Beyond hot air?

2012-06-20 00:00

APEEK into a room at the Coastlands Hotel in Durban where KZN ANC members were debating their policy options for the party, revealed an air of earnestness. Heads were bent together or cocked to the side as delegates listened intently.

In the corridor, I met an ANC comrade from Pietermaritzburg who had nipped out for a smoke break. This was his first time at a policy workshop and he was delighted to be there.

The ANC’s national policy conference takes place next week in Gallagher Estate and the KZN delegates were debating their contribution to what may become the party’s plan of action for the next five years.

The KZN ANC, with its firm support for President Jacob Zuma, was fortunate that it was able to have a two-day trouble-free workshop. North West Province was not so lucky and its meeting over the weekend descended into a succession battle. The South African Communist Party North West secretary, Madoda Sambatha, was quoted in newspapers as saying: “We were invited to a policy discussion ... but it was reduced to an opportunistic debate on the provincial leadership.”

However, you don’t need a succession battle to derail the policy-making process. A glimpse back over the years shows that the problem in South Africa is that there is a huge gap between deciding on policies and implementing them. There have been reams of proposals on changing local government, health and education, but these continue to remain in the realm of ideas. Somebody once said that the ANC had the Rolls-Royce of policies, but the engine of a Toyota to drive them. Many analysts believe policies are not being implemented because of a lack of managerial and technical skills within the government. No wonder there is great irritation at the ongoing debate over cadre deployment and the need for more skilled people in the government. Perhaps this time around it may finally become part of the official plan.

It’s also no wonder that back at the office my fellow journalists were less than effusive about my spurt of enthusiasm over the KZN ANC’s policy workshop. “Hot air,” said one. “All talk and no action.”

“Haven’t we heard it all before?” said another, who went on to show that many of the ideas were not new and had been knocking about for some time. She pointed out that the proposal that the government should hold a national convention on economic transformation, had been around for a while. United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa said he has been calling for such a convention since 2000. He is convinced that this proposal has gained popularity within the ANC because opposition parties in Parliament had indicated that this was what they were going to push for and, if necessary, organise themselves.

Me, I’m a policy person. Policies provide a way of understanding parties and where they are heading. Policy documents contain surprising nuggets of information and they are a way of holding parties accountable.

Take a proposed policy adopted by the KZN ANC. It says that business areas shall remain business and residential shall be residential. This will be a huge boost to proper town planning and residents who bemoan the fact that their neighbourhood has been disrupted by a truck depot or mini factory should keep their fingers crossed that this proposal gets adopted. It is well worth watching and lobbying for through civic organisations.

Far more than anything else, the ANC’s economic policies reflect exactly where the party is struggling to find its form. And as the Polokwane succession battle showed, former president Thabo Mbeki may have been ousted from the leadership, in a fiercely contested battle, but his successor, Jacob Zuma, did not bring anything different to the party.

Think back to soon after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 when the ANC adopted the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). This soon ran into trouble because the government lacked the resources and capacity to implement it. Under Mbeki, the government embraced a neoliberal conservative macro-economic policy — Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or Gear. Tensions between Mbeki and trade union federation Cosatu grew as a result of Gear policies. Cosatu backed Zuma for the presidency.

However, less than halfway through Zuma’s reign, cracks in Cosatu’s alliance with the ruling party began to appear. The trade union federation and Zuma critics believe that the Polokwane conference to transform the economy has failed to happen, a narrow political elite still benefits and that the ruling party is still failing to address the aspirations of the African poor.

So the months ahead may be consumed by who will be the next leader of the ANC, but ultimately it may hardly matter, if the party does not come up with decisive actionable economic policies and decide once and for all where it is heading. The time of talking left and walking right is over. The KZN thumbs-upto have an economic convention or Codesa is perhaps the best thing that came out of the two-day workshop.

It may not be a new idea, but borrowing from author Victor Hugo: “It is an idea whose time has come.”

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