The ANC’s national policy conference, currently under way at Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, is seen by many as a precursor to the “real” event: the elective National Conference, set to take place from December 16 to 20, also in Gauteng.
This skewed fascination illustrates that matters of the highest public interest are seldom those which the public finds most interesting. Key for South Africa’s future is which of the competing political ideologies and economic agendas gain ground. Decisions in this regard will begin to take shape at the policy conference.
The NEC offers none of this. Instead, it highlights a managerial type of conflict. The battle between the leading contenders, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is framed as a fight – corruption versus clean governance, consultative processes versus ministerial fiat, radicalism versus moderation. Business-wise, these concerns are about ethical leadership, stakeholder relations and change management. However, little of these concerns determines the political agenda.
Most governments – no matter their ideologies or economic aspirations – are either corrupt or not, consultative or not, and radical or moderate when it comes to the pace of reform. The contrived narrative of “poor governance”, cited as the reason underpinning the failure of African nations, has less explanatory power than is often assigned to it. Growing evidence points to the importance of policy rather than governance in fast-growing economies. Currently, four political scenarios loom large for the ANC as 2019 approaches: two scenarios showing economic prosperity, and two describing economic failure.
1. The African Liger
‘African Lions” is the nomenclature given by some analysts to emerging African economies. The term is often compared to these countries’ Asian counterparts, the Asian Tigers. Adopting an economic path that follows that of the tigers is a model that many ANC reformists may wish to follow. After all, it is often argued that the Asian growth story is a riposte to Washington’s neoliberal policies.
This scenario is the best outcome the ANC can hope for if it wants to ensure economic prosperity, with the party behind a dominant state apparatus.
The African Liger scenario arises from an ANC that is able to engender party discipline. The party’s secretary-general position assumes greater significance, possibly necessitating that the president take a strategic back seat to this role.
From the strong party flows the mandate of building a developmental state assisted by highly educated and, crucially, politically aligned officials.
The state places itself to pick winners and losers in the economy, and, through aggressive infrastructure investments in selected zones and subsidies, it gives assistance to strategic sectors.
The objective is a strict regulatory framework, but, in return, business relies on policy stability, public infrastructure investment and a highly educated population to ensure productivity.
This model, whereby the African lion mimics the tiger, may still entail race-driven policies, as support of the dominant group is critical to sustained political power. A dominant party able to engage in long-term state planning is critical as a multiparty democracy with strong opposition parties places it in jeopardy.
This model is potentially a tale of economic prosperity at the risk of civil liberties.
2.The Leaping Leprechaun
The leaping leprechaun, posing next to its pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, is the allegory for this alternative successful growth path. This scenario imagines that the ANC is able to unite behind an inclusive model, which identifies critical but noncompeting roles for itself in government and the private sector.
A new deal is drafted between government and the private sector to put an end to an adversarial history. The state commits to the private sector being at the forefront of economic growth and the engine for creating decent jobs.
Instead of directing industry, government focuses on a strong social system that assists the destitute; on setting up a world-class education system that can meet the needs of a knowledge-driven economy; and on creating a secure and caring society that is tough on crime and its socioeconomic causes.
This is an enabling approach where enrichment on behalf of others is no longer possible as race stops being used as a proxy for disadvantage.
3. Patronage by Proxy
The threat to South Africa’s poor majority is that the current rhetoric on radical economic transformation will accelerate existing theories about affirmative action, which allows a few to benefit on behalf of the many.
Patronage by proxy is a scenario which sees the ANC unite behind a racially redistributive agenda.
In this scenario, black South Africans with access to education and capital act as proxies for a poor black majority. Black ownership of business and capital markets will display a demographically different economy, but with the same disparities in access to opportunities between rich and poor.
As a result of the compelling promise held by redistribution, the ANC’s ability to outline an ever more vivid enemy in white South Africans and business owners may guarantee it another election win in 2019. But the rapid realisation that a racially redistributionist agenda merely ensures the transfer of ownership between old and new elites will inevitably reignite civil unrest and moves towards the formation of a splinter group.
4. Splinter Group
Another splinter group would weaken the ANC, but it would also start to present the first signs of a maturing democracy.
In this scenario, the ANC – unable to unite behind a common vision – spins off another small opposition party more akin to the Congress of the People than the Economic Freedom Fighters; perhaps strong on integrity and inclusion, but weak on coherence and a united leadership.
A third splinter group is likely to present initial promise, but ultimately, it will not perform at the ballot box, leaving a weak splinter but an even weaker ANC. This scenario opens up the gap for a democratic era free from hegemony. It represents an uncertain future of unlikely bedfellows, but may be the “bottoming out” South Africa needs before crossing the boundary from economic failure to economic prosperity.
Ngwenya is chief operating officer of the SA Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom
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