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Gupta family virtually a fourth pillar of governing alliance

Jun 30 2017 07:03
Daniel Silke

IN A year of deep political turmoil and debilitating navel-gazing, the ANC is set to go through the motions of another policy conference this weekend.

Policy is critical. Even poor leadership can be offset against prudent and pragmatic policy-making. Unfortunately, for some time now both leadership and policy have either been missing, deficient or simply derelict.

Historically, ANC policy conferences have largely mirrored the ideological strains within the broader alliance. Ultimately, it has usually been about finding a compromise between those seeking rhetorical adherence to the reinterpretation of the Freedom Charter and those putting a brake on more ‘populist’ interpretations and taking a more market-friendly approach.

The notion of 'radical economic transformation' back on the radar screen is therefore not really new for the ANC. Pretty ‘radical’ policies on land ownership or mining/tenure/ownership rights have been the subject of previous congresses.

While potentially investor-unfriendly outcomes have sometimes prevailed at least in resolutions, policy papers or directives for party bosses to implement, the ANC has always found a way of balancing the divide between its radical populists and the pragmatic centre.

And the centre historically has usually held – much to the frustration of the those seeking a more Leftist transformative approach for the economy.

In this way, the policy conferences were largely a vehicle to vent anger and frustration and allow a variety of inputs to be presented and analysed. But when push came to shove in the actual implementation of policy, a much more nuanced, balanced and considered approach was usually taken.

It is precisely this clash between ideology, radical interpretations and the sheer practicality of operating within a market economy (both from a domestic and global perspective) that has created policy inertia within the ANC. It simply cannot fully implement either a radical approach or a market-friendly orientation – nor even a seemingly acceptable (and efficient) compromise between the two.

And this policy conference is likely to be no different – especially given the looming succession battle at the end of the year, the question of ‘state capture’, the weakening of the alliance partners’ relationship with one another and the dismal state of the domestic economy.

These four key elements make for a policy conference much more likely to tread water on formulating any kind of strategy although once again, rhetoric might be more pointed than the reality of formalisation.

The extent of the Guptas' influence across the length and breadth of the ANC’s body politic now makes the family virtually a fourth pillar of the governing alliance. This policy conference is therefore the first that has to confront not only the broad brushstrokes and ideological debates surrounding policy, but also evaluate just who policy benefits.

Gigantic albatross headquartered in Saxonwold

And the key question at all times now - following the #GuptaLeaks revelations - is just how any policy statement, initiative or lobbying process can be traced back to those linked in some way to the Gupta coat-tails. In this sense, this policy conference occurs with a gigantic albatross around its neck – a name that is headquartered in Saxonwold.

In applying radical economic transformation to each and every policy debate, the core issue will be who exactly benefits. Is it really the people of South Africa - or those instrumental in the perpetuation of a predatory state and cronyism?

For an alliance whose partners are already at internal loggerheads with one another, this added dimension can be further expected to not only create division but retard the broad formalisation of policy until the issue of state capture is resolved.

Indeed, the succession battle also means that the contenders for power – still largely Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma - will of necessity themselves either need to provide direction or interpret the mood of the delegates as their campaigns move into the final stages.

Already Ramaphosa has given his spin on this, and is honing a very specific message. From his perspective, will he be able to get the policy conference to tackle issues within his paradigm, or will a much more populist undercurrent prevail? This may give us some clues to the balance of forces taking shape.

Given that the policy conference occurs at a critical leadership juncture for the ANC, its ability to really dictate will be further hamstrung by this.

Leadership candidates will want to put their own mark on the ANC. And, in the highly sensitive and emotionally laden pre-December period, no future leader will want the party committing to largely unworkable policies prior to new leadership.

Being shackled by bad policy will undermine both Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma and threaten further the ANC’s position at the 2018 election.

In addition, the alliance itself shows little cohesion. With trade federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party opposed to President Jacob Zuma and also Ms Dlamini-Zuma as future leader, those components are also likely to shy away from committing the party to hard and fast decisions.

They will hope that their candidate (Ramaphosa) can prevail and set a new course for the country thereafter, with a party cleansed of cronies.

Should the populists wish to push the envelope on more radical policies, they too risk further schisms with those willing to sit it out until fresh leadership emerges.

Reserve Bank mandate and Mining Charter

The ratings downgrades, growing unemployment and declining growth rates are also fuelling internal ideological battles. Witness the deep internal divergence over the mandate of the Reserve Bank, the new Mining Charter and the governance of parastatals to name but three.

And, given the economy’s depressing trajectory, perhaps the ANC itself is not even capable of formulating policy on its own any more.

A future leader will need to restore the vexed relationship between the state, business and labour and in so doing, enjoin outside institutions and role players in meaningful and joint policy drafting and reforms. The last thing South Africa would need now is a radical shift to populism which would sabotage such a rapprochement in the future.

So, we can expect a degree of sabre-rattling as the ANC meets. We can expect a radical rhetoric to continue among some. But this does not mean that rhetoric will be translated into policy – and it certainly means that the party will tread water until whoever wins in December is able to interpret a policy-way-forward.

Unfortunately, for markets such an outcome will be unsatisfactory. Once again, South Africa will lose another six months at least before clarity emerges, and the uncertainty of irresponsible rhetoric can further unnerve both domestic and foreign investors.

It is unlikely that South Africa will be any better off after the weekend. The ANC is under unprecedented moral, organisational and electoral pressure. Without strong leadership within a framework of unity, cohesive and comprehensive policy making is all but impossible. The country will continue to countdown to December for some semblance of clarity – and hope.

* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

anc  |  daniel silke  |  anc policy conference
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