from what we know of this at the moment, that the forces behind the Zumas, Dlamini and otherwise, have lost this particular battle. The economy, as Gwede Mantashe reminded us on Friday, “is the essence of politics”. In so many ways the ANC leadership battle that currently confronts us is a tussle over the economy; it is the playing field over which this is being fought. In true ANC fashion it has again become about words. And Zuma appears to have lost the battle of words.

It is not just that he lost. It’s how he lost. Netshitenzhe’s pointed inclusion of the score, nine commissions to two, could be important. It shows the dramatic scale of the loss, as it currently appears.

We must note here that this conference is not done yet. There are still several long hours to go, and the Economic Transformation Commission must still report back. It is likely that Zuma’s forces packed that specific battlefield, and thus there could be a different outcome. If that is the case, it may still show that on the broadest issue, on the broadest playing field of this conference, he is not able to hold sway.

But, and it’s a big but, it is only in December that we will know for sure.

Then there is the question of the ANC’s relationship to capital. Here, the party sounds like a good old-fashioned technocratic governance body. Netshitenzhe says it should be of both “unity and struggle”, or “co-operation and contestation”. In other words, he suggests, when the interests of capital align with the interests of the ANC, in the case of foreign investment, creating jobs, bringing technology into the country, then they’re happy to be close. But where their agendas differ, if they want different things for society, well, then, it must be a relationship of contestation.

Actually, when you think about it, you have to ask if this is not so much middle of the road but actually leaning slightly towards the right on economic matters. It may seem strange in the context of recent events, but in fact the ANC and the alliance as a whole has been moving slowly to the right on a whole range of matters. This may cement that process, and confirm the beliefs of those thinkers who see the ANC as changing fundamentally on some of these issues, despite the double-speak of some of those in power.

With only a few hours to go for the ANC’s 2017 Policy Conference, we may be dealing with a situation where the ANC itself is actually, finally, possibly, beginning to assert itself. The branches and delegates are beginning, maybe, just maybe, to move against the leadership structure that has sat on top of them for so long. But, we must also be careful of a more complicated context. What Zuma was trying to do was to really make fundamental and drastic changes to much of ANC policy, and quickly. In normal circumstances (should such a thing ever exist), this would be very difficult. Perhaps this is an example of overreach by Zuma, and he has simply not been able to do it. It may also show the limits of the power you can have when you control only the NEC and some of the provincial leaders, but not the actual branches and regions themselves.

Unfortunately, only time will tell. The next signpost is the release of the Economic Transformation Commission report. This is one of those conferences where it is the etc (geddit?) that really matters… DM

Photo:  ANC’s Strategy and Tactics Commission Chairman Joel Netshitenzhe briefing media at the ANC policy conference. (Ihsaan Haffejjee)