We should not expect fireworks at the ANC’s policy conference
As is so often the case ahead of ANC events, the noise could eventually dim down within the conference itself, with the outcomes not quite as radical as preliminary talk suggests.
As ANC delegates prepare to start “discussing policy” at Nasrec this weekend, it appears that this conference may be very similar to previous ANC policy conferences, where most discussions are really a proxy for the leadership contest to come. For President Cyril Ramaphosa, this poses serious risks as there are indications that his signature political achievement, the adoption of the “step-aside” rule, could be unpopular with the people in the room and even overturned. And yet, things will probably not be as explosive as some anticipate.
This uncertainty may be a chance for Ramaphosa and his allies to regroup. As is so often the case ahead of ANC events, the noise could eventually dim down within the conference itself, with the outcomes not quite as radical as preliminary talk suggests.
The importance of this National Policy Conference cannot be overstated. It is the first time ANC branch delegates from more than one province are gathering in the same physical space since they elected Ramaphosa as ANC leader at the same venue in 2017.
Much has happened since then, which means this is the first time ANC branches can now finally indicate their feelings about Ramaphosa and his leadership over the last five years — the usual mid-term National General Council had to be scrapped because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ramaphosa has suffered several setbacks in the last 10 days.
First, at the Jessie Duarte memorial service last week, former president Thabo Mbeki said in public that there is really no plan to address South Africa’s problems and that there could be “an explosion” similar to the Arab Spring that engulfed North Africa just over 10 years ago. Echoing his brother, Moeletsi, who made a similar prediction in 2012, Mbeki warned that without action, our country may be headed for serious trouble, primarily because there are no jobs for young people.
Then, this last weekend, the KwaZulu-Natal ANC started its conference singing Wenzeni uZuma (What did Zuma do?) and delegates had to be asked to quieten down to allow Ramaphosa to speak.
This may suggest that Ramaphosa is now swimming against the tide within the ANC just as the National Policy Conference kicks off.
Still, it is also possible to overstate the scale of Ramaphosa’s setback.
First, while the result in KZN was obviously against him, it was not unexpected. The real question may be whether the KZN ANC is truly and completely united — it is likely that Ramaphosa’s supporters have factored in this kind of split scenario.
Also, Ramaphosa has been on the offensive in recent days.
He used the KZN ANC conference to respond to Mbeki, saying that it was not true there was no plan, and that his government was trying to resolve our society’s problems.
His “family meeting” on Monday night, giving his plan to end rolling blackouts, may also have reminded people of the power of the presidency — he arrives at the policy conference with a solution to one of our biggest problems already on the table.
Proxy policy battles
But the real issue ahead of this conference may be the long history of proxy policy battles.
In 2017, the question was whether there should be “radical economic transformation” as favoured by the then president, Jacob Zuma, or “radical socioeconomic transformation”, which was supported by Ramaphosa’s allies.
In the end, “radical socioeconomic transformation” won and even found its way into some government documents. This led to Ramaphosa’s ultimate victory in December 2017, as close as it was.
In 2010, at the National General Council in Durban, the real debate was about whether mines should be nationalised, as proposed by Julius Malema who was then still in the ANC Youth League. Zuma’s allies shot down the proposal and he ended up winning handily at the 2012 Mangaung conference.
In 2007, just ahead of Polokwane, the ANC policy conference in Midrand also saw several policies proposed. The more radical the proposal, the more a sign it was about support for Zuma, and opposition to Mbeki, who was then president.
This time around, it appears that the real proxy debate will be around the “step-aside” resolution.
The provinces are, again, lining up along relatively predictable lines.
KZN wants it scrapped, while Eastern Cape and Northern Cape (which both support Ramaphosa) want it retained and even strengthened. Mpumalanga wants the resolution “refined” but not scrapped (while also saying it wants Ramaphosa retained for a second term so that there is no precedent of ending a presidency after just five years). Gauteng has not yet formally announced its view and Free State has not yet held a provincial conference.
The Limpopo ANC is a slightly different case. It supports Ramaphosa and has said so publicly at least twice. But some of its top leaders have been seriously affected by the resolution because of the VBS scandal, and so they want it scrapped.
All of this suggests that the KZN ANC is going to face a tough argument.
As has been pointed out many times, for the ANC to scrap the “step-aside” resolution is likely to hurt it in the 2024 elections.
The analyst Eusebius McKaiser put it crisply on Twitter this week: “The non-debate within the ANC about whether or not the step-aside rule is ‘divisive’ is one of the most painfully stupid things in our political discourse right now. We should just be clear as CITIZENS: the ANC is divided on whether or not *ethics* should matter in our politics.”
The non-debate within the ANC about whether or not the step-aside rule is "divisive" is one of the most painfully stupid things in our political discourse right now.
We should just be clear as CITIZENS: the ANC is divided on whether or not *ethics* should matter in our politics.
— Eusebius McKaiser (@Eusebius) July 25, 2022
Another analyst, Lukhona Mnguni, told SAfm on Wednesday morning that while the resolution was always going to cause problems for the ANC, if it abandoned it now, the party would be “toast” in the eyes of voters.
This suggests that it may well be in the interests of the ANC to actually dampen down the prospects of any alteration to the resolution.
If this is the case, it is not yet clear what other proxy issues may arise. This is possibly because there is no public coherence among those who oppose Ramaphosa. Yes, many in the ANC are not happy with him and want someone else to take over. But the identity of that “someone else” is not yet clear.
It is also not clear yet that even the KZN ANC is prepared to break ANC protocol and explicitly say that it wants former health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize to challenge Ramaphosa. This is in contrast to those provincial leaders who have broken protocol to say they do back Ramaphosa.
But, what Ramaphosa may fear the most is any debate around the Phala Phala scandal.
This is the issue that has already done more damage to his presidency than any other. This may also mean that he needs to pay very close attention to the final wording of any resolution about “step-aside” — to ensure that it cannot be used against him should any of the law enforcement agencies involved decide to formally charge him with wrongdoing.
One of the problems the ANC faces at this conference is simply drawing up resolutions that make sense and can be understood by voters. So complicated is the set of interests in the party, and so diverse their aims, that it may be almost impossible to draw up resolutions that everyone can live with and that also make sense.
This may well defuse any claims afterwards that this group or that group has scored a major victory or suffered an important defeat.
Perhaps the most likely outcome is that this policy conference will be similar to previous policy conferences, that it will merely help to set the playing field ahead of December. DM