Succession battle will overshadow policy debate

Michael Georgy and Gordon Bell

Michael Georgy and Gordon Bell

South Africans may hope the ruling ANC finds new ways to fight social ills at its national policy conference this week, but any policy debate will likely be overshadowed by a succession battle that has plunged the party into turmoil.

Political analysts say that ANC leaders will emerge from the meeting - that begins today - united, vowing to tackle widespread poverty, high unemployment and one of the worst crime rates in the world.

But analysts say they expect closed-door meetings to focus on forming alliances ahead of a congress in December that will choose a new leader for the party, which under Nelson Mandela led South Africa from apartheid to democracy in 1994.

Sipho Seepe, a director at the Graduate Institute of Management and Technology, said: "Now it faces a crisis. Policies won't be discussed at the policy meeting. It will be driven by self-interest and lobbying.

"You have an ANC elite that has turned on itself," said Seepe.

At stake is the direction of South Africa's Rainbow Nation, which is enjoying an economic boom but has witnessed growing divisions between the ANC and its traditional union allies - Cosatu - which is leading a costly public service strike.

South Africa's economic growth has accelerated by an average 5percent of gross domestic product a year for the past three years, but so far rising levels of wealth have not trickled down.

Officially, one in four job-seekers cannot find employment, though analysts put the figure much higher.

Two apartheid- era ANC heroes are widely perceived as front-runners in the party's leadership struggle - President Thabo Mbeki and his controversial rival Jacob Zuma.

But analysts say both still rely on their past credentials as freedom fighters to win support rather than fresh ideas to wipe out inequalities left by apartheid.

Mathews Phosa, national executive committee member of the ANC, wrote in The Star recently: "We are not fighting against a repressive regime or the forces of apartheid anymore. We are, in fact, fighting a common enemy that is called poverty."

Mbeki, accused by critics of promoting big business at the expense of the poor since taking office in 1999, faces a direct challenge from provincial ANC branches pushing to block him from standing for a third term as party president.

South Africa's constitution forbids Mbeki from serving as the country's president for another term when his current stint ends in 2009. But many political analysts believe he could seek a new term as the head of the ANC.

This would give him a big say in who becomes the next national president and thereby set South Africa's political agenda for years to come in a country where 70percent of voters regularly back the liberation-era movement.

Affable and charming, ANC deputy president Zuma remains popular among the party's rank and file and powerful unions after surviving court cases and scandals, the most damaging of which involves possible corruption charges.

Zuma is widely perceived as the candidate of the left, though, analysts say, his real political leanings are unclear and the prospect of further court action could cloud his candidacy.

On the heels of a strike by thousands of civil servants which shut down schools and hospitals throughout the country, the power of the labour movement is clearly reasserting itself.

Jonathan Faull, analyst at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa said: "It [economic policy] is likely to be one of the most contested sectors . it will be a key barometer to assess the extent to which the left exists within the ANC."

Key will be the concept of the "developmental state" and the responsibility of government to erase poverty, rather than that of helping business and the economy to grow.

The proportion of the population living on less than R3000 a year has declined over the last 13 years, but still stands at about 43percent, according to a government report.

That is all too clear in Johannesburg's Alexandra township, one of the glaring legacies of apartheid.

Kavar Mafu, 20, walked past shacks and piles of garbage, still looking for work after two months of searching.

When asked whether the ANC offered hope, he just held up his arms.

"I don't know anything about the ANC. I just want a job," he said. - Reuters