South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Deep inside the war at the ANC policy conference’s Economic Transformation Commission

TRAINSPOTTER: Deep inside the war at the ANC policy conference’s Economic Transformation Commission

The mysteries of the 5th ANC National Policy Conference are manifold, but there are several open secrets – on the issue of the economy, President Jacob Zuma’s “radical” faction is pitted against deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s “constitutional” faction, a battle for the future of the party that also determines what South Africa will become: either a developing nation in the throes of a fierce reconfiguration of its economy; or a country attempting the sober implementation of policies rubber-stamped by policy wonks here and in Davos. Since the ousting of President Thabo Mbeki in 2007, no internecine argument has been so vicious. By RICHARD POPLAK.

It would be fantastic to think that the ANC’s 5th policy conference, now slogging through its hundredth grueling hour, was a genuine battle for ideas. It’s not. It’s a proxy battle for the congress’s joystick, and the worst of it, played out over the course of two vicious, balls-to-the-wall afternoons in airless, febrile rooms. But whereas nine of the 11 commissions will have zero impact on the lives of South Africans, commissions three and four – those concerning the economy – will determine how 55-million people earn their crust, or whether they earn a crust at all.

Lobbying doesn’t quite cover it,” said a source, who can’t be named for reasons that should be thuddingly obvious. “It’s war.”

And so, picture two spaces full of T-shirted ANC delegates, chairs arranged 15×10 – between 200 and 400 warm-blooded humans considering the proposals contained in the Economic Transformation document. According to reports from those who attended the sessions, this was the mouth of the River Styx: where President Jacob Zuma faced down deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in a proxy battle that was stunningly well co-ordinated, especially as far as Team Zuma was concerned.

The other side came very well prepared,” said a source sympathetic to Team Ramaphosa. “They had a script that was rigorous but shallow, almost thuggish in some respects.”

Team Zuma’s offensive was driven largely by a contingent quarterbacked by Andile Lungisa. The controversial and short-lived chair of the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay (and the newest Daily Maverick columnist) became famous when he shoehorned himself into that position, despite the fact that he was a member of the Eastern Cape Provincial Executive Committee – a no-no according to the party’s constitution. Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe nixed Lungisa’s moonlighting adventure, but it was understood that the young man enjoyed Zuma’s favour, and he has used this conference to deepen, broaden and sharpen his influence.

A star, of a sort, is born.

Lungisa was promulgating issues that have come to be synonymous with Radical Late Stage Zuma-ism: cracking open the Constitution to deal with land reform and the Reserve Bank; decrying the perniciousness of White Monopoly Capital; ratifying the newly minted Mining Charter; etching in stone the term “radical economic transformation”.

The new consigliere was backed by a vocal and well-prepared KZN component, loyal in the main to the ANC chairman Sihle Zikalala, given muscle by the Youth League, and whipped by South African Revenue Services enfant terrible Luther Lebelo, who also serves as head of communication and media at Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi’s Progressive Professionals Forum. Indeed, Manyi – one of South Africa’s innumerable professional Twitter jaggoffs – showed up at the commissions to insist on the eradication of the Public Finance Management Act and the newly signed (but yet to be instituted) Financial Intelligence Centre Act, two pieces of legislation that bring South Africa in line with international anti-corruption best practices.

On the above matters, Lebelo apparently declared that “we have reached consensus by chorus”, a statement that was quickly dismissed by those who had declined to participate in his interpretation of the events.

The Ramaphosa camp, which has become used to holding the upper hand on organisation and well-framed arguments, were reportedly taken aback by the sophistication of the opposing faction’s assault.

There were sensible contributions made on forestry, fisheries – serious policy contributions,” said a source. “There were those who said we don’t need any more policies, but rather more implementation and state capacity.”

But who cared about that?

Certainly not the president, who showed up on Monday and Tuesday reportedly looking relaxed and confident.

And yet, this was not an off-the-cuff, take-it-as-it-comes Zuma. The president quoted an obscure 19th century thinker named Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Having thrust the proceedings firmly into the dialectic between oppositions, Zuma then went on to describe the fundamental pathology that eventually kills off liberation movements: the freedom fighter who grows up shovelling effluent into stinking night soil, who rises up the ranks during the liberation struggle, and who in order to move up the ladder must compete for space and resources within the party, because the formal economy is a closed loop. The slaughter inevitably starts, and it galled Zuma that even women had been assassinated for positions in this zero-sum advancement programme.

The president insisted that unity would require “flexibility”, and he made an explosive pitch: the factions would have to share positions. The winner of December’s electoral conference would become president of the ANC; the loser would become deputy president. There would be no slates; even Cabinet positions would be shared between the sides. This is as un-ANC as doing time for crime, and it was described by a source as “a serious message. Either he was floating an idea he wants tested, or he’s worried that the other side has the momentum.”

About the other side:

Cyril Ramaphosa showed up to make a case for something much more measured but equally mired in jargon: what was required for radical socio-economic transformation, he reportedly said, was something he termed massificationa vast drive by the government to involve the previously disadvantaged masses in all aspects of the economy. This would be made possible by attracting capital from abroadthe beloved Foreign Direct Investmentbut also from home. He spoke about capitalising small businesses, the informal sector, and incubator schemes.

On the land issue, “he tried to navigate a middle ground”, said a source, by advocating “the full scope of what the Constitution allows”. This was a clear play to leave the land issue open, which it is likely to remain for the meantime.

The show was not over: Zuma attack-dog Nomvula Mokonyane, Minister of the Department of Water and Sanitation, dropped in to drive home the boss’s message with her own brand of spit-flecked invective, but as the sessions headed to plenary on Tuesday night, it wasn’t clear quite how things were flushing out. On Monday, white monopoly capitalists would get a break when their designation was rejected in favour of the colourless Monopoly Capitalhaving the ANC cite the latter as the greatest hindrance for radical socio-economic transformation was a clear win for Team Ramaphosa. (Yes, a drinking game around these terms must urgently be devised.)

Regardless, the Economic Transformation Commission, which starred the great luminaries on both sides of the divide, delivered a fascinating insight into what a postmodern liberation movement faces: jargon that eventually sharpens itself into weapons of mass destruction. This was a real, high-stakes war, and its outcome will determine so much of what happens in the coming months. One thing is certaineach concession made by Zuma should not be interpreted as a loss. Every great fighter takes a few blows. It’s the knock-out punch that counts. DM

Photo: Former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma chats with South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the African National Congress 5th National Policy Conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Soweto, South Africa, June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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