Radical as a damp squib
Every so often a group of people come together and manage to provide fresh answers to intractable old problems.
Sometimes the group is small, as in some of the engagements between business and ANC leaders that led to the detente of the late 1980s. Sometimes it is huge groups, such as the brave men and women who met 100 years ago to form the ANC.
After such meetings, as participants and watchers fan back to their constituents across the country, one feels a sense that there is something to take back home - new ideas, fresh resolve and inspired hearts.
This is what the ANC and many others hoped for as delegates went to the party's policy conference last week. With 18 years of governance under its belt, the party needs solutions and a new direction.
The party expected as much from itself, with party president Jacob Zuma saying to the 3500 delegates at the opening of the conference: "We are therefore calling for a dramatic shift or giant leap to economic and social transformation so that we can deal decisively with the triple challenge [of poverty, unemployment and inequality]."
Zuma underlined this theme at a press conference after his opening speech with the word "radical" coming up often.
"We might end up with resolutions that have more than what is in the documents," Zuma said. "We need radical change."
It was pretty much the same four days later, when Zuma closed the conference. He told delegates: "In this regard, the conference has endorsed the need for a radical economic and social transformation programme ... This second phase of the transition shall be characterised by more radical policies and decisive action to achieve the change we envisage."
From all these statements any South African who wants to see real change - including the total eradication of the endemic poverty that Zuma earlier said gives him sleepless nights - would expect some serious announcements from the ANC. One would expect a major shift to be on the cards.
One cannot say that there was anything revolutionary or radical about the ANC's policy conference in Midrand last week. If anything, delegates went home clear only that their divisions remain, their vision is blurred and there is no order from leaders who should put their shoulders to the wheel and implement their policies.
The ANC says the policies adopted at last week's conference will be forwarded to the Mangaung elective conference in December, which is also, like this one, expected to be a radical and watershed conference. It will not be. Instead, like this and the one before it, Mangaung will be the site of political infighting and paralysis.
The reason is simple. Not once throughout the four days of deliberation did senior ANC leaders mention small business and the empowerment of small enterprises to create jobs. Instead, the focus was on the nationalisation of mines, the expropriation of land and giving the state - which is failing with Telkom, SAA, Eskom and many other parastatals - a greater role in the economy.
The simple realisation that education - which the ANC has bungled spectacularly over the past 18 years - is the key to our freedom seems to have escaped the party. With the crisis in education, the party chose to hand Cosatu a major victory by refusing to classify teachers as essential workers. In simple terms, teachers have been given a free pass to strike and get away with the destruction of the poor black child.
What would have been radical here? It would have been radical to tell Cosatu and its affiliate, the SA Democratic Teachers' Union, that the party's over: that there will no longer be strikes and teaching is an essential service.
Zuma is radical in words but not in action. So children will suffer as teachers go on strike again later this year. And next year. This is the worst possible failure by the ANC, an illustration of the party's lack of backbone.
I find no value whatsoever in the nationalisation of mines or expropriation of land without compensation, but on these issues, too, the party failed to come up with brave or new decisions. Instead, leaders on Friday night struggled to say exactly what had been decided. No nationalisation whatsoever, said one party leader, Enoch Godongwana. Yes, it is happening, the ANC Youth League said on Saturday. Truth is, it won't happen.
So, another day, another conference, and it's business as usual while pupils do not have textbooks and the poor sink deeper into their squalor.