The statement issued by the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s governing party, each January to mark the anniversary of its launch in 1912, is many things to many people.
It is a multipurpose vehicle to celebrate the party’s milestones as well as to mobilise and lure followers. It is both a sermon and a show to keep the faithful close. It also provides a rare window into the state of the organisation.
The statement meshes into ANC election campaigns. The messages and slogans reflect what the organisation believes is necessary and useful to say. It plasters over cracks and is the stage for birthday praise songs and public relations exercises, rather than a frank assessment of the party’s performance and its government.
Yet, year after year the statement also reveals the soul of a former liberation movement that has been enduring in government.
Come Saturday 11 January 2020, when the party celebrates its 108th birthday, the statement will be big on popular mobilisation and keeping the poor and the young close. It will reflect on 108 years of the party’s existence and 25 years in power, and prepare for going into a fourth set of local government elections in 2021.
This time around the prevailing political, economic and government crises add layers of expectations to the January 8 anniversary statement. It will be interpreted as a test for the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa and his command of the fractious governing party.
It will also be watched for signs of the president’s and his party’s ability to remain faithful to their 2019 election promises of ethical and effective governance, rooting out corruption, and for iterations on already agreed policy directions for the party and its government.
Given that the January 8 statement is not a state-of-the-nation address or a national budget statement, the most that may be hoped for is for it to provide evidence of a president who is confident, clear and courageous. That means a leader who can lead the governing party and the state to give effect to the 2019 statement, which confirms government policy and cleanup priorities for the year. Ramaphosa has allowed himself to be held back, so far, by the tenuous scale of his victory as party leader at the ANC’s national conference in 2017, and the internal threats to his authority. His leadership came to be seen as weak and wavering.
Even if the January 8 statement is a collective document by the ANC’s national executive committee, its highest decision-making body in between its five-yearly elective conferences, Ramaphosa’s tone and choice of words in his delivery will give clues as to the state of the organisation. This at a time of debilitating disunity and internal proxy-policy contests for position and influence over the state and its patronage networks.
The ANC’s policy directions to government are by now agreed and confirmed. They have already been announced in the January 8 statements he delivered in 2018 and 2019, even if they are continuously used as weapons in factional party warfare against him.
For example, he is accused of failing to implement agreed party resolutions regarding the expropriation of land without compensation, and to nationalise the country’s Reserve Bank. The processes to change land policy are unfolding in conformity with the policy resolutions, even if incrementally. The Reserve Bank resolution is tame enough to follow.
These policy directions have been transferred into government processes, and have been aligned with dire socio-economic needs and requirements for stable government. The questions that remain are the speed and determination of implementation. Ramaphosa’s delivery of the address could go a long way to confirming his ownership of “contested” policies, and his command of the ANC.
Other watermarks that will define the 2020 statement will be improved public service and administration, as promised in January 2019. And so will the trapeze act to restructure and rescue state-owned enterprises. Such a restructuring has to be done without alienating labour, in particular the ANC’s governing alliance partners – the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
The ANC’s task of positioning the 2020 statement will be complicated. There is hardly an angle, spin or tactic that has not yet been offered in the January 8 statements to date, especially in the 25 years since it assumed power. The increasingly cynical citizens have heard it all before.
With only minor exceptions, each statement has had an overarching theme, pertinent to the times, to help mobilise for organisational unity and people’s support of the ANC. These two frequent past themes also reflect problems in today’s ANC.
The 2020 January 8 statement will also be a typical pre-election-year statement. Expect emphasis on mobilisation and unity, and reassurances that the ANC remains on the side of the poor. All this despite lacklustre government performance, corruption and squandering of state resources.
A foretaste of the 2021 local elections could already be seen in ANC top officials saying that the statement will aim at instilling and reviving hope.
The core ANC anniversary theme will be to bring the people back into its fold, even if this task is progressively difficult.
It will find the statistics to persuade South Africans that progress has been definitive, that the state can still turn the corner – just needing the ongoing endorsement of a former liberation movement that is valiantly challenging the monster of past injustices.
The electorate has become increasingly cynical and distrusting of the ANC government’s ability to give substance to its aspirational statements. But when it comes to elections and voter choices, the party remains largely unchallenged. This confidence is likely to be tangible in the January 8 statement.
Towards a real “New Dawn”?
The task for the ANC is to show that the arrogance of wielding such enormous power, despite its fractiousness and fragility as an organisation, does not further contaminate government. That every ounce of time and resources is expended working for the people of South Africa. Only if and when that happens can the now clichéd New Dawn promised by President Ramaphosa become reality.