Oscar van Heerden | Shape up or ship out ANC. What is the state of our nation?

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Despite its valiant efforts, the ANC was not 'ready to govern', writes the author.
Despite its valiant efforts, the ANC was not 'ready to govern', writes the author.
Dino Lloyd, Gallo Images

Creating a better society and a better life for all has proven difficult for the governing party to say the least. It is time for the ANC to shape up or ship out, writes Oscar van Heerden.

A good and very interesting interaction between myself and dear friend, Ralph Freese, resulted in us agreeing that the distilled problem statement in South Africa is: 

Poverty, unemployment and inequality, instead of being eradicated as promised by the liberation struggles, has been exacerbated by unfulfilled promises and collapsed hope. Contesting elites exploit fractures in our social fabric. Weakened democratic practices render citizens helpless to staunch corruption or replace the incompetent.

Our purpose, therefore, is to reverse the above and engage in the hard work of democracy, helping to set an agenda for the future, limiting the descent into fascism and building the foundation for hope.

Freese maintained, and I agree, that: "The South African election of 1994 and the birth of our Constitution in 1996 brought the promise of a deracialised, democratic and wealthier future for all citizens. Democratic control of the state with the purpose of righting historic legacies of race and tribe-based allocation of national assets gave hope not only to South Africans but to the people of Africa and thinking citizens scattered around the world."

We expected the construction of a political economy that tackled poverty, improved education, dispensed justice, healing the deep psychological and economic wounds of apartheid and colonialism.

He goes further, "Unfortunately, the hard work of democracy was abandoned. Whether consciously or not is immaterial. The achievements of the 70s and 80s, which produced thousands of 'leaders' schooled in values, history, economics, negotiations and communication, were undermined, and bridges between academia, civil society, and business quickly collapsed."

Not ready to govern

The argument held that with the ANC in power, civil society (other than simple charity) was not needed, and aid would best be channeled through the state.

Despite valiant efforts, the ANC was not "ready to govern". Pockets of excellence and realism vied with pockets, ideologically driven, for funding of uncoordinated visions for the future. And, as I have contended before, with much less in the fiscus than expected and too few hard skills at hand, some poor decisions were made.

"These were exacerbated by competition for power within the ruling party as well as incompetence and corruption, which steadily spread through government as poor allocations of human capital became commonplace. The objective of controlling government was contested with raw greed for power and cash, beating those committed to the Constitution’s objectives," Freese held.

READ | Oscar van Heerden: Misalignment and failure - The political economy of corruption in South Africa

With promises unfulfilled, hope was abandoned. We discussed how mothers allowed their sons to join gangs instead of dragging them to school as they didn't see the point. Pension funds ceased investing in long-term assets. Infrastructure was not maintained. If there was no hope for a better future, why invest? All this is not to say that little or nothing was achieved. Given the historical moment and the goodwill of world leaders, we failed miserably in fully capitalising on a better future. A growing fascism in our polity and society is fed by these failures and threatens our future.

We agreed that an emerging analysis that we are drifting from crisis to chaos is gaining ground. In crisis, repair is possible, Freese contends, but in chaos, the best of us can but watch for small opportunities to limit damage, I contended.

Lack of experience

As we all know, and Freese reminded me as well, that many detailed studies of the "state of our nation" have been done. The human, economic and environmental stresses are documented. While some responses from government, civil society and business have been very effective, these have not slowed the spiral and the threats to our Constitution’s vision grow.

It is also true that not one of the major parties has a credible plan. Added to this is that many small parties (and possibly individuals if the Constitutional Court ruling is implemented) will be entering Parliament without the resources to tackle policy issues or contribute significantly to improvements to governance of the instruments of state. A review of the leadership of many of these show a lack of experience in developing or implementing anything at scale. The cancer of hopelessness in our population will grow unless a better vision, hard skills and quick implementation of practical solutions is achieved. 

READ | Oscar van Heerden: If we are going to fix SA, we all need to get our hands dirty

The ANC post its January 8 celebration in the Free State this year committed to winning back the people's trust. With the above analysis and problematique a current reality, this will prove a very difficult task indeed. Creating a better society and a better life for all has proven difficult for the governing party to say the least.

On top of all this, there is a strong probability that parliamentary power will be won by coalitions unable to wield power for the betterment of the future. I need not also include the challenges all round being experienced by everyone with regards to the failures to provide uninterrupted electricity supplies for both private consumers as well as industry alike. This is the single biggest threat to our survival as a nation to date. Unemployment will continue to rise; the economy will continue to falter, and hope will completely dissipate. It is abundantly clear that our economic structure is shifting with the private sector taking roles previously held by the government.

Betrayal of the poor?

The state is more and more a funder rather than an executor of delivery. Is this inherently bad? It is troubling because I believe that this was not planned but crept in as a result of failure. By definition, in a developing country, if consciously planned and governed, a positive relationship between the state and business is a healthy condition for progress, surely?

There are those who would argue passionately that a transfer of state wealth and influence to the private sector is a betrayal of the poor. The truth of the matter is that a collusion of the worst of business and government has already delivered that betrayal with up to a trillion rand poorly spent in the last two decades.

Huletts, Steinhoff, Eskom and the collective calamity of municipal management add to the picture.

There is no gainsaying that the SA government will remain the largest player in our economy. It sets the rules and spends about a third of our GDP - R2 trillion every year. Whatever post-2024 general elections emerges as the controller of Parliament has to establish a working relationship between government, business and civil society with the narrow purpose of ensuring a flourishing economy focused primarily on wealth creation for the poor, skills, jobs and assuaging the legacy of our history.

A consciously derived, focused structural adjustment which owes nothing to the World Bank is perhaps the way to go again.

Lots to be considered which brings me back to stating categorically that it is time to shape up or ship out, our beloved ANC. 

- Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of international relations (IR), where he focuses on international political economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular.

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