Book Extract | Rob Davies | Mbeki and the Polokwane conference

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A political economy of the times of my life, by Rob Davies. Picture: Supplied
A political economy of the times of my life, by Rob Davies. Picture: Supplied

Book Extract

Beginning in the early 1970s and leading up to the current Cyril Ramaphosa era, author Rob Davies gives in-depth insight into the politics, policies and inner workings of the South African government.

Towards a New Deal offers an insider account on the evolution of trade and economic policy in South Africa over the last 25 years.

In this extract, Davies, a former MP and member of the SACP and ANC, describes the lead up to the ANC Polokwane conference and how former president Thabo Mbeki was perceived. He also touches on the beginning of the frosty relationship with alliance partners that led to former president Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy to the country’s top political position.

Book details

Towards a New Deal: A Political Economy of the Times of My Life

Rob Davies

Jonathan Ball Publishers


Chapter 8: Polokwane, crisis and the six I’s

The ANC’s 52nd National Conference, held in Polokwane in Limpopo province in December 2007, was a significant watershed event in the struggle over the direction of the national democratic revolution. In more recent times, and in the light of the state capture revelations, it has become fashionable to refer to the entire period after Polokwane as ‘nine-plus lost years’.

My view is that, while the main legacy of the Zuma presidency ended up being an extremely destructive demobilisation of state capacity through rampant looting, Polokwane and the years thereafter cannot be reduced in their entirety to this alone. Rather, this was a period characterised by contradiction and contestation, with some advances as well as many setbacks. One of the most important advances came from the reversal of the previous policy of resistance to the roll-out of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to the large numbers of HIV-positive people in the country. By 2018, UNAids reported that 62% of the 7.7 million infected people were on ARVs, cutting the deaths from Aids by 50%, from 140 000 in 2010 to 71 000 in 2018.

There were also gains on the economic policy front – even if they later became overwhelmed by the effects of state capture. Besides, the notion of ‘lost years’ implies that all was fine in the preceding period, which is, in fact, far from the case. As indicated in the previous chapter, the economic policy framework that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 democratic breakthrough was strongly influenced by neoliberalism. Its domestic support base was what the SACP called the ‘1996 class project’. This was a loose alliance embracing BEE business beneficiaries and technocrats within the state and ANC, convinced either of the merits or of the inevitability of neoliberalism.

Read: Thabo Mbeki Foundation/Afrikaner summit sets out priorities critical to social cohesion and economic development

President Thabo Mbeki presided over both the ANC and government for much of this time. Mbeki himself was a complex personality. A man of significant intellectual capacity and a convinced pan-Africanist, by the late 1980s he had come to the view that both South Africa and the wider continent had no alternative other than to adapt to the emerging norms of the age of hyperglobalisation. This was evident even in exile. At an ANC consultative meeting on constitutional models, held in Lusaka, which I attended, Mbeki made an input citing Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika-driven reforms of Soviet central planning. He argued even then that an ANC-led democratic government would have no option but to conform to Western norms – which led veteran Jack Simons to retort that Mbeki had presented a brilliant case for gloom! Mbeki was deputy president at the time of the adoption of the growth, employment and redistribution plan (GEAR), but he was already the ‘ideas and details man’ in the presidency and a key driver of GEAR. Although Mbeki’s stance on economic policy clearly located him within the dominant global paradigm, he was not a mere puppet or servant of Western interests. A consummate diplomat, Mbeki sought to position himself on the global stage as leader of a country ‘punching above its weight’. On many of the key diplomatic and security issues of the time, South Africa under Mbeki took progressive positions. These included opposing the invasion of Iraq, supporting national self-determination for the Palestinian people and acting in solidarity with the progressive forces in Haiti. He also remained throughout a strong proponent of pan-Africanism, displaying a strong commitment to the African Union and regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community.

Mbeki’s world view and diplomacy, however, were also shaped in significant ways by his acceptance of the dominant economic paradigm. Perhaps the clearest example here was his pursuit of notions that South Africa could persuade Western leaders to commit large resources to ‘partner’ with the continent to promote African development. Considerable effort and resources were accordingly deployed, without real result, in trying to persuade bodies such as the G7 group of advanced developed countries to commit to a deal in which ‘policy reforms’ by African governments would be bargained against resource commitments to advance a New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

This world view was also evident in the approach to negotiating trade deals that emerged during Mbeki’s leadership. The administration portrayed South Africa as an important trading nation standing at the crossroads between the developed and developing world, quite capable of accepting the obligations required of ‘responsible’ citizens and supporters of the multilateral trading system and not in need of the kinds of ‘special and differential treatment’ or ‘less than full reciprocity’ avidly pursued by comparable countries. The result was the emergence of trade agreements with clauses that later came to be recognised as significant barriers to the deployment of important and necessary policy tools.

Read: Book Extract | The Matanzima brothers’ spectacular pillaging of the Transkei state coffers

Mbeki also, finally, had major blind spots. The main one was his approach to the HIV/Aids pandemic then devastating the country. Perhaps reacting initially to the hard sales pressures of global pharmaceutical companies pressing for potentially lucrative tenders, Mbeki embraced Aids denialism, with devastating consequences for many thousands of his compatriots who were denied effective access to ARV treatment through the public health sector until the end of his term of office.

Even before he became president of the ANC in 1997, Mbeki had become visibly irritated with the interventions of Cosatu and the SACP – particularly on GEAR. During his presidency, relations with the alliance partners became increasingly frosty as the ANC itself became less of a campaigning organisation and more of a narrow election machine. By the time of the ANC’s midterm nonelective national general council (NGC) conference, held halfway through his second term, Mbeki felt emboldened enough to propose a significant change in the culture and practices of the ANC. A document tabled ahead of the June 2005 NGC proposed ‘modernising’ the machinery of the party, including replacing the system of branch nominations for leadership positions with a process in which conferences endorsed ‘slates’ proposed by outgoing leaders. Other proposals would in effect have consolidated a transition of the ANC from a national liberation movement to a ‘modern’ social democratic-type electoral party. Significantly, these proposals were roundly rejected by delegates at the NGC.

The NGC also delivered Mbeki another important defeat. On June 14 2005, Mbeki dismissed Jacob Zuma from his position as deputy president of the republic, following the conviction of Zuma’s former associate Schabir Shaik for corruption and for making payments to Zuma. The national executive committee then called on Zuma to step aside as deputy president of the ANC. Branch delegates to the NGC were, however, of another mind, and, in a dramatic defeat for Mbeki, resolved to prevent Zuma’s being removed from office as ANC deputy president. The stage was set for a major clash.

The period between the NGC and the Polokwane conference saw the formation of a loose coalition around Zuma. It included the SACP and Cosatu, the ANC Youth League and an assortment of individuals who came to be known as the ‘walking wounded’. These were people who had been removed from their positions after having crossed Mbeki. Many of those in this broad grouping saw Zuma neither as a messiah nor as someone without faults. Rather, he was seen as someone less dogmatic than Mbeki and someone, it was hoped, who would be more likely than Mbeki to engage constructively with alliance partners and support more progressive policies. Mbeki himself eventually agreed to accept nomination for a third term as ANC president, even though the constitutionally imposed term limit would have prevented his reappointment as president of the republic. The presumption was that, had Mbeki succeeded in being re-elected as ANC president, he would have handpicked the ANC’s nominee for the presidency of the republic. The other contender for ANC president at Polokwane was Jacob Zuma. The stakes could not have been higher, but in the end the result was an overwhelming victory for Zuma and his allies and a stunning defeat for Mbeki and his associates. Although Mbeki remained president of the republic after Polokwane, within less than a year he was recalled by the ANC and replaced as head of state until the 2009 elections by Kgalema Motlanthe.

Read: Magashule set to tell elders that he is a target

The Polokwane conference was also noteworthy for the adoption of a resolution on economic policy far more radical than anything that had been agreed to at earlier ANC conferences. Its central focus was on the need to create ‘decent work’ through, among other things, ‘active industrial and trade policy’. Other elements included ‘an active beneficiation strategy’ (meaning adding value to mineral resources), more effective land reform and ensuring that macroeconomic policy became a tool for advancing the creation of decent work – a term deriving from International Labour Organization debates referring to respecting fundamental rights of people and providing acceptable conditions of work, safety and remuneration.

The importance of this resolution, not much noticed at the time, was that it was beginning to articulate a position, spelt out more clearly at the 2012 Mangaung conference, that ‘transform[ing] the structure of the economy through industrialisation’ was fundamental to the realisation of many of the other goals of economic transformation – decent jobs, greater inclusion, higher living standards and more real black economic empowerment. This, rather than the content or degree of success or otherwise of specific programmes, represents in my view the main advance of the Polokwane resolution.


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