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It was no surprise that foreign policy did not feature prominently at the ANC’s national policy conference last week.
It seldom does at any policy conference anywhere, especially not in an election year when candidates are mainly trying to tune their policy positions to the wishes of voters.
But the conference’s many decisions or indecisions on domestic policy will surely have far-reaching international repercussions.
There is broad agreement that policy uncertainty is deterring foreign and domestic entrepreneurs from making the huge investment in SA that the country needs to grow fast and wipe out unemployment.
What must those hesitant investors be thinking now after ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa reassured them that the party’s policy against nationalisation had not changed at the conference, but Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi immediately retorted that the conference had endorsed nationalisation?
Even Phosa’s reassurances were unreassuring as he said nationalisation would be permitted “if there is sufficient evidence that indicates you should do it… If you want to nationalise ArcelorMittal, you can do it.”
There was similar ambiguity on some other key policies of importance to investors, such as land reform.
The most significant explicit foreign policy decision, however, was a good one.
President Jacob Zuma’s foreign policy adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, briefed journalists at the conference that the ANC had resolved to “push forward” for the unbanning of political parties in Swaziland.
This move to democracy by the absolute monarchy remained a condition for the R2.4 billion loan that SA offered Swaziland in August to tide the country over during its liquidity crisis, she said.
Zulu’s statement delighted the Swazi opposition, which had been dismayed by reports earlier in the week that indicated that SA had decided to give Swaziland the money unconditionally.
The Swaziland Democracy Campaign, based in SA, said it believed the ANC would now support its Global Week of Action on Swaziland in September.
This seemed to be a reference to Zulu’s statement that the ANC would henceforth work with its alliance partner, Cosatu, to help Swaziland.
Cosatu has for many years actively supported the Swazi opposition, including through joint efforts to blockade the landlocked country.
These efforts were rather half-hearted, however. But was Zulu’s remark a hint that that might now change?
Will the ANC now throw itself wholeheartedly into rolling mass action against Mswati’s government?
We will have to wait to see.
If it does, it will also be interesting to observe how the ANC conceptually distinguishes itself from the SA government as an actor in such an endeavour.
Certainly the Swazi government will not make that distinction and will complain bitterly to Pretoria that it is trying to topple the government of a fellow Southern African Development Community member.
Perhaps it will remind Zuma that when former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema vowed to unseat the Botswana government, he was expelled from the ANC.
In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is similarly unlikely to see the clear distinction between government and party which the ANC national policy conference tried to make in a decision on that country.
The ANC resolved to continue its fellow liberation movement friendship with Zanu-PF, but that the government would remain neutral as the mediator in Zanu-PF’s negotiations with the MDC.
Zulu herself has been studiously fair as Zuma’s chief negotiator in Zimbabwe.
Yet the ANC has put no real pressure on Zanu-PF to stop wilfully obstructing SA’s efforts to level the political playing field to enable free and fair elections. Is that because of its fraternal relations?
Apart from the danger of compromising its mediation, the reaffirmation of its alliance with Zanu-PF last week undoubtedly compromised its own reputation. Remaining friends with a party that uses violence, intimidation and a monopoly of state resources such as the judiciary, army, police, intelligence services and media to cling to power does not reflect well on the ANC.
Nor does it give one much confidence that it would not resort to the same tactics if the chips were down.