ANC conference: It’s not about policy, stupid – it’s about who wins


ANC conference: It’s not about policy, stupid – it’s about who wins

Published Date: 2017-06-30 | Source: First Thing | Author: Stephen Grootes

ANC conference: It’s not about policy, stupid – it’s about who wins

On Friday delegates from the ANC's branches all over the country meet for the first time this year. It will, importantly, not be the last time. Instead, the policy conference, which should be about, you know, policy, is going to be overshadowed by the leadership battle. It is obvious to all and sundry that many people in the party don't really care about policy at all, and only about who wins. In the slightly unreal politics of the ANC at the moment, it won't come as a surprise to anyone to read that the ANC Policy Conference is both crucially, vitally, fantastically important, and not important at all.

This gathering doesn't have the power to actually make any decisions. Not one. It will not change the world. Nothing is decided. Instead, delegates make recommendations to the national conference at the end of the year. These recommendations can be adopted. Or not, as it happens.

So, in classic ANC fashion, the real importance of this conference is that it gives us the best possible test of the relative strength of the different factions. To be blunt, and to use this writer's favourite phrase of the moment - to over-simplify - it gives us a chance to examine the way the delegates to this conference react to both President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Which songs do they sing, who are they directed at, does the room fizzle with ululation for Zuma, or does it burn with anger at betrayal. Does Ramaphosa get a cold shoulder at some point, with people almost ignoring him? And, what on earth happens when Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma arrives? What, in the complete strangeness of our politics at the moment, would it mean if she didn't arrive at all? Which sounds like madness, but complete possibility.

In some ways then, the real moment of the conference will have nothing to do with policy at all, it will be the moment when the conference actually starts. The ANC is due to formally announce on Thursday exactly how and when this will happen, but Zuma will surely address delegates at a formal opening ceremony at some point. This will be the Political Report that is given to conference. And it is at that moment that we'll get some clear signals as to where everyone is ahead of December.

Except, of course, it's not quite that simple. It's true that this is the biggest gathering of ANC delegates ahead of the conference, but things can change between now and then. There are more delegates at the elective conference than at this, 'policy' one. Further, branches haven't gone through the branch audit process that they'll go through ahead of December. Also, there are some provincial congresses between now and then, particularly that of the Eastern Cape. So, we may see some serious changes to the people who actually are delegated to the December conference, and thus changes to the outcome too.

At the moment, it appears that most of the policy discussions we see above the line are really proxies for the leadership battle. If you back Dlamini-Zuma you believe that "white monopoly capital" is the real enemy, if you back Ramaphosa you believe that corruption is the real problem. This means that policy-making processes can be held hostage: people will say all sorts of things, but it will not really be about policy at all. Which must make for scary listening for those investing other peoples' money in this country. But it does make it easier for us to work things out. If the Economic Transformation Commission comes back with a completely different set of policy ideas to what it had in the past, then we'll know the Dlamini-Zuma people held the balance of power there, and probably elsewhere. If the commission reports back with a business-as-usual approach, that could be an indication that Ramaphosa is actually doing better than some expect.

It's important to remember here that there are some crucial players who can scramble all of the messages quite wonderfully. Enoch Godongwana is still the chair of the Economic Transformation Commission. With Zuma's backing, he was able to stop Julius Malema's charge to force nationalisation of the mines during the 2012 Policy Conference. It will be important to see whether he can do the same job here, presumably without Zuma's backing this time. Just the fact that he's still there is important.

And then there's the fact that in some ways this entire conference, from a policy point of view, could almost be rendered entirely null and void by events. In 2012 the focus was on what became known as the "Second stage of the transition", in a bitter lexicognal fight (Stephen, that's not a word! - Ed) over whether it might in fact be a "second transition". But in December, Zuma opened the leadership conference with a strong call for the party to adopt the National Development Plan. Which had hardly been mentioned at the Policy Conference. And such was his strength at the time that it was adopted by acclamation.

Anyone can attest to how well it's being implemented?... Anyone?

This means that even if something "radical" or "boring" is adopted at this policy conference, the real eating of the real pudding is actually only going to happen in December. And even then, the real test is whether a policy is actually implemented.

All of that said, there are some things along the way that have changed significantly about these conferences.

In 2007, with the contest between Zuma and Thabo Mbeki beginning to shape up, press conferences were given and managed by Smuts Ngonyama. His position then in the ANC was "head of presidency". It is impossible now to believe that the secretary-general of the party would be so quiet. But Kgalema Motlanthe was often almost invisible. Which is not to deny the important role he played behind the scenes, it's just an indication of how strong Thabo Mbeki was.

Things now are different. Mantashe will be the public face of the party for a large part of this conference. If he emerges unbruised, it may be a sign that he is still, despite it all, the centre of political gravity around which the ANC spins.

The situation around Zuma has also changed radically. This reporter was almost alone in the press room during the 2012 Policy Conference, completely absorbed in artful procrastination, when a group of fit, well-dressed men arrived. They started to examine the room very carefully. I phoned everyone I knew, warning them that Zuma himself might be about to hold a press conference. When he did, he spoke about the economy, social grants, and important issues in the public domain. Almost all of the questions were about policy, rather than politics.

It's hard to see that happening this time.

Instead, were Zuma to hold a press conference under almost any circumstances outside of those SABC-only affairs, it would be derailed faster than you can yell "#GuptaLeaks". Even the sneezes would come out as "Aaaahhhhh-Duduza-chooo".

In the end, these conferences should be about the real grind behind the scenes. The groups of people discussing "Organisational Renewal" and "Peace and Security". There will be a lot of that. It will be important, all of it, in its own way. But in the end, considering the context in which we find ourselves, it is really going to be about the leadership contest.

Policy as political strength. Exactly what you'd expect to find everywhere else in the world.