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Tomorrow the ANC begins its policy conference and there are already more than a few observers commenting on a nagging sense of déjà vu.
Their minds go back to the 2007 version of this meeting, which preceded the elective conference in Polokwane where then-president Thabo Mbeki was toppled as party leader by his erstwhile deputy, Jacob Zuma.
At that time, considered debate on policy was often swept aside as the two major factions aligned themselves with whatever their preferred candidate happened to be suggesting.
By the time the party got to Polokwane in December of that year, the genie was well and truly out of the bottle: scores were settled through brutal and public bloodletting.
Zuma, the architect of that coup, now finds himself in much the same place as Mbeki five years ago. Former lieutenants have turned against him and others are emerging as unlikely allies: his embrace and interpretation of the “second transition” proposals suggests somebody who knows he is in a battle.
Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale has obvious presidential ambitions and has been campaigning to that end recently. Last week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – popular with several groupings within the ANC – made noises which suggested that he too may challenge Zuma.
It all makes for a fascinating spectacle and will no doubt consume many headlines this week and in the months leading up to this year’s elective conference at Mangaung.
But can we avoid the mistakes of five years ago, where, for example, critical issues that Mbeki and his allies had identified as priorities were swept aside? Will the critical debates – land reform, the youth wage subsidy, nationalisation – be reduced to proxies for the leadership battle, as has already happened to the “second transition” proposals?
If the party needs any convincing of the danger of this trend it need only look at the populist proposal by the Western Cape ANC to prevent non-South Africans from buying or running spaza shops.
That’s what happens when you put political ambition ahead of principled policy: you forsake your moral compass.