ANALYSIS | Vacuum of ideas at policy conference bodes ill for ANC

09 August 2022 - 11:59 By Susan Booysen
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File photo.
File photo.
Image: Ziphozonke Lushaba

SA is in the throes of an unprecedented, multifaceted socioeconomic crisis requiring substantive, impactful policy interventions.

Yet, having attended the governing ANC’s recent national policy conference, I wonder if it actually appreciates the enormity of the problems facing the nation.

The policy deliberations and proposals fell hopelessly short of addressing pressing problems — high unemploymentpoor economyhigh crime and huge corruptionviolence against women.

The subdued conference exposed a deficit of new policy thinking and failed to provide solutions.

It certainly did not live up to party leader and national president Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration in his opening address that the conference would be a defining moment for the ANC and the country.

What followed was not a good omen for the governing party, which is seeking re-election in 2024.

This analysis is based on my reviews of two sources.

The first was the ANC’s policy documents that had been prepared to anchor deliberations of branches in preparation for the conference and the thematic commissions set up to tackle particular areas of policy.

The second was the reports on the plenaries and the media presented by ANC luminaries.

In my view, there were mismatches between the crises facing the nation and proposed solutions.

There was a flood of small — or partial — stabs at big problems. A few big ideas came with the proviso that they may be “not affordable”.

The deliberations were characterised by disingenuous, counter-factual policy pronouncements, and de facto denials of the ANC’s culpability in causing many of the problems facing the country.

Foremost among the small stabs at major policy problems was the high levels of unemployment.

Beyond recognition of the problem, and the statement that there was a “sombre spirit” in the meeting of the breakaway commission that discussed the issue, nothing new emerged.

Delegates retreated into existing economic plans and reiterated the much-stated view that the party has good policies — all that is missing is implementation.

Over the years, this has become an easy pardon for underperformance.

Absent was any acknowledgment that patronage networks as well as corruption and state capture have become deeply embedded in the party, destroying public trust.

Conference narratives gave at best timid references to better accountability.

Delegates did condemn high levels of crime and de facto rule by criminal networks. But policy proposals on how to deal with the problem were largely absent.

Vague advocacy for better ethics in the party and government was all that was on offer.

Big policy ideas came in repeated proposals for a basic income grant and implementation of the National Health Insurance (NHI).

But, the prospects of a basic income grant have been dimmed because the state has already used available emergency funds to address Covid-19, flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, and destruction of infrastructure during the July 2021 riots.

New funding would depend on rearranging existing social relief and grant budgets, or another wealth tax.

Implementation of the NHI continues at a pace that’s almost imperceptible. Meanwhile, the public health system is collapsing.

The conference agreed on minor new ideas — such as a proposal to increase the number of ambulances. This is hardly the answer to the crisis in the health system.

The conference bore testimony to fact the ANC remains confused about its role.

Delegates lamented suffering due to the rising cost of living and unemployment, and condemned the scourge of gender-based violence.

Yet, the conference did not assume responsibility for the fact it has been on the ANC’s watch that these problems have come to characterise South African society.

Regarding the dysfunctionality of local governments, the proffered solution was the government’s district development model.

It envisages the integration of local municipalities at district level.

Similarly, there were minimalist pronouncements on forging a new electoral system.

The stalled reform process is supposed to change the post-apartheid electoral law to make it fairer by allowing independents to contest provincial and national elections.

To address the debilitating instability in local governments run by coalitions, the delegates proposed that future coalitions be based on legally binding contracts to avert their instability.

There was no mention that the ANC in local government has been a destabilising force wherever it lost to opposition coalitions.

The poverty of policy ideas on offer was expected, given the ANC’s existential crisis. It is at its weakest moment ever, as Ramaphosa confessed.

From the 1.6-million unverified members claimed in July, a group of us were told on the sidelines of the conference that the party had only 600,000 members in good standing.

Organisational weakness was also evident in the modest (about 2,000) number of delegates,  less than half the number who attended previous policy conferences.

On the organisational unity front, there were minimal outbreaks of factional contest, and disciplinary codes of behaviour helped hold the conference together.

The lack of sound policy proposals to address SA’s myriad challenges may suggest that the ANC has given up hope of making a difference in people’s lives.

This has implications for its electoral prospects.

The ANC, will increasingly fail to garner outright majorities and be forced into increasing numbers of unstable coalition governments.

Susan Booysen is a visiting professor and professor emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand.

This piece first appeared in The Conversation

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