Don’t hold breath for a jump to the left

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It is almost certain that the economic resolutions at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Mangaung conference this month will be reported as very important and a shift to the left. It is entirely certain that they will be neither.

A constant theme in our politics is the claim that the ANC is about to move leftwards — even though it has done nothing of the sort for 20 years. It is a product of some deep-seated fears among the affluent and the fact that it suits ANC politicians to pretend that they are shifting when they are not.

The ANC’s national executive committee is dominated by shareholders, more than a few of whom sit on company boards, which is why economic policy never really moves left. It is also why much of what passes for leftward pressure in the ANC is actually the work of business lobbies connected to the governing party, who want a bigger chunk of the economy but who know they will have no influence unless they dress up their policies as plans to champion the poor.

But it is impossible to lead a movement with a left-wing history in a country with serious inequalities, if you sound like a defender of the rights of owners. And so it is important for ANC leaders to say they are moving left when they are not.

The “second transition” document discussed at the ANC’s mid-year policy conference is an example — it is filled with radical rhetoric, but contains not a single real shift in policy.

Why do the politicians get away with it? Because few of those who report on the governing party read the policy documents — and even fewer check to see what current policy says. Mangaung will be no different. The need to read documents and check whether they depart from present policy is best illustrated by one sure form of confusion — nationalisation.

The ANC is almost sure to pass a resolution endorsing “selective nationalisation”. This means that whether to nationalise is not a principle, but depends on the evidence. This is certain to prompt fevered headlines and much alarm in the business community.

Actually, this is existing policy and has been for 20 years — it simply restates a 1992 resolution.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he endorsed nationalisation, which had been ANC policy since the Freedom Charter of the mid-1950s. Two years later, he and his economic team concluded that state ownership would not work. They could hardly announce that a policy that had inspired activists for more than 30 years was a mistake, so a way had to be found to shift policy without angering much of the ANC — the answer was a resolution declaring that nationalisation was a tactic, not a principle, and that it should therefore depend on the available evidence.

It is this the ANC will reaffirm in Mangaung. It is not new and the purpose is not to open the door to nationalisation, but to close it (since the resolution’s purpose was to prevent nationalisation). But a failure to check the history will fool many into believing it is a shift. 

The ANC may also vote again to scrap the “willing seller, willing buyer” principle in its land-reform programme. This is also no change — it restates a 2005 decision. The government’s plan is to expropriate land where sellers’ prices are considered unreasonable and to ask the courts to decide what a fair price is, which is how the constitution says the issue should be handled. Again, there is no shift. 

Even if shifts happened in Mangaung, they would mean less than politicians would have us believe: in every democracy, governing party policy is not necessarily adopted by the government. Governing parties are responsible to their members, governments are responsible to everyone. Governments must negotiate proposals with interest groups and so they are usually changed substantially or dropped if opposition is too great.

But shifts remain highly unlikely — the critical mass of support in the ANC is behind the present policy framework.

Some policy discussions in Mangaung will be important — those on the economy are not among them.

So, when you hear ANC policy has shifted, look at what the documents really say and what existing policy is. You are likely to find that the proclaimed change is no shift at all.

  • Steven Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.