27/06/2017 10:03 SAST | Updated 27/06/2017 10:48 SAST

Nevermind Policy -- Factional Politics Will Trump At ANC Conference, Say Analysts

The faction led by presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma sounds more radical, but there is actually not that much disagreement between factions on substantive issues, according to Susan Booysen of Wits' School of Governance.

At the height of a fraught period for the ANC, battles for the leadership of the party are likely to overshadow policy matters at the governing party's national policy conference beginning this week, according to University of Pretoria political analyst Sithembile Mbete on Monday.

More than 3,000 delegates are expected to attend the ANC's fifth policy conference between June 30 and July 5 where delegates will review and make recommendations or amendments to party policy based on discussion documents released in March.

Stimulating organisational renewal, tackling widespread corruption and abuse of positions for self-enrichment, regaining ground lost in local elections and designing a programme for radical economic transformation are some of the key issues the ANC will need to confront, the governing party said on Sunday.

Behind these policy discussions, deep factional clashes -- with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa at the centre of the battle for the ANC's top spot -- are expected to dominate conversations, similar to recent provincial gatherings in which the intended focus on policy has been subsumed by a fixation on the party's future leadership amid allegations of state capture, Mbete said.

'Little substantive difference in policy choices between factions'

While there is contestation between these ANC factions on procedural policy -- how governance is handled or its policies executed -- it is "very difficult to differentiate between the two factions regarding substantive policy matters", according to Susan Booysen, professor at the Wits School of Governance.

"One faction sounds more radical, but there is very little substantive difference in policy choices between them. Both have adopted radical economic transformation as the centre of policy. Rather, leadership and policy battles are intertwined specifically at the procedural level of policy," she said.

Despite the official nomination process for presidential candidates not yet having been opened, Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa have emerged as the strongest contenders for ANC president and ostensible leaders of these key factions, Mzukisi Qobo previously told HuffPost SA.

"Dlamini-Zuma is already Jacob Zuma's 'crowned successor', vocal about radical economic transformation," Mbete said, while Ramphosa is largely viewed as the main anti-Zuma candidate critical of state capture while still advocating for a radical economic programme.

Other contenders for the top spot of the ANC include minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe, and former ANC treasurer general Mathews Phosa. ANC NEC member Lindiwe Sisulu, who has also been touted for party president, said on Sunday the conference might serve as a proxy war instead of "doing the work of formulating policies that will change the lives of South Africans", according to News24.

Proposals to build a 'super-presidency'

One of the new policy proposals emerging from recent discussion documents is to further boost the power of the country's presidency as the "strategic centre of governance".

State policy and planning, resource allocation and prioritisation, cooperative governance, and public administration and performance enforcement "must form part of the strategic centre located within the presidency", according to a discussion document.

Mbete told HuffPost SA the proposal to further empower the presidency is "interesting and amusing when one recalls that one of the points of criticism directed at Thabo Mbeki in 2007 was increased allocation of power to the presidency," she said.

"There was a sense [at the time] that power needed to be balanced out and better distributed between different levels of government [in contrast to Mbeki's approach] but now the ANC is saying more centralisation is needed to solve the problem of policy implementation," she said.

Mbete said the call for an empowered presidency has come in response to growing discomfort in the ANC with the national Treasury's perceived power. A "super-presidency" that would enable greater control over treasury's budget allocation, Mbete said, severely overestimates Treasury's power and scope as an institution.

"The idea that greater executive control, including over Treasury, will improve policy implementation is a problematic notion on its own, given the poor record of increased centralisation of power since the creation of the national planning commission in 2009," she said. "This is even before issues around alleged state capture, corruption and Gupta influence over the executive are considered".

Booysen said the ANC has been working on reconfiguring the presidency since 2005 under Mbeki, adding there is "no reason to believe this would make any substantive difference in how they govern and the levels of successful implementation of policy".

"For the ANC now, it is important to find reasons why they can't govern properly," she said. Saying the presidency needs more power to execute its developmental objectives is "one way they are trying to explain why they haven't achieved these [developmental] goals in past", she said.

The fifth national policy conference will commence on Friday at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg.