Mcebisi Ndletyana.

The pre-conference ritual is heating up. Colourful phrases are even being added to our lexicon. “A tipping” Jacob Zuma quipped the other day,” from where to where”! He was disagreeing with his deputy, Kgaleme Motlanthe, that South Africa is at a “tipping-point”. Things are tough out there as members prepare for the 53rd National Conference of the African National Congress (ANC) at the mother-city, Mangaung.

History seems to have conspired to distinguish Mangaung in the life of the liberation movement. This city not only hosted centenary celebrations earlier this year, but had hosted the first conference inside the country upon unbanning in 1990. This will be the sixth national conference since then.

Within these 21 years of re-establishment, the organisation has elected its 10th, 11th and 12th presidents: Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Mandela and Mbeki served two terms, and Zuma is completing his first term.

As we get even closer to the 53rd conference, it’s worth asking: What do these conferences really achieve? Does one conference really change policy? And does it even matter who is at the helm of the party?

Put differently, do personalities exert any discernable policy influence or shift?

Individually, none of the previous five conferences yielded any distinct policy shift. This is not entirely surprising. ANC policies have largely been all-encompassing, which makes it difficult to introduce anything that is not already part of the existing policy regime.

Everything is catered for – ngu galel’ ebhayini! This is a function of its multi-class character, especially on economic policy. Social policy has been decidedly liberal. Promoting gender parity, tolerance of religious diversity and commitment towards a secular state have all been part of ANC policy framework for a considerable period.

Economic policy, however, has not been similarly unidimensional. It’s been centrist, encapsulating both leftist and free-market thinking. The 1992 “Ready to Govern” policy document is a telling example in recent history. It envisaged a developmental state that is not only interventionist, but also one that co-exists alongside “a dynamic private sector”. The public sector would be expanded in some sectors and contracted in others.

“The primary question in this regard”, the document explained, “is not the legal form that state involvement in economic activity might take at any point”.

Rather, “the balance of evidence will guide the decision for or against various economic policy measures. Such flexibility means assessing the balance of the evidence in restructuring the public sector to carry out national goals”.

All conferences, therefore, have maintained the centrist orientation. The only difference has been on emphasis. And this is where international context or “balance of evidence” has been influential. Russia’s crumbling economy in the early 1990s, for instance, dampened Mandela’s enthusiasm for nationalisation. He had gone to prison at the height of socialist thinking, but returned into a changed world. It just wasn’t smart touting a nationalised economy when its ultimate advocate was unravelling.

Wherever Mandela visited in Europe he got starry eyes at the mention of nationalisation.

Not that Mandela needed much convincing. CNN beamed scenes showing Russians in long queues at shops, only to find empty shelves. Advocates of capitalism gloated, pointing at the collapse as evidence of the bankruptcy of a statist economy. That was not a happy moment for socialism.

Mandela got the message. He hardly mentioned nationalisation throughout his presidency of the republic, even though it remained an option within the ANC’s policy regime. His deputy, both in the party and government, Thabo Mbeki, did not just keep quiet. He veered government policy away from nationalisation. But he first warned his comrades in a discussion paper titled “State and Social Transformation” written in 1996. The discussion paper envisaged the democratic state establishing “a dialectical relationship with private capital as a social partner for development and social progress. The defining element is a working and harmonious, even at times conflictual relationship between the democratic state and capital”.

Rather than assuming a leading role, therefore, the state would recede back to a regulatory role, making the environment conducive for private capital to flourish. The announcement of intention was subsequently followed in the same year by a government policy, Gear, conferring official sanction to undertake neo-liberal reforms.

State-owned companies unbundled for sale to private hands, debt-servicing received priority, limiting available expenditure towards social services, and excess staff were culled off the bureaucracy. This marked South Africa’s introduction to out-sourcing. “The state”, Mandela once remarked, “is not an employment agency”. Even universities which claimed progressive credentials, some even led by Marxist scholars, off-loaded support service staff to private companies, who paid them a pittance with meagre benefits as they sought to refocus on “core business”.

Note that the introduction of centre-right policies was necessitated by “balance of evidence”. The 1990s were the heyday of neoliberalism. South Africa, coming out of a long, harsh period of economic sanctions, needed to attract foreign direct investment to meet the needs of an expectant black majority. Mbeki reasoned that changes were necessary to make South Africa competitive. Frankly, progressive parties, especially in Europe, were embracing capital as a partner instead of maintaining the hostile posture denouncing it as “the enemy of the people”. They called it the “Third Way”, the latest version of social-democracy. Tony Blair, Schröder and Bill Clinton were its vocal proponents. A member of that international progressive movement, the ANC inevitably shared the newly found embrace of capitalism.

Gear was never subjected to conference approval. It was a government, not a party policy. But ANC policy was not disapproving of Gear either. Remember, the “Ready to Govern” document wished for a “dynamic private sector” and foresaw both reduction and expansion of the public sector. Gear was right in sync with the ANC policy regime, but biased towards the free-market aspects of it. This meant that, just as it hadn’t endorsed Gear, conference couldn’t rescind it.

ANC conferences, therefore, don’t quite prescribe what an ANC government should do. They provide a policy frame which is quite broad, leaving it to government to translate those into specific, implementable official policies. Because they benefit some over others, policies are inevitably contested, especially within a multi-class organisation such as the ANC. Whether or not policies see the light of day, therefore, depends on the force of the personality of the leader. A Sussex-trained economist, Mbeki believed that the reforms were correct. And, when Mbeki believes, he’s unmovable. He shrugged off criticism from the left in the alliance as “psuedo-Marxism”. The pre-Polokwane ANC today contains a lot of Mbeki’s papers, including lectures on “real” Marxism.

Apart from conviction, Gear was also buoyed by a coherent power base. Introduced under Mandela’s presidency, the policy had the full backing of the much-revered founding father. And Mandela told the critics as much. One such instance was at the celebration of the SACP’s 75th anniversary in 1996, when Mandela was invited as a guest speaker. Once he had conveyed the customary revolutionary greetings, he got to the point: “This strategy is government policy. Its fundamentals are not up for negotiation”. Mandela is a man of reconciliation, but sometimes he prefers his word to stand unchallenged. Pallo Jordan could never quite accept that. Mandela fired him from his cabinet.

So, critics never stood a chance of getting Mandela to withdraw Gear. And, once he became president, Mbeki too did not brook any dissent. Because he faced no obvious threat to his presidency, and was not indebted to any particularly constituency, Mbeki could decisively implement Gear. It was implemented with “military precision”, as Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi reminded his comrades at a meeting of the fifth Central Executive Committee meeting in 2011.

ANC leadership is thus critical to the extent that it catapults one to the presidency of the republic. Government ultimately decides which aspects of ANC policy get priority over others. The distinction – between party and government – is inevitable. Government caters for a multiplicity of publics, while the party speaks on behalf of the “formerly oppressed masses of our people”. Mbeki, to whom history conferred the initial responsibility to configure institutions of government, was quite emphatic on this distinction. His critics even complained that Mahlambandlopfu led Luthuli House, instead of the other way round.

The ANC presidency, therefore, offers an opportunity to sway the balance of power among the contending classes in the liberation movement. The strength of one’s power base, however, ultimately determines the scope of policy changes that a president can initiate, if he so desires. This is what makes Mbeki’s presidency the most influential thus far both in terms of configuring state institutions, policy formulation and implementation.

Conversely, Zuma’s ANC presidency lacks a stable power base. Whereas Mbeki forced a resolution of contestations, Zuma has retrieved the organisation back to the ideological impasse. He rose to the party presidency on the back of a promise to change the plight of the working class. This was to be achieved through banning labour brokers and creating decent jobs. The promise was made at the height of a global recession. No decent jobs were created, but many were shed.

Nor have labour brokers been banned, but a new black business lobby – the Black Business Council – emerged to an approving official reception. Black business uses labour brokers and also complains that South African labour is expensive. And, in the process, Luthuli House became impatient with reminders of creating decent jobs, scolding its labour allies that “a job is a job”. Because it was conceived on a promise of a new life to workers, yet representative of black business interests, Zuma’s presidency has been ambivalent.

One day Ebrahim Patel takes Walmart to court saying its take-over of Massmart spells gloom for workers. The next day Kgalema Motlanthe says the Walmart take-over “is a vote of confidence” in the South African economy.

Conferences hardly live up to the hype. Polokwane, as labour came to realise, didn’t turn out to be the “Waterloo” they predicted for pro-market policies. Treasury – the supposed “enemy of the working class” – is still steering policy and is now pushing a wage subsidy for SA’s unemployed youth, to Vavi’s chagrin. The “dream team” they thought they’d secured in the Zuma’s cabinet turned out to be quite ordinary.

That said, Mangaung will most likely emerge with a much stronger emphasis on an activist state. This won’t herald a radical policy change, however. That decisive shift happened back in 2002 at the Stellenbosch conference. The ANC doesn’t make sudden policy changes, but does so only incrementally. ANC policies reflect “continuity in change”. Whether or not the resolutions are then taken further into government policies is not clearcut. It will depend on the balance-of-evidence – what is doable at that moment. A “Lula-moment” may well not materialise, just the same way the “Polokwane victory” turned out to be false.

- Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections