How the NDR condemns us to failure

Helen Zille says SA can't succeed while the ANC's basic policy framework remains in place

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been speaking a lot recently about preparing South Africa for the fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

So it seems fitting to suggest that he take to heart one of its best-known mantras: “fail fast”.

“Fail fast” describes an approach to digital application that alerts their designers, as early as possible, to a potential failure in any part of the system. This enables them either to fix it, or acknowledge a fatal flaw and move on, with the minimum waste of time and money.

During my time in government, I tried to apply the same approach to policy implementation and found it particularly challenging.

What early indicators would signal failure? When problems arose, how would I know which part of a large system had failed? How could one work out whether it was the result of “teething problems”, human incapacity, unreliable data, or just poor policy? Could the problem be fixed? And how long should one keep trying before acknowledging failure and moving on?

There are, however, some policies that have failed so often, and so consistently, across every culture and geography, that we shouldn’t have to ask these questions about them anymore. We know they can’t succeed.

One of them is the policy framework, to which the ANC’s “tripartite alliance” remains committed. It is the Soviet-inspired “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR), first described in detail by the South African Communist Party in the 1960s, and cast in concrete as the foundation of the governing alliance. It remains so to this day.

The NDR describes a “two stage revolution” to achieve a socialist state in which an ideologically-pure “vanguard” will control the party; the party will control the state; and the state will control the economy.

This formula has been tried before, from East Germany to Zimbabwe, from Venezuela to North Korea, and the results have been uniformly disastrous, both from an economic and human rights perspective.

Yet, as recently as last week, one of SA’s smartest politicians, Pravin Gordhan, the man who (with President Ramaphosa) is consistently portrayed as leading the charge to save our country from the forces of darkness, explicitly repeated his commitment to supporting, consolidating and even extending State Owned Enterprises in the process of facilitating the “second phase of radical socio-economic transformation”.

This was a clear endorsement of the NDR.  

For as long as people believe that the future of South Africa can be secured if the “good guys” (like Ramaphosa and Gordhan) win the battle for the soul of the ANC, for so long will we remain a country that fails slowly.

The “good guys” are undoubtedly less corrupt, but that does not make the ANC’s policy framework beneficial or implementable.

There is even a chance that, deep down, the President knows this, but cannot do anything about it without destroying his power base. If this is so, he is destined to learn, slowly, that he can either save the tripartite alliance, or put South Africa on the path to growth and jobs, but he cannot do both.

For many years I have been advocating an entirely new alliance, involving the far reaching realignment of South African politics to build a new “centre majority” of South Africans committed to constitutionalism, non-racialism and an inclusive market economy.

A precondition for this development is the unravelling of the tripartite alliance.

Until then, we are stuck with the NDR irrespective of which ANC faction is in charge.

State Capture over the past 20 years was not a Zuma aberration, as many people seem to think. It was, and remains, an essential ingredient of the NDR, in any format. The ANC has always been quite open about this.

Their strategy was best described during the early years of democracy in a review of the ANC’s progress after four years in government. The lead author, Dr Joel Netshitenzhe (who is consistently cast as one of the ANC’s “good guys”), concluded that SA would only make adequate progress in transforming South Africa if the party controlled all institutions of state.

The NDR, he argued, meant “extending the power of the ‘National Liberation Movement’ over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on”.  This is state capture in a nutshell.

It was custom-designed to centralise power and deploy cadres in a politically-protected network that inevitably enriched itself and criminalised almost all state institutions. Once this had happened, the Guptas and Watsons et al, merely had to capture the “big man” himself in order to control the whole power cabal.

It is futile now, for example, to try to identify the poor sod who allowed the Gupta’s wedding plane to land at Waterkloof airforce base. The entire system was compromised. It would make more sense to identify and promote those brave individuals who were prepared to put their careers at risk by opposing it.

All the enquiries and commissions will ultimately prove to be a waste of time and money if they fail to identify the key design fault at the heart of our problems, which is the NDR itself. But that is unlikely to happen, which is why we will continue to fail slowly.

Far too many South Africans are blinded by the belief that the good guys can still save the day based on a policy framework that can’t.

It is like believing that a competent pilot might have saved the Boeing 737 Max that tragically went down killing everyone on board. Even the world’s best pilots could not have over-ridden the fundamental design fault in the aircraft system’s software.

This is a graphic and tragic illustration of why the digital designers are right to say that the faster one can identify the risk of a fatal error in any system, the better. And certainly before there is a massive human cost attached.

It is time to apply this approach, consciously and analytically, to South African politics.

It would be a good way start to our Fourth Industrial Revolution, and certainly a significant improvement on the National Democratic Revolution.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.