The 54th ANC elective conference taking place at Nasrec, December 16 2017. Picture: MASI LOSI
The 54th ANC elective conference taking place at Nasrec, December 16 2017. Picture: MASI LOSI

The ANC is under pressure to produce policies to change the downward trajectory of SA’s economy. This is the same challenge it faced at its national conference in 2012.

Back then, the writing was already on the wall that unless the governing party changed its approach to how it managed the economy, its fortunes would continue to dwindle.

As its leaders and members gather in Nasrec this week to choose the party’s future leaders, debates on policy have taken the back seat.

Although candidates for top ANC leadership positions campaigned with promises of improved governance and more transformative social policies, as soon as the dust settles these proposals are either shafted, abandoned or frustrated by people in government who have no intention of implementing them in the first place.

There has been little to no movement on some of the policy interventions made by the ANC in Mangaung. This was also the case after the party’s conference in Polokwane in 2007 and the same can be expected at this year’s conference.

"The ANC has been consistent in terms of affirming its own principles, but the extent to which a particular decision comes to life is dependent on affordability," says political analyst Prof Mcebisi Ndletyana.

The economy is stagnating, with poverty on the increase for the first time since 1994 and inequality widening. Investors, market pundits and ratings agencies lay the blame for this on the government’s doorstep.

Nonetheless, delegates to the 54th ANC conference will make important decisions on several issues that will have serious implications for how the economy fares. These include the emotional and racially-fuelled subjects of land restitution, radical social and economic transformation and the transformation of mining.

To some extent, the ANC has always talked left and walked right. So although the rhetoric coming out of conferences could be radical, investors were reassured by signals sent by the Treasury and the ANC’s economic-transformation committee that prudent management of the economy would win. This has begun to shift. In 2012, although nationalisation of the mines was put on the agenda by the ANC Youth League and fiercely debated in the years leading to the conference, it did not appear in the gathering’s final resolutions. Investors were reassured that centrist ANC leaders remained in control.

But a commitment to "radical social and economic transformation" was adopted in 2012 and at first did not get much airplay — even in the ANC’s more radical quarters.

The intention behind it was to address the festering issue of the exclusion of the majority of black people from the mainstream economy.

In the 2014 local government elections, the ANC and President Jacob Zuma were under pressure and the slogan became a major rallying call on his platforms.

Successful resolutions from ANC conferences are often determined by the leadership which emerges victorious, with no other test applied or considered to ensure the feasibility of implementation.

Presidential hopefuls Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma have pushed different narratives on ANC policy proposals. Ramaphosa believes that radical social and economic transformation — which he describes as having been hijacked as a slogan — should include discussion on how the country can achieve inclusive growth and the radical improvement of the quality of life for the majority.

For Dlamini-Zuma, the policy means that the majority of the population must play a key role in the economy and it calls for drastic structural and systemic changes in the ownership of wealth — a stance referred to by some as being "anti-white".

The conference will also decide whether the ANC should adopt a policy on land expropriation without compensation, a highly-charged debate in the party and across the country after the "willing buyer, willing seller" model was abandoned.

Political analyst Daniel Silke says that despite the hype around policy-related issues, he does not expect much clarity on existing policy. "On the issue of land, we have seen the ANC fudge … now for consecutive policy conferences," he says.

Whatever the party decides, the impact of such reform, if it ever gets implemented, will be wide-ranging, with negative consequences for the agricultural sector and the property market, among others..

Proponents of a policy that prioritises expropriation without compensation could find it hard to argue for it during the conference following undertakings by new Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa that he will reverse his country’s long-standing policy on land grabs.

Ramaphosa backs the Mangaung resolution that only land acquired through unlawful means or being used for illegal purposes should be expropriated without compensation.

The future of the Reserve Bank, which has been the centre of much debate after the public protector’s flawed report that ordered its mandate to be changed, could be concluded at this conference. It was agreed at the ANC’s policy conference in June that it is an anomaly for the central bank to be privately owned and the party resolved it should be state-owned,

"The tradition weighs against the position in that there is an aversion and fear to surrender such institutions to Parliament and politicians, especially under this government," says Ndletyana.

"There is a sense that it reflects the strength of the wave of populism more than policy rationale. But I do not think it is a closed debate."

Other discussions include the validity of the concept of "white monopoly capital", or whether monopoly capital must be dismantled to allow new entrants access to industry.

Although Zuma has already announced free education for poor students, the conference may still discuss the issue, expressing approval of the decision or suggesting that its feasibility be explored.

Its implementation may not be realised if Treasury cannot raise the R15bn the plan requires in its first year of implementation — which would lead to it being added to the pile of resolutions that have not seen the light of day due to a lack of resources — despite enjoying political will.

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