JOHANNESBURG -- During apartheid, in the coastal municipality of Overstrand, just east of Cape Town, whites lived in plush, seaside enclaves whereas blacks and mixed race people lived in ugly townships and shacks. Whites owned almost all the businesses, and had access to the best jobs, health care and schools.
Eighteen years after the end of apartheid, not much has changed, said Maurencia Gillion, a local politician who grew up and still lives in Overstrand.
"The rich white people live in their beautiful holiday homes," Ms. Gillion said. "The rest are in slums, in squatter areas. Even after 18 years, in reality apartheid remains."
That would seem a harsh critique of the party that has governed South Africa since the end of minority rule in 1994, the century-old African National Congress. It came not from an opposition leader, but one of the party's own. Ms. Gillion is a senior A.N.C. leader in her province, and her words were simply an echo of what the party's leader, President Jacob Zuma, said in a speech minutes earlier.
"The structure of the apartheid economy has remained largely intact," Mr. Zuma said, in a speech to thousands of delegates to the A.N.C.'s policy conference, held every five years, before the presidential election, to work out the party's platform. "The ownership of the economy is still primarily in the hands of white males, as it has always been."
The four-day conference here, which began Tuesday, has been devoted to considerable soul-searching about what the A.N.C. has, and has not, achieved in 18 years in power. With unemployment at 25 percent, and much higher for young blacks, and corruption widespread, there is a growing perception that the A.N.C. has become the party of a small black elite interested only in its own enrichment. To counter this perception, the party has released a set of back-to-basics policy proposals that it claims will help deliver on its old election slogan: "A better life for all."
The party's own analysis had this to say about South Africa's predicament nearly two decades after the end of apartheid: "Too few people work; the standard of education of most black learners is of poor quality; infrastructure is poorly located, under-maintained and insufficient to foster higher growth; spatial patterns exclude the poor from the fruits of development; the economy is overly and unsustainably resource-intensive; a widespread disease burden is compounded by a failing health system; public services are uneven and often of poor quality; corruption is widespread; and South Africa remains a divided society."
Officials were quick to say that 18 years is a short time to reverse centuries of discrimination under colonial and apartheid rule that left black South Africans ill equipped to compete in a liberalized economy. And Mr. Zuma ticked off a list of major achievements: millions of new houses for the poor; millions more connected to the electric grid and piped water systems; and a growing and vibrant black middle class.
Embedded in the policy documents and Mr. Zuma's remarks is an argument that the process of transforming the country's economy to put more wealth in the hands of blacks was hampered by the need to make peace with the former white rulers.
"We had to make certain compromises in the national interest," Mr. Zuma said. "We had to be cautious about restructuring the economy in order to maintain economic stability and confidence at the time. Thus the economic power relations of the apartheid era have remained intact."
The party is thus proposing what it calls a "second transition," this one focused on economic, rather than political, change.
The policy proposals take a hard look at some of the most difficult issues facing South Africa, and at the A.N.C.'s internal struggles. One asks whether the government should dispense with the current policy of land redistribution and replace it with a more aggressive one. Another contemplates nationalizing the country's mines.
Taken together, the proposals would, if adopted, represent a sharp leftward shift for the A.N.C., which despite its roots has largely backed a free-market economy with minimal state intervention. The proposals are being discussed this week and will be decided upon when the party holds its convention in December.
Some A.N.C. members have been pushing for a more radical program of redistribution of wealth from whites to blacks. The party's Youth League, under the firebrand leader Julius Malema, had demanded that gold, platinum and diamond mines be nationalized. Cosatu, an alliance of trade unions that is one of the A.N.C.'s main allies, has pushed for banks to be nationalized.
Yet, according to the A.N.C.'s own analysis, its failure to deliver economic progress may be its own fault. The party has experienced "a silent shift from transformative politics to palace politics wherein internal strife and factional battles over power and resources define the political life of the movement," a far cry from its founding as a liberation movement built on socialist principles.
For all the fears of a leftward shift that could lead to the repossession of white-owned land, as happened in Zimbabwe, or the nationalization of mines, such moves are highly unlikely, said Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.
"There is going to be lots of fairly radical rhetoric, and the actual proposals are going to be actually quite meek and mild," Mr. Friedman said. "This has been the pattern all along."
Indeed, some delegates at the conference advocated a go-slow approach.
"I support the sharing of wealth, but I don't think we should go for a radical approach," said Tim Mkhari, a delegate from Limpopo, a province on the country's northern edge.
"We should not take the Zimbabwe route," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published June 27, 2012 1:00 PM