The ANC Policy Conference. A lot of Heat. No Light

The ANC policy conference was a lot less policy and a lot more “politics”. It generated a lot of heat. But no light.

It feels like it was a waste of six days. Of fruitless discussion and wasteful expenditure. No one is any the wiser about what the ANC’s plans for society and the economy, are. So it is almost impossible to have a meaningful debate about what the right policy mix is, for South Africa. This is especially urgent in a context of low growth & high unemployment. Yet what emerged from the ANC policy conference is anachronistic.

All we know is that the ANC supports some form of radical economic transformation. Supports maintaining the mandate of the Reserve Bank as is, and has decided that “white” no longer needs to be used a descriptor of concentrated monopolies in the South African economy.

But this is unsurprising. The 6-day event started off on the wrong foot. And this was not just because a group of ANC veterans who requested a consultative conference, rather than a policy one, were denied it. It is – because the ANC entered this policy conference with fundamentally contradictory, and divergent conceptions of ideology, politics and policy. It is almost as if two (or five) different parties gathered to discuss policies for a third (or sixth). And it showed.

In fact, one would be forgiven if one left the conference thinking the ANC was under siege. It betrayed a breath-taking lack of confidence in its own agency and its wide (though declining) popular support. This led to the ANC’s insistent navel-gazing at itself as a “movement” rather than a party in power. No wonder it talked itself into series of identity, policy and political cul-de-sacs.

In a curious way, this suited the ANC. Focusing on its movement identity allowed it to evade scrutiny of its lack lustre performance in government, its manipulation of independent institutions, procedures and processes in decision making, and in prosecutions. It also allowed it to evade any responsibility for South Africa’s poor economic performance.

The ANC, the Constitution & Government

The fundamentally divergent and contradictory political approaches within the ANC to the Constitution is instructive. It was evident in the silences of the ANC Policy Conference. The SA Constitution is both beautiful and bewildering in its range and its depth, even if we can recognise that contradictorily, it is both inanimate and instrumental. In its inanimaty, it creates structure and process.

In its instrumentality, it creates function and agency. But it is in peril, under assault from all sides, tragically- often from those who are meant to protect & preserve it. Simply observe the attitude of Jacob Zuma, the entire ANC NEC and as the Constitutional Court said, the entire Parliament – who did not stay faithful to the Constitution. (Of course for the EFF the Constitution is in principle odious, vilified in normal circumstances but valorised when required to score political points. Its interest is not in principle, merely in power.)

But it serves very many useful purposes. Its most fundamental and primary one is in defining our politics as democratic and all that it entails, in ensuring space for participation and in defining our political community. Here it is both inclusive and progressive, but also non-racist and non-sexist and democratic. These have of late come under assault.

Firstly, the dichotomy of inclusivity and exclusivity that has characterised South African history on the basis of race which the Constitution tries to reverse, has re-appeared.  Who is included as constitutive of the political community and on what terms – has increasingly come into question – ranging from those expressive of the emergent new “de-colonialist/fallist” mood – to the recidivist race nationalists in the mainstream ANC, extended to the purported radicals of the EFF.

Increasingly- this discursive bent appears to wish to write whites out of the political community- except as taxpayers. The debate of whether Monopoly Capital is “white” must be located within this frame. For once it appears “whites” were defined out of evil, rather inscribed in it.

The second major conflict in its approach to The Constitution within the ANC is that the Constitution expresses quite modern ideas, compared to the inherited feudal ones that concentrate executive authority and power (what its supporters mistakenly call ideas & practices borne of out of tradition). These supposed ideas of tradition have no problem with an excessive concentration of authority and fusion of executive power in a single institution or set of people, usually ones favoured not on principle but on preference borne of racial identity.

Ideas of modernity would wish to impose restraints on them and would separate their function. We simply need to think about the impunity with which politicians from the head of state down to the local councillor behave and how they are defended by leaders of the political community and find support in society.

The desire to pass laws like the traditional courts bill and the protection of state information bill, however, are contradicted by the respect for unpopular rights and values such as the rights of the LGTBQI, and free choice, and the death penalty. It’s unsurprising that (apart from having men having to speak on behalf of emotional women) the ANC Women’s League attempted to open a discussion on the re-introduction of capital punishment.

While our core political rights are enshrined and appear to be protected, increasingly we have moved in society from political intolerance to outright political thuggery while curiously there has been an acceptance of political tolerance as a political virtue political practice – there’s more and more political violence.

Institutions have come under pressure. Majorities are used in ever cruder & I might add, ruder ways. Political assassinations are rife. Intimidation of journalists and commentators are increasing in frequency. Low level and internecine political intimidation which becomes more frequent at election times are the norm. The inability of opposition politicians and entire communities in order to conduct oversight visits is becoming routine and the role and function of Parliament is called into question.

Consequently, placing limits on executive power & curbing arbitrary use of authority is not only on the decline – but seems to have disappeared and South Africa is being pushed by recidivists in the ANC to consider diluting the separation of powers principle, in fusing the office of the executive with greater power and authority and to do away with oversight measures – especially over government procurement, and expenditure, through doing away with the Public Finance Management Act, The Municipal Finance Management Act, Financial Intelligence Centre Act, as well as a raft of other regulatory instruments that protect the integrity of public finance management and transparency in government expenditure.

Following the Constitutional Court’s decision in the Nkandla case as well as findings on the SASSA Social Grants crisis, we were left to think about the ANC in, and as Government as either malicious or, ‘incompetent. Considering the Courts rulings in the spy tapes case, we are left to think the ANC as Executive Government in charge of the NPA either, made inappropriate and incompetent appointments or manipulated the person in decision making positions within these institutions to favour a particular outcome (i.e.: inappropriately drop the charges against Jacob Zuma).

Curiously, those protesting about the Constitution as a hindrance to change and transformation, have themselves demonstrated and proved that it actually works (both – on a series of socio-economic rights jurisprudence, on Nkandla oversight and accountability, restraining the extra-ordinary and arbitrary abuse of authority by the speaker of parliament, and in providing direction to fixing a social grants and welfare crisis precipitated by the Executive).

The ANC and the Fiction of Radical Economic Transformation

Increasingly, now, the Constitution is placed under pressure to provide socio-economic goods – to address questions of the economy, transfer of wealth, redistribution – the broader concerns of a social justice agenda – and seek that these be addressed and delivered by the Constitution. Apart from the “recognition” (which is itself becoming an important area of discourse) of injustices, through the agency of politics and government. Failures here are not of the Constitution but of the government and of politics.

Because these conversations would have made manifest all the failures of the ANC as a Government, its actual policy conference evaded any discussion on policy and on the ANC as a political party in government. Because it is easier to spend six days on the ANC as a movement, than to think of the ANC as a party in government, it becomes easier to scapegoat the Constitution, for NOT doing what a political party in power has the power and function, to actually do.

The Constitution does not impede radical economic or even radical-socio economic transformation. Poor politics and bad government does. The Constitution does not facilitate undue influence and state capture. Poor politics and bad government do.

But this would mean actually discussing the things that matter, rather than the things that don’t. Had the ANC had appropriate conversations over the six-day period, it might have developed serious proposals for the rescuing of an ailing economy, and of incepting radical (socio) economic transformation for real, rather than having a proxy succession debate.

The ANC identified that it needs to rebuild trust, but not why and in which areas. The decline in public trust and confidence in the ANC as a movement, in its cadres and, in the public institutions it presides over is a fancy way of saying that the people and large parts of the private sector do not trust – the government.

They don’t do so for good reason. For one, the question of whether a president is entitled to spend R280-million on security and comfort has been placed on the ethical back burner. This is quite apart from the fact that the Constitutional Court has found that the President violated his oath of office, nor withstanding that the President paid back the 10 Million ZAR that the court ordered him to.

Parliament, under the ANC appears to have given up on a robust law making and oversight function. The police are ineffective and the courts slow and tardy (except in the most-high profile of cases – but in the daily grind of court matters, backlogs are long and inefficiency high). Political meddling in the prosecutions and revenue service indicate the early hollowing out of state institutions.

The state regularly flouts its commitments, implements policy in a haphazard and unaccountable manner with insufficient oversight and a lack of enforcement and effective sanction in instances of irregular and even illegal behaviour. Corruption is rife and the rule of law is regularly undermined. The governing party appears to have lost its moral compass.

And so, REAL radical economic transformation is not precluded by the Constitution, and is an available option to the ANC – in the form of “prescriptive policy”, requiring prescribed minimum re-investment thresholds in the economy for the purposes of market development and expansion, research and development for new products and services, as well as the creation of minimum number of jobs per sector. Obviously, this can only happen if there is, in fact, greater production and manufacturing in South Africa.

Additionally, a mix of further measures may be necessary to stimulate job creation.

With an over-reliance on imports, South Africa could consider a policy of import substitution which balances the continued need for imports with moderately higher duties, tariffs and taxes on imports to ring fence revenue from these to subsidise and incentivise local manufacturing, industry and economic diversification and the creation of black industrialists. In addition, stagnant capital reserves in the private sector could be made more productive and the tide of capital flight stemmed by re-imposing prudent exchange controls at prudent levels to balance capital retention with the need for investment outflow and maintaining confidence in the economy.

But this opportunity was lost. And probably for good.

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

Awarded the Ruth First Fellowship for 2014 at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg – Ebrahim Fakir is currently the Director of Programs at ASRI. He was previously Manager of the Governance Institutions and Processes Department (GIPs) at EISA (2009-2012) and then the head of EISA’s Political Parties and Parliamentary Program [2012-2016]. He was formerly Senior Researcher and Analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg [2003-2009].  He worked at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) [1998-2003] at both IDASA’s Pretoria and Cape Town offices and he also worked at the first democratic Parliament of the Republic of South Africa (1996-1998) in the Legislation and Oversight Division. He writes in the popular press as well as academic and policy journals on politics, development, and the state. He is used as a commentator and facilitator by the domestic and international media, business and other organisations. He was visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex (2005/2006) and was a Draper Hills Summer Fellow at the Centre for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, for 2011.

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