Ralph MathekgaThe ANC seems to be geared up for its 5th National Policy Conference, a precursor to the elective conference to be held later in December.

Indeed, a lot has to be clarified regarding the policy positions of the party. What is also important is to trace the history of policy conferences held by the ANC.

The ANC website mentions three previous policy conferences that were held in 2002, 2007, and then in 2012. This means that the 2017 policy conference will be the fourth installment, although it is reported to be the fifth.

What interests me the most about this year’s policy conference is that the atmosphere in which it will be held makes you question what the wisdom was of having a conference that focuses specifically on policy issues, separate from the national conference which is tasked with electing the leadership of the party?

It is an interesting approach, although it’s proving not realistic to separate the policy conference from the national conference that elects leadership.

In a short discussion I had with someone who understands ANC processes better than I do, it was pointed out to me that one of the main reasons for separating the two conferences is to allow time to deal with policy matters in a way that is not cluttered by issues relating to the election of a new leader.

This might have worked in the past when policy was not as contested as is the case now. But we are now in a situation where the discussions about policy within the ANC are no longer collective efforts where party members together seek to figure out which policy direction will help the party achieve its electoral mandate.

What seems to be the case with this year’s policy conference is that policy matters cannot be discussed separately from leadership issues. Thus, it will most likely be overburdened by the leadership contest that is underway.

The domination of the leadership contest – coupled with the failure of the ANC to properly manage the process – has resulted in a situation where delegates going into the policy conference will most likely take policy positions as a way to test the strength of their respective slates that dominate the narratives within the party.

For example, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is widely associated with the idea of radical transformation of the economy. Her version is that white monopoly capital is the main hurdle in taking the country forward. Note her silence about the effect of corruption.

On the other hand, there is Cyril Ramaphosa whose candidature is grounded on reinstating the moral basis of our politics. He believes in radical economic transformation, although he is suspicious of the version that seeks to say white monopoly capital is the main problem. Ramaphosa sees corruption in the public sector as the main issue. Note his silence on the private sector’s ambivalence towards transformation targets.

These are the two main policy positions taken into the conference and they signify the main divides within the ANC.

Since leaders vying for top positions within the ANC have respectively adopted those positions, it means that the conference will most likely be used to test these ideas – not from the point of view of their coherence or soundness, but with the intention only to demonstrate commitment and support to either of the two leaders.

I remember attending the ANC’s policy conference that was held at Gallagher Estate in Midrand in 2012. It was used as a referendum on the two front-runners then, namely Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe. Delegations that went into that conference were pulled in all directions as they had to choose between the idea of a ‘second phase’ of the transition and some other version that has faded into memory.

This year, instead of discussing the breadth of policy and collectively formulating a position, ANC delegations who attend the policy conference will be confronted with a false choice between two policy positions that are associated with candidates running for top positions. Even worse is that policy agendas that go into the conference are often not properly deliberated upon by party members and are simply dealt with as self-justifying positions that are non-negotiable.

Evidence emerging from the ANC’s provincial policy conferences held over the last few weeks show that not much attention is being paid to policy. This inevitably brings me to my question to the ANC: Is the party really in a position to discuss policy and forge a collective position through which it can be clear where the country is headed?

By Ralph Mathekga


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