Winnie Madikizela Mandela chats with President Jacob Zuma and his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa ahead of the ANC's 5th National Policy Conference. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
The 5th policy conference of South Africa’s governing African National Congress started on an ominous note. The party’s stalwarts had opted to stay away because they wanted the party to call a consultative conference first to focus on the organisation’s problems. The ANC’s leadership refused.

In fact, their call infuriated President Jacob Zuma. He mocked them in his opening address. The stalwarts – who include luminaries such as Frank Chikane, Sipho Pityana and Cheryl Carolous – are viewed by some as the link to the progenitors of the liberation struggle. Could their stay away spell a curse?

By the end of the conference Zuma appeared buoyed, dubbing the conference a success in his closing address. But, a success in achieving what? This question is pertinent because the conference came amid growing public discontent about the way the country is run, intensified by adverse assessments of rating agencies as well as the fact that the economy is in recession.

Are the outcomes of the conference likely to assuage the consternation about the future of the country? Can they in anyway contribute towards extricating the country from the morass it’s in? Or, are South Africans simply grasping at straws by asking these questions?

Losing leadership of society

The ANC appears to have lost claim to being a leader of society. Just before the 2016 local government elections, its own research pointed to an increasing “trust deficit”: less than 50% of respondents saw the ANC as a leader of society. This is an ignominious indictment to a once glorious movement. Isn’t that perhaps where the focus should have been at the conference - regaining people’s trust by taking them along in the policy discussions?

An opportunity for this was missed as the policy discussion was contrived as an ANC affair. This is odd for a governing party. Its existence ought to be anchored in society and should always pursue the public interest. As the American senator Elizabeth Dole once put it:

The best policy is made when you are listening to people who are going to be impacted. Then, once policy is determined, you call on them to help you sell it.
The policy conference didn’t reflect this character. The ANC’s policy deliberations were held in closed sessions. The media wasn’t allowed in. Only snippets were presented to the public. Media reports depended on press briefings and interviews. The ANC was largely talking to itself.

Being a leader of society is a function of making people part of the process of how the party intends to lead. And it should always be amenable to the views that emanate from society, not only from its members. The ANC is not just a political organisation or a liberation movement. It is a governing party. How it responds to its responsibility of governing is the business of South Africa’s 55 million citizens.

An elitist approach to policy disengages society. Society only reacts to the outcomes of policy discussions if it’s not engaged in dialogue. This spawns antagonism as democracy is fudged in the process.

The consequence of this is a “trust deficit”. This is where the biggest danger lies. A “trust deficit” questions the very legitimacy of the ANC.

Vacuous discussions

The ANC’s gatherings are no longer moments to assert the significance of pursuing societal interests. As presidential hopeful Lindiwe Sisulu put it:

The (policy) conference was not about issues, it was about which side is pushing which issue.

Was it, therefore, choreographed machinations to gauge the preferences of the branches in the presidential race? One is inclined to think so, especially in the context of Zuma’s remarks at the end of the conference in which he proposed that whoever loses the race to be president should automatically become the deputy president of the party.

This proposal is outrageous. It accepts factionalism as part of the ANC’s organisational makeup. It seeks to institutionalise and accommodate factionalism rather than expunge it. Is this perhaps what the president was referring to when he spoke of success?

The other disturbing part of the conference was that vulgarity held sway while sanity was heckled and shouted down, scorned as proxy for white monopoly capital.

The truth is that white monopoly capital is a dishonest narrative. Coupled with the narratives garbled in rhetoric on the radical transformation  of the economy and land reform, white monopoly capital is nothing more than gesticulation of populism bereft of ideological context. In the meantime gluttonous politics is in ascendance. State power is contested for nefarious ends.

Where does this leave the historical mission of the liberation struggle which is about 

uplifting the quality of life of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female

Joel Netshitenzhe, a member of the national executive committee of the ANC, came closest to providing an answer. He went to the subterranean dimension of the debate on the transformation of the economy in pointing out that “white dominance in the economy” is a manifestation of a problem, which is “monopoly capital”.

To use the phrase “white monopoly capital” is to reduce the policy debate to polemics and to spawn untenable interventions. As Netshitenzhe further explained:

[the] relationship between the ANC and monopoly capital in particular, but also capital in general, is one of unity and struggle, or if you like, cooperation and contestation.

This irked the proponents of the white monopoly capital narrative who responded by displaying vacuousness and a lack of analytical depth on policy matters.

It appears as if the contestations in the conference hardened attitudes instead of facilitating policy choices. They intensified policy stalemate. This is perilous to South Africa. Outcomes of the policy conference don’t offer much to write home about. What they did do was to set up the ANC’s  December 2017 elective conference for an internecine and bruising jostling for power.

* Maserumule is Professor of Public Affairs at Tshwane University of Technology
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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