It is no easy matter to explain how a paragraph from Michael Ondaatje’s poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” speaks to me about the ANC’s economic policy process.

The poem is a  sensual delight – quite unlike the ANC’s policy discussion.

Anyway … here is the relevant paragraph:

          what good is it
 to be the lime burner's daughter
 left with no trace
 as if not spoken to in the act of love
 as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

(Catch the whole poem here  – you will be glad you did)

Who could have believed anything other than that the ANC’s recent policy conference was a momentous event, a sharp delineation between one stage and another?

The promise was in the ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’ campaign, the calls for nationalisation of land and mines, the National Development Plan and the ANC’s policy discussion documents themselves.

The sense that some big change was imminent built towards the conference and then the news flow from the event spoke of deep geological shifts; shudders that shook the body politic.

And then … nothing.

Or rather the shifts were so subtle that it all felt like a new version of Kremlin watching (that popular art – masquerading as science – peddled by professional Western political analysts and historians circa 1955-1988 of predicting the future of global politics from who stood where on Soviet platforms).

Carol Paton, writer at large at Business Day, covered the recent ANC policy conference in a piece that should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the subtleties – and intrinsic weaknesses – of the process.

She argues that little has actually changed in ANC economic policy since the first conference after the unbanning in 1992 – and what has changed is slight and nuanced.

Paton’s more general point is that the discussion is inherently flawed:

Economic debate in the ANC occurs in a strange, abstract and ahistoric vacuum without reference to what really happens in an economy. For most of those involved in the discussion — who are delegates from branches but also often public representatives — the sole reference point for how change might be effected in society is through the exercise of political power.

Paton argues that almost none of the ANC members and leaders involved in policy discussion  “have had the experience of running or managing an operational business or even of operating in the economy in any way other than as a public representative or government official.”

The article is well worth a read – catch it here.

For me the important bit is the disjuncture between the promise/threat of radical change and the actual outcomes.

As we head towards Mangaung it is likely that noise arising from the ANC internal politics will once again begin to imply that we might be heading towards some radical discontinuity in economic policy.

Obviously our markets will be weaker than they otherwise would have been because of this sense of uncertainty.

I am fairly certain that come the morning after Mangaung we will comb our body for a trace of the change we thought must be a consequence of that event that presents itself as so profound … but we will find that we have been wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

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