Gap between supporters and ANC a key theme at indaba

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Contrary to much of what we read, the African National Congress's (ANC's) policies are not about to cause the country problems. But nor are they likely to provide solutions.

Before last week's ANC policy conference, reports promising radical policy change and a struggle for the presidency seemed likely to prove misleading. They proved more misleading than expected. Despite much breathless rhetoric, the obligatory media leaks, and reports of "chaos" as delegates heckled and fought each other, the theme was continuity, not a radical shift. This may not have taken us backwards, but nor has it taken us nearer the changes the country and the ANC need.

ANC policy conferences do not adopt detailed policy proposals. They are meant, rather, to clear the way for the five-yearly conference, the only place at which policy can be changed. So at most they give a sense of where the ANC is heading and what policy might emerge by year-end. Last week gave us only the framework for policy to be made - detail will have to wait until December.

Policy conferences can also play an unintended role - they can signal where leadership contests are heading. Five years ago, this conference became a campaign event for Jacob Zuma as delegates showed less interest in policy than in deterring Thabo Mbeki from seeking a third term.

Last week produced neither policy change nor a serious challenge to Zuma.

The conference endorsed no radical changes - not even the report on State Intervention in the Mining Sector's proposed tax on mines to encourage beneficiation seems to have been approved. The most substantial proposal for intervention was targeted not at property owners but at university students who, it was suggested, should do community service after graduating.

National service for unemployed youth was also suggested.

Reported "leftward shifts" on land and the youth wage subsidy are illusions. Claims that the "willing seller, willing buyer" approach to land was rejected say more about politicians' ability to sell journalists a bill of goods than they do about reality - "willing seller, willing buyer" has not been ANC policy for years. The conference also endorsed the provisions of the constitution that allow for expropriation with fair compensation so, at most, the government may test in court what it must pay owners for land it really wants. The wage subsidy was never ANC policy, so the lack of enthusiasm for it changes nothing.

The current policy framework is now more secure than it was before the conference. Reports claim that, behind the scenes, delegates demanding nationalisation clashed with the leadership. In public, the ANC Youth League endorsed the conference's approach, despite the fact that it won none of the changes it demanded: Julius Malema's expulsion seems to have convinced the nationalist faction in the ANC to stop, for now, using the league to challenge Zuma in public.

Five years ago, when challengers to the leadership wanted proposals adopted, they had no problem. The fact that no real shifts made it into the policy documents signal that the dissidents are better at leaking threats to the media than at influencing decisions.

We were also told that the document urging a "second transition" would be attacked in order to weaken Zuma and open the way for his defeat at Mangaung - its rejection at the conference was said to have set back his re-election hopes. But the debate on the document was never primarily about attacking Zuma; this was confirmed when the version accepted talked of a "second phase to the transition" in an attempt to save his face.

Again, we are told that behind the scenes, Zuma's opponents were doing battle with him and are at this very moment planning his downfall. But, in 2007, the anti-Mbeki rebellion burst onto the conference floor for the entire country to see. This rebellion could not puncture the public shows of deference to Zuma. Unless it can, it will get nowhere - media reports suggest the rebels can't even agree on a candidate.

Indeed, the conference may well have confirmed that the issue in the ANC now is not whether Zuma is under threat, but whether the manner in which he is asserting his authority to gain re-election is squashing contest and debate.

If a challenge to Zuma is in the offing, the conference did nothing to strengthen it.

While confirmation that the ANC is not about to engage in radical experiments should calm the economic debate, the problem with the thinking at the policy conference is not that it changed too much, but that it left too much unchanged.

The key theme of the conference was anxiety in the ANC over a growing gap between it and its supporters. It can address this only by tackling its relationship to two key groups - its own voters and the interest groups it needs to engage to address economic challenges.

ANC supporters are estranged because they feel its politicians do not listen to or care about them.

It can show it listens by connecting to its support base and can show it cares by addressing poverty and inequality in the only way that will work - by negotiating with business and other key interests.

The conference's thinking did not take it much nearer to either.

The debate on the second transition does not seem to have risen to the challenge posed by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe - that it recognise that the ANC's problem with its constituency is a result not of a conscious decision to be nice to minorities, as the document claimed, but its own failings.

If this discussion happened at all, it produced few ideas on how the ANC can fix the internal problems of which Motlanthe warned.

There is talk of tougher action on ANC members accused of corruption and of attempts to ensure members are better equipped to serve the organisation and society. Far more is needed before ANC voters are convinced that the people who lead it care more about citizens than themselves.

The fighting, while it may be more an act of desperation by Zuma opponents than a serious challenge, shows the ANC still cannot ensure orderly debate at its meetings.

Some ideas floated at the conference may actually widen the gulf between the ANC and the people.

One suggests reducing the number of provinces - besides possibly declaring war on the Democratic Alliance in the Western Cape, this could ensure provincial governments are even further removed from citizens.

The other is continued interest, despite opposition inside and outside the ANC, in one election for all spheres of government, which would reduce local elections to clones of the national contest and deal a blow to municipal democracy.

Nor did the conference produce ideas that would enable the ANC to engage business and other economic actors in a sustained discussion on how to address poverty and inequality and launch us on a growth path that offers hope to everyone.

Concrete ideas might emerge at Mangaung or over the next couple of years. They are urgently needed. While populist experiments would harm us, society and the ANC need far more change than the policy conference seemed willing to consider.

  • Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. This article was published on Business Day.