The ANC is losing it

William Saunderson-Meyer says Ramaphosa sung from the RET hymn sheet at the ANC's national policy conference


Last weekend’s policy conference of the African National Congress was a reminder of the growing disconnect between the governing party and the people. 

The country’s ruling elite live in a world far removed from the grim realities of most South Africans. The gap is now so great that it appears to be bridgeable by neither empathy nor intelligence. Neither of which, in any case, the ANC has a surfeit of.

It didn’t help the optics of the conference that it coincided with the gang rape of eight women by three large groups of men, thought to be illegal miners from neighbouring Lesotho. The police, which under Police Minister Bheki Cele have reached depths of incompetence and dysfunction that were previously thought impossible, responded by arresting 120 miners, not for rape but for illegal immigration, and igniting vigilante violence that has led to the clubbing to death of at least one foreign national.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Cele, a crass ministerial abomination who has been implicated in corruption but because of Zulu ethnicity is crucial to Ramaphosa’s survival, added a personal sour note. Wasn’t it lucky – if it were luck – he mused, that one of the women had been raped by “only” one man? 

Other of his officers were much exercised by the fact that the three white women had not been raped. And others told the media that the women had been making a porn video, not a gospel video as they claimed.

Such crudely Neanderthal comments, which will go unrebuked, are emblematic of an ANC that lost its soul and come untethered from the people of all races that it is supposed to serve. After 28 years in power, it is tired, divided and uninspiring. 

In some ways, it appears simply to have given up trying. Many ANC cadres are just marking time, doing a last scan of the shelves to see what’s still worth stealing before disappearing through the exit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was supposed to reinvigorate the party after the damage done during his predecessor’s presidency, is visibly listless and dispirited. He has good reason.

While the party endorsed, against the resistance of the corruption-tainted contingent from KwaZulu-Natal, his stand-aside rule for those ANC members criminally charged, it’s a double-edged sword. It potentially neutralises Ramaphosa’s most potent challengers at December’s leadership conference but it can equally clinically and abruptly end his hopes of a second term if he is charged in connection with the bizarre Farmgate scandal. 

There’s every possibility of that. The allegations are hair-raising: the unreported theft of a large amount of undeclared foreign currency concealed in the furniture on his Phala Phala game farm, then recovered through the secret deployment of police-backed bounty hunters who kidnapped and tortured the thieves, then paid for their silence. If true, it provides a tasty smorgasbord for any National Prosecuting Authority advocate who is unfettered by secret vows of presidential fealty.

So the issue has become a juggling act. The president is desperately trying to keep the power balls in play, while the other political performers try to trip him. It’s worked so far, but the pressure is building and five months seems a long time to duck and dive without a misstep.

Until now, opposition calls for a parliamentary investigation into whether Ramaphosa has contravened Section 89 of the Constitution (which provides for a president’s removal from office on grounds of serious misconduct, a criminal act, or a violation of the Constitution) have been stonewalled.

It helps Ramaphosa that the Speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, is a slow thinker. This week she missed her self-imposed deadline on whether to set up a committee to probe Farmgate. Her office announced that due to unexplained delays, she would need more time to decide on whether to proceed with an investigation.

The Democratic Alliance, in response, accused her of trying to shield the president from accountability. The DA has been joined by six of the parliamentary opposition parties to hold Ramaphosa accountable as a matter of urgency, without “distractions and procrastination”. Aside from the parliamentary inquiry, they want the acting Public Protector to make public the president’s responses to that office’s 31 questions on the matter, which she has refused to do.

In all likelihood, the opposition will have to go to court to get the Speaker or the Public Protector to comply with their demands.

This clearly all weighs heavily on Ramaphosa. He tried his best at the conference to deliver his trademark rah-rah optimism. However, the cheerleading was mechanical and unconvincing. Nobody really believed his assurances on the party’s “unstoppable renewal”, least of all the glum delegates staring a 2024 election trouncing in the face.

His reputation, hitherto astonishingly stain-resistant and wrinkle-free, is now showing some wear. That’s because the man who in 2019 was embraced by the corporate sector and middle-classes as the only safe pair of hands against the party’s destructive populists is showing his true colours and they aren’t as reassuring as they were once thought to be.

Three years ago, it was the Ramaphosa grouping, vying for the leadership against former president Jacob Zuma’s Radical Economic Transformation faction, that argued against a policy of land expropriation without compensation (EWC). While he won the leadership, the radicals triumphed on this policy position by the narrowest of margins.

This time, it was Ramaphosa who led the charge on EWC, despite having the delegate numbers to bury the issue this time around. He has become a true believer: “We must use available means, including the new Expropriation Bill, to accelerate land redistribution.” 

To complete Ramaphosa’s expedient about-face and embrace of populism, he also backed the nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank. This was the other issue on which the radicals had pushed in 2019 but it had fallen by the wayside under the pressure of more demanding issues – blackouts, SOEs in financial collapse, attempted insurrections, natural disasters, a surge in criminal violence, and endemic service protests.

It has now apparently dawned on Ramaphosa, that the private ownership of the Reserve Bank is a “historic anomaly”. The people of South Africa should fully own it.

The nominal ownership of the Bank is, of course, not the real issue. It’s about control of the money printing presses. 

Having failed to develop policies and interventions that might grow the economy, the next step is to print more money. Money for the ruinously expensive Basic Income Grant, for the unaffordable R500bn National Health Insurance, for vanity projects like national symphony orchestras and monumental flags. 

The Reserve Bank’s independent board has long resisted opening the spigots and draining the barrel. A board of ANC deployed cadres won’t, which is why the Treasury, alert to the worst instincts of the party that it serves, is among those who oppose the nationalisation. 

Ironically, the man whom the country’s political centre viewed as its best defence against populism is pursuing with apparent relish the extremist policies they thought they could count on him opposing. The Radical Economic Transformation group’s best ally turns out to be Ramaphosa.

But as Groucho Marx supposedly said, “These are my principles, and if you don't like them…well, I have others.”

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