By Carl Niehaus
The African National Congress emerged from its five day National Policy Conference stronger and more united than before the thousands of delegates last Friday walked through the gates of NASREC.
This is no mean feat, and to a large extent due to the efforts of President Jacob Zuma. From the first sentence of his Opening Address to the last word of his Closing Address unity was the clarion call. To some extent this was to be expected in this The Year of Oliver Tambo, with President Zuma and the NEC members sitting on the conference stage with behind them the face of comrade OR Tambo and in big bold letters the words: “LET US DEEPEN UNITY”.
However, for the President’s call to have had the impact it had was not a foregone conclusion at all. There was always the very real possibility that the ANC could have torn itself apart at this Conference, and there were many counter revolutionary forces at work trying to achieve exactly that. As is the usual approach of President Zuma, he carefully and strategically advanced the theme of unity over the past couple of months, making it his clarion call in every meeting of the ANC that he addressed in the run-up to the National Policy Conference.
As it turned out some of the detractors of the President inadvertently assisted him in his efforts for unity, such as those veterans who called for a full Consultative Conference. Their engagements with the National Executive Committee (NEC) led to the NEC, in an effort to accommodate them, extending the originally planned three day conference with two days of consultation about Strategy and Tactics and Organisational Renewal. Although those veterans petulantly eventually boycotted the Policy Conference because they did not get exactly what they wanted, the extra two days proved invaluable for forging the unity that the President so dearly wanted. In his closing address the President acknowledged this when he said the longer duration of the Conference greatly assisted the delegates in their deliberations and that the NEC should consider to similarly extend the duration of future conferences.
Only those who truly understand the culture of the ANC, and the manner in which the ANC deals with differences in its ranks, can understand the astuteness of this observation. For two full days of the five days that the Conference lasted, the delegates had the opportunity to robustly discuss their differences and frustrations concerning the underlying strategy and tactics of the ANC and it’s organisational problems. As the robust discussions proceeded the delegates started to discover again what someone as deeply rooted in the history, culture and policies of the ANC such as President Zuma already knew, that there is more that unites us than what divides us. Especially for the many younger delegates, many of whom were at their first Policy Conference, this was an eye opening revelation.
The discussions converged around policy formulations that searched for unity in our diversity. The traditional format of ANC policy conferences that is directed at the formulation of policy positions through the power of debate and engagement, and not through voting or passing final resolutions, greatly assisted.
It was essential for ensuring the free wielding debates that took place in the eleven commissions that the conference were divided into, that these had to be closed to the media. However, when reading some of the misdirected reporting by some media – and the persistent attempts to report perceived disunity and attempts to deliberately promote a divisive agenda – I wish that the media could actually have been present in the commissions to experience the quality of the contributions of the delegates. As the conference proceeded, there was a growing tolerance and single minded pursuit of policy formulations that turned out to be principled but simultaneously forging unity.
I am convinced that any journalist truly committed to his/her craft of reporting, rather than advocating factionalism, would have emerged impressed and would have reported differently from what many unfortunately did.
How strong this commitment to unity is became clear in the manner that delegates pulled into line even senior NEC members who tried to continue with the divisive and factional attitudes that they have pursued in the run-up to the Conference.
So was Derek Hanekom in no uncertain terms disciplined and forced to retract and apologise when he dared to describe the contributions of some of the delegates in the commission that he attended, who were in favour of land restitution without compensation as “nonsense”. This insistence that he had to apologise did not only come from those who supported land restitution without compensation, but similarly also from those who actually agreed with the status quo like position that Hanekom was trying to advance.
In their diversity the delegates were unanimous in their understanding that the forging of unity was paramount, and they were not going to allow any faction mongering to divert them from that commitment.
Similarly, Joel Netshitenze was strongly disciplined when instead of presenting a unity orientated report about the Strategy and Tactics deliberations of the commissions in a media briefing, he emphasised an entirely unsubstantiated count that 9 out of the 11 commissions were opposed to the using the definition of White Monopoly Capital.
Delegates across the board were outraged by behaviour that they experienced as deliberately divisive. The Conference Steering Committee was forced to address the issue and to acknowledge that Netshitenze made a terrible mistake. It was made clear that the Policy Conference was not about head counts and identifying winners and losers, but about the formulation of principled unity orientated policy proposals that are referred back all the structures of the ANC – especially the branches.
Joel Netshitenze is no ordinary member of the ANC, he has an illustrious struggle history that stretches over many years in exile as Peter Mayibuye. He was one of the most articulate writers and policy formulators, and it was one of saddest moments of the Conference when he of all people – despite the clear and unambiguous findings of the Conference Steering Committee that he had erred – arrogantly refused to apologise. However, it was also one of the strongest unifying moments of the conference because both those who agreed or disagreed with his policy points of view, were united in their acceptance of the findings of the Steering Committee and condemned his divisive behaviour.
No-one must underestimate how hard it was for some of Netshitenze’s ardent supporters to do so, but they did so because they realised that unity must be paramount. Joel Netshitenze emerged a greatly damaged and diminished figure from the Conference, as one of his closest allied said to me with tears in his eyes, comrade Joel had destroyed his legacy of being Peter Mayibuye.
The policy formulations of the 5th National Policy Conference (it must be emphasised NOT policy resolutions) will now be distributed to the branches of the ANC for further discussion and refinement into proposed resolutions that will in six months time be presented to the National Elective Conference where final Resolutions will be adopted.
This is a fundamentally democratic approach that empowers the constitutional organisational structures of the ANC, and especially the branches as the foundational building blocks of our organisation. The discussions about these policy proposals will only be useful and successful if a diversity of views are debated. However, what emerged from this Policy Conference is that whatever diversity their is will ultimately be forged and brought together in the melting pot of principled unity.
Throughout this process the warming words of that great unifier of the ANC, Comrade OR Tambo, at the Morogoro Conference in 1969 will have to be heeded:
“Delegates must wage a relentless war against disrupters and defend the ANC against the provocateurs and enemy agents. Defend the revolution against enemy propaganda, whatever form it takes.
Be vigilant comrades, the enemy is vigilant. Beware of the wedge driver, a man who creeps from ear to ear carrying a bag full of wedges, driving them between you and the next man, between a group and another. A man who goes around creating splits and divisions.”
The manner in which the delegates at the Policy Conference dealt with those who were exposed as wedge drivers shows that these wise words of Comrade OR Tambo will indeed be heeded.
Those commentators as well as those in the media who want to continue to peddle the hackneyed narrative of a divided ANC will in six months time when we emerge from the National Elective Conference with united policy resolutions and a united leadership, stand ashamed and exposed for how shallow and fickle their analysis is.
*Carl Niehaus is a member of the National Executive Committee of MKMVA and National Spokesperson.
He was on behalf of MKMVA a participant at the ANC’s National Policy Conference.
All Carl’s articles can also be found on his blog, Carl’s Corner: www.carlniehaus.co.za