THE point of holding a policy conference before the African National Congress's (ANC's) national conference was always to discuss policy, which inevitably gets lost in the hurly-burly of electing a new leadership. But with the lid on the leadership succession debate until October, when branches will finally be allowed to make their nominations, policy discussion has become a proxy discussion for succession.

That is why, when ANC branches gather for the ANC policy conference next week, there will be heated debate over whether the concept of a " second transition" is an adequate analytical tool for where SA is right now and where the ANC would like it to go. To an outsider, this discussion - which will be couched in archaic Marxist terms and concepts - might seem like a lot of hot air. But underneath it all, lobbyists and factions will be counting up the numbers of those who agree with the second transition concept (and support President Jacob Zuma) and those who don't.

The "second transition" idea is advocated in a discussion paper that takes the place of the ANC's traditional Strategy and Tactics document. Since 1969, Strategy and Tactics has played the role of a guiding document, which sets out the organisation's main tasks but also provides it with ideological direction and coherence.

Its central argument is that the time has come for a "second transition", which will bring about economic transformation, following the first phase of the political transition. The second transition will be different from the first, which the paper argues was a negotiated transition that required a compromise with "capital" to "modify the racial structure of asset ownership". The negotiated settlement constrained economic policy and the colonial structure remained intact.

Linked to the economic argument that the time has come for more decisive and interventionist change led by the state is the political one being articulated by Zuma at trade union congresses and public rallies. The revolution" is "at a cross roads", he has said, and it is up to the members of the ANC to ensure it goes in the right direction.

It would not be unfair to describe this message, plus the promise of greater economic change in the next phase, as populist. It absolves the leadership of responsibility for what has gone before and pretends that leaders will be guided only by the will of the masses. It has gone down well among audiences with a pre disposition to support Zuma for another term.

But in others, where there is a strong "pro-change" lobby - such as in Gauteng - the second transition concept has been criticised for being "neither persuasive nor theoretically sound." Instead, Gauteng favours the analysis set out in another ANC discussion document - on organisational renewal - which advocates building a stronger and more ubiquitous party apparatus to guide and direct social and economic transformation. In this idealist version, admiration for the Chinese state and party model shines through.

With this having become the leadership proxy debate of the day, the significance of economic questions has paled a little.

At the ANC's previous national gathering - the national general council two years ago - nationalisation was the proxy debate for pro-or anti-Zuma sentiment. That has since changed due, first, to the tabling of a research paper into nationalisation, now known as the State Intervention in the Mining Sector (Sims) document; and, second, the demobilisation of the ANC Youth League as a force to lead change in the ANC.

The Sims document has taken the wind out of the sails of the nationalisation debate by warning against wholesale nationalisation but nonetheless proposing thorough changes to the mining regime. In most pre-policy conference and other meetings, provinces and trade unions have embraced this approach, although there remain some minority vociferous proponents of outright nationalisation in Limpopo, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and the y outh l eague.

Although the main debates at the policy conference are shaping up to be political, there is far greater emphasis on revising economic policy at this conference than there has been at any ANC conference since 1994.

Before the 2007 Polokwane conference, analysts argued furiously with each other about whether economic policy would change under a Zuma government. That debate is over: the proposed changes are in black and white in ANC policy documents. The only question is whether the government will be able to implement them. The first lot of changes are contained in the Sims document. This document is almost certain to be adopted by the policy conference. It s most immediate and tangible recommendation is for a resource tax of 50% on mining "super-profits", which are defined in the paper as anything over the South African government long bond rate (about 8%) plus 7%. This has been the main issue to which the mining industry has responded as it poses an immediate threat to operations.

But the Sims paper is more ambitious and far-reaching than that. Its overarching aim is the linking of resource rents to broader industrial policy objectives. In particular, the steel value chain is identified as a target for government intervention. It is proposed that minerals that are critical feedstock be designated as "strategic minerals". Strategic minerals, it states, should be supplied at "reasonable" prices. This implies a new regime of state price regulation over many minerals, from coal to iron ore and platinum.

A second important set of issues in for a policy revision are those relating to state-owned enterprises. The government's push for an expanded role for state-owned enterprises in infrastructure has become a key feature of Zuma's presidency. This has raised more questions than answers, for while the government has indicated that it plans to move away from a commercial approach to state-owned enterprises, how this would be funded is not clear.

That issue is likely to remain fuzzy. What can be expected though is the suggestion of a new shareholder model for state-owned entities, which would allow the government greater leverage over their activities. This is hinted at in the discussion paper on state-owned enterprises, which was very likely written with the as yet unseen recommendations of the presidential review panel on state-owned enterprises in mind.

The third set of important issues relates to what the ANC describes as "allocative capital" - or the policy of directing resources, such as pension fund savings, into particular areas of the economy, such as infrastructure investment. Although at least one discussion paper suggests that prescribing certain asset classes for investment should be considered, it is highly possible that in the end a voluntary approach by the savings industry will be considered adequate. In the run-up to the conference, there have been engagements between the financial sector and the ANC's economic transformation committee, which ANC insiders say have centred on concerns about this issue.

So while the economic questions on the table are probably bigger than they have been since 1994, they will probably be less divisive than they have in the past. This time, political questions will generate the controversies. And we can be sure that delegates, analysts, journalists, C abinet ministers and even Zuma will be anxiously totting up the numbers of those in favour and those against the mythical second transition.

. Paton is writer at large.