POLOKWANE, South Africa — Progress was a central theme of South African President Thabo Mbeki’s address to the 52nd National Conference of the African National Congress, which opened here Dec. 16, in the capital of South Africa’s northern province of Limpopo. Over 4,000 delegates were attending.

Mbeki’s wide-ranging address, which has been given scarce attention in the Western press, however was preceded by hot debate that rocked the football-field-sized white tent housing the historic gathering. On the surface at least, the issue was whether an electronic or paper ballot would be used in convention elections. However underlying it are deep-set divisions causing many a delegate to exclaim, “This is not the ANC we know.”

At the center of this debate, in the opinion of some, is the trajectory of South Africa’s democratic revolution: in what direction the country should go and how to chart the course. Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande, in an op ed published the day of the congress, said as much, claiming the very nature of the country’s orientation was hanging in the balance.

Curiously, however, the main policy planks of the ANC seem to hold a wide consensus among all parties, particularly after a conference several months ago adopted a stronger public works orientation and favored greater state intervention. The issue, then, seems to be dissatisfaction with the rate of change, the method of its implementation, style of leadership, democracy and the age-old problems of raw opportunism, thirst for power and ego. These have combined to produce a pronounced factional situation, one that if not checked could pose a grave danger to the country’s future.

An example of this is that in the opening session, forces siding with ANC presidential candidate Jacob Zuma had proposed using a paper ballot only, opposing a recommendation by the outgoing executive committee of a combined used of both paper and electronic methods to reconfirm results. After much raucous back and forth, with delegates seizing microphones and the chair of the session virtually losing control of the proceedings, delegates later in a closed session agreed to use paper.

Mbeki touched on some of these issues in a two-and-one-half hour presentation that was long on substance and short on style, which charted the achievements of the ANC since its last national meeting. Much attention was paid to South Africa’s steady economic growth rate over the last several years, with the country achieving records in all fields of the economy save agriculture. In Mbeki’s opinion, the essentials for continued progress are in place. On the other hand, all would acknowledge that these growth rates have failed to dent unemployment or adequately redress the housing and health crisis. These issues clearly were among the chief concerns of delegates.

Mbeki insisted that a campaign of lies had been undertaken by some, a campaign that misled and confused many. He acknowledged that problems in the alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party had not been handled well, including the much-debated issue of socialism and the national democratic revolution.

The second day, Dec. 17, began with a continuation of the previous day’s acrimony and two mid-day rallies by the respective camps. A credentials report given later in the day seemed to calm nerves, and nominations for top officers concluded the day. Voting was to begin Dec. 18. In another development, delegates agreed to expand the National Executive of the ANC by 20 and to mandate a 50/50 gender balance in it.

As delegates cast their ballots both sides seem sure of victory, with many claiming that, at the end of the day, it’s each voter, their ballot, and their conscience. However, in light of the intensity of this internal struggle one wonders whether, whoever wins, South Africa loses.

joesims @politicalaffairs.net