ANC conference ends an era for Zuma and beginning for winner

ANC leaders are determined by the agenda branches and provinces have, says the writer. / James Oatway
ANC leaders are determined by the agenda branches and provinces have, says the writer. / James Oatway

By the end of the weekend we will know who the next ANC president is.

Its 54th elective conference will also decide its destiny as a party operating in an increasingly competitive multiparty system.

Although the outcome will be significant in shaping the tenor of the country's political and policy discourse moving forward, it is important to remind ourselves that this conference is not about deciding the future of South Africa. It is about deciding the future of the ANC.

It is a significant moment in the life of the governing party. It marks the end of an era for President Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC, while heralding the beginning for a new leader.

The media has created an excitement over the leadership contest, which has many thinking that the candidates vying for the top post have to spell out their own agenda and policy posture - similar to the primaries held by the Democratic and Republican parties in the US.

But this is simply misleading. It misrepresents the inner workings of the ANC, giving too much weight to the agency of candidates.

Both frontrunners, Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, have come under scrutiny with much emphasis being placed on what they would do differently from the current administration and what they have to offer South Africans.

For all the hullabaloo made over these individuals' credentials and offerings, the campaigns and ensuing examinations have centred on how likely these candidates are to depart from or continue with Zuma's agenda.

All candidates have been happy to play to this media-generated narrative, either denouncing Gupterism and state capture (#CR2017) or punting radical economic transformation (#NDZ). It keeps up the speculation. It keeps them trending. And, most importantly, it sells newspapers.

In truth, the candidacy of ANC leaders is not based on their policy posture. That's not what this elective conference is about. Policies are debated and adopted through a collective process at the policy conference, not through candidates championing their pet issues.

The candidacy of ANC leaders is determined by the agenda branches and provinces have. It is a battle of interests. Every conference is a battle to shape the character of the organisation.

At this 54th conference, the battle lines are drawn.

There are those who want to wrestle the movement out of the populist tidal wave of the rural and minimally educated that swept the party in 2007, which vilified, consigned and exiled all critical thinking and the educated "clever blacks" to the periphery.

Those who form part of the tidal wave that engulfed state institutions and spawned the state capture crisis are enjoying their fill at the eating trough and are not going to simply hand the party over.

Control of the party, which has given them control over state institutions and their procurement budgets, guarantee them continued power over the distribution of patronage and thus over the loyalty and allegiance of hordes of corrupted members, tenderpreneurs and even corporates.

The critical-thinking elite, the clever blacks, have read and understood the fate of liberation movements. They know the survival of the ANC hinges on its ability to modernise. This entails updating the membership system, reforming internal electoral processes and procedures and tightening the administration of the ANC, which although having a constitution, functions like a movement under siege and in exile.

Modernisation does not serve the interests of the tidal wave. The populist patronage dispensers depend on weak administration and irregularities in the movement.

This battle has been playing itself out in numerous court cases between rival factions in the lead-up to this weekend's conference. Court battles centre on whether nomination meetings and provincial conferences were duly constituted and delegates duly accredited.

The success and failure of the conference hinges on the competent administration and perceived procedural fairness of the organisation. And the future of the ANC as an organisation depends on it.