At the end of the policy conference of the African National Congress (ANC), President Jacob Zuma declared that the ruling party was more united than it had been when the conference began.
In the process of delivering his closing address, he proposed that the loser in the race for the presidency of the party at the ANC’s national conference in December should automatically be elected to the position of deputy president. This proposal did not go down well with the conference delegates, including those who are part of his faction, the dominant faction in the party.
In fact, Zuma did not have a good conference, if the outcome of key policy debates is anything to go by. He and his supporters went into the policy conference seeking an endorsement for policy positions such as radical economic transformation and the expropriation of land without compensation. They also sought an unambiguous statement on white monopoly capital as an enemy of radical economic transformation.
Two weeks before the national policy conference, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe gave the keynote address at the Gauteng ANC provincial general council, which had been convened as a preparatory gathering for the policy conference. Out of everything Mantashe said in his speech, there are two things I found particularly instructive.
First, he implored the delegates to accept that the ANC is in a state of serious decline. He argued that one of the signs that a revolutionary movement such as the ANC is in a state of decline is how such a movement starts adopting populist measures, as exemplified by the land invasions of Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. Was he talking about radical economic transformation perhaps?
Second, Mantashe said that the emergence of a family dynasty in the leadership of the revolutionary movement was another indicator of decline. Was he talking about the Zuma family?
But his characterisation of the problem of factionalism in the ANC was very interesting. He argued that there were two contending extremes in the ruling party: a factional position that is represented by adventurism and populism and a conservative streak that seeks to maintain and defend the status quo.
In my view, factional battles over issues such as white monopoly capital, radical economic transformation and expropriation of land without compensation are informed by these two extreme positions. For me, a good example was the debate on white monopoly capital. The policy conference spent an inordinate amount of time debating whether ‘white monopoly capital’ should be called ‘white monopoly capital’. In other words, the policy conference spent an inordinate amount of time debating whether a spade should be called a spade.
The conference agreed that monopoly capital is a global phenomenon and that, in South Africa, it takes the form of white monopoly capital. Joel Netshitenzhe, a renowned ANC policy wonk, argued that it did not matter whether monopoly capital was Indian or Japanese. Monopoly capital is the problem, not its colour. Therefore, it is inappropriate to refer to monopoly capital as ‘white’. This is sophistry on steroids, and it is for this reason that steroids are illegal in sport. Also, this is just a case of appeasement masquerading as something revolutionary. As they say, when money talks, people mumble. The problem here is that the policy conference, faced with the choice of rising above those who, in defence of the Guptas, invoke white monopoly capital dishonestly, and those who dishonestly deny the existence of white monopoly capi- tal, simply failed to rise to the challenge.
Then there was the debate on land expropriation without compensation. The policy conference did what the ANC does best: it ducked the issue by proposing a research study and another land audit because the alternative was to admit serious divisions on this matter.
On radical economic transformation, the Zuma side failed to get what it wanted, partly because its position is incoherent. The conference decided to align itself with the National Development Plan (NDP). What is radical about the NDP? Clearly, the conservative streak Mantashe was talking about prevailed because there is nothing counterhegemonic about this position.
I suppose what the ANC is going to say about economic policy going forward will depend on the constituency. When it is talking to investors, big business and ratings agencies, it will talk like the Democratic Alliance, and when it talks to the poor and the working class, it will talk like the Economic Freedom Fighters.
So, Zuma lost key policy battles at the policy conference, but does this mean that the supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa should be bullish about the prospects of success at the national conference in December? We must not forget that, in 2012, Zuma lost the policy conference and won the national conference. In December, it is numbers, not the weight of policy arguments, that will win the day.