Accountability for thee not me

RW Johnson writes on why the ANC is incapable of taking responsibility for its mistakes, and correcting them

Thabo Mbeki earned plaudits from many commentators for his frank criticisms of the Ramaphosa administration which has merely offered empty promises rather than attempting concrete solutions to poverty, inequality and unemployment.

A few days after this Ramaphosa lectured the ANC’s national policy conference, telling them to “be more accountable for poor governance” and concentrate on “less slogans and more solutions” to practical problems. Like poverty, inequality and unemployment.  

Ramaphosa too earned compliments from many commentators for his speech but the whole situation is laughable. Just imagine how different things would have been if instead of telling others to practise the doctrine of personal responsibility, ANC leaders actually practised it themselves.

In that case Mbeki might have said “Quite a few of the things that are wrong today derive from mistakes I made in office. In retrospect it is clear that I made a dreadful error in forcing a policy of rapid affirmative action on the civil service and the SOEs. That destroyed the civil service and robbed the government of the power to implement. It also robbed the SOEs of vital skills which they are now seeking desperately to replace. I really was very silly about this. I dismissed the idea of any skill shortages among blacks as “an urban legend”.

“I must also take personal responsibility for my dreadful mistakes over Aids which cost the lives of over 350,000 people. And for the complete mess over electricity. We wanted to encourage the private sector to generate electricity but then we loaded up the tenders with such excessive conditions that no one would make any bids. Then we just ignored the problem, with the results we know today.

“I was also completely wrong to support Mugabe. We should have insisted on fully free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. We would have earned great international credit for that, and probably prevented Zimbabwe’s collapse – which would have helped our economy and prevented such an inflow of Zimbabwean refugees. Oh yes, and the arms deal was a bad mistake. I got some things right but I spent far too much time on international affairs and not enough at home.”

In a similar vein Ramaphosa might have said “Thabo was quite right. I have relied too much on social compacts and should have taken more Presidential decisions myself. We need to plan more – and implement. As I look back I realise that much of my first term has been wasted. I have made lots and lots of promises And carried out almost none of them. So at the end of my first term things are considerably worse than they were at the beginning. I entirely accept my own personal responsibility for that failure and promise that if I get a second term, things will be different.”

Even to outline such responses is to realise that one will never hear such frankness. For the whole idea of accepting personal accountability seems foreign to the ANC culture. Some years ago I met an expert from the British aid agency, DFID, who had been seconded to work in South Africa. He fumed as he told me how he had just that morning attended another terrible ministerial meeting:

He explained that there was a complete mess - everything decided at their last meeting had been ignored. After a while the chairman had said “It is clear that there are some problems. And these must be addressed.” The DIFD man said, “No, Mr Chairman, there have been some dreadful mistakes and these must be corrected. In addition, we must find the people who made the mistakes and get rid of them.”

This produced shock and horror as if the DFID man had advocated child sexual abuse. He thought that ministers and officials were all so reluctant to accept personal responsibility for anything that they didn’t want anyone at all to be held responsible because that would set a bad precedent.

This evasion of individual responsibility derives partly from the weakness of individualism in African culture but it has been strongly encouraged by the ANC tendency to blame everything on apartheid. Even when gross corruption is uncovered there is a pretence that those guilty are merely victims of bribery by white capitalists.

ANC leaders like to inveigh against poverty, inequality and unemployment – but no one ever mentions the fact that all these things have got much worse under ANC rule. If that fact were faced it would follow that ANC policies need to change – and have, indeed, been mistaken. No one wants to own up to that.

This helps one to better understand Ramaphosa. If it has to be accepted that the ANC is leading us to the National Democratic Revolution, that the party is the font of wisdom and its policies all broadly correct then it follows that nothing much should ever be changed.

The stress on “transformation”, on BEE, on cadre deployment, on the state ownership of key industries, and much else besides – are all set in stone. In any case, large vested interests are served by most policies and if one wants to preserve party unity it’s best to leave well alone. Anyway, policies have been endorsed by ANC conferences and thus have the authority of holy writ.

One remembers, too, what a battle Mbeki faced once he decided to change policy to bring in GEAR. Not only was this bitterly divisive within the ANC but the resistance was so great that GEAR was never fully implemented and even years later anti-GEAR agitation helped bring Mbeki down.

Thus in policy terms, nothing much can be changed. And yet it becomes clearer with every passing day that ANC governance has completely failed and that the party has wrecked the country. It’s not just a matter of what Zuma did, disastrous though he was. The fact is that the ANC was incompetent, ideological and corrupt from the very start and we now have a situation in which present mistakes are built upon previous blunders and even on disastrous choices long before that.

Facing up to the huge consequent mess and trying to disentangle it would involve an effective admission that the whole ANC project, the entire politics of transformation and the NDR, has been a complete flop and was built on fundamentally mistaken premises. Such a thing is, of course, completely inadmissible.

So even if small changes are suggested – the introduction of private sector elements into the operation of Eskom and Transnet, for example – this has to be done only piecemeal and very slowly over a period of many years. Even national emergencies like the situation with electricity or the ports or the railways or law and order or municipal collapse – can only be tackled at a snail’s pace.

Ramaphosa has accepted this situation from the outset: he wanted party unity far more than he wanted national recovery. So how to provide leadership while changing nothing? And while not admitting any past mistakes or actually introducing any new policies?

Ramaphosa came up with two answers: endless social compacts, committees and working parties which would let him avoid personal responsibility for anything. And endless promises which allowed him to be very upbeat – lots more jobs, “fixing” Eskom, more investment, reform, getting rid of corruption, bullet trains and new cities.

This allowed him to spread sunny optimism and sound as if he cared, while talking only about this mythical future enabled him to avoid annoying the RET faction. Conjuring up a sunny future is a lot less tricky than talking about the criminal and dysfunctional present.

Naturally, he kept none of his promises. For the new style of leadership he had adopted was actually an abdication from leadership. If he promises that things will change if he gets a second term, you’d be a fool to believe him.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.