The bright side of bad governance

William Saunderson-Meyer examines the ANC's 109th birthday prezzie wish list


Many of us think that after 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, follows 2021, hopefully the Year of Less Shit. But the African National Congress is having nothing of it. This is, according to its January 8 Statement, the Year of Charlotte Maxeke.

The Statement is the tripartite alliance's annual policy statement and programme of action. “It is the voice of our movement,” the party’s national executive committee explains. It has been issued by the party’s national executive council (NEC) for almost 50 years, on the ANC’s date of formation in 1912 — what the ANC refers to as its glorious “birthday”.

Until Covid intervened, the 8th was more an occasion for ostentatious partying than producing a serious political analysis. The ANC celebrated its “birthday” nationwide with all the emotional fervour of a four-year-old with its entire future ahead, rather than the reality of a 109-year-old geriatric, plagued with sclerosis and tinged with dementia, staggering towards the cliff’s edge.

On the face of it, all this Soviet-style self-exaltation, of naming years after cadres and declaring solidarity with Cuba and Zimbabwe, is a harmless vanity behind which lies supposedly serious intent. The January 8 Statement, like the president’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) and the Budget Statement, are meant to signpost South Africa’s footpath into the future. 

So, based more on hope than experience, journalists and commentators accord the Statement the same kind of respectful analysis that is given to these other annual outlines. But it’s all faintly ridiculous. 

None of these occasions, meant to chart the government’s policy and executive intentions, bear much semblance to reality. Over 26 years of ANC governance, a comparison of plans with achievements show almost zero correlation.

There is never a solid, implementable and measurable schedule of work. Instead, it’s mostly rhetoric and razzmatazz. There are exhortations to the Comrades — this year it is Unity! Renewal! Reconstruction! — and fierce statements of noble goals that will never be achieved.

Like the four-year-old’s birthday, the Statement is an exercise in magical thinking. No less than Sipho or Tara or Bobby screwing up their eyes to blow out the candles — Deep breath! One puff! — and wishing for a weekend rocket trip to Mars, is the NEC’s wish to “place our economy on a path of renewal and recovery”.

Actually, that’s only one of the NEC’s four wishes. The other three are “to defeat the coronavirus”; “to forge ahead with the fundamental renewal of the ANC”, since it is “only an ANC with ethical, selfless and disciplined members” that can save South Africa (I paraphrase); and “to build a better Africa and a better world”.

These are admirable, albeit rather scattered goals. No South African would quibble with the rescue the economy and the defeat of Covid-19. 

And if they were likely to be achieved, like the four-year-old's kindergarten teacher we could then afford to smile in indulgent amusement at the childish conceit that one of the most corrupt, selfish and inept organisations around will save South Africa, then Africa, and then the World. 

And before it’s midday nap, possibly also the Universe. After inaugurating a bullet train service between Musina and Cape Town, via Buffalo City, as was conjured in the 2019 SONA. 

But we cannot afford the benign kindergarten teacher's indulgent amusement — the issues are existential, the stakes enormous. Nor are these tediously regular outpourings worthy of serious interrogation. 

Commentators flatter the ANC when they solemnly analyse the Statement’s ensuing 7,000 words as if they were a coherent plan with achievable objectives, the wonderful things that will happen in order to achieve the NEC’s objectives. In reality, the only plan the ANC truly has is to remain in power, at any cost.

One of the most forthright assessments of our prospects in Year of Charlotte Maxeke came from political economist Mandla Lionel Isaacs writing in Daily Maverick. “Despite all the evidence that ANC misrule is the cause of our continuing decline ... we still won’t say the obvious. The ANC has failed. The ANC is the problem. Anything we tell ourselves to the contrary is fantasy … And yet we continue to wait vainly for the ANC to ‘self-correct’.”

Contrary to what the Statement proclaims, there is no workable plan, merely an endlessly recycled list of platitudes. These endless “plans”, including the latest Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan, are largely cut-and-paste versions of earlier addresses and programmes: GEAR, the National Development Plan (NDP Mark I and NDP Mark II), ASGISA (“poverty and unemployment will be halved between 2006 and 2014”), and other flights of the imagination.

While some of these plans, notably the NDP, do contain usable maps that could guide South Africa towards prosperity, they are doomed never to be followed and implemented. Any pragmatic solutions that could make a difference are thwarted by the large number of people in the tripartite alliance who remain in thrall to ideological positions that not a single successful socialist country still subscribes to.

It’s instructive to recall the comments of Lin Songtian, the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, in a 2019 Reuters interview about South Africa’s prospects. 

He firstly lauded Ramaphosa as South Africa's “last hope”. But then he went on to explain why China had shown no interest in implementing the massive infrastructural projects that it has embarked on elsewhere in Africa.

“Why? Because we don’t need only the concept of a project” and those suggested by the South African government “lacked feasibility studies capable of reassuring the Chinese government and banks of their profitability and sustainability.” In other words, South Africa’s going to sit alone in the corner, masticating on its ideological sarmies, until the country gets real.

Unfortunately, the ANC is perfectly happy to do exactly that. It still has faith that the immutable forces of history will, like the perfect wave on a now-compulsorily empty South African beach, emerge from the deep blue yonder and catapult the National Democratic Revolution into being.

Hence the willingness of Ramaphosa’s administration to destroy the liquor and tobacco industry. Hence its implacable determination not to aid failing business sectors unless the rescued entities meet strict black empowerment — read cadre-enrichment — requirements. This is akin to a lifeguard refusing to aid a drowning man until he signs over his worldly goods. 

Or as the Statement puts it: “We have to decisively change the face of our economy, and not simply return the economy to where it was before the pandemic … To bring about this change, we need a radical programme of action.”

South Africa’s biggest impediment in navigating the turbulent waters of 2021 is that it is exceedingly poorly governed. This may amount to a blessing in disguise.

Given the ANC’s track record over innumerable plans, programmes, statements, addresses, and lofty projects, it’s “radical programme of action” has about much chance of happening as that four-year-old’s birthday trip to Mars.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye