We need think-tanks

2010-01-19 00:00

THE African National Congress’s National Executive Committee lekgotla that ended on Sunday precedes the national cabinet retreat taking place at the end of this week. We have become accustomed to this sequencing of planning meetings. Each year brings specific focus on the discussions at the highest decision-making levels in our country.

For some time now, these meetings were dominated by matters pertaining to making the government work, even during succession tensions within the governing movement. Some observers saw this as an attempt to prevent the hot politics of succession from spilling over into government business, while others saw it as a ploy to avoid tackling these politics, knowing that it was a game they could not win.

Some observers are tempted to dismiss these meetings as mere annual rituals that all governments and governing parties need to go through. It is therefore assumed that they are of no significance for those interested in understanding the important political and economic dynamics of the country at the time. Rallies and conferences are elevated to key sources of information about the direction of the country and the intentions of key power brokers.

These observers often point to evidence that shows that in these meetings, bureaucrats and ministers hold sway. After all, they are better able to understand key policy issues, being exposed to them on a regular basis. Others lament the bureaucratisation of movement discourse and planning exercises due to the influence of “deployees” in meetings of ANC’s policy structures. This is partly because the organisation has battled to find the right formula both for maintaining ANC control over its policy meetings by lessening the influence of the bureaucracy, and for enhancing the ANC’s strategic capacity to provide leadership in internal policy discourse.

The idea of a policy institute has been in vogue for most of the past decade, although it is yet to be implemented concretely. The point was always that this body would develop internal policy literacy necessary for Luthuli House to confidently engage with government employees on matters of policy and action. As I’ve said before, the institute could provide avenues through which the organisation could draw from the broader intellectual environment, including universities and think tanks.

This is an idea that all political parties should explore. The Congress of the People will definitely benefit from this as one of its major problems is its failure to define clearly its policy terrain, philosophical positions and strategic compass on current issues.

The Inkatha Freedom Party would find that a policy institute reduces its dependence on a few strategists, a condition that may explain its failure to respond to the challenge posed by the ANC while it was in control of the KwaZulu- Natal government before 2004. It would help it develop innovative ideas for dealing with the changing demographics of the party and the challenge of intergenerational tensions, instead of seeking to silence the youth within the party.

An institute of this nature would advise the party on how to harness rather than alienate youthful exuberance. The current approach is short-sighted as it seeks to reverse structural changes within the party. These changes would help the party make the transition from the youth of the seventies to post- apartheid youth. But it seems that the party wants its elective conference to become yet another anti- climax rather than let the tensions re-energise it. In other words, the party is acting like liberation movements in the region that have chosen continuity over manageable change.

Parties need not establish their own units if they do not have funds to do so. This would apply to The Azanian People’s Organisation and the Pan Africanist Congress. They could draw from aligned intellectuals to be found in universities, business and government. These parties need to refine old ideas through a process of structured dialogue and research by professional intellectuals.

It seems that the Democratic Alliance can count on a body of experts to dig out information and analyse it. The party has experts who can choose issues that matter and develop a DA position on them. The party employs researchers at its head offices and in Parliament. These experts complement its strategists who occupy political positions in the party. Its failures will come from the fundamental flaws of South African liberalism, including the fact that the ideology is associated with white privilege and laager politics.

Until a significant number of alternative political parties sharpen their ideological and policy positions, the political show will belong to the ANC. Its policy meetings and decisions will be treated as matters of national importance and will dominate national policy discourse.

Whether the organisation will be able to balance its policy dominance with pressing issues of service delivery is a matter for conjecture. I feel that the ANC will focus on the latter so much that the former will remain obscure. After all, there are some who feel that the ANC cannot afford to philosophise when people are disgruntled about service provision.

But it would be short-sighted of the governing party to forgo an opportunity to further develop and refine its policy and ideological positions in response to bureaucratisation. This is because both the current global economic climate that precipitated an economic depression in South Africa and the plethora of service delivery log jams have origin and impact in both technical and political worlds.

So, the ANC needs to express itself on the long-term vision alongside its plans for turning service delivery around. Other parties must generate theirs too. The run- up to the national general council must be a period of reflection. Great nations are seriously thinking ones.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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