Mayihlome Tshwete | Where are you, ANC? We are in an economic crisis

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With the official unemployment rate at  34.4%, the writer asks where the ANC is?  Picture: Gallo/ iStock
With the official unemployment rate at 34.4%, the writer asks where the ANC is? Picture: Gallo/ iStock
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The issue of economic upliftment has always been part and parcel of the ANC. Despite this, writes Mayihlome Tshwete, the party is failing to address it urgently and this could have implications for it further down the line.


Democracy is a marvellous concept. Those who are enslaved, oppressed, disadvantaged and deprived of it naturally value it intensely. 

Hundreds of years of oppression and dispossession cultivated a warranted yearning for democracy in the hearts of the masses. Guided by learned natives, democracy, perhaps simplistically, was centred around the hopes of the oppressed to be intrinsic to socioeconomic prosperity and social justice. 

However, in South Africa, democracy, in my view, never really stood out as to what many black South African activists wanted to achieve. 

Economics and a more equitable stake in South African prosperity had always been the undercurrent of black activism.

In Professor Ben Turok's book, The Evolution of ANC Economic Policy, he writes about Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma's document, African Claims in South Africa.

Turok describes it as a landmark document due to the ANC emphatically stating its case for self-determination. It also speaks to issues of land, industry, labour and commerce.

READ | The economy needs its own perestroika

While Turok termed some of these economic demands as "liberal capitalist orthodoxy" and "little more than a plea for economic equality with white workers and small business", the document still exhibits the economic agenda that was a rallying cry among the masses.

I came to understand the concept of self-determination cannot be merely for electoral liberties. 

The ANC's social contract with the masses, as far back as 1943, was premised on the fundamental objective of socioeconomic prosperity. The Freedom Charter of 1955 was itself a continuation of the promise of an economic agenda. 

In the event that these economic promises are reduced to a response to Afrikaner radicalism, we could refer back to the ANC's inception. 

Black elites founded the ANC itself in pursuit of a transformative agenda. Even predating the founding of the ANC in 1912, as early back as 1906, ANC leaders canvassed a beautiful economic narrative.

Dr Pixley Seme, in 1906, in his speech titled the "Regeneration of Africa", poetically painted a prosperous future: "The brighter day is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities. Her Congo and her Gambia whitened with commerce, her crowded cities sending forth the hum of business, and all her sons employed in advancing the victories of peace - greater and more abiding than the spoils of war."

I am writing about these economic promises that have been with the  ANC since the beginning, because it is important to comprehend that the party's agenda was one of economic upliftment of the black masses as much as it was a democraticism of an unjust political system. Democracy was imagined to be the bridge to economic harmony.

READ | Radical economic transformation is what the Freedom Charter anticipated, says Dlamini-Zuma

It's also essential for me to state that I don't believe democracy for all and the development of blacks exist in a dialectal paradigm. They are not mutually exclusive.

South Africa must be democratic, constitutional and just while it pursues an economy where unemployment and poverty aren't prevalent and along racial lines but emphatically, it should also be comprehended that the future of South Africa is about the economy. 

It is critical to emphasise the economic obligation of the ANC to the masses, considering that economic liberty has been a rallying cry since its inception. The achievements of democracy and constitutionalism should not blind the ANC from the long-overdue matter of economic development.

Although I stated that democracy and economic development are not conflicted objectives, it is possible the ANC might decide to rest on its laurels, telling itself it overcame apartheid, it created the so-called best Constitution in the world and it is the architect of the "rainbow nation".

Some of these social achievements could render true, but if that's what the ANC regards as its mountain top, we have a severe problem on our hands. 

If creating an electoral system where we vote regularly is the pinnacle of the ANC's offering, it should state it has departed or given up on its economic upliftment agenda. The party should say to the public it simply does not know how to grow the economy above 6% and cannot drop unemployment from 32%.

The ANC has had no shortage of economic policies since taking power in 1994 - from RDP to GEAR to ASGISIA and eventually the New Growth Plan. Few of these economic policies rendered their desired objective of economic prosperity.

Perhaps we too, as the people, must take some blame. Perhaps we have not pressured the government enough on the burning issue of the economy. We have assumed the governing party, being of the people, could not be blind to the catastrophic state of the economy.

No sense of urgency  

The ANC may not be blind to it, but its economic crisis responses don't hold a sense of urgency.

Take the response to Covid-19, the eagerness of public representatives to serve, the regular meetings of the task team, the swift interventions and the generally well-communicated government position.

Comparatively, we must ask why the economic crisis does not deserve a similar urgency. Why is there no grand plan, swift interventions, regular meetings of the economic cluster, and a well-communicated position by the government on how it intends to deal with the economy?

With youth unemployment at 72%, it seems like it is business as usual. While we seek to address the Covid-19 crisis, there must be some realisation it is merely a blanket on top of a mattress of a greater crisis, which is the state of our economy.

As a former government official, I can tell you our government responds to pressure points. When students took to the streets, it responded. When unions took to the streets, it responded.

The current dilemma is who will take to the streets on behalf of the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the poverty stricken? Who among the unemployed will call Radio 702 and get a response from our economic cluster? Who among the unemployed will write an article for Business Day and catch the attention of the private sector? The matter of the poor is obstructed by privileged concerns that are constituted by the employed middle class, big business and semi-detached public representatives.

It is possible for our public representatives to exist within a bubble of privilege, perhaps not maliciously but maybe through the degrees of separation from the average unemployed youth. What's evident is that there seems to be diluted urgency on matters of the economy. It is almost as though the ability of the poor to endure has earned them a slow-paced intervention, if any at all.

The pressure of the poor plays itself out differently. It is not via a position paper at Nedlac, it's via crime, sporadic violence and general dissolution with our democratic system. If our leaders don't shift the paradigm to an economic agenda, poor performance during elections will be the least of our problems.

READ | Ramaphosa on economic reform roll bolsters South African markets

I believe the ANC will retain most of its strength, President Cyril Ramaphosa will return for a second term. What is uncertain is what his agenda for that second term will be. 

I hope Ramaphosa makes his agenda economic.

No one is better fitted to gear an economic miracle than a businessman president. He needs to become "Mr Jobs" and ensure his Cabinet shares his urgency for swift economic interventions. Ramaphosa will need to empathically outline a bold implementable plan, one without the theatrics of the New Growth Path, a doable but not an easy plan.

If the ANC is to preserve its legacy, it must rally behind an economic plan that affords all South Africans economic prosperity. I believe only that will restore the ANC brand to South Africans.

We are past debating the methodology of achieving this, debating whether bigger or smaller governments are the way. We are past the never-ending sloganeering of economic liberalism versus a developmental state. We can, as citizens, just selfishly demand what has been promised to us since the inception of the ANC, and that's true economic upliftment.

- Mayihlome Tshwete is a former government spokesperson

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