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Coalition of the wounded – the slow souring of ANC ideals

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Before the ANC policy conference started, several eminent political scholars and analysts scolded the media for characterising the meeting as a campaign clash between the supporters of Jacob Zuma, and his detractors. Then I spent four days at Gallagher Estate, in the belly of the beast. I can now safely report that the media were right. 

I doubt that many people have read RW Johnson’s South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid – and I’m definitely not recommending that anyone do so. I did, four years ago, and found it to be a dreadfully unfunny attempt at discrediting the entire point of the African National Congress’s struggle against Apartheid. Johnson focuses his sulphurous attention on all the failings of the ANC since taking power in 1994 without taking into account the broken and plundered condition of the government and state that the party inherited, and the ANC’s complete inexperience in governance. Some of Johnson’s thinking borders on the pugnaciously prejudiced – if not racist – and in any case, people of a more scholarly and intellectual disposition than me have thoroughly denounced Johnson’s thinking as right-wing and blinkered.

Despite this, I found myself thinking of Johnson’s awful book more often than not over the past six days. I spent the last week at the ANC national policy conference and it was a sort of baptism of fire for me as far as the ruling party’s sausage factory was concerned [Mangaung will be 10 times worse. Trust me. I was at Polokwane – Ed]. It’s not that I am naturally disinclined to the ANC, but there’s a certain focus that deadlines and editorial angle bring to situations. To this day, I cannot for the life of me say what the point of the policy conference was.

This policy conference was the fourth in the ANC’s history. A few months ago, I was at a press conference in which ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said that the point of these policy conferences was to give delegates a space to argue policies without having to worry about who would lead the party in the next five years. It’s a noble idea. But then Polokwane happened.

The ANC is reluctant to admit it, but the party’s elective conference at Polokwane in 2008 changed everything. Policy meant nothing at that conference. That conference was all about the coalition of the wounded – people who had been overlooked by the administration of the day and wanted their turn at the feeding trough. Zuma’s presidency since then has proven that – he has hardly detracted from his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in government policy. There was really nothing to change, save for introducing a greater sense of urgency in domestic policy. More importantly, that conference was the first time that the tidal waves of populism crashed over the delegates of the ANC in an overwhelming way. The man mattered far more than his ideas. This was a strange idea in a party that had always prided itself on advancing interests rather than people. Polokwane changed that.

At the ANC’s 4th policy conference, I got the sense that a large chunk of the party’s influential people were thoroughly pissed off with the populists in the party, but were not quite sure how to do away with them. After all, Zuma is the chief populist in the ANC. And he’s on top, with all the levers of power on speed dial. On the other side, the dynamics of Zuma’s support do not seem to have changed much since 2008 – people still support him; his ideas are inconsequential to his faithful followers.

I find myself struggling to report political issues outside of personality politics. There was no other way to convey the truth of what was happening other than to say: look, this is supposed to be a policy conference, and the leadership question is not supposed to be uppermost on minds, but I have no choice other than to characterise the entire conference in that way because that is exactly what was unfolding before me. 

We, the media, do not have a choice when it comes to reporting what happened in front of us. If delegates did not separate policy issues from personality politics, we have to report that as such. And my personal observation was that people were accepting or rejecting certain policy recommendations based on who sponsored them – and not whether or not they made sense of the party or the country. Of course it would be nice to pretend that people applied their minds strictly to policy issues and did not try to inject the leadership race into the discussions. But that’s a silly dream, and a luxury none of us can afford. This is the ANC today – a party utterly consumed by the leadership question. 

In this particular regard, RW Johnson, as poisonous as his political opinions can be, was right. What happened to the ANC of principle and politics? What is this strange party of angry delegates from KwaZulu Natal who threaten to shoot their opponents, and of Zuma vs The World dominating policy discussions at a policy conference, instead of actual policy considerations? 

My friends call me politically cynical and I have always disagreed. I am now, though. As far as the ANC is concerned, policy is personal. And we’re all worse off for it. DM


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