When Mbeki goes

The Expropriation Bill shelved, white civil servants praised, what is going on?

Over the past week ANC leaders have begun to make a concerted effort to reach out to racial minorities, and Afrikaners in particular. There are also indications of a softening of the hard line approach to race inherited from Thabo Mbeki.

The most important sign of this is that the ANC has decided, for now, to withdraw the Expropriation Bill from parliament. This followed an unprecedented mobilisation by mainly Afrikaans civil society organisations against the proposed legislation.

Then there were the comments by ANC Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, to an audience of Afrikaans businessmen and farmers in Stellenbosch, that the ANC might perhaps one day consider phasing out affirmative action. He told his audience:

"Perhaps if we take an approach in an objective and scientific way, we can then have a way of phasing it [affirmative action] out rather than say, 'Let's do away with it.' You may find that we do away with it prematurely and settle with a problem."

Although Motlanthe did not propose any meaningful concession on the issue; that he was prepared to even entertain the idea of a ‘sunset clause' represents something of a shift. In March last year Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana stated that "affirmative action and current employment equity legislation would never be repealed but would be intensified instead."

The third were the remarks by ANC Treasurer General Mathews Phosa on the valuable contribution made by white civil servants, which I will return to later.

There are a number of compelling reasons not to read too much into all of this. The new ANC leadership remains as ideologically attached to Africanisation (to give it its proper name) as the old one was. There are also now powerful constituencies which have been given a stake in the racialist system put in place by the ANC.

Whatever the noises now being made by the top officials there are still any number of lower level ANC politicians still willing to give vent to anti-white prejudice. Only last week the ANC MP and NEC member Lumka Yengeni launched an entirely gratuitous racial attack on the Democratic Alliance in parliament.

The Expropriation Bill may well have been withdrawn for short term tactical reasons, and it could well be reintroduced by the ANC after the 2009 elections. The SACP and COSATU remain firm proponents of nationalisation, and radical land redistribution - both of which would be facilitated by the Bill. Yesterday, COSATU's national spokesperson Patrick Craven said his organisation fully supported the now suspended legislation.

The ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, told Jan-Jan Joubert of Beeld that people should not think that the land question will disappear with the withdrawal of the Expropriation Bill, and that a balance between white fears and black aspirations would have to be found in order to prevent South Africa going down the path of Zimbabwe.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the new ANC's new approach on race completely. In particular, Phosa's remarks last week are of not inconsiderable symbolic significance. The backfill to them is that in 1996 the ANC induced tens of thousands of mostly white civil servants to leave state employment by closing off their career paths and encouraging them to take severance packages. At the time there were a number of warnings made of the deleterious consequences this was going to have on state capacity.

In March 1997 the Auditor-General, Henri Kluever, noted that the quality of financial management in government was deteriorating due to a shortage of staff with the necessary skills. "Any further loss of skills from departments and institutions" he warned, "is going to cause very grave problems indeed and positive steps to prevent this should be taken as a matter of urgency. If the powers that be do not accord a higher priority to experience, skills and the consequent ability to do the job the capacity to deliver is going to be severely impaired".

When these concerns were taken up by opposition political parties in parliament then Deputy President Mbeki sneeringly dismissed them. On June 10 1997 he told the national assembly: "assertions have been made about declining financial management standards in government, which is attributed to inefficient blacks, who, it is said, occupy their positions by virtue of misplaced affirmative action policies. In reality, we are not far from the day when the diplomatic language will slip and the point will be made openly, that ‘the Bantus are not yet ready to govern'."

The whole ethos of Mbeki's rule over the following decade was that it was better for a ‘demographically representative' government department, or sports team, or institution, to fail than for a multi-racial one chosen on merit to succeed. He took this to the extreme in Zimbabwe where he decided that it was preferable for that country to be ruined, than for white farmers to keep their patrimony. When it came to the crunch, economic considerations would not be allowed to get in the way of the liquidation of the ‘legacy of colonialism.'

In this context Phosa's comments can be read as something of a repudiation of Mbeki. He told his audience that "As an elected leader of the ANC, I want to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. One of the mistakes we made during transformation was to allow a process that resulted in too many casualties of well-meaning, skilful and patriotic experts in the public sector. In addition, the exit of white people from the civil service who had a contribution to make followed an unfortunate course that resulted in a skills vacuum in some areas of the public service....It is no secret that we need such skills in financial management, in information technology, and in sensitive aspects of safety, crime and judicial management."

The promise of the new ANC, though limited, is not insignificant. As Dirk Hermann of Solidarity notes there is already a movement away from the "hardline racial intellectual framework" of the Mbeki-era.

The statements and personal example set by the top leadership also tend to filter down through society. Jacob Zuma is an empathetic person, without the profound racial animus of Mbeki. If one takes a step back one will notice how far less racialised public discourse is now, than it was a year ago.

Phosa's comments also hold out the possibility that in making senior state appointments rational considerations (such as the ability of the candidate to do the work) will begin to get a look in again.

Still, it is hard to envisage the new ANC dismantling the racial system put in place by the Mbeki administration, and it is possible that they will extend it further (through expropriation measures.)

Perhaps what we are seeing is something akin to the transition from Verwoerd to Vorster. The next president is going to have to try and manage the impossible contradictions thrown up by the system established by his ideologist predecessor. He is going to have trouble either sustaining it ideologically or meaningfully reforming it.

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