ANC discussion documents reveal blind spots, paranoia

Charles Simkins says it takes a major act of faith for the party to continue quoting Lenin

Commentary on the ANC National General Council 2015 discussion documents

1 September 2015

The ANC has recently released nine discussion documents prepared for its 2015 National General Council. Although the HSF is non-partisan, we offer a commentary for our readers on an important political document.


The style is generally calmer and more systematically reasoned than some of the documents coming from the ANC in recent months. This is to be welcomed: it encourages rational political debate. The documents break down policy objectives into detailed goals, assess what has been achieved, and what remains to be done. This is a rational basis for policy development against the backdrop of the ANC’s normative orientation. Release for the general public is also to be applauded.

Some sections could have been more carefully edited, particularly the meandering and repetitive second half of Document 2 on Social Transformation.


The titles of the nine documents are as follows:

1. Balance of forces

2. Social transformation

3. Economic transformation

4. Education, health, science and technology

5. Legislature and governance

6. Communications and the battle of ideas

7. International relations

8. Peace and stability

9. Rural development and land reform

In the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome stands a Bernini baroque statue of Saint Teresa in ecstasy. The story is told of an eighteenth century Frenchman who went up to and looked at it. “Ah,” he said, “if that is divine love, I know it well”. One has a similar response to many points in the policy documents: “Well, if they are the national democratic revolution, bring them on.” Who could object to:

We also support the relatively young Port Regulator in its efforts to ensure that port users are not charged tariffs which are unrelated to port infrastructure expenditure (p 77).

All teachers, principals and deputy principals as well as education officials must be assessed and evaluated with the intention of improving their skills and accountability (p 91).

The [health] sector will intensify the fight against TB at primary care level, starting with intensive screening of high risk communities and correct management of identified cases (p 117).

The provision of universal access to ICT infrastructure and services is conceptualised as part of a bigger basket of interventions aimed at social inclusion (p 137).

Our approach to the SADC region must therefore aim at consolidating bilateral relations with our neighbours and strengthening the SADC as an institution (p 179)?

But there are also blind spots, and even occasional outbursts of paranoia. They, too, indicate where ANC thinking is at, especially in its darker aspects.

Blind spots

The rule of law. On page 6, we read:

These applications for judicial resolution of issues include] legal challenges to constitutionally valid administrative actions by the Executive. On the one hand, such ‘lawfare’ can suck up the judiciary into the maelstrom of day to day societal management and thus unnecessarily splatter it with mud. On the other hand, repeated attempts of this kind, into which huge resources are thrown, do suggest that some privileged sectors of society seek to undermine the popular electoral mandate.

This sits ill with the ANC’s commitment to the Constitution and its supremacy. If legal challenges are unfounded, it is the job of the courts to reject them. If they are well founded, it is the duty of the government to alter its behaviour, however irksome that might be to individual Ministers, or to the government as a whole. This passage indicates that the implications of a transition from parliamentary to constitutional supremacy have not been fully registered even after two decades.

The implications of the end of the Cold War. One reads the quotation from Lenin on p 160 with a sigh, a pass of the hand. It takes a major act of faith, akin to that demonstrated by live snake eating pastors and their congregations, to continue to use Lenin’s concept of ‘scientific socialism’. A roseate glow can also be discerned in the following passage:

We will always be inspired by the role of Cuba in the struggle for internationalism and solidarity. Its role in the struggle for the liberation of the African continent from imperialism and colonialism will always be treasured (p 171).

Trouble was, revolutionary Cuba was also viciously homophobic, internally repressive and, despite developing a high level of human capital, a poor performer in raising the living standards of its people. And the following passage is equally problematic:

China’s economic development trajectory remains a leading example of the triumph of humanity over adversity. (p 161)

It glosses over the Great Leap Forward famine, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square and it gives a hostage to fortune.

In the nineteenth century, Palmerston said: Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.

It is a principle which should be applied to South African foreign policy in a multipolar world.

Perhaps all this can be likened to people standing on the shore, waving to a ship leaving harbour. As the ship progresses, the people get smaller and smaller, until at last they disappear. But for now, it distorts understanding of geopolitics.

The lack of attention to the short term

The documents take a serenely long view of South African development, looking forward to 2030, and even, in the case of Africa, to 2063. Although there are occasional references to limited fiscal resources, there is nothing to indicate that South Africa is in an internationally very precarious situation. In economic terms, a typhoon is at hand – indeed, has already struck mining and steel - and the documents present no storm strategy. Warnings from the Treasury seem only to have elicited the Spider Web document. It is very scary.

Related is the ANC’s continued insistence that it is not getting a fair deal from the media:

The news media has been filled by raging attacks on the nature and character of the movement. Opposition parties who lost the elections have been provided with ample space to question the outlook of the mass democratic movement and substitute it with their own visions. There is a ganging up on the ANC and the movement’s representatives by the media analysts, the ultra-left and ultra-right forces. All the media outlets, including unfortunately the public broadcasting outlets are dominated by the persistent attack on the national democratic revolution.

In substantial measure, this perception is caused by the inability of the government to remain consistently ‘on message’. Confusion abounds when different ANC heads pop up and say radically different things. The Mbeki administrations were better on this – there the problem was ruthless suppression of intra-ANC dissent.

‘The fatherland in danger’ – such was the cry in the French National Assembly in 1792. It led directly on to the Terror and the incessant descent of the guillotine blade. It should not be our fate. We are a multi-party democracy and that creates the possibility of alternation in government, without collapse of the state or the prospect of reinstallation of apartheid. Competition for support, rather than paranoia, is the appropriate response. Many parts of the documents implicitly recognise that this is so, but they have to burst the bounds of an archaic integument.

Charles Simkins, Senior Researcher, Helen Suzman Foundation