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South Africa’s ‘reformist renewal plan’

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By Prof Dirk Kotzé

THE ANC policy conference was the first major meeting of the party since 2017. For a long time, party dynamics as reflected in a major conference were the subject of speculation only. It was also the first time for President Cyril Ramaphosa, since his election in 2017, to see his impact on the party in such a context. Constitutionally speaking, the ANC has three important conferences in each five-year cycle: a national conference; a national policy conference six months before the national conference; and a national general council (NGC) conference 30 months after the national conference.

The ANC’s policy conference is unique in the sense that it does not deal with policy as merely a party matter. For the ANC, decisions about its policies have a direct public impact, because they will most probably be implemented as government policies. The policies of opposition parties, on the other hand, don’t have the same impact, because they are not implemented. They are used by the parties to challenge the policies of the government, but they do not carry the same weight as the policies of the governing party. This past weekend’s decisions are not final.

The policy conference is preparation for the national conference, which is the only forum where final decisions on policy matters can be taken. The weekend’s developments are important as early indicators of the most likely direction of policy matters in the ANC. Public policy is a dynamic environment, both as a result of global trends as well as the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa. The policy context is therefore very different from the one in 2017, and one expects it to be seen in the policy proposals.

Moreover, the elections in 2019 and 2021 also changed the ANC’s public standing, especially in the metropolitan councils. Policy changes in response to that setback are also expected. Taking into account the previous policy conferences and how they were influenced by the prospect of leadership contestation at the national conference, this policy conference could have given us an early indication of the currents within the ANC regarding the frontrunners for the leading positions in the party.

Since 2018, President Ramaphosa has engaged in a reform process of both the ANC and the economy. Under the banner of renewal and rebuilding, he has developed an agenda against corruption, internal divisions in the ANC and a post-pandemic economic plan. It is a combination of redirecting the ANC away from interest-focused politics with significant material opportunities for politicians, to a public service ethos with fewer rewards for the politicians. His economic direction, implemented partly under duress because of the declining capacity of the public sector and fiscal resources, is in ANC terms a major paradigm shift. For the Left (the SACP, SACP, EFF and others), it is dismissed as a neo-liberal sell-out, and for the private sector, it is too little too late.

The policy conference highlighted the predicament of a reformer who has to make choices and cannot accommodate everyone. This happens while his political instinct is in favour of unifying the party. This conference was the first opportunity for Ramaphosa to see if he made wrong calculations in his approach. The nature of these policy conferences is that policy positions serve as “dummies” of the main candidates, and therefore they are early indicators of where key candidates stand about six months before the main elections.

When national conferences became major sites of contestation in the ANC in 2007, the conferences’ emphasis diverted to elections and less to party policies. It happened also in 2017, and therefore important decisions such as expropriation of land without compensation were taken at the last moment. This year, the provincial conferences followed in most cases the same pattern.

They were dominated by issues of accreditation in which the status of branches and delegates were challenged. The Ekurhuleni regional conference epitomised this problem of the balance of support.

The absence of the NGC around 2019/20 also undermined any policy review under the less contested circumstance. Ramaphosa’s opponents called for it as an opportunity to mobilise support against him, but in the process jeopardised any chance for it to be convened. The same was expected of the policy conference last week. However, no disruptions or postponements happened, and the conference completed its work on schedule. This internal discipline was a positive sign, compared to the problematic provincial conferences.

The significance of the conference’s preliminary decisions will be clearer over time when they become available to be discussed by the party branches. The one that attracted the most attention early in the conference was the “step-aside” rule for members who have been charged in court for serious crimes such as corruption. The rule, based on a 2017 National Conference decision, has become the most visible dividing line between the Ramaphosa and Zuma supporters. The KwaZulu-Natal delegates called for a decision to rescind it, Limpopo asked for changes in the decision while Gauteng and the Eastern Cape were in favour of strengthening the rule.

The result was in favour of the rule but with a fairer implementation of it. Much significance is attached to the step-aside rule. It is a clear articulation of the ANC’s polarisation, and the feeling in KZN that since the end of the Zuma presidential term the province has lost its leading position in the ANC and that it is penalised for the Zuma years.

The Zondo commission’s revelations in this regard, have deepened the sense of being under siege. The fact that they could not prevail, gives us insight into the balance of support in the ANC. The policy recommendations made by most of the commissions don’t signal radical changes.

The ANC as a party is confronted by the fact that the ANC as the government under Ramaphosa has introduced significant changes in approach or emphasis since 2018. The government’s fiscal reality, the economic changes because of the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic changes have left the government with limited options. At this conference, it was derided as neo-liberal by the Left while it restated its statist preferences. Ramaphosa ignored these in his conclusion of the conference and repeated his reformist renewal and reconstruction economic plan, together with his latest new energy plan. This does not mean a clear victory for him, because some of the 2017 resolutions on land expropriation and nationalisation of the South African Reserve Bank were reaffirmed.

The prescribed assets of pension funds resolution were not mentioned. The December conference will be the final decision-maker on all these matters. But it will be dominated by the election of the ANC’s top six leaders and the national executive committee.

The step-aside rule is linked to it and will therefore again attract much attention. Less attention will be given to the other policy matters, and most of last week’s recommendations will most possibly be accepted. They don’t, however, address the ANC’s Achilles heel, implementation. The ANC’s weakest link is local government, where it has lost most of its support since 2016.

From a policy point of view, the expectation is therefore to strengthen its policies on service delivery, the financial sustainability of local government, reduction in urbanisation and stimulation of local economies.

Kotze is a professor in the Department of Politics at Unisa