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The biggest, if not the only, decision that was taken at this week’s policy conference was that the rising communist flank will not determine the direction of the ANC – and if the 2012 policy conference is to be remembered by anything, it will be that single but fundamental agreement.
Within hours of the 3 500 delegates arriving at the Midrand venue, the majority view had become apparent that they would not accept the so-called Second Transition, even before they began to debate it. Their reasoning was that the policies it proposes are already contained in the National Democratic Revolution, the ruling party’s guiding force for a social and democratic post-apartheid society.
Yet they emerged from behind closed doors two days later with the alternative Second Phase which is different only in name from the Second Transition.
Calling it “a new phase in our national democratic revolution”, it proposes that change be accelerated “with regard to economic transformation” and that this second phase ought to be characterised by “more radical policies and decisive action” in the “ongoing transition from apartheid colonialism to a national democratic society”.
Neither the actions nor the policies were identified, however, and the programme of action will come only later. For now, it is just a firm decision to halt the Second Transition.
On the surface, it was interpreted as a blow to President Jacob Zuma’s hopes of securing a second term. Though he did not author the document (head of political education Tony Yengeni did), the president had made it his calling card in the run-up to the conference.
Had it been accepted, it would also have been recorded in the ANC’s history books as his initiative, just as the well-known Through the Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in SA, became widely associated with Thabo Mbeki in 2001.
By rejecting the Second Transition, the delegates took away the legacy that Zuma is desperately lacking. Doing it in the year of the ANC’s centenary also delivered him a double blow.
But the underlying reason to scrap the Second Transition – if only in name – goes to the heart of Tripartite Alliance politics. Since Zuma came to party power five years ago, the South African Communist Party has gained significant prominence, not least through the emergence of Gwede Mantashe and Blade Nzimande in senior positions within the ANC and the government, and as the strategic advisors of the president.
Their rise has prompted the decades-old concern among African nationalists of a communist flank that would exercise too much influence over the direction the ANC might take.
In the early years of the struggle, the communist party hoped SA would go through a “two-phase” revolution. The first would be a so-called National Democratic Revolution that would be predisposed to becoming a socialist society “and they hoped what would come next would be a move towards a communist society”, says ANC historian Tom Lodge.
The so-called Second Transition rammed home that age-old fear when it was circulated among branch members a few months ago and this week the nationalists hit back with their pledge to stick to the NDR as a guide towards a national democratic society. Though some within the communist party also rejected it, and it was chiefly authored by a nationalist – Yengeni – by and large it was perceived as the two-phase revolution deal.
The real tragedy, of course, is that while the “broad church” ANC continues to struggle over its own identity and what it is and what it wants to become, the country is stuck in what political scientist Achille Mbembe calls “the stalemate” that the miracle of 1994 has become.
Though Zuma didn’t go quite as far when he outlined his vision of the Second Transition earlier in the week, he did make a good case for why change is no longer an option.
He called up the grinding challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment that are failing the majority of South Africans and which are now driving the need for radical change right across the board.
Though the president was regrettably scant on detail, the country has been burdened by grave statistics for a number of years.
In 2005, when Zuma started out on his comeback campaign, the country produced 5 580 new dollar millionaires, yet one in nine families was admitting that their children went hungry at least “some of the time”, according to writer Hein Marais.
The year Zuma became state president, the country’s top bankers were drawing the kind of salaries that would have taken the average assistant manager in the public service sector 520 years to earn.
SA currently has the biggest number of top-end car dealerships outside the developed world and yet 40 percent of the workforce is earning the minimum wage.
After the ANC opted for the Second Phase on Thursday, and renewed their pledge for a national democratic society that would finally erase the economic and social vestige of apartheid, I watched them get into their luxury cars as they drove out of the Midrand venue, shameless about their hypocrisy.
Later that day they agreed that they wanted to introduce a job seeker’s allowance, but by evening one of the party seniors was privately admitting that the money simply wasn’t there to fund it.
On the final day of the conference a raft of education and health proposals emerged, though not one of them has been costed. All this on top of the multi-billion-rand National Health Insurance (NIA) plan for which the government still can not find a suitable funding model.
The delegates spent two days discussing fairly radical economic proposals, yet produced what was described as a “lazy” document that Gwede Mantashe and Mathews Phosa refused to accept.
At the eleventh hour on Thursday evening, the two men forced their peers to apply their minds to it a second time, yet it was arguably the most critical policy feature of the conference.
“We are in above our heads,” one of the delegates privately conceded. “If you are confused, it’s because we are too. The documents that came into this conference just weren’t thought through. They confused us even more. That’s why we failed to reach any kind of real consensus or to go further than we eventually did. There were some big decisions that we should have taken, but didn’t.”
It was for this reason that Kgalema Motlanthe called this week for the ANC’s National Executive Committee to be drastically reduced in number. For quite some time, the deputy president has been of the view that the executive team is way too large and therefore incapable of having a thorough discussion, policy not excluded.
Draft policy documents are first discussed and amended at the level of the executive before being sent out to the hundreds of branches all over the country. When Zuma became party president in 2007, he increased the executive from 60 to 80. This week, they agreed to bring it back down to 60, though Motlanthe wants it cut much further still, his throwback to an era when party administration and management was more coherent.
Then, in the 1990s, fewer delegates attended the kind of conference that was swamped by 3 500 people this week and while democratic, it is becoming strategically impossible to hold a decent discussion with so many people, some of the delegates say.
Hundreds of people were packed into the commissions that discussed the various topics and though that afforded some chance for one to have their say, it was difficult to raise an objection or any kind of input when they all returned to plenary together in their thousands.
So when Yengeni told the media this week that it only took the plenary an hour to agree on the Second Phase, such was the consensus, his words couldn’t have been further from the truth. The delegates had thrashed out that document for two days in their small groups, but had to agree to disagree when they returned to plenary with their various submissions and contributions.
What emerged, therefore, was a six-page proposal that contains all of their views and which doesn’t really cut to the core of the issues. It agreed on the end, but not the means, although the means in this case will surely determine the end.
Although it wouldn’t be their choice of words, the ANC are agreed they have reached a stalemate. They are aware of their failings this past 18 years.
I would also like to believe they would have the backing of the majority of South Africans if they were to try and sort this messy country out and curb the socio-economic divide that is killing it.
A radical plan of action is needed. It has to happen. It is unthinkable what might happen to SA if it does not. But it is a move that will be incredibly delicate and sensitive and which would require solid, excellent leadership to pull it off.
However, the ANC doesn’t have that calibre of leadership, at least on its front line. The party is also divided, despite what they say.
What was evident this week is that they are guided first and foremost by their internecine battles. Public policy is an ill-considered afterthought.
Then shudder the thought of them advancing to the next stage of revolution.
See pages 16 and 17