IT IS a truism of market behaviour that investors prefer almost anything to uncertainty. That, ostensibly, is one of the advantages of the African National Congress (ANC) holding its policy meetings six months before the party’s five-yearly electoral conference.

The latter is invariably divisive and unpredictable, despite the party’s attempts to limit overt campaigning, but the negative effects of this can be mitigated by policy certainty. And it should make it easier for ANC branches to decide who they want to lead the organisation — and, by extension, the country given the party’s continued political dominance — if they know what policies they support. That’s the theory.

In practice, this approach can backfire if the policy conference fails to provide clear direction. That, unfortunately, is the situation in which SA now finds itself following the completion of the ANC’s chaotic 2012 policy conference in Midrand at the weekend. On almost every major issue flagged before the conference started the party remains hopelessly divided. ANC policy is, in other words, as clear as mud.

Strategy and tactics, the youth wage subsidy, land reform, nationalisation … all were the subjects of heated debate — including physical fights in the closed plenary session before President Jacob Zuma’s closing address — but the outcome depends on which faction you are talking to. There may have been majority voices one way or the other on some of these critical matters, but there is certainly no consensus within the organisation and none of the key issues can be said to have been settled. That makes for a difficult six months ahead for the ANC and, given that the world economy remains in the grip of uncertainty, for South Africa as a whole too.

Mr Zuma staked the farm on the populist and ludicrously vague "second transition" concept, which speaks of a focus on economic change to follow on the political upheaval that characterised the ending of apartheid. But the paper’s intellectual poverty was clear before the policy conference even started, and it was by all accounts roundly rejected by delegates. Yet the resolution that was eventually adopted was ambiguous, like so much else about the conference. The "spirit and intent" of the document was embraced, but the plenary was adamant that there would be only one transition, with the sop that it may have more than one phase. What that may mean in practical terms remains a mystery.

The youth wage subsidy, a job-creation tool that is already government policy and enjoys a healthy Budget allocation, was apparently rejected by the plenary, with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) warming rather to a work-seeker’s grant that would be linked to skills development. Mr Zuma also mentioned a possible tax credit to incentivise youth employment, and the provision of training subsidies, while urging business and labour to find each other on this vital issue. But that was a most unsatisfactory conclusion to the debate given the urgency of South Africa’s unemployment problem. The government needs to act with due haste. The country cannot afford to wait for December for the ANC to have another head-banging session.

Land reform was equally contested, and while the proposals that were eventually endorsed were presented as revolutionary, there was in fact precious little new to them. The willing-buyer, willing-seller concept was rejected in favour of expropriation with "just and equitable" compensation, but that has been on the cards for years and will be subject to judicial review. A reactionary proposal that foreigners be barred from owning land outright was endorsed, but there was no detail on how such a law might be imposed without falling foul of the Constitution. And, the effect of this "radical" new approach to land reform was watered down by a decision that the first step should be to redistribute state-owned land, with the admission that the government does not know how much land it owns.

Even nationalisation, an issue that was supposedly put to bed by the ANC leadership through a fact-finding group which concluded that seizing privately owned mines and other "commanding heights" of the economy was a bad idea, was dragged up to be kicked about. In this case there was not even agreement to disagree — Cosatu’s secretary-general, Zwelinzima Vavi, has contested the resolution summary that was presented to the media, saying there was majority support for nationalisation of the mines. Yet Mr Zuma made no mention of this in his closing address, essentially sticking to the government line that had evolved before the policy conference, which entails higher mineral taxes, more focus on beneficiation and the formation of a state mining company. A decision on nationalisation has in effect been deferred to Mangaung in December, guaranteeing that it will be conflated with the leadership contest.

There were two main dangers to be avoided by the ANC when it began its policy conference: that factional disputes would lead to policy paralysis, and that policy positions would become proxies for personal battles. The party managed to plunge head-first into both. Now Mangaung becomes all-important — if the ANC doesn’t tear itself, and South Africa, apart before then.