A ruling party in turmoil starts its crucial policy conference today, but many believe what will transpire behind the scenes will by far overshadow the official business of discussing ANC policy.

Party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said on the eve of the conference taking place at Nasrec, near Soweto, that the economic crisis in the country should get the ANC’s immediate attention.

But ANC stalwarts, who are boycotting the conference for the first two days, have accused the leadership of the ruling party of “sticking their heads in the sand” as evidence of state capture mounts, while the ruling party is also embroiled in an intense internal leadership race.

Delegates will decide on the ANC’s policies in the week ahead, but any formulations will only be formally adopted at the national elective conference in December.

Mantashe said some issues needed to be dealt with immediately.

He said the gathering took place against the backdrop of the downgrading of South Africa’s investment grading by three ratings agencies, the latest unemployment numbers and the economy entering a technical recession after two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

“The economic crisis can’t wait for December,” Mantashe told reporters at Nasrec yesterday.

He outlined the key priorities of the conference, which will largely centre on the economy.

He added that the outcome of last year’s local government polls in which the ANC lost three metros and a handful of smaller municipalities, bringing its national support down to 53.9%, was “still looming large” in the party’s analysis.

ANC stalwarts have accused the party’s leadership of behaving like ostriches as it battles reports of state capture and intense internal leadership infighting.

Party veteran Murphy Morobe said the ANC was not prepared to confront its own problems or “project state capture”.

“This crisis is too deep. It needs them to take their heads out of the sand. The conference will not go to the bottom of the issues that we have raised.

“The Zuma issue in relation to Nkandla, Guptas and e-mails is all part of one big issue that the ANC leadership has to face up to,” he said.

Morobe and other veterans said they decided to boycott the conference because President Jacob Zuma had failed to raise their proposed separation of the policy conference from the national consultative conference as promised.

Zuma will address the opening of the conference, which will run until Wednesday.