‘Step Aside’ will not be stepping aside: ANC’s policy conference ends with promise to hold the line
While it may still be some time for the full impact of this weekend’s ANC policy conference to be felt, it may be that its real significance is that the 'step-aside resolution' was retained, appearing to demonstrate President Cyril Ramaphosa’s still strong positioning within the party. It is not clear, however, if there has been any demonstrable progress towards resolving the series of crises which engulf our society.
In a way, the ANC’s 2022 policy conference was bookended by two quotes about the “step-aside resolution”.
On Friday, speaking to what appeared to be a subdued hall of delegates, Ramaphosa said that “South Africans will not forgive us if we abandon our policies to stop corruption”. It was a strong gesture of support for the rule to be retained, and perhaps a rebuke to the stated intention of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, who both decided it should be changed or entirely removed.
On Sunday, while stating the resolutions of the congress, Ramaphosa said: “The overall view is for the retention of the step-aside provisions to enhance the integrity of the movement and its leadership.” There was much applause at that moment before he went on to say: “There are strong concerns on the perceived lack of consistency in the application and implementation of this policy. Conference agreed that these must receive urgent attention, so that the application of the guidelines is impartial, is fair and is consistent.”
To many, this was typical ANC language. The resolution stays in its current form, and there is no recommendation that it be changed in December. (The can was successfully kicked deep into the future, as always.)
This may be important because it suggests that there is no group organised enough within the ANC with the power to actually move against Ramaphosa on an issue this fundamental.
It may also be a sign of the beginnings of some realism within the ANC. Many ANC people in provinces understand how angry voters are at the party, and have no choice but to agree with Ramaphosa that “South Africans will not forgive us” if it were to be abandoned once more.
In what may be a further sign of this momentum, Ramaphosa also announced:
“Conference has endorsed the actions recently announced by government to improve the performance of Eskom’s existing power stations and to add new generation capacity to the grid as quickly as possible. It has affirmed the need for a diverse mix of energy sources and a just transition to a low-carbon economy that ensures our energy security, protects jobs and livelihoods and does not compromise our industrial development.”
This suggests that his plans last Monday to deal with the electricity crisis have now been locked in politically, and it will be very difficult for any group in the ANC that feels otherwise to move against them between now and December. After all, Ramaphosa appears to have the backing of the policy conference.
It may well be that this was always a deliberate strategy, that he intended to make the announcement a few days before, to set the agenda for the conference, but not to leave enough time for the opponents to prevent him from getting the policy backing of the conference.
However, this does not mean everything will change overnight.
In the hours immediately after the speech, ANC Chair and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told Newzroom Afrika that if everything went well with the changes to various power stations, there should be a noticeable improvement in the next three to six months.
But he also says that he believes there is a need for baseload power, and that he would like to see more investment in nuclear and gas energy.
When it was put to him that nuclear power stations generally take around a decade to produce electricity he disagreed, saying that smaller, modular power stations can be built more quickly. He also claimed that southern Africa has large gas deposits and that gas will be important to our energy future.
This may be an indication that there still will be some contestation over the near future plans and actions.
One of the key questions around this conference was whether the ANC, as a movement, really understands the pressure on SA households and whether it can produce policies and provide solutions to help millions of people who are increasingly battling to survive.
Considering the position of the party, and with a crucial election in two years’ time, one would expect there would be a sense of urgency, and acknowledgement of a country in deep crisis.
While the mood of a conference can be difficult to assess objectively, it was genuinely hard to spot any signs of urgency.
Mantashe claimed this was a sign that the ANC was making decisions “unemotionally”. Perhaps.
But it was curious that, considering the incoming brutal politics of the 2024 elections, there was no big promise to implement, such as a Basic Income Grant. This would surely be a vote-winner, and it is easy to argue to voters that the rich must provide more protection for the poor. And yet, somewhat puzzlingly, this proven policy position was not a dominant theme of the conference.
There were also several issues which may appear to be simple distractions.
Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu spent much time saying that the solution to our gender-based violence problem was chemical castration. And yet the ANC has rejected this in the past. It is also, obviously, unconstitutional. And yet she persists. Perhaps as an attempt to ensure distracting headlines.
There was also a suggestion that South Africa withdraw from a convention on the rights of refugees, in a bid to free the country from some of its obligations towards people who come here.
Again, this is a proposal unlikely to fly, simply because of the message it would send to the international community.
One of the current issues in our politics that was almost absent from the conference (in that it was brought up only by journalists) was Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala scandal.
As an issue, it does not appear to have been brought up or discussed in any forum at the conference. This suggests that no one wants to use it against Ramaphosa at this moment, despite the fact it is obviously clearly damaging to him.
Speaking to Newzroom Afrika Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said, in response to a direct question, that “that to me, would be a fundamental worry”. He said chopping and changing leadership during such difficult economic times would send the wrong message to international markets.
While ANC leaders may feel that this conference has made progress towards creating a united ANC, one better able to face voters in two years’ time, Godongwana’s comments also remind the party of an uncomfortable reality: there could be much more turmoil in the months ahead.
It is still four and a half months before what could be the ultimate battle for the ANC’s future, and the sense of frustration and anger in our society is only going to become more difficult to assuage. The relationships and neurons inside the party are inching closer to fraying too. What could possibly go wrong? DM