The ANC has reached its Rubicon

RW Johnson says the only way out of our predicament is rapid economic growth

“You know, the difficult thing about the present situation is that there’s no hope”, said my friend. “Under apartheid there was always hope that it must change. But now the ANC is in power and Africans keep voting for it no matter how disastrously it does, it means we can only look forward to more of the same. Which means more corruption, more stupid policies and more state failure.”

“South Africa is a tinderbox at the moment”, said another friend. “Zuma or no Zuma, people are both desperate and angry. And without prospects. A terrible combination.”

Only a day or two after I got that message the looting began.

Let us be frank, the looting we have just seen could have happened at any time. The ANC has continuously increased poverty and inequality for a decade, as if there was no limit to what people could stand. But there is a limit and it has just been demonstrated.

No hope. Without prospects. Yet my friends weren’t exactly saying the same thing. The first one meant that liberal-minded people like himself had nothing to hope for. The second friend was talking about the eleven million (plus) unemployed and their families, sitting in their shacks, cold, hungry and with virtually no prospect of a job.

The odd thing is that these things could co-exist. If you assume that those unemployed probably each have at least three family members on average that means that more than half the entire population has been reduced to penury. In any normal country that would guarantee that the government would be thrown out of power at the next election.

How did those poor unfortunate people feel when they heard that the government had just offered the public service workers – the best paid group of workers in the country – an extra R18 billion? This deliberate increase in inequality was so inflammatory and provocative - even without considering that much of that R18 billion is going to be sliced off budgets which go to help the poor – that in most of the world politicians would be scared stiff of making such a proposal.

Here, the government has worked hard to get their voters to think in race terms precisely to stop them thinking in class terms, an odd achievement for an allegedly leftist party. Just think how crazy it is that the public service workers will dress up in red T-shirts and other SACP/Cosatu regalia, toyi-toyi, call one another comrade and threaten merry hell unless the government keeps increasing inequality (in their favour) .... In effect they are making the same demand as right-wing Republicans in the USA.

There is now much argument about how to interpret last week’s disaster. There is no doubt that there was deliberate sabotage and arson and that this was carried out by the RET faction. But the claim that the looting was “counter-revolutionary” was just as idiotic as Duduzane Zuma’s suggestion that those who stole goods should “loot responsibly”.

If Ramaphosa has any spine at all the saboteurs will be apprehended, the RET faction expelled and, for the most part, jailed.

But what gave the events their power and amplitude was the way that huge numbers of ordinary people happily joined in the looting, fully aware that it was illegal and that they were on TV. It was an act of calculated defiance just as much as the pass-burning campaign once was. This is what gave it the character of a popular insurrection. In was, indeed, the first such insurrection against ANC rule and three times as many people were killed in it as died at Sharpeville in 1960,

The government will doubtless dispute this interpretation, will try to explain the mass scale of this defiance. The National Party did the same, of course – they tried to explain away the Sharpeville crisis as the work of a small number of agitators, Liberals and Communists. It didn’t wash then and it won’t wash now.

Given that poverty and inequality are not going to go away – in fact they are now bound to increase, both because of the damage to infrastructure and the huge blow to investment confidence – this risks being merely the first round in a jerky and uneven process which ends in the disintegration of the state. If the government has any sense at all it will now that it faces a Rubicon every bit as decisive as the one the Nationalists faced in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, Ramaphosa’s solution – a Basic Income Grant “to show we care” – is precisely wrong. There is no way that the fiscus can afford that burden: it will simply speed up our future loss of sovereignty to the IMF. And anyway, more charity is not the way. The only way out of this dire situation is sustained and accelerated economic growth.

As things stand per capita real incomes have been shrinking for seven years. Given Tito Mboweni’s fiscal austerity we are facing several more years of slow growth and thus further falls in per capita real incomes. How long do we think that can go on for without producing even larger popular reactions, even more public disorder and, doubtless, more attempts to exploit this popular discontent by unscrupulous populists?

So the only way out is rapid economic growth. We can’t make huge charitable handouts because we need to invest that money to create growth. It will also create jobs and national morale will soar if the public can see determined, positive steps towards that.

The problem is that what has produced the present funereal rate of growth and steadily falling real incomes is precisely the mix of economic policies that the government is operating now. All that needs to change. BEE needs to go. The Mining Charter needs to go. “Localisation” needs to go. Cadre deployment needs to go. The ports, railways and energy need to be run by the private sector.

When Thabo Mbeki pushed through affirmative action and Africanised the civil service people pointed to a skills shortage. Mbeki dismissed this as “an urban legend”. Today the Auditor-General talks of “capacity problems” right across the entire administration of government, showing just what nonsense that was.

That too needs to be recognised and a policy of “the right person for the job” needs to be followed throughout the economy. If that means a setback for “transformation”, so be it: growth and jobs are more important and, after all, demography alone will ensure transformation in time.

The problem is, of course, that getting such policies through the ANC’s NEC is as likely as getting the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church of the 1980s to go to Sun City for a naughty weekend. But that is the whole point. What happened to the DRC in the 1990s, after all?

Because it couldn’t move with the times the whole historic bloc of which it was part lost power and relevance. The National Party, the Conservative Party and the AWB are no more and the DRC is barely a shadow of its former self. PW Botha warned that it was a matter of “reform or die” – but he failed to cross his Rubicon so it became reform and die.

A similar choice now faces the ANC. If it refuses to cross its Rubicon we face a future of increasing lawlessness, a dissolution into racial enclaves, vigilantism and warlordism - in a word, national disintegration.

Time is now very short. Ramaphosa’s admiration for Mandela shines out of him – doubtless he would have been better suited to be President in that era. But he’s President in this here and now and these are the choices he faces. Does he have the courage to face them – or is he willing to go down as the man who killed Mandela’s republic?

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.