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The African National Congress may be Africa’s most venerated liberation movement but students of political history are not advised to go to its headquarters in central Johannesburg if they are seeking insight into the party’s past. The building is named after Chief Albert Luthuli, the first of the anti-apartheid movement’s three Nobel Peace laureates and a man renowned for his doughty and principled defiance of white rule. But with its terracotta walls, blue-flecked carpets and Ikea-style desks, Luthuli House has all the character of a B-grade corporate head office.

“What strikes me most when I go there is the stunning lack of ideology,” says a frequent visitor who used to play a leading role in another African state. It was a throwaway line. But it goes to the heart of an issue that has bedevilled the continent throughout its post-colonial history.

Since Ghana won independence from Britain 50 years ago, a succession of liberation movements has learnt, usually the hard way, that it is one thing to gain freedom but another to metamorphose into a political party and run a successful state. Many failed catastrophically to adapt and became known for blinkered ideology and cronyism.

Even critics of the ANC would concede that the party, five years shy of its centenary and in its 14th year of government, has to date avoided the traps that ensnared so many of its peers on taking power.

But today it faces one of the more difficult moments in its evolution from liberation movement to political party. More than 1,000 delegates will gather outside Johannesburg to finalise a policy agenda for the next five years. Coming in the wake of the most serious rupture in the ANC’s traditional alliance with the trades unions and the Communist party since the end of white rule in 1994, it promises to be a stormy affair.

Smuts Ngonyama, the head of the presidency in the ANC – in effect President Thabo Mbeki’s eyes and ears in the party – is the first to concede that the ANC has not completed its journey to political maturity. “It has been a very interesting and very difficult process for us to adjust from being total activists,” he says.

Since its foundation in 1912, the ANC has prided itself on being a broad church. The alliance between the Communist party and the ANC has had its ups and downs – Nelson Mandela himself was at one stage opposed to collaboration. Yet in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the ANC was in exile following its banning in 1960, leftwing influence was considerable.

The party still sometimes articulates over-arching ambitions to refashion the state, much to the alarm of traditional liberals. Some of its foreign policy memorandums read as if they were penned 25 years ago. It also has an intolerant streak. Yet in important respects it has been transformed. “When Mbeki took over [he succeeded Mr Mandela as state president in 1999] he was determined to show that South Africa could be both African and modern,” says Adam Habib, a South African political scientist.

The same logic applied to Mr Mbeki’s leadership of the party, which he won two years earlier. While his centralisation of power has prompted accusations of autocracy, the efficient atmosphere at Luthuli House is about as far removed as can be imagined from the chaos of the scruffy tower block that housed the ANC after it emerged from nearly three decades of exile in 1990.

But for Mr Mbeki’s critics on the left, the changed décor and tempo in Luthuli House symbolise a far more fundamental – and disturbing – shift. They have watched in dismay over the past decade as the traditionally left-of-centre party has promoted business-friendly macroeconomic policies in an effort to stimulate much-needed growth.

Mr Mbeki has, they argue, overseen nothing less than the selling of the party’s soul, leading to the enrichment of a few and not the many. Now, they say, they want to take the party “back”. The government’s talk of an economic boom was no better than the propaganda of the Nazis, Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary-general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said recently.

For the past three weeks this division has been played out on South African streets as the unions have taken on the ANC in a public service strike. The stoppage has led to the closure of schools and hospitals.

The left, in pushing for greater state intervention in the economy, says Mr Mbeki’s policies have created only a small black middle class and failed to lift up the poor. As much as 40 per cent of the population is unemployed. “They [the ANC] promised us everything. They were going to uplift our school but they have done nothing,” says Nolubabalo Maningwa, 37, a teacher on strike in the Cape Town township of Gugulethu. “They only wanted our votes.”

Cabinet ministers play down speculation of a showdown over the next four days. Alec Erwin, the minister of public enterprises, says in an interview that the conference will be an “invigorating experience” providing a “good debate”. But he adds that there is “no prospect of a major new policy direction”. A big policy initiative would have had to be presented as a formal proposal ahead of the meeting and no such documents have been submitted.

As South Africa enjoys its most sustained period of economic growth since the second world war, including three successive years with around a 5 per cent increase in real gross domestic product, business people are broadly content to take such reassurances at face value. But according to another cabinet minister, who prefers to remain anonymous, at the back of ANC leaders’ minds is the precedent of the party’s national general council in 2005. Then, allies of Jacob Zuma, the populist would-be successor to Mr Mbeki, staged an ambush and successfully demanded Mr Zuma’s full reinstatement as the party’s deputy president. He had been fired as deputy president of the country and all but suspended from the party post after he was embroiled in a corruption scandal. Mbeki-ites will not be caught unprepared a second time, the minister says – although he admits he cannot be certain of this.

“We are not facing a Trotskyite push. The unions have not white-anted [subverted from within] the ANC. Eighty per cent of the delegates are not unionists – they are ANC members,” he says. “But I might be wrong.”

In the west the Mbeki years are possibly best known for his controversial stance on HIV/Aids and his so far unsuccessful policy of “quiet diplomacy” towards President Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime in Zimbabwe. The flirtation of his health minister with the views of Aids denialists, who reject the orthodox scientific view that the syndrome is caused by HIV, has done particular harm to his reputation.

But when the histories of post-apartheid South Africa and the ANC are written – and not just the version of party scribes – Mr Mbeki will almost certainly be remembered as a hugely important leader. He has been responsible for one of the most momentous changes of tack in the ANC’s history: the break with leftwing economics.

The ANC’s economic policies moved steadily to the right from the late 1980s as the world view of its old Soviet bloc allies imploded. The key moment came in 1996 when Mr Mbeki, then deputy president, decided that South Africa’s best hope was to embark on what his opponents brand a “neo-liberal agenda”. Knowing there was no way the party would agree to his push for deficit targets, privatisation and cuts in state expenditure, he bypassed both parliament and party and implemented a programme called Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution), in effect by fiat.

“Mbeki said effectively: ‘It’ll piss people off but who else will they vote for?’” says Prof Habib. “So the issue was: what does the left do? They were horrified at the nature of the policies. It opened up a debate. The battle is for heart and soul. But it’s not socialism versus capitalism. It’s between competing versions of capitalism.”

Prof Habib may be right to dismiss the idea that this is a battle between Thatcherites and hardline Communists. Notwithstanding the unions’ socialist slogans, their unofficial champion – Mr Zuma – would, if in power, be unlikely to operate far to the left of Mr Mbeki. As for Mr Mbeki’s cabinet, after a brief flirtation with privatisation in the late 1990s, it is firmly in favour of keeping core state enterprises.

But while the ideological fervour of the unions and the Communist party may be open to question, there can be no denying the uncertainty in the party’s grassroots over Mr Mbeki’s economic policies. A leading financier with close ties to the ANC sees a parallel with Tony Blair, who took on his party’s left but eventually alienated its base.

Kader Asmal, an ANC veteran who heads its parliamentary caucus, has observed countless internal battles over the years since as a schoolboy he met Chief Luthuli. He is convinced the rift is more about personalities than policy. He takes issue with the unions’ claim that the party is betraying its roots. “People who talk about the soul of the ANC don’t like the idea of a social democratic party. They think the ANC is socialist but it never was,” he says. “You can’t say the economic policies of the ANC have compromised its soul. Pragmatism is at the heart of the relationship with power.”

Unquestionably, infighting over the leadership will overshadow the policy debates. The most critical question facing the ANC is whether Mr Mbeki will try for a third five-year term as head of the party at a leadership conference in December. The constitution bars him from a third term as state president in 2009 but his supporters have floated the idea of his staying on as party leader to play the role of eminence grise to the next national president.

This would serve the dual purpose of entrenching his policies and thwarting the ambitions of Mr Zuma, who is criss-crossing the country to whip up support for his own – as yet unofficial – leadership campaign. But the mood music from several provincial ANC branches suggests that if Mr Mbeki were to run, he could quite conceivably be beaten by Mr Zuma.

For much of the past six months South Africans have had to look on baffled as this struggle has been fought in the shadows. The Mbeki-ites may have changed economic policy in line with global trends but they have not jettisoned the old cabalist ethos of the party. Indeed, that tradition has, if anything, been entrenched by the president, who cut his political teeth in the conspiratorial world of exile politics.

Mr Ngonyama defends the party’s secretive traditions as linked to African as much as ANC culture but accepts they will inevitably in time be watered down. “Gradually the ANC will reach a stage where what we know of the ANC and African culture will be mitigated [by other influences]. As times go on, things may change.”

Given the ANC’s electoral dominance – it won 70 per cent of the vote at the last general election – most analysts believe such a change is crucial for the long-term health of South Africa’s democracy. Tokyo Sexwale, a politician turned tycoon, has pushed the party a step down this road, flouting its convention that politicians should mask their ambitions by throwing his hat into the ring for the party’s leadership.

First, however, there is a tricky conference to get through. Given the tensions, it seems a safe bet that for a few days at least, leftwing ideology rather than the corporate ethos of Luthuli House will be to the fore.

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