Harvard, 7 November 2007



In just three months the ANC’s National Consultative Conference will be convened in Polokwane.  It might well be the most important political event in the thirteen-year history of the new South Africa.  This is because those gathered in Polokwane will not only determine who South Africa’s President until 2019 will be – but also what political and economic doctrines we will follow for the next decade.

There would appear to be three main contending factions.  The first is the group that would like President Mbeki to be elected as ANC President for the next five years.  This would ensure that he would continue to exercise considerable influence on government policy after he steps down from the Presidency in 2009.   In this scenario there would be two centres of power after 2009 – one in a weakened presidency and the other at the ANC’s headquarters in Luthuli House.

Should this scenario play out as its authors intend, we can expect that there will be a high degree of continuity of the present policies. We could then expect

President Thabo Mbeki,The second faction that will be contending for power at Polokwane will be the ANC’s left wing comprising COSATU, the South African Communist Party and the ANC Youth League.  Some months ago Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU’s Secretary-General declared that a struggle had begun for the heart and soul of the ANC that would reach its climax at the Polokwane National Consultative Conference.

The left wing has long been unhappy about the orthodox macro-economic approach followed by President Mbeki and Trevor Manuel.  They are also concerned about the centralisation of decision-making under the Mbeki presidency and its failure to consult with COSATU, the SACP and other formations in the formulation of policy.   They are critical of ANC cadres who have become multi-mllionaires and feel, in general, that the present leadership has betrayed the ANC’s  socialist roots.    COSATU has also been critical of President Mbeki’s AIDS policy as well as his laissez-faire approach to Zimbabwe – where COSATU’s trade union allies have been some of President Mugabe’s most active opponents.

COSATU has just concluded a National Congress at which it endorsed a leadership team under Jacob Zuma for election at the Polokwane conference.  Should the COSATU/Zuma faction win we could expect a lurch to the left in economic and social policies and a serious crisis in economic confidence.  The ensuing gloom might, however, be balanced by the following factors:

The third group includes those who do not belong to the left wing on the one hand, but who, on the other hand, are not enthusiastic about President Mbeki’s bid for election to another five-year term as the President of the ANC.   This group comprises the majority of the ANC’s power establishment and includes centrists, business leaders and those who are in control of the levers of state power in executives, legislatures, the public service, the security forces, the parastatals and the SABC.

The struggle between these factions is becoming increasingly open and vitriolic.  On 24 August the Mbeki-controlled internet newsletter ‘ANC Today’ charged that the national democratic revolution now faced opponents not only on the right but also on the left.  In effect,  ‘ANC Today’  claimed that the left wing  was acting in collusion with the ANC’s ideological opposition on the right comprising the DA and most whites.  As a result they had become ‘adversaries of the vanguard movement of the national democratic revolution’ – i.e. the Mbeki faction of the ANC.

In the edition of 14 September the gloves really came off.  Quoting from Lenin, Marx and Joe Slovo the authors of ANC Today accused  COSATU of being ‘anarcho-syndicalists’ – which is about as bad as it gets in these ideological squabbles!  The Mbeki-ites are criticising COSATU for wanting to transform the trade union movement into a political faction in direct opposition to the vanguard party of the national democratic revolution!  In return, COSATU has castigated the Mbeki ANC for betraying the socialist roots of the revolution and for failing the give proper recognition to COSATU and the SACP who, as the representatives of the workers,  are supposed to be the ‘primary motive force of the revolution’.

Parallel to all this, other contenders for the presidency are coming to the fore – including Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa,  Mosiua Lekota  and Kgalema Mothlante – although some continue to deny coyly that their hats are the ring.

So what is going to happen?

In my view it is unlikely that President Mbeki will be successful in his bid for election to another full five-year term as president of the ANC.  The ‘two centres of power’ idea encountered stiff opposition at the ANC’s Policy Conference in July and it is unlikely that President Mbeki has been able to generate more support for it since then.  Perhaps the most that he can hope for is an agreement that he will be able to stay on as president of the ANC until he steps down as President of the country in 2009.  The advantage of such an outcome would be the avoidance of a ‘two centres of power’ situation during the last two years of the Mbeki presidency.   It would also be seen as a conciliatory gesture toward the President and his supporters.  I  can attest from personal experience during 1989 when I was the leader of the National Party and P W Botha was still president, that the two centres of power formula creates enormous problems in practice.

On the other hand, COSATU will confront serious obstacles in its campaign win the ‘struggle for the heart and soul of the ANC’ – particularly with Jacob Zuma as its candidate for the presidency.  Zuma’s outstanding court case and all the other controversies in which he has recently been involved make him less than an ideal prospect.    In the final analysis COSATU’s main problem is that its opponents probably control many more levers of power within the ANC and the state than it does.

Accordingly, the most likely outcome is that a centrist will emerge as the new President-in-waiting after the December conference.  The new President designate will probably go out of his – or her – to reunite the movement.  On the one hand, gestures will be made to placate President Mbeki and his supporters.  On the other hand, there will be renewed commitments from all involved to the unity of the tri-partite alliance.  Some concessions will be made to the left wing – possibly in the form of a greater commitment to the transformation of South Africa into a Developmental State.

All sides will declare victory – including COSATU and the SACP – even though the outcome will probably fall far short of their present goal of seeking to control the ANC.  The alternative of splitting from the ANC and establishing a left-wing socialist party is unlikely because both COSATU and the SACP are painfully aware of their dependence on membership of the alliance for their future vialbility.  They can have few illusions about the difficulty of fighting future elections against the holder of the all-powerful ANC brand.  And they would not relish the prospect of being cut off suddenly from the benefits, jobs, legislative support and influence that membership of the alliance currently brings them.

So what will the consequences be?

The first is that – in all likelihood – the Mbeki era is coming to an end.  President Mbeki will be able to retire after the election in 2009 with a sense of genuine accomplishment.  He will have played a definitive leadership role for almost 15 years – for the first five years as the very active deputy of President Mandela – and for the next ten years as president in his own right.

These have been critical years for our young democracy – and on the whole we have emerged from them looking good.  We have had the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in our history;  South Africa is a highly respected member of the international community.  President Mbeki has played a leading and constructive role in Africa – in working for peace in the continent and in proposing and supporting the NEPAD initiative.  The Government has also succeeded in building almost two million houses and in improving access of millions of South Africans to some basic services.  The key question will be whether President Mbeki’s successor will continue with his and Trevor Manuel’s responsible macro-economic policies – or whether they will be wooed away by the siren songs of the Developmental State and greater government intervention in the economy?

The second consequence is that the tripartite alliance will probably endure.

However, the fundamental question in my opinion will be whether the new president and government will be guided by ideology or by the reality of our circumstances.

Wherever the Mbeki presidency has done well, it has done well because it has adopted pragmatic and workable policies – particularly with regard to its macroeconomic approach.  Wherever it has done badly it has done badly because it has allowed its ideology to blind it to the realities of our situation.

It is depressing that the present discourse between the Mbeki faction and the left wing is still dominated by ponderous references to Lenin, Marx and Engels.  The ludicrous point of contention is who the real vanguard party is and who should be the genuine standard bearer of the national democratic revolution!

The dominant ideologies are nineteenth century socialism and the barely disguised racism of the national democratic revolution.  The one seeks the mythical nirvana of the classless society; the other the equally illusionary goal of the non-racial society in which there is demographic representivity at all levels of ownership, control management and employment in the private and public sectors.

Instead, whoever emerges as President designate should be guided by the realities that surround as and not by the delusions of ideology.  Those realities include

We need effective policies to address the imbalances of the past.  But here again, the new president must be guided by reality rather than  ideology:

Instead of being guided by ideology, our next president should be guided by the emerging international consensus regarding the requirements of successful states.  This consensus does not belong to Washington or the West.  It works wherever it is applied  – whether in South Korea of Chile, Estonia or Mauritius.  It requires

The ANC Conference in Polokwane in December will determine who South Africa’s leader will be for the next crucial decade.  However, South Africa’s future success and happiness will be determined by the ability of our new leaders to abandon outdated ideologies and to join the great global consensus that is helping billions of people all over the world to escape from poverty and repression.