The ANC is adrift, and the country with it

Maybe the ANC already does know that it’s in trouble. Mantashe, who somehow manages to annoy a little less than some of his other cadres no matter how obtuse he is being, came up with the chicken gem this week.

The poultry industry is shedding jobs, in large part due to cheap imports. The ANC’s solution is to buy up the farms once they go belly-up and retrench workers.

Presumably Mantashe believes the State’s track record in the sphere of running things is so good that it has to try its hand at farming? But at least he proffered a solution of sorts. That can’t be said for the rest of the press conference. It saw Mantashe rambling on and failing to answer any question coherently whether it was about the possibility of Brian Molefe being sworn in as an MP or about the ANC’s forthcoming December elective conference.

On something as, well, radical as “radical economic transformation”, Mantashe said the ANC was going to be “digging deeper”. What does that mean? We will need to look to our president for guidance.

As President Zuma comes to Parliament next week to officially start the political year, he comes as a partially lame duck given that this will be his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) as president of the ANC. But there is life in Zuma yet as his recent remarks regarding the ANC succession battle reflect. His push for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his preferred candidate has not gone unnoticed, to say the least.

SONA this year also comes amid many rumours of a looming Cabinet reshuffle and deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s own comments regarding the disunity so evident within the ANC. Will Pravin Gordhan actually deliver the Budget speech this year, one wonders? Firing him would be a capricious act, to be sure.

Does Zuma actually dare to do it, or are he and his proxies simply flying the proverbial kite in testing the limits of his powers? It creates enough uncertainty and instability to deal Gordhan and the body politic a bit of a body blow, however.

Given all this it is easy to see why Mantashe struggled to provide a reassuring word regarding the NEC lekgotla and South Africa’s trajectory. The ANC is far too riven with internal divisions to provide us with any clarity on how we will deal with the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

We are told the speech will honour ANC stalwart Oliver Tambo who would have turned 100 this year. What, one wonders, would the sage Tambo, a man of such integrity and commitment, think of the ANC of today? Adrift is a word that comes to mind.

The ANC is adrift and along with it, the country itself. Frankly, there’s not much the president can say next week that can provide us with any salve. He has done little to deal with the real challenges of our society given his preoccupation with palace politics and feathering his own and his associates’ nests.

Zuma has shown scant regard for the Constitution itself as the ConCourt judgment on Nkandla showed. He has furthermore sown division within his own Cabinet by not dealing decisively with allegations of state capture and backing his own finance minister. (He is unable to, of course.)

Citizens now openly call for Zuma to step down and the ANC’s own weak local government election showing was a clear sign that some of the party faithful have been tested perhaps a little too much. So Zuma arrives at Parliament with his credibility in tatters. But he has never concerned himself much with such details and has instead sought to build support among his provincial support base.

If Zuma were a president of a different ilk, one would expect to hear his thoughts on South Africa’s rising levels of inequality and persistently high youth unemployment rate. Last year our universities were torn apart by #FeesMustFall protests while he remained largely silent apart from establishing the Fees Commission to solve the problem or kick it to touch for a while.

Yet, the challenge is far broader than simply university fees. It is about the deep inequality that is so entrenched in much of South African society. Recent studies show that the unemployment rate among those youth with a Matric certificate is as high as 54%. It rises to about 75% without that Matric certificate. Among graduates, unemployment levels are around 8%. It is thus easy to see why so many are so desperate for a tertiary education. It remains a ticket out of poverty.

In this real-life context, what does the ANC actually mean by “radical economic transformation” and how can all sectors of society be part of such an important conversation about redistribution? Thus far we have heard the shouts of bringing down “white monopoly capital” yet that seems less about the true transformation of the economy and more about the narrow economic interests of Zuma and his associates. Doubtless, we will hear about the “radical” reform of the banking and mining sectors and government’s increased role in the developmental state.

The expropriation of land has become something of a centrepiece for Zuma and the ANC of late. The new expropriation legislation might provide some “radical” response to the EFF’s continued call for greater land redistribution. Perhaps the president will also tell us how the state will manage the expropriation process when it happens and also what skills will be passed to “emerging farmers” who seek the necessary training? It’s the detail that matters too.

Clearly the ANC wants to up the ante on the economy as it desperately seeks a new angle to recycled ideas but the challenge is always implementation and dealing with its own internal contradictions to ensure policy clarity.

A few comforting words will be spoken about the “fight against corruption” just as the ANC’s January 8th statement did. But in practice, how will things really change? Not much when Zuma himself sits at the heart of efforts to capture the heart of the state. Key to economic growth and development is the effective running of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Ours are in dire straits and last year Zuma appointed a Presidential State-owned Enterprises Co-ordinating Council to “stabilise and reform” SOEs.

Given the state of SAA, Eskom and other SOEs, Zuma would do well to report back on the progress of the council. What steps have been taken to strengthen corporate governance within SOEs? In addition, there are other matters that sit uncomfortably. The Justice Committee is currently seized with the Rome Statute Bill ensuring our withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.

What is the president’s mind on this issue apart from the statements that have been made? What is South Africa’s commitment to human rights and ensuring that we adhere to global standards, patchy as those are right now? A SONA ought to be about the “big, hairy issues” which face a country and provide a vision of where we are going. Zuma’s SONAs have been pedestrian and repetitive with little or no vision to carry us along.

It does not seem as if that approach will change given his speeches over the past year as well as his seeming disinterest in matters of state and his consistent lack of leadership.

In a perfectly aligned universe, he would speak to what concerns us all and thus announce that he will not delay the commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture. He would say too that he is equally concerned that the finance minister is under attack at every turn.

The chances of that happening are unfortunately minuscule. And so we will have to be satisfied with another dull speech in a House that will be in lockdown thanks to the paranoia of our state security agencies.

Perhaps that is a fitting atmosphere in a world where Zuma once asked, referring to the axing of Des/Dave van Rooyen, “If the President acts again, will we be prepared?” His cabinet will look on next Thursday with swords of Damocles hanging over their heads.

Adrift we truly are.

*This article was published in Daily Maverick To view the article on their website click here. 

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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