Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Where has the ANC's intellectual depth gone?

2017-03-24 10:56

Some of the ANC’s discussion documents prepared for the party’s policy conference give the impression that the party with two decades in power lacks governing experience.

Sympathetic historians, who understand what the ANC has stood for over the years, would feel sad about the goings-on in OR Tambo’s party. The latter would be very sad about the decimation of its intellectual depth.

If the party has to recover its high ground, the starting point would be to rescue it intellectually. Tragically, there is no discernible plan to recalibrate the ANC’s intellectual capacity.

Concern over declining electoral power is reduced to the need to do some undefined “soul-searching”, regaining the trust of voters and implementing campaigns to ensure discouraged voters go to the polls on election day. In tackling the symptoms, the ANC ducks the real issue: depleted thinking capacity.

The party comes across as a party that is scared of losing power, which is not unusual for any governing party. What makes things worse in this case is that it is unsure how to prevent the slide. It is also uncertain how it wants to govern. It’s almost as if the party has run out of ideas.

But it is the document on governance that sends the chill in the spine, depicting a centenary-old organisation as proudly amateurish. The document recommends to the forthcoming policy conference a “macro configuration” of governance. If the conference concurs, this will be government policy.

The recommendations are, to say the least, embarrassing, particularly those that refer to the role of the Presidency. First, the document says, the Presidency is the “strategic centre” of governance. This strategic “centre” must be the “central” driver (note the emphasis by repetition) of the capacity of the state; taking care of resource planning, prioritisation, allocation as per the “strategic” (emphasis again) objectives of the National Development Plan; aligning public service administration to deliver the core priorities of the state; it must be the “centre” (another emphasis) of coordination of other spheres of government and state-owned entities. In short, the Presidency must drive budgeting, among other things.

Secondly, the document says the following core functions must form part of the “strategic centre” located within the Presidency: “state policy and planning; resource allocation and prioritisation, cooperative governance, public administration and performance assessment”. Note the repetition which one assumes, with generous interpretation though, is a deliberate attempt by the authors to emphasise the centrality of the Presidency in running the whole of government. 

Third, the “strategic centre” of government in the Presidency must ensure that strong capacity is deployed in all branches of the state to ensure that the National Democratic Revolution is advanced. The merit principle must apply, it says. The “centre” of government must establish a “central” organising machinery for optimal deployment of talent across the spheres of government [and] become a “clearing house” for all senior appointment, succession planning and career development.

The authors of the document or this section, as well as the National Executive Committee members who gave it a thumbs-up have embarrassed themselves because they failed to read the Constitution of the Republic.

Had they done so, they would have known that the centrality of the Presidency in the government of the whole country doesn’t require a party conference resolution.

The recommendations also say a lot about President Jacob Zuma’s lack of understanding of South Africa’s governance system that is enshrined in the Constitution. Had he cared to study the system, he would have known the extent of his powers as the president and his office.

Essentially, the ANC document is recommending that the party pass a resolution to order fish to swim in water, aircraft to always fly in the air and the cat to catch the mouse. To bring it closer to matters of state, it’s like suggesting to reconfigure Parliament to legislate and the courts to pass judgements on societal disputes that come before them.

Chapter 5 of the Constitution of the Republic spells out in detail the duties and obligations of the president. The president holds the executive authority of the country. He and the cabinet he appoints, which serves at his pleasure, are responsible for developing and implementing national policy, coordinating the functions of state departments and administration, preparing and initiating legislation and performing other functions in terms of the constitution and other laws.

It is in the context of performing these constitutional duties that the president’s office or The Presidency is inherently the centre of executive power in the country. The president or his office does not need a resolution of an ANC conference to give him “strategic” powers that put him at the “centre” of his own administration. If he doesn’t know that he is at the centre of his own administration he is not fit for the office.

The idea that the president does not have sufficient authority over the national budget is a myth. The president’s lack of intellectual and moral capacity to oversee the functioning of complicated institutions like the national treasury – which one suspects could be the real challenge – must not be linked to lack of executive authority.

If the ANC wants to give the president more authority than he already has on the national budget in his capacity as the executive head of government, it must ask Parliament to do the impossible: amend the Constitution and delete the section on treasury as a separate and semi-independent department.

But the brazen attempt by foreigners to capture the treasury during the catastrophic events of 9/12 has proven the writers of the Constitution right. The current ANC leaders would do well to study the minutes and notes of its Constitution negotiators during Codesa and the Constitutional Assembly.

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

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