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Tomorrow marks the opening of the momentous 54th African National Congress (ANC) General Conference. Many have worked hard to campaign for their preferred candidates to succeed the incumbent, President Jacob Zuma. The last two weeks have been an exercise in mathematical scenarios, with many a pundit postulating different scenarios on how the congress is likely to pan out. As things stand, there is an expectation that the Deputy President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa will emerge victorious. His Branch endorsements stand at 1862, against those of his competitor, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who sits at 1309. The Youth League, Women’s League and MK Veterans League will also each be allocated 60 voting delegates to conference. Consensus seems to be the majority of the delegates from these structures will endorse Dr Dlamini Zuma.

As we have seen from the August 2016 Local Government Elections, the ANC is no longer the once all-conquering party of President Nelson Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki. More and more, voters are asking tough questions of the party, recognising that it has lost way in many significant respects. The recent by-elections in Metsimaholo provided further evidence that voters are losing faith in the ruling party.

Lost in this entire exercise is the mandate which the winning candidate is expected to pursue as South Africa will soon be entering a countdown to the 2019 General Elections. Unemployment is at a 13-year high, economic growth is stagnant, SOEs are struggling to keep afloat on their own and governance is non-existent, our kids are virtually illiterate. These are some of the questions that the ANC must answer at the Conference.

Out of the Provinces that held its Provincial General Councils (PGCs), only Gauteng saw fit to discuss policy. It is reported that this was a festive affair, with many a delegate expressing strong views about potential solutions to the country’s problems. Issues of economic transformation, social transformation, health, education, peace and security all received due consideration, with the membership ready to make concrete proposals for moving the country to the next level. The Eastern Cape PGC cancelled discussion of policy proposals due to logistical challenges imposed by the late start of the conference.

The party is reportedly organising sessions where such a discussion can be held to finalise outstanding issues.

Herein lies the problem of the ruling party; the broader membership has become too obsessed with questions of leadership. Not enough time is spent discussing pertinent questions of policy. There seems to be a growing lack of interest/capacity in policy matters, leaving the leadership to exercise dominion over the one area of governance that a robust membership would be expected to exercise caution and oversight on. It is a big problem when a conference called to discuss policy proposals does not even attempt to do so. This is especially difficult to fathom, given the difficult policy decisions that South Africa needs to make in the short term if the country is to stabilise its ship and get back to winning ways.

The Policy Conference held in June 2017, saw a lot of policy discussions referred back to branches for further discussion and finalisation. Now the question is seeing that only Gauteng sat to consolidate policy positions going into the National Congress, did branches in other Provinces discuss policy positions and what are those positions.

It is hoped that Conference itself will be a robust affair that deals not only with macro issues of ideological outlook (Radical Economic Transformation vs Radical Socio-Economic Transformation/ White Monopoly Capital vs Monopoly Capital etc), but micro questions of what to do with Eskom and SAA; to borrow or not to borrow (policy sovereignty), aims of competition policy, the balance between public health considerations and economic development (sugar tax, liquor bill, tobacco amendment). In the absence of such discussions, South Africa is likely to remain firmly stuck on its current growth trajectory. Consequently, 2019 will become a difficult proposition for the leadership to be elected in December 2017.

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