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South Africa: ANC policy conference a missed opportunity to renew economy

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA) – ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe with ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa during the party’s recent National Policy Conference in Nasrec, Johannesburg.

By Professor B Dikela Majuqwana

The ANC’s 9th policy conference concluded on Sunday, July 31 after four days of proceedings. It generated plenty of speculation and uncertainty regarding its expected outcomes as commentators and analysts were at pains trying to fathom what ANC leaders think about their own future and that of the organization they lead.

Without a doubt, the policy conference was occurring at a time of great uncertainty for both the ANC and the country.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed office in 2018 much hope was placed on him to revive our economic fortunes and to lead the ANC into a power for change. Former President Jacob Zuma had bequeathed South Africa with the National Development Plan (NDP) in 2014.

The aim of the NDP was to achieve economic growth rates above 6% annually. These figures have proven to be hard to achieve both under Zuma and his successor Ramaphosa. The reasons for this lack of progress on the NDP should have been part of the discussions during the 9th ANC Policy Conference. This is especially so if we consider that during the past two years South Africa went through the Covid-19 pandemic which caused our economy to shrink by a whooping 7.5% of GDP.

Countries that suffered similar economic losses during the pandemic have responded by preparing and launching comprehensive economic recovery plans. These include leading OECD countries who constitute our key trading partners. Against this background, one would have expected that those leading the ANC’s Economic Transformation agenda would attempt to use the policy conference to advocate for the updating of the NDP taking into account the impact of the pandemic and our recovery agenda. The result would be an economic policy and agenda that gives the NDP a fresh life after nearly 8 years since it was launched in 2014.

However this does not appear to have transpired from the economic policy stream nor was there anything close to a review of policy and strategic options open to South Africa to help prevent further economic damage arising from the pandemic and its aftermath such as the war in Ukraine.

Unless I missed something, I am of the view that these omissions will result in a reactive ANC that trails government decisions or consultants and advisers with no interest in ANC policies.

An ANC that cannot sustain policy leadership and is at the mercy of government officials to fashion policy on the whim is not what we desire. This is apparently the case with SA’s energy and electricity policy.

This brings us to another important issue which was broached during the ANC’s last policy conference in 2017.

There was talk of achieving a low carbon economy. Recently, there is talk of achieving a Just Energy Transition to abandon coal as a source of electricity completely in favour of renewable energy. It is clear there is no single dominant view in the ANC on this as Minister Gwede Mantashe seems to be taking a view that SA cannot do without coal as a source of electrical power. Also threatening the economic wellbeing of SA in the energy space is our apparently declining local oil refining capacity. Again, the so-called Just Energy Transition is a factor with growing calls to prepare for adoption of electric vehicles. These are matters the policy conference should have finally laid to rest within the context of updating the NDP.

On organisational matters, the ANC is still trapped in a state of internal conflict as a result of open factional wars. The dispute over the so-called step-aside rule regarding members who are facing corruption charges is ongoing. Many were calling for removal of this policy. As things stand, the ANC leadership at the top is becoming thinner and if it turns out Ramaphosa is charged over the ‘Phalaphala farmgate’ scandal, the ANC might find itself without a President.

What is also emerging lately is that step-aside rule does not help organisational discipline. Instead, it is entrenching a feeling that the policy is being used by the dominant faction led by Ramaphosa to victimize its opponents. While the remnants of ANC leadership under Ramaphosa keep talking about renewal and even proposing a renewal commission, the conduct of the leadership does nothing to walk the talk of renewal. For that to happen, it would require that step-aside go alongside measures to raise awareness of the consequences of ill-discipline, prevent further decline in discipline and to hunt-down people who purposefully organise to undermine discipline in the ANC using such practices as bribing or buying membership votes in conferences. An issue related to organisational discipline is the quality of members that the ANC attracts and retains.

To attract and retain good members goes beyond political education. It requires clarity on ideological outlook. The ANC has been clear since 2017 that the idea of a developmental state is central to its thinking and practice. Yet very often we hear President Ramaphosa saying things like “the state does not create jobs” while at the same time promising the public millions of jobs.

Ramaphosa’s outlook betrays him as a man of the market and regulation where faith is placed on the ability of private corporations to invest in productive activities. That is understandable if we were a country with a secure industrial base but that is not the case. It is not given that investors will prefer productive over consumptive investments. Therefore, the policy conference should have instructed the President to abandon his voluntarism approach to economic policy and to state it clearly that a development state is a direct source of productive jobs and guiding force for productive investment by the private sector.

Majuqwana is Head of Engineering at the University of Zululand. He writes in his personal capacity.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.