03/07/2017 05:12 BST | Updated 03/07/2017 10:57 BST

Ferial Haffajee: Cry, The Beloved ANC

The contrast between this year's policy conference and the ANC's first one in 1990 could not be starker.


I've never been a card-carrying member, but still, hold the African National Congress (ANC) in a special part of my heart. Without the movement's leadership, I might still be corralled by the dark imaginations of apartheid's creators.

They had spaces on their hierarchy of madness determined by hue: and as a coloured kid, their space for me was to become a menial worker caged somewhere between a clothing factory and the bottom rungs of the retail industry.

There's nothing wrong if those were your chosen vocations, but they were most often not. That cruel system was ultimately vanquished by the ANC, and it freed me to dream. I know freedom's limitations but also know intimately the governing party's roles in breaking my chains.

Years ago, President Thabo Mbeki was pumping the flesh of journalists at parliament and he asked me who would take over from Peter Bruce who had just quit the Financial Mail where I worked. I reeled off a few names but he said: "Why not you?"

I had never thought of myself as a possible editor because apartheid teaches your psyche to cauterise its dreams, but he planted a seed of hope I've been lucky enough to see grow to full flower at other publications. For millions, the party is not simply a membership card and a set of manifestoes you can choose to support or not – it is a relationship much closer than that.

The 101 stalwarts of the movement fighting for its soul and who have decided to boycott the party's policy conference are battling not only for the heart of the ANC, but for a part of theirs too.

The scarcity of hope

The party's national policy conference at Nasrec is very different to its inaugural policy conference there in 1990. Then, hope was in ample supply although money was not. Fast forward to 2017 and there is a lot of money but the hope is a scarce resource.

The ANC is a slick machine bolstered by incumbency of high office and power. You speed into the cavernous exhibition space called Nasrec at the southern end of Johannesburg on roads slicked and improved by the ANC which has spent billions of rands rehabilitating surrounding Soweto so it is no longer apartheid's buffer town but a thriving metropolis of hope.

Well-marked entrances convey you into your allotted space: business (organised and ordered by the party's Progressive Business Forum), security, media and at the southernmost entrance, the VIP parking lot.

Presidential and Ministerial cavalcades of shining black Mercs, BMW SUV's and Lexus sedans with mean-looking security details talking into their arms signal that you have arrived at the power block.

I learned to be a political journalist at ANC gatherings through the years. I've always enjoyed the ability to bat around ideas with some fairly big minds over the decades of the ANC's freedom.

In the Nineties, delegates, with whom you could mingle, would take young journalists through their paces on the big issues of the day. What kind of economy was right for the new young democracy (socialist or mixed)? What is the role of women (equal always); nationalisation (always a big one); healthcare (private or public) and myriad other big issues were subject to the roiling discussion and debate that is always a part of the ANC.

Access was open and the firmament of debate was exciting to be part of. It was a Prague Spring.

Security detail in overload

I find fear at Nasrec this time. It feels like there is a security officer with a grey lanyard for every delegate present. An ANC staffer says the security detail is drawn from party security, the intelligence services, and the cops. The media, for the first time I know, is caged behind a high, special purpose wire-mesh fence.

It feels like a media zoo - gone are the days of easy debate and the ability to get a sense of what the ANC was thinking or how it was arriving at its policies by tapping its loquacious delegates.

As a citizen and a journalist, that transparency of purpose and intent had always been a lesson in learning to live an open and accountable political life. Now the briefings are controlled and access is set strictly to direct the flow of information. It is a feeding time at the zoo.

On Sunday afternoon, we were loaded onto golf carts and into vans for a controlled walkabout of the business lounge by the party's deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. In the lounge, different companies buy stands so they can meet powerful people. No less than 10 marshals and security pushed me this way and that. It was more saddening than maddening to see a powerful movement so distorted by fear try to control the mirror that is the media so that the image reflected back at it is not so cleaved and cracked.

Criss-crossing contestations

But the ANC is cleaved and cracked: as a movement, it has always had factions and divisions, but it feels like a party turning on itself in fundamental and crisscrossing contestation.

There is the contestation signaled by President Jacob Zuma when he laid into the stalwarts on Friday: he has set it up as a battle between the party grandee's and the branches or the rank and file. As a man of the branches, the President is going back to base this week. While he is out of party presidential office in December, Zuma is batting for a successor of his choosing and that means loving up the branches.

In his frank organisational report, the party's secretary-general Gwede Mantashe signaled another contestation: does power lie in Luthuli House, the party's headquarters, or the series of kitchen cabinets with which Zuma runs South Africa? In two successive reshuffles of finance ministers, Zuma has not consulted the party. Its role as the centre is ebbing away.

There is more: the premiers, bequeathed with huge spending power by South Africa's quasi-federal constitution, are massively powerful brokers who this weekend started extending their fiscal grasp.

A report in the Sunday Times said the premiers were pushing for higher provincial taxes on mines and farms. This will open up a contestation between the national government, which sets fiscal policy, and the provincial outposts who are aiming at an even larger slice of the spending pie.

By late on Sunday, Ramaphosa opened up another battlefront of ideas. While the president's men will count victory as the triumph of the idea of radical economic transformation as the fulcrum of state policy, he said branches had introduced a new concept. That was radical socio-economic transformation – this puts the emphasis on social transformation that will benefit a greater mass of people.

Regime change

In this year that the governing party has dedicated to a former president and luminary Oliver Tambo, his most valuable gift to the party is not being well utilised. Tambo was known for the frank and dispassionate appraisal of the movement's weaknesses.

The threat to the ANC's sovereignty and independence posed by capture and corruption, not only, but primarily by the Gupta family, gets short shrift in Mantashe's report. Instead, the party is likely to spend more time in the coming days discussing the threat of a "regime change" agenda waged by a changing and largely faceless enemy.

This idea is cropping up in a number of ANC documents even as polls reveal time and again that it is corruption, both perceived and real, that is pushing its supporters away. Mantashe's report says the party's favourability with the population has tanked to just above fifty percent.

As Africa's oldest liberation movement, the ANC has been more than moderately successful. As a government, it oversees a coherent state and one that supports a social solidarity system of a magnitude unseen across our continent. But the icy grip of fear around its heart showed itself in the culture of security at its policy conference this week.