By Marina Carman
BLOEMFONTEIN — Eighty-three years ago, the African National Congress was founded here. From December 17 to 21, 3000 delegates from all over South Africa converged on the University of the Orange Free State to attend the 49th National Conference of the ANC.
The ANC's last national conference was held in 1991, only one year after the unbanning of the organisation.
The election of a new national leadership was an important task for delegates to the National Conference, the highest decision-making body of the ANC. Nelson Mandela was re-elected president, with Thabo Mbeki installed as deputy president, Jacob Zuma as national chairperson, Cyril Rhamaphosa as secretary general, Cheryl Carolus as deputy secretary general and Arnold Stofile as treasurer general.
The first woman to be elected a national office bearer of the ANC, Cheryl Carolus, pointed to the ANC's commitment to fighting sexism, restated in the conference resolutions.
The ANC thanked "the international community for their magnificent role. The ANC should always extend its hand to them, on the basis of our morality and the fact that we were ourselves prime beneficiaries of such human compassion."
In this light, the conference adopted a resolution supporting the struggle of the Cuban people against the trade embargo imposed by the United States. The ANC called upon "all levels and branches to spare no effort in expressing solidarity with the Cuban people in resistance to the US blockade, which we consider an act of war".
The ANC reaffirmed its character as a liberation movement anchored in the African population, while situating itself within a broad democratic movement. There was a strong feeling that the ANC should retain its movement character.
In his opening address to the conference, Nelson Mandela stated, "The challenge we face, is whether we are utilising the new positions we occupy effectively to bring about fundamental transformation".
Of the continuing role of the people in change, he said: "We have to inculcate into our people the culture of taking responsibility for the task of reconstruction and development. Neither government nor the ANC alone can realise these plans."
The tone of the conference came from a recognition of the gains made, but also the enormity of the tasks ahead. To complete these tasks, stressed Jeremy Cronin, spokesperson for the conference Commission on Strategy and Tactics, "the ANC must continue to strengthen itself by residing in its mass base".
Cronin called for an understanding of the transition in which the ANC was engaged, but said that the people should maintain their feelings of impatience and not just wait until the next elections in 1999 before calling on the government to deliver. "The government has a responsibility to deliver. It will be expected to deliver. It cannot use the Government of National Unity as an excuse."
Commissions met and resolutions were adopted on land and the agrarian question, transformation of the state machinery and the economy, education, local government policy, youth empowerment and development, emancipation of women, violence and stability, South Africa in the New World Order, ANC strategy and tactics and the state of the organisation. The depth and breadth of discussion displayed clearly the complexities of the situation in which the ANC now finds itself.
There was a surprisingly open assessment of weaknesses, particularly in the areas of finances, organisation in rural areas and the destabilisation that many branches suffered from the deployment of leading members to take up positions in parliament. Problems of accountability of these members to the ANC as a whole were also discussed, along with the need to strengthen ANC structures.
Nelson Mandela, in his opening address, said: "The real measure of the success or failure of the conference lies with the decisions we take bringing practical relief to the millions who so graphically demonstrated their confidence in the ANC and in democracy last April. Their eyes are trained at this conference and their ears strain to hear our decisions."
Decisions were made to provide free education from grade one this year along with initiatives for youth already out of school with "second-chance" programs. Also, free health care for mothers and children under six will be introduced from this year.
The Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), which guides ANC policy in the Government of National Unity, promises the delivery of basic needs such as jobs, education, health care, infrastructure, housing, water and electricity. To improve its implementation, the conference set as one of the ANC's most important campaigns, winning the local government elections in October. The absence of legitimate local governments is hampering the implementation of ANC objectives, conference was told.
However, the RDP is to be funded mainly from rationalisation of the current budgets from other ministries, rather than increased taxes on big business or the accumulated wealth of South Africa's mainly white capitalist class — wealth generated over many years with the aid of apartheid policies. Some delegates expressed concern over the cautious nature of some ANC policies, particularly on land redistribution and the recent suggestions that foreign debt built up by the apartheid regime be repaid through privatisation of public assets. These loans were used to fund apartheid policies, it was argued by some delegates, and the people should not have to pay.
Although the RDP guarantees 30% of South Africa's land will be redistributed to those dispossessed of land since 1913, ANC policy states that this is to come mainly through the state buying land. Expropriation of land is out of the question because of the clause in the interim constitution that protects private property.
In the final session, delegates decided that the conference resolutions include the need for the state to play a central role in not only "identifying" but also "acquiring land which is strategically located to meet the pressing needs of the landless and homeless".
The need for continued debate and broad consultation on charting a way forward under the new conditions was stressed. Differences of opinion, Mandela said in his closing statement,"honestly held, and expressed in disciplined manner within the structures of the organisation, should be encouraged rather than discouraged".