South Africa: ANC policy flounders as party divisions widen

Conflict between the Zuma and Ramaphosa factions is turning ANC policy into a political football.


In a cavernous conference centre in Johannesburg, South Africa’s unpopular president led hundreds of party delegates through a rousing rendition of his favourite struggle songs.

Arms aloft, swaying back and forth to the rhythm, Jacob Zuma’s charismatic performance momentarily dispelled the gloom and united bitter rivals and rank-and-file members in a musical celebration of the ANC’s revolutionary past. While a moving spectacle, Zuma’s sing-along is likely to stand as a rare moment of unity in a chaotic policy conference marked by division and rancour.

From bitter floor fights over economic policy to public spats among entrenched factions, the conference revealed a ruling party ill at ease with itself and divided over how to govern South Africa. As finance minister Malusi Gigaba brings forth yet another plan to kick-start sluggish economic growth and his mineral resources counterpart Mosebenzi Zwane flounders over reform of the mining sector, there are already signs that the party’s failure to establish a policy consensus is being felt far beyond the confines of the conference hall.

“The party seems more divided than before the policy conference,” says Co-Pierre Georg, senior lecturer at the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management at the University of Cape Town. “The different factions within the ANC used the conference as an opportunity to push for policies that would benefit their own faction… at the moment there seems no clear centre of power within the ANC that would be able to consolidate the different positions.”

Dividing lines

That power vacuum is largely the result of a running battle for the leadership of the ANC ahead of the December party conference, where Zuma’s successor and the country’s potential next president will be chosen. The most entrenched faction – benefiting as it does from Zuma’s incumbency and patronage – stands behind the president’s former wife and favoured successor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Although she is associated closely with the president’s record and policy choices, Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters used the conference to promote “radical economic transformation” – a vaguely sketched programme encompassing land redistribution, mining reform and erosion of the privileges of the white minority. A competing vision, more incremental in nature and focused on winning the confidence of investors, was offered by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, a mining magnate and stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The divergent paths laid out by the contenders remain the fundamental point of contention in the movement, according to independent analyst Ralph Mathekga.

“The key disagreement is over economic policy. That is the greatest point of contention. It’s very important because it’s not just about rhetoric – it’s about the question of land restitution and compensation. These are serious issues and the areas where you are seeing the sharpest differences being expressed.”

As delegates battled for the ascendency of these competing visions, bitter conference floor fights replaced substantive debate. Well-prepared Zuma supporters were said to have railroaded radical policies into committee discussions on economic transformation, while Ramaphosa allies succeeded in their attempt to block party language from referring to “white monopoly capital” – a controversial term for the economic privileges enjoyed by white South Africans.

The ultimate result, according to Peter Attard Montalto, research analyst at financial services company Nomura, was a conference defined by drift, indecision and the Zuma faction’s preference for political power over policy clarity.

“On the surface the NPC may look like a win for the Ramaphosa camp, yet we think this overplays matters and the Zuma camp’s strategy has been successful – to drive a wedge of factionalism through the party. Generally, the factionalism has resulted in conference unable to take a firm stance on issues such as the South African Reserve Bank, land or financial sector transformation – with many issues sent back to the branches,” he writes.

Real world implications

That sense of policy drift has extended beyond the conference walls to the daily workings of government. Finance minister Malusi Gigaba, appointed by President Zuma following the sacking of respected predecessor Pravin Gordhan, embodies the confusion of an administration that talks up the prospect of a radical agenda while attempting to mollify concerned investors.

Critics contend that Gigaba’s latest attempt to cut the Gordian knot – a 14-point Inclusive Growth Action Plan unveiled in July – is indicative of a government mired in economic doublethink. Ambitious in scope – the plan discusses reform of state-owned enterprises, land, mining, energy and telecoms – it nevertheless contains few concrete measures for achieving it. 

“Any ‘real’ reforms that meaningfully shift the needle were apparently politically unavailable to him or the government at large… what has been offered up is stabilisation measures, administrative moves they could be called, rather than structural reforms that could really kickstart growth… we see nothing here to satisfy investors and markets,” writes Nomura’s Montalto.

Those who doubt Gigaba’s ability to implement his plans only have to look to the faltering mining reform efforts for confirmation of their bias. A key goal of radical economic transformation, the mooted mining charter to increase black ownership of company shares has been put on hold by mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane amid a predictable industry backlash. For some, Gigaba’s plan and Zwane’s debacle are indicative of a flawed ANC policy approach that prizes rhetoric over detail and achievement.

“The main takeaway from the mine charter disaster is that the government needs business in order to implement its policies – the pushback was too strong, the flaws in the policy too obvious,” says Georg.

“At this point it’s difficult to envisage how the Zuma camp can turn radical economic transformation into actual policy. The problem with trying to please the radicals is that nothing a government can realistically do will ever be enough.”

That raises the fear that ANC policy is becoming a mere plaything of those pushing for political power, rather than a realistic plan to improve the lives of South Africans. 

“There’s no consensus within the ANC on this, that’s what the problem is. I understand that there’s a faction that want to go with this [mining reform] to the elective conference, so that when they get there they can be seen as the guys who can bring about radical economic transformation,” says Mathekga. “There’s a lot of politicking and it’s not clear which priority will matter – the short-term wrangle within the ANC or whether we are going to see reason prevail.”

David Thomas

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