YANGA MALOTANA: ANC policy conference 2022 - a moment to renew and unite?

OPINION

2022 is an important year to South Africa’s ruling party, African National Congress (ANC), as it will be the year the party elects its new leadership ahead of the 2024 elections. Before the December ANC Elective Conference, the party is hosting its Policy Conference over the weekend.

The pattern often present at the policy conferences is chatter surrounding potential candidates for the party’s National Executive Committee, specifically the Top 6 - instead of focusing on the specific objectives of the party’s policies. The tone of this year’s policy documents appears to be breaking this pattern. With consistent acknowledgements and contextualisation of the decline of power the party is facing, the current policy document shares the urgent need of refocusing on what is important - improving the quality of lives of South Africans.

Policy documents are important because they provide a comprehensive outline of what a government ministry hopes to achieve and the methods and principles it will use to achieve them. What makes the ANC policy important is, firstly, it is an attempt to ‘tidy house’ and refocus the party’s vision ahead of the 2024 elections. Secondly, it provides South Africans with an understanding of what issues are of priority to the party and how they translate into the quality of governance. Thirdly, often policy documents are the place of inspiration for new laws and legislature. Should the ANC win the 2024 elections, this policy is likely where the party will start to propose bills for which they strongly advocate.

Interestingly, election projections for 2024 have placed the ANC in a position of possible majority loss. The two-thirds majority the ANC held since Thabo Mbeki’s presidency have declined from 279 to 230 of the 400 seats. Additionally, the party has continued to lose its seats in both the national and municipal elections. In 2014 the party won the national elections with 62.1% with a 73.4% voter turnout. However, in 2019 both those numbers declined with the win sitting at 57.7% and voter turnout at 66%. By 2016 the party lost the economic heartland, Johannesburg, the administrative capital, Tshwane and the industrial hub of the Eastern Cape, Nelson Mandela Bay through the local government elections. At the 2016 municipal election, the party won with 53.9% and in 2021, 45.5% - the first time the party won below 50% since it came into power.

Almost all the issues that the policy document addresses are undergirded by the pressure of loss that the party is facing ahead of the 2024 elections. The document vehemently expresses the pressure and the insurgency in which the party has to act for the next 24 months. The theme in which all issues are discussed in the document is, 2022 - The year of unity and renewal to defend and advance South Africa’s democratic gains. Ideas of renewal and unity come in response to the challenges the party faces of factionalism, loss of credibility in leadership and corruption - issues which the document attempts to address.

The policy addresses eight key issues:

1. Digital Communications and Battle of Ideas
2. Arts, Culture and Heritage
3. Progressive Internationalism in a Changing World
4. Social Transformation
5. Peace and Stability
6. Legislature and Governance
7. Strengthening Economic Recovery and Reconstruction to Build an Inclusive Economy
8. Education, Health Science and Technology

Legislature and Governance along with Strengthening Economic Recovery and Reconstruction to Build an Inclusive Economy, are arguably the toughest challenges that the party faces. With the high levels of unemployment, South Africa being rated as one of the most unequal countries in the world, the energy crisis and a looming recession - these two topics need to be discussed thoroughly during the conference. Not only do they need to be discussed, but the solutions need to be critically thought out and clear implementation steps need to be articulated. It is simply not enough to express the problem - it needs to be solved.

In addition to these eight issues, the policy dedicates some time to express how the ANC sees itself as an agent of change and has somewhat self-assigned itself the role of being ideological and moral agent of the country. This does not come as a surprise. The ANC’s identity as a mass movement, or “revolutionary movement” is rooted in the idea that it exists as a political vanguard. A vanguard party is one that is led by enlightened revolutionary leadership through which people can be led to freedom. This is an idea rooted in Marxist-Lenin ideology. The ANC has called itself a ‘vanguard movement’ before. In the 2017 policy document it stated:

“The ANC has to operate as a vanguard movement with political, ideological and organisation capacity to direct the state and give leadership to motive forces in all spheres of influence and pillars of our transformation.”

The African National Congress and Participatory Democracy by Heidi Brooks, warns about the dangers of vanguardism. Brooks argues that it prevents citizens from being empowered and keeps the party dominant. Vanguardism holds that a movement (or party) is necessary to provide ideological, moral and intellectual leadership through a process of conscientisation. Lenin argued that the vanguard sees itself as a true representative able to interpret the popular will. People should see the vanguard’s objectives as their best interests and see the leadership of the vanguard as important for the security of those interests. There needs to be a desire for political control above and popular initiative below. The policy document still echoes these vanguard sentiments. Marxist philosophical ideas and even language tone is prevalent. However, ideas of ‘class consciousness’ and ‘liberation’ may sound empty from a party rampant with corruption and abuse of office - one that is losing popular initiative and political control.

This conference comes at a crucial time for the ruling party. It has a bucket filled with key challenges and party tensions to address. Numerous analytical ideas are proposed of what is expected to be discussed, from policy proxies, political position campaigning and focus on the road to 2024. Regardless of what is discussed, what remains important is that there are real challenges identified in the policy document that require comprehensive and sustainable resolutions.

Yanga Malotana is a political analyst, Andrew Melon scholar and research assistant