Monday, 25 June 2007

Weighty questions face ANC policy indaba

As the ANC goes to its policy conference – aside from its bruising succession bun fight – it has major issues it needs to address.

It needs to arrive at decisions on how many provinces there should be and their role; how it should define its relationship to the business sector, and; how to manage top leaders’ involvement in the business world. It needs to look at relationships with other stakeholders, whether it be alliance partners, NGOs and spontaneous grassroots mobilization such as in Khutsong. Furthermore, it needs to look into how it can use its clout in society to translate the key gains made into wins that are more sustainable and thoroughgoing in society.

It might be better to tease out the “internal” issues and group them under the rubric of party modernization. Such a labeling would encourage the party to tackle, in an integrated way, a broad range of problems and challenges, for example around internal organization, ethics, cadre development, effective succession management (see my older post on this issue) and the potential of contamination of party idealism by BEE deals (also see my older post on this subject).

Modernisation would presuppose that the party is willing to scrutinise those elements of its liberation movement mode of operating that it should abandon. It should also consider what innovations it needs to make for better policy making, effective functioning in parliamentary processes and ensuring policies become practice (especially given the constraints and requirements of bureaucratic implementation).

As part of modernising, it should examine ways it can engage, enrol and involve the large number of people who are lapsed members but who still support the party. Here the liberation movement may want to have a closer look at the suggestion by commentator Aubrey Matshiqi that the party should allow for sector-based membership (e.g. for professionals) that can function alongside local branch membership.

This, he argues, will save older and jaded “revolutionaries” – if one could still call them that – from dreary branch meetings and at the same time draw them in to key discussions, debates and initiatives. This echoes a suggestion I made some time ago to Joel Netshitenze about ways of including sympathetic but independent professionals who otherwise remain on the sidelines.

I also proposed to him that the ruling party consider an annual think-tank session between the President and academics, researchers and well-placed thinkers on social issues who are aligned with transformation and a progressive agenda and who possess particular information, knowledge and insight arising from their specific areas of work.

Party modernization will be a journey and not a single event; but a start needs to be made to ensure renewal and revitalization rather than decay and atrophy.

On the policy front, the challenges are many and often enormous. The big question is: Will the ANC formulate something fundamentally new and different going forward - or will it be just more of the same? Will it forge a formula that will propel the country beyond the significant (compared to the past) yet modest (compared to the wide-ranging pressures & constraints) developmental position it has reached. Reading the documents, I also asked myself: To what extent is the party willing to go further (be more innovative, creative, entrepreneurial and radical) than public sector officials and government departments in generating ideas for solving stubborn development problems?

The country is bedeviled, for example, by:
- a gap between rich and poor that does not seem to be abating
- youth unemployment and the problem of transitioning youth from schooling, training, studies and unemployment into work.
- the enormity of the immediate skills shortage being experienced as the economy revs up and government rolls out major infrastructure investments, and a longer term malaise in its education system that makes it unable to properly supply the country with the capacities it needs.
- a huge backlog in terms of efforts to ensure that good start-up businesses, particularly those owned by black people and which have been operating successfully for a long time, grow, and cross over into the bigger mainstream.
- the failure to get optimal bang for buck in terms of results and social change outputs in vast areas of public sector activity.

The majority of policy challenges can be seen as a subset of – or closely linked to – the imperative of ensuring rapid reduction in levels of inequality. The problem of inequality is thus in the A-league of policy conundrums that need urgent answers. The ANC must this week come up with a policy package to ensure the movement of larger numbers of people into a life of dignity that includes participating meaningfully in the economy and society.

Economic growth is also another one of those A-level policy challenges. There are many people – including COSATU’s Zwelinzima Vavi – who mock the idea of economic growth and count it as useless if workers and the majority of black people don’t benefit in substantial ways.

I take a different view. Even as we argue about how to slice the cake, we should be taking decisive steps to grow the cake (as well the size of the oven and range of ingredients too, if you like).

We must generate the resources and opportunities to match the population’s needs now and into the future.

In this connection, the ANC must lead us to defining an industrial growth strategy. Such a strategy will require that as a country we are prepared to pick winning sectors (and give solid support to such sectors), in the same way that South East Asia countries selected automobiles, electronic goods and computer chips as areas for targeted growth. Of course, to make sense and to avoid waste of state resources, such selection decisions needs to be built on emerging trends and on particular national advantages, although there are cases where competitive advantage can be built up through some lateral thinking and concerted government action.

Once the sectors have been identified, government has to grapple again with the support systems required for these and other sectors. It needs to fix problem areas – such as skills provision – and do so in ways that give priority and urgent focus to the needs of identified key sectors.

The ANC thus has its plate full. And although everyone knocks our ruling party for its many faults, they look it to forge answers that will help our society take that much vaunted quantum leap forward. As ANC representatives prepare to enter their policy conference later this week, one can only wish them – apart from quality deliberations that are fact-based rather than faction-based – lots of good luck.

I would like to hear readers' views on this and other blog entries. Let's keep debate and discussion alive! - FM

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