THE biggest risk arising from the African National Congress's (ANC's) national policy conference, which starts this week, is not that radical policy options will be adopted, but that factional battles will result in watered down proposals that paralyse government.
Central issues on the agenda are land reform, the autonomy of the ANC Youth League and the future of its expelled former leader Julius Malema and, most importantly, the recommendations made after the party's study of state intervention in mining. Given the extent to which the outcomes of the conference will influence the result of the ANC electoral conference in December, the stakes are particularly high. President Jacob Zuma is acutely aware that to retain his position at Mangaung, his biggest challenge at the conference will be to balance conflicting interests and placate opposing groups so that no faction is left grossly unsatisfied and likely to exact revenge in December.
Unfortunately, this is not a recipe for decisive and effective policy. There is little question that existing government policy has failed to achieve the level of transformation and redistribution that was hoped for when the ANC came to power 18 years ago. There is a legitimate need to both examine alternative policy options relating to strategic resources, land ownership and labour regulations, and address the obstacles to implementation.
Behind each of the policy discussion papers prepared for the conference is a real issue that needs to be addressed - be it unemployment, racial transformation or redistribution. However, behind each issue there is also a vested factional interest within the ANC. In short, we can expect to see policy options reduced to little more than proxies for political allegiance.
To avoid overt conflict and continue to hedge leadership bets before October, when the candidacies will be formally announced, there is a high chance of compromises being made by Mr Zuma in the interests of unity - and at the expense of governance. The risk is that in doing so, the core aims of policies will be diluted or, worse, completely lost.
The divergent goals of the different factions in the ANC are a natural consequence of Mr Zuma's determination to maintain the party as a "broad church" that controls all the levers of state power. But it remains to be seen how much longer the centre can hold. It is clear from the internecine conflict during the build-up to the policy and electoral conferences that policy is playing second fiddle to power struggles.
Last week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe shot down calls for a "second transition" made in a discussion document endorsed by Mr Zuma, rubbishing its Marxist rhetoric and questioning whether the goals of the first transition had been attained, to make it possible to move on to a second. Mr Motlanthe warned that the upper echelons of the party had strayed from its traditional values, and as a result South Africans might choose to associate with other parties. The youth league has also added a dissenting voice to the push for a second transition, calling instead for a more radical approach to redistribution.
In another corner, but preaching a similar line, ANC national executive committee member Joel Netshitenzhe has raised concerns about the vulnerability of the emerging black middle-class. He argue s that while the party speaks of the values and culture of the struggle, it is no longer living under the struggle and the problems that come with incumbency have led to entrenched systems of patronage and corruption.
An even bigger battle is likely to be fought over the implementation of the proposed youth wage subsidy. In the face of rising unemployment and increasing poverty in SA, the Zuma administration believes the policy would go a long way towards increasing the number of youths that companies are prepared to take on. But the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ANC alliance partner, is implacably against any policy that may undermine existing workers' job security and will be doing everything in its power to convince delegates to reject the proposal. Given that Cosatu could play a pivotal role in determining whether Mr Zuma is re-elected at Mangaung, it is highly unlikely that he will support the proposal outright.
One of the reasons for the intensity of the lobbying is that the policy choices that are adopted have ramifications for how the ANC electoral conference pans out. They will, of course, have significant and probably immediate consequences for the economy and markets. The youth league's call for land expropriation without compensation has already resulted in reduced investment in agriculture, while fears over the banning of labour brokers and increasingly restrictive labour policies have discouraged expansion in the manufacturing sector.
There is also mounting evidence that the call for a new tax on mining "super-profits" has caused foreigners in particular to hold off from investing further in one of the pillars of the country's economy.
Domestic firms are sitting on a near-record amount of cash due to uncertainty over both the sustainability of the global economic recovery and domestic policy. The outcome of this week's deliberations could decide whether those funds - half a trillion rand at last count - are invested in SA's future or seek more reliable returns elsewhere.