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  • Containing the crisis: what the ANC conference did – and did not do
  • Steven Friedman (bio)

Logic suggests that deeply stressed organisations – and societies – are not miraculously cured because a backroom deal allowed one politician to narrowly beat another to the governing party presidency. But organisations and societies can achieve a semblance of normalcy that way. Which may well be what happened at last December’s African National Congress conference.

The conference may be remembered as one of the most vivid political ‘before and after’ events in history. Before it, the ANC seemed in such deep crisis that it seemed unlikely that it would be able to hold the conference at all. After it, it appears to be at the beginning of a strong resurgence which will ensure its continued dominance of formal politics for years. Before the conference, the ANC’s travails were clearly a consequence of deep-rooted structural problems in the wider society and so its crisis often prompted deep pessimism about South Africa’s problems. After the conference, a new optimism seems to stretch from international bankers (Head 2018) through to citizens, or at least those who enjoy access to media.

This contribution will discuss how this transformation came to pass and will assess whether the conference really was the seminal event conventional wisdom believes it to be. It will argue that the conference did initiate a shift which may alleviate the crisis, at least for the next few years. But the structural problems which caused it were not addressed by the change in ANC leadership and it is not at all clear that they will be. [End Page 95]

The crisis and its (apparent) cure

In the weeks leading up to the conference it became clear that the ANC would not be able to hold a contested election unless a deal between its factions sharply reduced the cost of losing.

This was a consequence of two realities. The first was the scale of the contest. The battle between the supporters of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa was not about loyalty to particular politicians – the divide was a product of South Africa’s economic development trajectory since 1994; the two factions were located differently in the economy and had very different economic priorities. Development since 1994 has been heavily path dependent (North 1990) – a consensus between the new political and old economic elites held that the goal of post-apartheid South Africa was not to change the highly concentrated and exclusionary economy apartheid bequeathed but to incorporate black people within it. The result was the inclusion of those black people able to gain access to the formal economy – in effect, wage and salary earners – and the exclusion of millions who have been unable to gain entry (Webster 2013, Friedman 2015).

This division ran through the ANC. Ramaphosa’s support was drawn from those who had been able to gain entry (including the trade unions) and whose economic prospects depended on the health of the market economy. Dlamini-Zuma’s came from politicians whose prospects depended not on the market, but the state. They saw the public purse (and the resources of business people who sought access to public resources) as a means to acquire wealth and to distribute it as patronage to the excluded, one of whose survival strategies is to attach themselves to politics and politicians to secure the economic lifeline the market denies them (von Holdt 2013). While we might expect the latter group to win overwhelming support among the grassroots poor, election results suggest otherwise: the wage and salary faction may represent economic insiders, but most outsiders did not see the appropriation of public money by patronage politicians as a gain and so grassroots voters increasingly abandoned the ANC in protest at patronage politics.

For the ANC, this split also meant that too much was at stake in the election of a new leadership: whoever lost would lose the capacity to steer the economy and so the cost of defeat seemed extraordinarily high. This problem was sharpened by the second reality, the ANC’s increasingly public internal malaise. ANC documents have repeatedly acknowledged [End Page 96] the internal crisis created by intense factional...


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pp. 95-101
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