The stakes are high

2010-09-21 00:00

SO much on our national agenda depends on the decisions of a little over 2 000 ANC members who are holding a national general council meeting (NGC) in Durban this week. This gathering is supposed to review the implementation of the resolutions of the last national conference, but because it tends also to be the forum where the broad policy agenda and the party’s organisational health are discussed, it can have a significant impact on the country’s policy direction.

In this case, the NGC should also resolve issues relating to the battles for the soul of the ANC. These battles pit the leftists against centrists, business against labour interests, militant young lions against cool-headed old hawks, and also ordinary members against the party’s upper echelons in a raging debate on issues like economic policy, socioeconomic development, and organisational renewal.

On economic transformation, the debate is essentially about the role that the state should play in pursuit of an equitable distribution of wealth to reduce inequality.

Cosatu has put forward a mix of public ownership of strategic economic assets, the industrial policy, the flexible fiscal policy and employment creation. The ANC Youth League is bidding for state ownership of mines.

The responses of provincial NGCs and the ANC suggests that the NGC will settle for the usual mix of fiscal discipline, including targeting inflation, expanding public works, infrastructure development, industrialisation and a stronger role of the state in leading a national effort to advance economic transformation.

The compromise will lead to less drastic forms of state intervention, which include a stronger implementation of the industrial action plan and efforts to increase the capacity of the state to manage more efficiently parts of the economy it already controls.

There is disagreement about the internal balance of power, with Cosatu and, to a lesser extent, the SACP arguing that the centre of power is the alliance. But, the ANC leadership will insist that the ANC leads the alliance. If not settled, this debate will leave the relationship among alliance partners tenuous for the remainder of the current leadership term. A discontented Cosatu can pose serious challenges for the ANC government, hence the need for continual engagement.

Therefore, the likely compromise on the balance of power should include strengthening the functioning of the alliance by intensifying interface between secretariats of alliance partners.

There does not seem to be much acrimony internally over the issue of the Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill, besides Cosatu’s protestations. Provincial NGCs have come out in favour of an appeals tribunal, which leaves space for other interests to shape the form that it should take, the powers it should have and its composition. However, the NGC will advise the ANC leadership to engage all those who are opposed to the proposals.

I worry whether concerned civil society and media groups will see this as an opportunity to determine the outcome of this process or if they will continue to shout: “No tribunal, we’ll fix self-regulation”. This seems unwise because the ANC leadership cannot fail to implement a democratic resolution without losing itself with two years to go until Bloemfontein. At any rate, the conference resolution is simply that the matter be considered or discussed.

There is tension looming over the laudable attempts to deal with the consequences of extreme cadre deployment in local government, i.e. the idea of barring political leaders from taking up position­s in municipal adminis­trations. Most provincial NGCs are against the idea, fearing that this will make being an ANC leader at local level unattractive to professionals. The ANC may lose leaders it needs at local government level and be stuck with the ones it would rather do without. There may also be some who do not want to end patronage and nepotism.

The compromise may be to identify exact positions that will be unavailable to active leaders of political parties. These would include municipal managers, chief financial officers, general managers and line-function directors. Deployment committees will most likely be asked to exercise caution to avoid excessive deployment.

The Cosatu idea of discouraging conflicts of interest by not allowing government officials to have active business interests rather than the current practice of requiring them to declare their business interests will not be supported for three reasons.

Firstly, the ANC will not want to help any one class of constituency internally over others, giving it headway in the internal battle for its soul. The motive that propels the ANC is precisely this idea of managing rather than removing internal contradictions and for this reason, a certain level of acrimony among various constituents of the movement is permitted. Secondly, it also seems that the idea has not gained much support in ANC branches.

Thirdly, it will challenge the ANC’s efforts to ensure financial sustainability. The party needs business members to contribute to its coffers. To this end, a sensible practice is for officials to declare their interests rather than to disavow commercial impulses altogether.

But the richness of the substantive debate will depend on whether the succession debate is avoided because it is not critical for the interests of greater society.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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