SPECULATION about a leadership contest at the 53rd conference of the African National Congress (ANC) has exploded in recent weeks. Reflection about the possibility of policy change remains relatively subdued.

This is not altogether surprising. The ANC enforces a sharp separation between policy-making and leadership selection. Policy is collectively owned and leaders are discouraged from advancing personalised positions. ANC policy development also has a time lag. President Jacob Zuma cannot be praised or blamed for the policy and institutional innovations of his ANC presidency because few of them have been his own.

It was at the ANC policy conference at Gallagher Estate, Midrand in June 2007, under then president Thabo Mbeki, that ANC activists recommended the creation of a planning commission. Delegates also agreed that parastatals should become instruments of "economic transformation" and that a state-owned mining firm be established.

Other bright ideas of the Zuma leadership — such as the reviewing of provinces and the closing of revolving doors between state and business — also turn out to be products of the Mbeki era.

We can already foresee the broad outlines of Zuma’s own policy legacy. The recommendations of June’s policy conference will feed into the resolutions adopted at Mangaung next month whether or not Zuma secures a second term. They may then be slowly translated into action.

The Zuma era will ultimately be remembered not only for intellectual evasion and conservatism, but also for ANC introversion. Although the June policy conference demanded "radical policies", it firmly rebutted wholesale nationalisation. Even "strategic nationalisation" was barred except when the "balance of evidence" would favour it.

The conference mandated the ANC’s conservative economic transformation committee to report back (no doubt positively) on its own macroeconomic policy achievements since Polokwane.

Only the commission that dealt with education had robust recommendations. It insisted that teachers, principals and education officials should face mandatory competency tests and complained about drunkenness, sexual abuse, and absenteeism in schools. Strong policy here, however, was a reaction against Zuma’s mollycoddling of teacher unions rather than the fruit of his intellectual leadership.

Zuma may also have inspired two further recommendations: for "a comprehensive national security strategy" to "secure national key points" and for a new "national cyber security policy" to prevent the electronic "distribution of harmful and antisocial content". This second proposal would represent a politically troubling extension of current policy, which targets criminal rather than "antisocial" material.

The Zuma legacy is likely above all to be defined by the ANC’s most profound preoccupation — itself. The policy conference demanded a "renewed and more vibrant ANC", and the Mangaung delegates are certain to concur. The next decade will be a "decade of the cadre", in which members will enjoy ideological, academic and moral training in a "comprehensive political school system". Cadres will be subjected to "performance monitoring", "firm and consistent action" will instil discipline, and a thousand integrity commissions will blossom.

Inside Luthuli House, an information technology revolution will apparently sweep aside antiquated membership and communications systems. Political funding transparency will oblige wealthy loyalists to donate openly and generously, and fundraising will be restricted to mandated officials. By banning simultaneous membership of more than one constitutional structure, ANC leaders hope to exclude provincial barons from the political centre.

In retrospect, the Mbeki era was defined by its smug moral determination to transform South Africa in order to change the world. The Zuma era is likely to leave behind a more modest policy legacy, defined largely by a belated and increasingly desperate attempt to save the ANC from its own members.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.