Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Policy conference proposals reflect decline in ANC brain power

2017-07-07 11:22
President Jacob Zuma waves during the ANC policy conference in Johannesburg. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

President Jacob Zuma waves during the ANC policy conference in Johannesburg. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

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The ANC policy conference ended on a rather bizarre note when President Jacob Zuma begged members to support the creation of two deputy presidents.

He or she who loses the presidential race in December would automatically become one of two deputy presidents. In Zuma’s view, this would "unite the two factions". One faction is led by his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The other by his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa.

It is the Dlamini-Zuma faction, with Zuma as its chief lobbyist, that is promoting the two-deputy president system. It was conceived in KwaZulu-Natal.

Never before has a president been so openly factional and so regionally inclined. The suggestion doesn’t even make sense. What happens when there are five factions?

Such proposals reflect the extent to which the ANC has deteriorated. Although the party admitted at the policy conference that it is at its weakest since 1994, this seems to refer only to electoral support. The causes of the electoral weakness are never confronted head-on: diminishing intellectual gravitas and the extinction of ethical uprightness.

Three things showed the decline in the ANC’s brain power at the policy conference.

The first is the lack of understanding of the basics of how the South African economy works. Proposals that require increased state expenditure during a recession fail to appreciate the crisis facing the state. The state's revenue targets will be missed because economic activity has slowed down.

Free higher education, however desirable, is unrealistic at this stage unless the government cuts back on wasteful expenditure, including a reduction in the size of the Cabinet. The proposal by some factions to increase social grants beyond the age of 18 is silent on the sources of funding.

Proposals aimed at consumption expenditure run counter to the government’s policy of fiscal consolidation – aligning expenditure with revenue growth and managing debt responsibly.

Without growing state revenues - an impossible task when business confidence is at its lowest - there can be no free higher education or extension of social grants. Unless fiscal guzzlers like South African Airways are sold or given to the private sector to run efficiently on behalf of the state.

Nothing came out of the conference to demonstrate that the ANC has an idea on how to grow the economy. The policy conference could have adopted measures to instill investor confidence, but it didn't. Instead, it initiated discussions that would spark investor fears.

Proposals to tinker with the shareholding structure of the central bank and expropriation of land without compensation are foolhardy. Changing the shareholder arrangement of the Reserve Bank is inconsequential if the bank’s constitutionally guaranteed independence doesn’t change.

But the proposal, coming as it does from a governing party that is no longer trusted by the private sector and has a propensity to rattle rather than to comfort investors, is likely to be viewed as the beginning of the unravelling of the good work of the central bank.

Credit rating agencies have, even when they downgraded South Africa, singled out the work of Reserve Bank and the courts as positive sign that the country boasts "institutional strength".

But, the political noise about the workings of the Reserve Bank and the president’s tirade against judicial review at the policy conference can hardly instill much-needed investor confidence.

Majoritarian vs constitutional system

The second indication of the declining brain power in the ANC is the lack of understanding of South Africa’s constitutional democratic framework.

There was a suggestion from one of the factions that a referendum should be held to decide on expropriation of land without compensation. It was almost as if public opinion should trump the Constitution.

Although the referendum proposal was not adopted, the fact that it comes from senior governing party leaders is scary enough. It seems as if many ANC leaders and aspirant leaders were never introduced to the Constitution, its origins and, most importantly, its necessity in a civilised society.

It might explain why Zuma and his group see the Constitution as an irritation that should be broken or circumvented. The effect of this has been that civil society groups and opposition parties have emerged as the champions of the Constitution, while Zuma and his crew are the enemies.

It’s about time the ANC changed its language in its strategy and tactics document. It still refers to the need to create a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist society. It should prefix democratic with "constitutional".

Not all democratic societies are constitutional democracies. The Zuma group prefers a majoritarian system, where the majority in Parliament gets what it wants, regardless of whether it’s irrational or not.

In the constitutional democratic system, the Constitution, not the majority, is supreme. The majority must comply with the Constitution. The rule of law means the majority doesn’t change the rules or the Constitution when some powerful individuals are found wanting.

If the ANC cared about this, it would have resolved to launch a massive education programme for its members, particularly aspirant leaders. Illiteracy in relation to the founding document of our democracy is dangerous, especially among those whose job it is to uphold, protect and advance it.

The third indication of intellectual decline of the ANC was the obsession about increasing the role of the state in the economy, without a clear plan on how the state will cope with added responsibilities.

State bank

How the ANC hopes the state can run a commercial bank when it can’t run an airline or public hospitals is mind-boggling.You can run an airline down and drain our fiscus, and still walk away with murder if the economy grows enough for the government to continue dumping money into the abyss. But you can’t do the same with a bank.

Bank failures, unlike an airline or public hospital failures, are contagious. A run on one bank, triggers a run across all banks. Those in the know describe this as "systemic risk".  Besides, the ANC has been talking about a state bank for a very long time. Some in the ANC have made noises about the establishment of a black-owned bank.

And while they were talking and politicking, Capitec was formed by entrepreneurs to service the lower end and the so-called "missing middle". It is now ranked among the most successful banks in the world.

Established after the dawn of democracy, the ANC should be proud that under its government, a successful private sector conglomerate was established to compete with the old banks. Or is Capitec part of white monopoly capital?

Not everything about the policy conference showed decline of brain power. Of all the proposals that emerged from the policy conference, one was exceptionally brilliant – the idea that the ANC needs a strategy as an opposition party and as a coalition partner in some cases.

The delegates who suggested this were the best. They were realistic enough to understand the terminal decline of the ANC. They have a long-term view on how it could be returned to power because it is destined to lose power soon. 

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria. 

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