A nonsense concept

2012-06-28 00:00

THE Second Transition is not new, not interesting and a distraction from more important policy issues. Worse: it is an indictment of many ordinary African National Congress members, many senior leaders, political journalists and some analysts, all of whom are treating these three words — “The Second Transition” — as the greatest, if controversial, political and intellectual invention in years.

Let’s be clear why the concept is not impressive. At the heart of the concept is the idea that as a country we should now focus our energy on overhauling the economy so as to deliver better material conditions for all citizens. The first transition was about politics.

But this is odd. First, it is false to distinguish so neatly between politics and economics. Where have you heard of any country any­where in the world that says: “Let’s focus on politics for 20 years and thereafter on economics?” Every nation always simultaneously tries to build and nurture effective political institutions, while also taking due care of the economy. It is not an either/or strategic choice that governments face.

Second, the concept is premised on a lie about the historic intent of an ANC-run government. From the outset, the ANC sought to deliver “a better life for all”. If that hasn’t been achieved, then the state and the ruling alliance are politically responsible for the failures in the economy. That cannot be smoothed over by implying that governance was never really about the economy, until this week.

In fact, Dr Blade Nzimande, an ANC NEC member, conceded this point to me in an interview on my show on Talk Radio 702 this week. He agreed that The Second Transition is an inadvertent admission that much economic planning did not result in a more egalitarian society over the past 18 years.

But given that economic policy existed, the state has to take some blame for the failures and shortcomings on the socioeconomic landscape. It is not good enough to pretend that economic justice and social reform weren’t strategic priorities up until now.

Third, the concept of a Second Transition also means that the post-Polokwane government, under President Jacob Zuma’s watch, didn’t fundamentally redirect the neoliberal macro-economic framework of the Thabo Mbeki years. It has been mostly more of the same.

So any South African Communist Party support for Zuma for a second term must be based on a wish that things going forward will be different. It can’t be based on satisfaction that the state, since Polokwane, has become structurally changed to be totally aligned with a pro-poor, pro-worker agenda.

Fourth, talk about a Second Transition falsely implies a successful First Transition. Given horrible “sins of incumbency” like corruption, cadre deployment, politically connected businesspeople choking at the feeding trough, a poisonous nexus between politics and the security cluster, a failure to modernise the party, etc., it is a bit premature to imagine we’ve achieved adequate political transformation.

Holding regular free and fair elections, nationally, is a good thing. A genuinely stable body politic, with deeply entrenched democratic institutions and cultural norms, are about much more. We’re doing okay, but political transformation is an ongoing process. Just as economic transformation, with its ups and downs, is not new.

Two final thoughts: it is undeniable that governance challenges are in part hampered by historic structural and institutional inequities. The racist past happened. It is not a figment of the ANC’s imagination.

However, the concept document focusing on The Second Transition does not adequately and honestly isolate factors within the ANC’s control that hugely account for slow social and economic development. The single biggest weakness we’ve had as a society is a weak state. The policy environment, despite the left’s energetic critiques, has never been fundamentally an obstacle to a better life for all.

An ineffective state, filled with cadres not always competent, some corrupt, has been a big problem. Incompetence, not history, explains the delay in textbooks reaching schools in Limpopo. Incompetence, not history, explains the collapse of the education system in the Eastern Cape. So let’s be neither ahistoric nor excessively historic in analysing present-day challenges.

Finally, if we accept the concept of a Second Transition as quite hollow then we might be curious to know why it is so popular.

Simple: firstly, the media are wrongly latching onto it as a quasi-intellectual frame of analysis for the week. Secondly, politically, the Zuma camp is, tactically, punting this concept as a grand plan and justification for why, supposedly, he should be re-elected — to “complete the second transition”.

In reality, it is all a façade. A more sober analysis of Zuma’s time in office, and as leader of the ANC, should be debated, and a decision about a second term of office should flow from that. More importantly, the real big policy topics — land, mining-sector reform, organisational renewal, health and education, etc. — should be given more dialogistical space.

But it is the silly season, so don’t hold your breath.

— Politicsweb.co.za

• Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at Wits Centre for Ethics. He hosts Talk At Nine weekdays at 9 pm on Talk Radio 702. Follow him on twitter@eusebius

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