When people hear "corruption", they think of the Guptas' devastation of national institutions, but each municipality has its own "little Gupta", writes Christi van der Westhuizen.
The Ramaphosa faction in the ANC has just fired two warning shots. These demonstrations of political mettle come at the right time, given current dark days, and serve as calls for citizens to become active in finding solutions to South Africa's multiple crises.
The first is the launch of Mcebisi Jonas' book, After Dawn - Hope After State Capture, and the second is Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's release, for public comment, of a new Treasury policy document containing proposals for economic reforms.
The two documents overlap in a number of ways, one of which is the acknowledgment that South Africans must forge a new social contract with one another. Another significant similarity is that the public narratives surrounding these two launches show a break with ANC practices. Painful honesty can even be detected.
Take Mboweni's announcement of the Treasury document, titled Economic transformation, inclusive growth and competitiveness: Towards an Economic Strategy for South Africa. It was launched publicly in late August, but was not approved by Cabinet or discussed internally in the ANC or with its alliance partners.
Mboweni thus ignored vested interests in the tripartite alliance and presented Treasury's proposals directly to the public. Great has been the resulting consternation among alliance partners and their hangers-on in non-governmental organisations about their political marginalisation in the process. Little comment has emanated on the content of the proposals.
The echoing refrain is that Treasury should first have obtained buy-in from other government departments, the ANC and its alliance partners. However, from a democratic point of view, Mboweni's side-stepping of those particular interests prevented the privileging of their inputs above other sectors of society. The public launch of the proposals serves to test broad support, while showing seriousness on the side of government.
Moreover, Mboweni prevented the policy proposals getting bogged down in the muddy feuds within the party. The ANC is deeply divided. Opportunistic economic populism, which is ultimately about individual self-enrichment, has already led to problematic ANC policy drives, such as the proposed "nationalisation" of the Reserve Bank.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has to contend with a divided national executive committee in the ANC, and an executive and Parliament with compromise appointments of people implicated in corruption. How should one make sense of those who think such compromised forums should have first bite at these policy proposals? This against the backdrop of South Africa's last investment-grade credit rating hanging by a thread, and the ever-decreasing legitimacy of the ANC, as shown by this year's election results.
SA on a destructive route
In the end, the view that the party first had to approve the policy proposals indicates the old problem of the ANC's inability to distinguish between party and state. Mboweni is not a finance minister for ANC members only. The report was prepared by the Treasury's economic policy section (not the ANC), whose political head is the finance minister (not in a capacity of ANC office bearer).
The finance minister is part of a government that must, in the first and the last place, be accountable to the public and he has accordingly submitted these proposals to the public for comment. This action is not comparable to the government's unilateral adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy in 1996, which was done without any consultation.
Indeed, presenting the proposals to the public is an example of broad, representative consultation, as befitting a government department and a minister in a democracy. This is the opposite of the kind of thinking that elevates the ANC above the public interest.
It further indicates that the Ramaphosa group understands that they should garner strength also from outside the ANC. Alliances must be built in wider society if good South Africans are to defeat the kleptocrats.
Jonas is refreshingly straightforward in his condemnation of the kind of thinking that elevates the ANC at the expense of everyone else. He also specifically makes a case for an active citizenry to get involved.
At the launch of his book at Nelson Mandela University last week, he described the country as being on a destructive route. This can only be changed if a new social contract is forged, given that the old one of 1994 has unravelled, Jonas argued. The country needs active citizens who refuse to subject themselves further to a political elite with narrow interests, he added.
Everyone knows the municipalities are dysfunctional, but no one does anything about it, he further said. When people hear "corruption", they think of the Guptas' devastation of national institutions, but each municipality has its own "little Gupta".
The state could not be captured if the ANC was not captured. To create an effective state, state structures must be disentangled from party structures. At the same time, the ANC cannot avoid reform, Jonas argued.
The Treasury document is also honest about the state that South Africa is in, as its opening words show: "The combination of low growth and rising unemployment means that South Africa's economic trajectory is unsustainable". Both the Treasury document and Jonas' book emphasise inclusive growth, specifically in labour-intensive industries. Other similarities are the focus on youth, education and technology.
Aspects of the Treasury plan and Jonas' proposals sound familiar (even overly familiar), but the difference is the open acknowledgment of challenges and failures. Both documents contain straight talk about the responsibility of white people who are still largely the owners of capital in the economy.
South Africa faces a challenge that is similar in magnitude and potential horror to that of the 1990s, as Ramaphosa points out in his foreword to Jonas' book. Jonas and the Treasury's proposals offer a new basis for cooperation that draws in all South Africans, not only ANC apparatchiks.
They emphasise market-friendly steps by government aimed at fostering economic sustainability. These proposals have coincided with some good news in the form of economic growth shifting from a negative rate in the first quarter of 2019 to 3.2% in the second quarter.
But those with capital must step up, also in changing stubborn racial patterns of ownership. The alternative is a South Africa in which the kleptocrats prevail. As Jonas confirmed, they are still at it.
- Van der Westhuizen is an associate professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD), Nelson Mandela University.
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