LAST week's African National Congress (ANC) Policy Conference was billed as a symbol of the party's democratic nature, with the evidence being that it allows all its members to have a say in how policy is made.
The day before the gathering started, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said that "there are no other parties" that do this.
It is a common ANC refrain that it is this very fact that makes it different. However, an examination of the ANC's policy outcomes reveals that this type of democracy may be coming at the expense of good policy making. And sometimes, too much democracy can be dangerous for a political party.
On Friday evening, as the conference ended, journalists had to ask ANC economic transformation commission chairman, Enoch Godongwana, several times for a clear answer to whether the conference had resolved to nationalise mines. As can be seen from the coverage of his response, a confusing picture has now emerged. Officially, ANC spokespeople say the conference resolved not to nationalise the mines, other sources indicate that no firm decision had been taken, and yet other reports suggest it was Mr Mantashe himself (who had appeared to oppose nationalisation in the way it was first suggested by the ANC Youth League) who proposed that the state own 30% of all new mines.
This is partly the result of the ANC's internal politics. It is common practice for those in meetings to selectively leak information to journalists. National executive committee members have to surrender their cellphones at the door when the body meets. But to manage this with more than 3000 delegates is virtually impossible. However the ANC's real dilemma is a philosophical one.
At the moment it appears that many, probably most, of its top leaders believe that the cost of nationalising mines would be too much for the country to bear. But what would they do should a democratic conference of this type resolve such a step. While any leader who wants to stay in power would be tempted to swim with the tsunami, they would then be blamed for the resultant poor economic performance.
It would appear that this is what might have happened with the youth wage subsidy. ANC delegates rejected it democratically, despite its favourable reception from economists and business. Instead, delegates plumped for what could become a job seeker's allowance. This would increase the number of people receiving money from the fiscus, despite President Jacob Zuma's insistence that "we can't live on social grants forever". But the genie appears to be out of the bottle, grants from government to the voters are always likely to be popular, thus there will always be pressure to increase them, despite the economic consequences.
Conferences such as these pose another danger to the ANC. While initial reports (from leaks within the conference hall) claimed that there had been a scuffle in the final plenary session over nationalisation, the ANC now says two men fought over a microphone. The two were from the party's North West province, which has been wracked by infighting since last year's local government elections.
The North West is a small province, with a small number of delegates; if such infighting developed in the Eastern Cape, with a larger delegation, it may be harder to stop. And if the national leaders were seen as not legitimate, and could not call for order (as possibly happened on Friday) the conference itself would dissolve into chaos.
At that point the internal contradictions within the party could become too much for it to bear as a coherent political entity. The party's leaders may want to reflect on what might have been, and on how much democracy is good for policy.
. Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter