AS THE South African Communist Party (SACP) delegates continue their conference at the University of Zululand, the party has set out to reclaim the position of policy-maker-in-chief for the tripartite alliance of the SACP, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Already there are signals that senior party members are unhappy with the lack of clarity that emerged from the ANC's policy conference, and murmurs that the policy-making process could be improved. At a conference without serious leadership issues to address, it is only natural that policy, and the SACP's place in making it, should come to the fore.

On Wednesday, SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin, while commenting on the ANC policy conference, warned that policy conferences are "vulnerable to demagogic capture".

From the poet who gave us the phrase "polemical spice", it's a warning that such meetings can be opportunities for people such as Julius Malema to win victories on issues such as nationalisation.

Mr Cronin went further, exclaiming that it was "a great tradition of the ANC to hold such a conference", and was part of the restoration of branches to the centre of the policy-making process. But there was the question of "what a branch member could know about a detailed issue like nationalisation".

Mr Cronin's comments go to the heart of what has been a major problem for the alliance, creating policies that can actually be implemented without damaging the economy.

Opening the conference yesterday, SACP chairman (and ANC secretary-general) Gwede Mantashe warned that "we are fast losing the ability to make contributions without claiming credit. Communists should shape debate and society without saying we are shaping it."

What appears to be happening is a move by the SACP to try to drive policy processes, so that policy that is decided is more radical, or more "leftward".

It also appears the party is trying to find ways to use the complexity in finding a balance between policy making by democracy and policy making by those with the knowledge to create workable policies.

It would be here that the party could manipulate the situation to its advantage. By being unified and disciplined, it could have a co-ordinated voice in policy meetings. This would allow it to push hard for certain pet policies, and oppose others.

But the party does need to tread carefully. Mr Mantashe also warned delegates who go to Mangaung "not to behave as if the ANC does not exist", reiterating his longstanding request for "all communists to belong to the ANC". Of course, the more SACP members in the ANC, the louder its voice.

However, Mr Mantashe's claim that communists should shape debate "but not claim credit for it" will make it hard to evaluate the success of the party. In our increasingly loud politics, those who shout the loudest can be seen as the most powerful. The public profiles of the ANC Youth League and ANC Women's League could be seen as proof. This could also make it harder to predict where policies are going.

However, the advantage in staying quiet is that it would also be harder to oppose a group that does not raise its voice.

All of this would have implications for certain policies raised by SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande on Thursday. While it is natural for the party to want to push economic policy to the left, he has specific proposals that could yield real results. These include forcing financial institutions to invest some of the funds they hold in what he calls "developmental objectives".

This would strengthen the cause of those within the ANC who want a policy of prescribed assets.

Mr Nzimande also mentioned forcing banks to invest in low-cost housing. This is an example of where a group of well-disciplined delegates, all well briefed, could arrive at Mangaung with detailed arguments.

For the SACP, this would be a return to what some believe is its historic role in shaping ANC policy.

. Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter.