2022: Don't worry, Cyril says its gonna be a good one

William Saunderson-Meyer on the ANC president's party promises at a time of deteriorating reality


There was a time when South Africa’s festive season somnolence stretched from the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December well into the second week of January.

In this only faintly remembered pre-Covid world, by crafty exploitation of half a dozen public holidays — both official and unofficial — as well as taking advantage of the month-long shuttering of the building sector, South Africans could parlay a couple of weeks of formal annual leave into a delicious month-long absence from work. Come November, the mood of the entire country would lighten in anticipation.

The holiday lemming rush to either the coast or rural family homesteads would eerily empty the cities. And with Parliament in recess and the media even more short-staffed and unfocused than usual, politicians would have to sulkily accept being put on mute for a while. 

Alas, no more. This past break has been unsatisfactorily brief by the standards of those halcyon days. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

With private-sector job destruction and unemployment at record levels, the biggest mass of salaried workers is in the public service and they have been in a state of perpetual indolence for decades already. On top of that Covid, far better than a Christmas/New Year lull, has proved to be the gift that keeps giving to the bureaucrats. 

The powerful public service unions have kept their political allies, the African National Congress government, appropriately servile. The merest hint of a Covid infection has seen government premises (including, scarily, police stations) closed to the public.

Those that operate have reduced services to outrageous levels. Staff have scurried home while premises are “sanitised”, a pointless exercise from a scientific perspective, but a lucrative earner for corrupt ANC tenderpreneurs and a great excuse to goof off.

Supposedly to minimise the window of potential exposure to infection, some Home Affairs offices have been opening two hours later in the morning and closing two hours earlier in the afternoon. This has cut the processing of identification documents — without which the poor cannot access social welfare payments — to a trickle. 

Some government offices have set absurdly low processing numbers. Out of a daily queue of several hundred, only the first 50 are served, enabling lazy officials to shut up shop by lunchtime. 

In the motor and driver licensing bureaus, this particular artifice is no longer necessary. The only machine in South Africa that can produce a supposedly “fraud-proof” driving licence has packed in after 20-years and has had to be sent to Germany for repairs, leaving 2.8m with expired licences.

But no need for panic. The roadside counterfeiters — offices in most urban areas and operating seven days a week, free of Covid-induced breaks — can apparently run off a high-quality replica at a highly competitive price and with only a fraction of the bureaucratic aggravation. 

After almost three decades in power, the ANC has of course added its own idiosyncratic curlicues to the end of the old year, the beginning of the new year, traditions. 

One of those is a lavish nationwide celebration of its 8 January “birthday” with all the trappings accorded a coddled toddler: fireworks, musicians, games and singalongs. Former president Jacob Zuma’s rendition of Bring Me My Machine-Gun was a perennial crowd-pleaser.

No birthday party would be complete without lashings of luridly coloured cake, which the ANC dignitaries, an astonishing percentage of whom are morbidly obese, stuff down their gullets with an enthusiasm that Marie Antoinette would have approved of.

This year, despite it being the geriatric ANC’s 110th birthday, things have been a little more muted. It’s difficult to have a rip-roaring party when the coffers are bare and the organisation has fallen months behind in paying staff salaries. Another pall over the celebration was the torching of Parliament, supposedly by a speedily arrested homeless man who appears to be a few cards short of a full deck and just happened to have incendiary devices with him when he managed to evade the security of a National Key Point and stumbled upon a fire suppression system that had been turned off. 

Nevertheless, Cyril Ramaphosa last week proceeded manfully with the 8 January Statement, an ANC ritual that started 50 years ago. Like many political party traditions, this one has not aged well. 

Although the 1972 delivery by Oliver Tambo was somewhat grandiose — “January 8 is the birthday not merely of the ANC, but of a nation” — the Statement at least arguably met the brief of being a rallying call for the embattled faithful against a powerful and entrenched regime. Since then, it has deteriorated into a mendacious mix of folklore and fantasy.

It puffs the party’s most mediocre achievements as great milestones and makes promises that not even the ANC faithful any longer believe. At the same time, the Statement’s intellectual fibre content, never substantial, has shrunk in direct proportion to its wordiness. Tambo, in 1972, spouted a few thousand words. Ramaphosa, this week, three times as many in a speech that was basically a repackaging of any one of his five previous State of the Nation addresses.

All Ramaphosa’s favourite platitudes and euphemisms got a good run. There was the customary call for the “joining of hands of social partners … in a social compact”. We were again assured that the ANC is an “ effective and trusted agent of change … to ensure a better life for all”. And, pièce de résistance, the July riots in which at least 370 were killed, have been downgraded to “institutional and social disruption”. 

As is the practice in many countries that aspire to be a socialist Nirvana, each year is given an inspiring name in the Statement. Ramaphosa’s prioritisation of party unity above all can, as well as flogging dead donkeys, be seen in the choices during his presidential tenure. 

In 2018, it was “The Nelson Mandela Year of Renewal, Unity and Jobs”. Last year was “Unity, Renewal and Reconstruction in the Year of Charlotte Maxeke. Catchily titled 2022 is to be “The Year of Unity and Renewal to Defend and Advance South Africa’s Democratic Gains”.

Whatever the propaganda gruel served to ANC members — despite its party political nature, the 8 January Statement is given much solemn attention and saturation coverage by the media — the auguries are not auspicious for 2022. The president, the party, and its trade union and SA Communist Party allies, are all painfully aware that this may be South Africa’s last chance to escape the disastrous tailspin that started with Zuma in 2009 and has, if anything, worsened under Ramaphosa.

The country’s deterioration will become irreversible if Ramaphosa does not stop dithering and acts to defeat the Radical Economic Transformation faction, which is with increasing militancy moving to retake control of the ANC and hence the country. There has been nothing, as yet, to indicate that the president has the stomach for this battle, a battle that will almost certainly end any semblance of ANC “unity”.

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