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The ANC national elective conference scheduled from December 16-19 will be a titanic encounter in the long history of the movement. From its inception and over many years, each conference has had its own character, challenges and idiosyncracies.

Each conference has advanced the ANC to a higher organisational plane and brought forth new policies and new personalities who come from relative obscurity to national prominence.

Each conference has brought with it its own anxieties and divisions on the leadership choices and policy trajectories. These have been the main two issues of contention in the history of ANC conferences.

A cursory look at the history of ANC conferences will restate the perennial challenges and disputes around the contentious and vexed issues of leadership and policies.

The process of re-engineering the political fortunes of the ANC began in earnest in 1940 with the election of Dr AB Xuma.

Hitherto, the ANC was moribund, lethargic and in a state of decline when it was overshadowed by the Unity Movement and Native Representative Council.

Xuma was carefully chosen to reorganise the ANC, a feat he achieved with great distinction. The Reverend James Calata, who became the secretary general, formed an impenetrable team with Xuma as they relocated the HQ in Johannesburg and overhauled its administration and finances.

The historic 1943 conference resolved to establish the ANC Youth League that brought greater political animation to the ranks of the ANC. This resolution saw the entry into politics of a constellation of young, bellicose diehards such as AP Mda, Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, Victor Sifora, Walter Sisulu, Peter Raboroko and OR Tambo, to list a few.

This crop of young leaders shaped the South African political ferment forever.

The 1951 conference resolved on the implementation of the Defiance Campaign that confronted the Six Unjust Laws, such as the Population Registration Act, Group Areas Act and the Bantu Administration Act.

The Morogoro conference (1969) rescued the ANC from the difficulties imposed by the exigencies of exile, armed struggle and the mass arrest of its leaders.

Fast forward to 2007: the Polokwane conference saw the breakaway of Cope (Congress of the People). This time the personalisation of conflicts around certain leaders or patrons was at the heart of the issues.

The forthcoming conference will take place against the backdrop of economic decline and unprecedented urbanisation, far surpassing that of post-World War II experience.

This is complicated by massive population growth, with young people forming the largest section of the population.

The revival of white political sentiments and the fashionable use of courts to settle political disputes are new critical developments, coupled with an increasingly belligerent opposition.

In the forthcoming conference, the critical contests rest on the choice of leadership, given the heightened expectations as to who will succeed in wresting the leadership mantle.

The recent dinner organised by the president, Jacob Zuma, and all contesting presidential candidates was an attempt to forestall the electoral conflict that seem not far-fetched given the recent tension in a number of provincial conferences.

Party spokesperson Khusela Sangoni said recently that the conference would vote on and announce a new president first and would then allow delegates an opportunity for lobby groups to negotiate among themselves for the remaining positions.

This would be a departure from tradition, where the first phase of the elections deals with the top six.

Electing the president first is seen as making room for the loser to stand again for the position of deputy. Given the heightened tensions, this proposal will nigh stall the conference.

It is argued that the aim is to thwart the factionalised predetermined slates, but the decision still lies with the candidates. They own the conference and are its final arbiters. Of critical importance is that the conference must produce a credible outcome that will be owned by all.

The ANC’s leadership election at its conference in Soweto will be strongly contested, with its outcomes having a far-reaching effect on its future, standing in society and prospects for the 2019 elections. The historic hour of reckoning now rests in the delegates’ hands and the lessons of many conferences must be summoned for greater value.

* ka Plaatjie is head of ANC research and adviser to Lindiwe Sisulu

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

Sunday Independent