Post-Polokwane ANC, policy and governance, Mazibuko Jara

It’s not merely policy; it is the political conditions that set the stage

Presentation[1] by Mazibuko K. Jara**[2]**

  • To the Critical Dialogue Forum: The ANC in the aftermath of Polokwane, implications for policy and governance.

  • Durban, 25 February 2008

  • Hosted by the Centre for Public Participation and Democracy Development Programme.

  1. Introduction: fluidity, opportunities and dangers

In the two months since 20 December 2007, when Jacob Zuma was elected in Polokwane as the President of the African National Congress (ANC), the buzzword, “after Polokwane”, has been heard everywhere: at funerals, shebeens, taxis, trains, football matches, radio talk-shows, diplomatic circles, government corridors, research seminars, and on the pages of the liberal press. Why are South Africans concerned with the post-Polokwane ANC? Why are all manner of questions being asked about this new reality? Is it a new reality? Who is asking questions? Which questions are being asked? Which ones are not being asked?

By presenting this short talk, I hope to contribute to the re-building of the confidence of progressive forces in our society in order that they may rise to the task at hand: the complicated challenge of strategically and ingeniously building a social agency, programmatic perspectives and vehicle for anti-systemic change that transcends the limits of liberal democracy and the free market system.

The last three to five months (going back to October 2007) have seen the ultimate and triumphalist culmination of a concerted effort to challenge and dislodge the leadership core centred on President Thabo Mbeki. The Thabo Mbeki vs. Jacob Zuma template has framed analysis, public discourse and political contestation. It is easy to be caught in this template. Beyond this template, indeed we are witnessing an historic and fluid moment which is also a many-textured reality that represents many, even contradictory things to the disparate array of social forces, interests, classes and strata that constitute our society.

Transition, tragedy and hope

There are those for who “after Polokwane” represents relief, triumph and hope. A significant but powerful minority is anxious and fearful, and is beginning to see “yet another African tragedy” unfolding in front of their eyes. There is also an even smaller, and even less influential layer concerned about the potential strategic confusion and demobilisation of popular and progressive forces that this moment holds.

Striking amongst the fearful/anxious/tragedy group is their use of the public press to obfuscate the systemic features confronting our society. For them, the moment seems to represent yet another opportunity for maneuvers and manipulation of the meaning of this moment in their interests. Consistent with this, we see cunning trickery to represent the “after Polokwane” reality as the gathering clouds of a storm which, if not stopped through stern action, will sweep aside liberal democracy, the rule of law and our liberal-democratic constitutional dispensation. To do this is to mask vested interests of those who have benefited from colonialism and more than a century of capitalist development which has continued uninterrupted in the post-1994 constitutional dispensation. This championing of elite interests is cloaked under the “defence of democracy for all”. Well, this grouping needs to know very urgently and very fundamentally that the biggest threat facing the deepening of democracy in our country originates from the inordinate inequality, poverty, under-development and the continued ownership and control of our country’s wealth by a small, unelected, unaccountable and self-serving elite.

It is not necessarily given that these elite interests may not hold sway. It is in ‘transitional’ periods such as this that their fear and anxiety lead them to astutely work to protect their long-term interests. Our here and now is ‘transitional’ in its significant aspects:

  • it represents a prolonged presidential succession struggle during which we witnessed one of the instances in post-colonial Africa where a sitting president is democratically removed from the leadership of HIS political party;
  • the SACP and COSATU view and efforts to make the “second decade of freedom, a decade of the workers and the poor” given their analysis that the first decade of democracy benefited the capitalist class;
  • the consequent clear signal from Polokwane for a change in policy direction; and
  • instability and the pending change in government after the 2009 elections.

During a more fraught early 1990s transitional period, elite interests were able to, on the back of a triumphalist capitalist world order after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, use their massive social power and resources secure their long-term interests in the 1994 settlement. This resulted in the celebrated liberal-democratic framework we have today. This framework cast in stone the script of a hollow democracy without fundamentally changing patterns of ownership accumulation and the systemic features which reproduce inequality and under-development.

Given this social power of elite interests, it is crucial to critically watch and engage with the “after Polokwane” relieved, triumphalist and hopeful. It is they who hold the deadly lever which could result in the strategic confusion and demobilisation of popular progressive forces. Their driving motto seems to be “finally, we’ve our man in the driving seat!” Well that is simply not enough! Even if the man in the driving seat was the correct horse to ride.

Time for a sceptical intellect and an optimistic will

In order to better and soberly understand and make programmatic sense out of the “after Polokwane” reality, I rely on the Gramscian dialectic of combining a ‘sceptical intellect’ with an ‘optimistic will’. Whilst the Gramscian ‘sceptical intellect’ is a necessary tool in sustaining eternal vigilance, a Gramscian ‘optimist will’ points to self-agency, social action and struggle. Both these are absolutely necessary in our here and now: above all, this is such a moment where popular and progressive forces can either make strategic advances or calamitous mistakes, a moment wherein popular forces can either reclaim or yet again lose the political process to elite interests, there are opportunities and yet there are dangers lurking.

  1. Polokwane: unfavourable political conditions for fundamental change remain

Has Polokwane created new political conditions favourable for advancing popular and progressive interests? Firstly, we need to recognise multi-layered reality that Polokwane was, it was a play with many acts and scenes, and indeed many plots and sub-plots.

The climax was the rejection and ejection of one of the protagonists, Thabo Mbeki, and his leadership core given their leadership style and the danger that they may have wanted to anoint the leader of the ANC and the State President. Another important part was the unhappiness about the decline of the ANC – in organisational terms, as a vibrant and democratic organisation with ideological, political and organisational capacity to lead society. Also important were serious concerns about the dysfunctionality of the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance and the marginalisation of ANC allies from government decisions (but hidden behind the call for a functional and inclusive alliance could be the anti-democratic impulse of co-opting these allies into closed boardrooms insulated from popular aspirations and energies).

Resonating beyond the ANC, was generalised unhappiness about the failure of the post-apartheid state to address inequality, poverty, unemployment and many related social and economic crises – this led to powerful signal from Polokwane for a new policy framework. A dark sub-plot was the worrying presence of the personally aggrieved – many of these are fugitives from justice, or victims of the much bemoaned “abuse of state resources”, or those who lost out in internal organisational contests (and therefore have personal scores to settle). In the inner knowledge of the key actors, but unknown to the spectators (the majority of the people) was the hidden and yet very visible hand of capital given their benefiting from democracy and their awareness of the structural dimensions of power and hegemony no matter who leads the ANC and the state under present political conditions.

Grievance demobilises

To a large measure, the anti-Mbeki challenge has been about ‘grievance’ and ‘conspiracy’ politics combined with masked calls for the inclusion of an elite group in decision-making. This kind of dramatic politics inevitably spirals up to schemes, plots, counter-conspiracies, hype, sensation and doing everything to deliver the next blow against the other side. In this drama, the “walking wounded” doubled up as “emotive forces” (and not motive forces) and aligned in the now infamous “coalition of the wounded”. In their discourse was also a sense of “it is time to decide and share the spoils” which Blade Nzimande (an important dramatis persona) captured in a speech in Mafikeng in October 2007 when he asked: “How can it be that we mobilise and campaign together during elections and yet it is only one partner that decides on deployment?”

Having been a novice hunter in my young age, I could not help but keep remembering my sympathy with the packs of hunting dogs who must have been asking themselves the same question as Nzimande. The dogs would search, smell, wake up, chase, catch and kill, and yet it was the headhunter who allocated the spoils with the dogs getting very small pieces and gravy. This hunting analogy invokes a group of political leaders who want a bigger share of the spoils as well as power to divide the spoils.

All this potentially leads to the systemic political demobilisation of progressive and popular forces, the forsaking of democratic values and the undermining democratic impulses in broader society. In this scheme, politics becomes a kind of theatre in which the majority of the people are reduced to disempowered spectators whilst some of them are drawn into vocal players on the stage. The majority do not have much of a choice: they cannot choose not to watch the show, they have a choice when to applaud, failing which they can fall asleep or, at worst, grumble in muted protest. In such a plot, we see the death of a progressive democratic politics. Such politics have a debilitating effect on the extent to which popular forces can boldly and confidently struggle for the deepening of democracy.

New act, new scene, same actors in a pre-set stage

Without doubt, the succession battle has opened up some space which can ultimately lead to the creation of conditions for a more democratic ANC. But how thoroughgoing is this or would it be? How long will it last and how progressive is it? Is the right to speak being sought just for a new ruling elite of alliance leaders or for grassroots people?

Even the “emotive forces” of Polokwane recognise that the “after-Polokwane” reality has not challenged the structural dimensions of power in our society. Less clear is whether they would agree that the way has not been opened to question critique, challenge and replace the liberal-democratic framework with a more empowering script of participatory and direct democracy. The play seems set to continue on a pre-set stage. This is to be seen in the ongoing policy debates.

Policy continuity

Preceding Polokwane, over a period of three to five years, were significant policy debates and shifts within government and the ANC leadership. This process resulted in the resounding support for a developmental state at the ANC Policy Conference held in July 2007 as part of preparing for the Polokwane conference. This process of policy review and shifts was a part of a continuous wave since the 1994 advent of democracy.

Thabo Mbeki’s central project has been to drive a process of restoration of capitalist accumulation on the basis of a sustained capitalist growth path. His key assumption was that only such a growth path would provide the resources with which to address the legacy of inequality and under-development. This project went through several phases:

  • Strategic reliance of macro-economic policy as the assumed central public sector driver of growth (1996-9);
  • Privatisation as the key catalyser of growth (1999-2002),
  • Public sector infrastructural investment to “lower the cost of doing business” (an option best understood as state capitalism being the key catalyser for economic growth) (from about 2002 to the present).

As each successive phase has failed to deliver fully on its promises, we have seen new central policy themes, but behind the successive changes there has been a steady continuity in the underlying assumption: sustained capitalist growth is the only way forward. Polokwane does not represent a significant departure from this assumption. The content of policy resolutions is continuous with this. In the resolutions, this can be seen in repeated reference to accelerated and shared growth. Indeed, there are path-breaking resolutions (on agrarian change and rural development, free education and a state-led industrial policy). In other words, the Polokwane policy resolutions do not present one linear outcome entirely coherent and consistent with the dislodging of the so-called 1996 class project that Thabo Mbeki so energetically represented. Instead, they reflect, amongst other things, the balance of class forces (still determined by the untrammeled social power of private capital) within the ANC itself, within its alliance partners and in society broadly.

Ultimately, the underlying essence and logic of the Polokwane policy resolutions remain within the given economic framework and present accumulation path despite the recognition of a largely undefined new accumulation path. My reading is that the resolutions seem consistent with a capitalist developmental state. In the interests of its own preservation, such a developmental state is able to recognise the reality of increasing socio-economic inequality and political dissatisfaction amongst the poor.

Despite its commitment to a neo-liberal policy framework, the so-called 1996 class project was an on-going experiment rather than a completely and purely actualised regime, but one which is characterised by contradictions and certain adaptations corresponding to socio-political realties. This can be seen in how neo-liberal policies in South Africa have been articulated more in relation to their projected outcomes and less in relation to their underpinning values and often laced with revolutionary idioms (Kgara, 2007). Neo-managerialism was articulated in the language of decentralisation, “stake-holder engagement” and community participation in the governance process. Inter-governmentally, the common refrain became one of “collaborative governance” which actually meant the imposition of constraining policy frameworks on provinces and municipalities by the national government (Kgara, 2007). This also partly accounts for the greater infrastructural spending, slight increases in social grants, relatively small increases in public sector salaries and some rhetorical critique of the ‘free market’. The actually applied or existing neo-liberalism is, defined by the local, historical and socio-political contingencies (Kgara, 2007).

In other words, one of the primary features of neo-liberalism is its manifold disjunctures “between ideology and practice; doctrine and reality; vision and consequence” (Kgara, 2007). Its implementation takes place in a political process of contestation with the inherited institutional apparatuses and practices as well as popular resistance (SACP, 2007). Thus, neo-liberalisation is hardly ever an imposition of a pure and orthodox blueprint. To illustrate, GEAR was not only about outright privatisation but included the need to ensure that the public sector is managed and operated along the lines of the private sector (Kgara, 2007).

I am saying all the above to make one point really: the Polokwane shift to a developmental state is within the underlying logic of creative conditions for capital accumulation. It IS a SHIFT but within the dominant paradigm.
The Polokwane policy outcomes also underline the need to scrutinise the policy capacity of ANC & to understand the depth of policy debate in the ANC. As an example, the proclaimed resolution on land reform, agrarian reform and rural development reflects a multiple policy personality. The main thrust of this resolution breaks with the willing-buyer, willing-seller approach and underlines the role of the state and social mobilisation in driving land reform. But the same resolution calls for the promotion of a capitalist black commercial farming class and also sustains the export-orientation of present commercial agriculture. These different interests (of the landless, emergent farmers and agrarian capital) cannot be easily lumped into one contradictory resolution but require careful teasing and elaboration. It is doubtful whether the ANC and the government have the capacity to do this. A further illustration is to be found in government policy contradictions when it comes to rural development: the National Spatial Development Framework basically argues for public investment in the metropolitan areas and yet those government departments providing services to the “second economy” are meant to focus in rural areas.

The “after Polokwane” policy developments have included increased and energetic involvement of alliance partners and broader forces in ANC sub-committees. This is an interesting, but ad-hoc, which can help ameliorate the lack of policy capacity in the ANC and subject government policy processes to ANC structures and processes. In any case, there are serious questions about the strategic and tactical capacity and capability of the SACP and COSATU to optimise this policy space.

Quite critical is whether the new ANC NEC and the possible Zuma-led government will have the required policy vision, capacity and ability? This must still be demonstrated. As always, this situation leaves the possibility for policy capture by elite interests.

Disperse democratic power

Much public debate has been on the argument that there must just be one centre of power: an ANC that assumes the image of THE strategic centre of political power. Without a doubt, the ANC organisation must become A strategic centre of political power. However this is not the end and be-all of democracy. In fact, it holds the seeds of anti-democratic degeneration such as what happened in the Soviet Bloc.

It was probably an application of a lesson he learnt from this historical experience that Chris Hani spent time in the early 1990s arguing that the goal is not “just to transfer power, but to transform it”. To me, this sounds different from the notion of ONE strategic centre of power. What would be the point of arguing for a transformation of power then?

My central thesis is that we must disperse democratic power in our society. In the typical mode of African dancing and singing, everyone must participate in the song with their own rhythm, pace, and gestures to create the conditions that will ultimately lead to the crescendo of a reinforcing collective performance. We must envision the utopia of pluralities of democratic power everywhere. We cannot afford to have power in ONE centre which if degenerates and fails then all our hopes and aspirations drown with it. That would be a tragic anti-climax to the play. We must strengthen popular, localised creativity, participation, power and involvement. We must reinvigorate traditions and practices of popular democratic power in many settings. Challenging the executive through parliament is simply inadequate in dispersing democratic power.

The dispersal of democratic power is an essential ingredient of generating political conditions favourable for thoroughgoing transformation of society. No break with the dominant economic and systemic paradigm is possible without a consideration of the political conditions that prevail.

  1. Set a new stage: the centrality of conducive political conditions

Zuma’s current charm offensive to appease capital reflects that the ANC today faces many similar constraints that have been there sine 1994. What objective challenges/constraints face and have a bearing on the current ANC leadership (the new government)? What is the strategic posture it is taking in response? How different are these from the ones that faced Mbeki? How will a post-Mbeki presidency overcome the structural constraints posed that hold back a transformative project?

Asking these questions moves our gaze onto a major determinant of today’s political conditions: the power and actions of capital on the state. Even Jeremy Cronin was forced to inform a highly expectant crowd of SACP supporters half-filling a Bonteheuwel community hall (in Cape Town) something to the effect that “We have to reassure international and local business. A drastic change of government policies wills risk capital flight”.

Already, (having started in October 2007) in his current seduction of investors, credit rating agencies, business houses and even emergent elites Zuma is clearly affirming the continuities and certainties of the so-called 1996 class project. Clearly, Polokwane has not created sufficient political conditions for Zuma to act differently. Even if it did, it is another matter whether under the current political conditions determined by the social power of private capital the ANC has yet developed the political will to use its position to lead and mobilise a concerted challenge to vested interests through a systemic transformation of society that begins to untangle the systematic foundations of inequality, under-development and poverty.

Left vulnerable to this inordinate power and without conducive political conditions, a president (no matter who it is) is vulnerable and can become increasingly unaccountable to popular interests. In this regard, Adam Habib says:

“The two case studies to learn from are social democracy in Europe and the developmental state in South East Asia. [We HAVE] to understand the political conditions that created elites to act in that way and ask what strategies can create such conditions in terms of the context of our era. For me what created those political conditions was uncertainty. Those elites felt uncertain of their futures and they decided to act in a way that was for development. Why were they uncertain? Well, you had a bipolar world. You had the presence of the Soviet Union, and because of this, political elites in Western Europe, South East Asia and the United States were concerned that all of these societies would go communist unless there was a more broader development agenda. And because of that uncertainty they were prone to act. And what did they do? They developed the Marshall Aid plan. The US invested in development. They allowed for a huge state agenda and they followed Keynesianism on a world scale. And if you look at South Korea they went for a land reform programme far more radical than Zimbabwe. It was the same in Taiwan. Who did it? It was the US with local political elites.

“Why did these people do it? Did they think it was correct? Was it simply a product of a technocratic elite that decided on these things? Or did it also have to do with the fact that these elites felt uncomfortable because of the situation? Looking at all these cases, they were all theatres of communist conflict. This underlines the importance of political conditions. Now in the current era, where there is no Soviet Union you cannot create this uncertainty at an international level. The only place you can create it is at a national level. And therefore what can create uncertainty at a national level? There are two things that can be done. First, you can create competition amongst political elites in South Africa and thereby increase the power of marginalised communities because the elites are divided and have to appeal for the support of marginalised communities. The second way is through mobilisation of marginalised communities so that they empowered directly.” (Habib, 2007).

Has Polokwane created conducive political conditions for pro-poor policy changes and thoroughgoing transformation of society? That the 1996 class project dislodged from political leadership is a necessary but insufficient condition. The policy outcomes are a contradictory reality as discussed above. Even the opening democratic space is not secure.

In agreeing with Habib about the importance of favourable political conditions, I suggest four critical political conditions required for a revolutionary transformation of our society:

  • a principled, progressive, pluralistic, tolerant and revolutionary political leadership untainted by corruption and with embedded autonomy (embedded in the people, and autonomous from capital);
  • conscious subjects of a revolutionary process who are conscious and capacitated self-agents for thorough-going transformation not beholden to any political elite
  • ideological work and social mobilisation directed at private capital given the multi-fold global crisis facing capitalism (marked by growing prospects for a global recession, the financial crisis and the energy crisis).

Popular mobilisation

We are far from required levels of ideological work and social mobilisation. The “after Polokwane” period could result in social demobilisation with notions such as “JZ must be given a chance”.

Many strata amongst the popular forces have not completed the transition from being “subjects” into being “citizens”. Instead, many have become “objects” and passive (dissatisfied) recipients of development. More fundamentally, the state of being poor undermines the ability of poor people to participate fully in their own lives: poverty and the lack of power of poor households mutually reinforce each other. Whilst poverty may not rob the popular forces of their agency, however, it “circumscribes and limits the forms of agency that are available to them” (Du Toit, 2004).

This political disempowerment weakens popular capacity to challenge the very social, economic and political processes which marginalise them. Instead, poor people are integrated into the circuits and networks that marginalise them thus undermining their ability to control and impact upon the systems into which they are locked (Du Toit, 2004). This contrasts with the inspiring example of “protagonistic democracy” in revolutionary Venezuela which is constituted by the “combination of democratic development of goals at the community level and democratic execution of those goals in productive activity” and is built on sustained mobilisation of ordinary people (Lebowitz, 2006). Such conscious self-agency then become a progressive, conscious and mobilised population that is “prepared to move in rather than give in… when capital goes on strike” (Lebowitz, 2006).

Challenging capital

Applying lessons from the Venezuelan revolutionary experience, Lebowitz (2006) makes two propositions: i) “Any discussion of structural change must begin from an understanding of the existing structure – in short, from an understanding of capitalism”; and ii) “It is essential to attack the logic of capital ideologically”. Marx (1970/1875) expands on this as follows: "If capital remains the all-dominating economic power, economic and political decision-making will necessarily operate within the strict limits and conditions imposed by it, no matter what one calls the society and no matter which persons or forms of organisation are nominally in control. The actual relations of labour at the point of production must be changed; it is there that the change must begin."

In earlier analysis above, I strongly suggested that the opposite holds: capital is the one applying pressure across the board to set the stage. If this continues alongside growing inequality, poverty and unemployment, a compromise with capital on key socio-economic policies is likely and this can be easily combined with ameliorative welfare and dangerous populism. There is an alternative path: a struggle aimed at transforming the balance of forces on the market, transforming ownership patterns, and thoroughgoing structural transformation of our economy. This must rest on taking “the power of the state away from capital”’ which must be used “when capital responds to encroachments” (Lebowitz, 2006).

But is this alternative path possible? In addition to the global capitalist crisis, a measure of domestic autonomy have been created by efforts in the South such as the Venezuela-led Bank of the South, the Venezuela-Cuba-Bolivia people’s trade agreement and other initiatives such as the India-Brazil-South Africa trade and economic co-operation initiatives. In addition, the South African state is in control of massive resources that provide important economic leverage at some distance from capital. These conditions are more favourable than the triumphalist neo-liberal years of the early 1990s.

  1. Conclusion: asserting positively who are

South Africa is in desperate of a radical and transformative political and economic programme. Such a programme is not just about carving up the cake! This has been a social democratic rallying call in the 20th century. Such radical programme should be about new values that underpin wealth creation and ownership, redistribution but also transforming the power dynamics of social relations.

In this sense alone and not through insider trading, can we begin to have an organisational and political base to re-build a political and organisational base to contest power relations, deepen democracy and win transformative policies. This requires that we assert positively who and what we are and not simply whom we are against. More than anything else done to date, this is a more principled and sustainable basis for systematically dislodging the so-called 1996 class project and its legacy.

Du Toit, A. 2004. Forgotten by the Highway: Globalisation, Adverse Incorporation and Chronic Poverty in a Commercial Farming District. (Chronic poverty and development policy series; no. 4). Belville: Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape.
Habib, A. 2007. ‘SACP’s 12th Congress: Interview with Adam Habib’. Amandla! Vol. 1, no. 1. Cape Town: Amandla Publishers (
Kgara, S. 2007. ‘Neo-apartheid city’. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography. (forthcoming).
Lebowitz, M. 2006. Build it now: Socialism for the twenty first century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Marx, K. 1970. ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. In Marx-Engels Selected Works, Volume 3, p. 13-30. Moscow: Progress Publishers. (original critique written in 1875).
South African Communist Party (SACP). 2007. Build mass power to challenge neo-liberalism and a neo-apartheid Cape Town: SACP perspectives for a people’s Cape Town. An SACP position paper/base document for the Conference for a People’s Cape Town, October 2007. (unpublished).

4796 words

[1] This final paper was enriched by comments received from participants at the CPP-DPP Critical Dialogue Forum and subsequent observations by the author.
[2] Jara is a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in Cape Town and of the Amandla Publishers Collective which produces the bi-monthly progressive political magazine called Amandla! ( He is also a Research Associate with the Ikwezi Institute for Research and Development (