Regular media as well as social media in South Africa have much to say about the governing African National Congress (ANC). But much of the commentary fails to understand the party – or the country.
This was evident when the ANC launched its election manifesto at a January rally in Durban. Two reactions to the event mirror constant themes in the ANC commentary. Both miss important realities.
The first is related to former president Jacob Zuma’s role at the ANC manifesto launch. The second is the manifesto’s position on the South African Reserve Bank.
Much was made of the fact that Zuma was an honoured guest and reportedly received the loudest cheers. For some, this showed that the ANC has not distanced itself from Zuma and patronage politics. For others, it meant that he and patronage politics were making a comeback. Neither fear is valid.
What the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, really thinks of Zuma is revealed by his speech to ANC activists a few days before the launch. He said:
"In the past nine years, we started losing our way, corruption started settling in, we started weakening our institutions, or government processes started weakening. But fortunately, before we could go over the precipice, we realised that we have to wake up and pull the country back."
Ramaphosa did not mention Zuma by name – he didn’t have to. His audience knew that “nine years” was the period Zuma spent in office.
The speech was an unprecedented public criticism of Zuma’s record: ANC presidents do not denounce their predecessors in public. It signalled clearly that Zuma is not respected by the ANC leadership and is not about to regain his influence.
So why did the Ramaphosa-led ANC invite Zuma, say flattering things about him and promise to assign him tasks? Because the ANC remains divided.
Symptoms of division
One symptom of division is a loud pro-Zuma faction in KwaZulu Natal province, which is happy to disrupt meetings to show support for Zuma. A decade ago it loudly heckled former president Thabo Mbeki at the reburial ceremony of ANC stalwart Moses Mabhida.
Since a repeat would be embarrassing, the threat was defused by including Zuma in the event and downplaying differences between him and Ramaphosa. The “special tasks” are likely to consist mainly of joining a council of elders with no power. The intention was to defuse Zuma’s role, not enhance it.
The reaction to Zuma’s presence at the ANC launch was consistent with a pattern since Ramaphosa was elected. Commentators and citizens on social media repeatedly complain that Zuma supporters occupy posts in the cabinet.
This ignores two realities. First, in an ANC whose leadership is divided between supporters of Ramaphosa and Zuma, excluding the latter from the cabinet would mean political suicide. Second, as it did at the manifesto rally, Ramaphosa’s faction is aware of the fact that it has to accommodate its opponents.
The Zuma supporters do not occupy important Cabinet posts and have been unable to prevent the government from pursuing its anti-corruption programme.
Accurate analysis would recognise what the ANC is, not what commentators would like it to be.
Misreading the central bank clause
The second example is reaction to a clause in the ANC manifesto which says it favours more flexible monetary policy. This, it says, should be implemented “without sacrificing price stability”, but should
"take into account other socioeconomic objectives, such as employment creation and economic growth".
This was interpreted to mean that the ANC would tell the central bank to make cheap money available – and that the bank would be forced to do what politicians tell it to do.
In reality, the clause meant exactly the opposite.
A key consequence of the ANC’s divisions is pressure from the Zuma faction for more radical economic policy: its aim is to get hold of resources, not to fight poverty. But it knows that this in an effective stick with which to beat Ramaphosa’s faction.
Poverty and inequality, which are still largely racial, continue. So Ramaphosa’s faction cannot dismiss demands for radical change; they would be accused, credibly, of turning a blind eye to minority privilege. So they do accept demands for change – and try to manage them in a way that ensures they do not damage the markets or business confidence.
The central bank is a prime example. Ramaphosa’s faction is being pressed to end private shareholding of the bank. This would not affect the decisions it takes. But it would be seen as hostile to the markets.
There is also pressure to change the bank’s very narrow mandate, which instructs it to “protect the value of the currency in the interest of balanced and sustainable economic growth in the Republic”. A number of central banks are explicitly enjoined to take jobs and growth into account.
The manifesto aims to deflect both pressures. It says nothing about buying out the shareholders or changing the mandate. It simply repeats the government position on the bank which was spelled out nearly a decade ago by the then Finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, in a letter to then governor of the bank, Gill Marcus.
The Ramaphosa faction’s move to protect the bank’s independence has been seen as an attempt to end it.
This, too, is no isolated incident.
Fallacy of a pro-business agenda
Since Ramaphosa took over, mainstream economic commentators have assumed that he was elected to do what conservatives in the marketplace want. Any sign that the government is not pursuing a strongly pro-business agenda is assumed to mean that it is a prisoner of communists. This ignores the reality in the country as well as in the ANC.
As long as poverty and inequality persist, and poor people are almost all black, no party leader who wants to win a national election can afford to ignore most voters’ needs. Governments cannot conform to the very narrow view of their role in supporting the economy.
The real question – whether plans to tackle poverty are likely to work – is ignored in the attempt to turn the ANC into a right-of-centre party and to wish away poverty in South Africa.
In both cases, we need analyses based on concrete reality – not wishful thinking.