And so the African National Congress (ANC) survived its National Policy Conference in Midrand. They may have spent upwards of 40 million rands, and toward the end a few punches were thrown by angry delegates. But what are a few fisticuffs among friends?
But this is the thing to remember, always: Talk of a one-party ANC state is always overstatement because, while the ANC does indeed stand to dominate national politics for the foreseeable future, that dominance continues to be fraught with dramatic internal divisions. Get yourself in a room with ten ANC members, and you can be pretty certain that when the issue turns to politics (and keep in mind my iron law of South African life: everything is about politics, especially that which is not) there will be arguments aplenty. The ANC speaks often of party discipline, but it does so in part because the cadres and constituencies are in fact so inclined to go off message, to defy that very discipline that rhetorically is supposed to be so sacrosanct. The ANC may enjoy a 60%+ majority in national elections, but it does so with plenty of factions fighting for myriad interests.
The policy conference was not a game changer, but it was never going to be a game changer. Oh, sure — the party tinkered at the margins, dealing with many (but far from all) of the important issues the country faces going forward to varying degrees of satisfaction. Nationalization of the mines appears not to be in the immediate offing. The ANC does plan to scrap the willing-seller, willing-buyer program of land reform that has gotten almost no traction, but what the new policy will look like is unclear. As a result land reform is in flux — those who fear Zimbabwe-type land seizures have been given a slight window to fear the worst, but almost certainly nothing of the sort is going to happen. Willing-seller, willing-buyer was not scrapped in pursuit of something more draconian; it was scrapped because it has not worked. And then there was the much ballyhooed “Second Transition,” which failed, sort of, and then passed, sort of, and the ultimate meaning of which almost no one can glean.
Everything in ANC politics in 2012 seems geared toward the party’s vital December meeting in Mangaung when the succession debate will heat up, unless it does not. In the quest on the part of an unknown number of ANC cadres (and ANC Youth League members past and present) to supplant Jacob Zuma all eyes are on Deputy President and former interim president Kgalema Motlanthe. Can Motlanthe’s advocates do to Jacob Zuma what Zuma’s supporters did to Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane in 2007 and cause a leadership change in the party? Is that what Motlanthe even wants? Or does he simply want to strengthen his hand as Zuma’s eventual successor as opposed to his usurper? Will the ANC really pass down that path of overthrowing a party leader who will still be the country’s president? If so, to what end?
These questions probably make for bad analysis on my part. But they represent the very questions at the heart of today’s ANC. The governing party and its fractious coalitions seem to be in constant flux. This is bad for the party loyalty that many mistake for authoritarian tendencies (every political party on earth strives for some sort of discipline that limits individuals straying too far from party platforms) but may well be good for rambunctious debate in South Africa. This is especially so as long as the various opposition parties cannot manage to get out of their own way.
Last week, I met on two occasions with a high-ranking official in the Democratic Alliance, and he admitted as much that ideologies in South African politics overlap — his own politics fall as comfortably ideologically within the range of ANC opinion and his differences with the governing party come down to questions of delivery and emphasis (not to mention simple career opportunities, which the DA have offered in a way that the ANC does not). And he is not alone within the DA. And while there are parties in South Africa that have ideological purity (I’m talking to you Freedom Front Plus), those ideologies have virtually no support beyond tiny circles. And so the ANC is the only game in town, but within that game there is quite lively and intense competition. And the fixtures will continue for the foreseeable future.