Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

The ANC’s “second transition”: promise, threat or propaganda?

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The chain-reaction set off by the release of the ANC policy discussion documents last week, the foundation course for the party’s “second transition”, was to be expected.

Headlines and tweets speak of “mining grabs”, “resource nationalism”, a “full scale attack” on the constitution, and the “path to a failed state”. Some say it is a “dire threat”, others “mere propaganda”. The Wall Street Journal characterises it as “South Africa’s Worrisome Turn” (we’re always on the road to Zimbabwe as far as the world is concerned).

We live in contested space, both ideologically and physically. There is no paucity of debate. We may be made uncomfortable by it, but setting the bar a little lower we should take heart after looking at the nature of discussions raging in other countries. In the USA, the Republican presidential candidate debates resemble a reality TV show about everything but reality. In the Arab world, the citizenry is still trying to interpret the word of God to make its laws while being sandwiched (if not eaten) between the military and the clerics. In beleaguered Europe, distant technocrats do their own thing leaving the people to protest futilely or amuse themselves with their many material distractions.

We have fewer distractions here, except for our unhappy past that is always ready to cast our public debates in shadow. Hiding in those shadows is fear, anger and always race. South Africans need to guard against allowing such shadow play to lead the country into disastrous policy decisions. One of the most tragic consequences was how historical grievance, paranoia, and obedience to the party allowed AIDS to take hold of the country. I hope it haunts the ANC for the rest of its days; they can never say, “We know better, be quiet”.

One has simply to look at the crucial revisions which public objections brought about in the Protection of State Information Bill to know that this government, like any other – whether Japanese or Canadian – is never to be left to its own devices.

The documents have been read by some sectors in the light of the irrational forces once again at work in ANC rhetoric around the constitution and the judiciary, while disguising very rational vested interests beavering away in other areas, notably political ambition and our most robust economic activity – corruption.

Nationalisation is a good example. Invoking one interpretation of the Freedom Charter, Julius Malema called for outright state ownership and rejected any expert investigation. His mind was made up; he didn’t want to be confused with facts.

When I asked Minister for Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba what he thought of this, he said the investigating team appointed was “made up of  experts not ideologues – Thank God!”. NUMSA has now come out rejecting the panel’s findings; for being emotionally unsatisfactory one presumes.

Overall, the ANC, though not averse to using irrational opinion like any political party, must be credited for charting the course to date with thought-through positions. (Yet reasonable minds can differ on the direction, which is why, my president, we have dissenting opinions in Constitutional Court cases.)

The ANC authored one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, treated its mortal enemies with great humanness, and it has as yet not caved in to either ill-conceived Africanist or Marxist positions. It has steadfastly stuck to principles on such unpopular measures as human rights for homosexuals and the abolition of the death penalty (which it signed up to already in the 1980s) among others. When it comes to policies, the party has been as broadminded and as pragmatic.

As an entity, the ANC is about as revolutionary as England. Luthuli House therefore rends its garments in public when accused of seeking to undo the democratic order. (But what does it expect when it has a leadership that has spent so much of its time in the public spotlight hauled before the courts on criminal charges?)

I tend to agree with analyst Steven Friedman that the trove of ANC policy discussion papers just released although high on rhetoric will be slow and modest in implementation, certainly very changed by the time they become law.

But when FW de Klerk comments that the ANC is seeking to sweep away the national consensus, and he darkly warns the ANC intends to recreate the country in the mould of China (and rather quaintly uses the phrase “and its friends in Cuba”), he is accused of “ringing the usual liberal scarecrow bells”. The former deputy president of the first democratic South Africa is merely reacting to the ANC itself punting this as a “watershed” moment.

Although the documents are up for discussion, they clearly set an agenda. If you walk into the theatre and there is a gallows on stage with a noose, you have some idea of what play to expect; it is not going to be a pantomime. There are other possibilities naturally – the rope will break and it will be a happy ending. Trust us, says every government, as they position your feet on the scaffold. “We’d much prefer it if you wore a blindfold.”

The overall tenure of the current presidency, which sends its acolytes for political education in China (enamoured as it is by state capitalism, though notably not its execution of officials for corruption), which has attacked the Constitutional Court with “clumsy statements by some comrades”, which is pushing the “Secrecy Bill”, the “Stasi Bill”, a media tribunal, and has put Jimmy Manyi (a man so devoted to the cause he should have been used up as a kamikaze pilot) in charge of press relations, is discouraging.

To appropriate Žižek’s colourful characterization of Occupy Wall Street, in psychoanalytic terms, civil society protests provoke the ANC master as if they were the outbursts of a hysterical woman, undermining his authority. He wants to hit her, and he shouts: “Behave or shut up!” He doesn’t want to deal with the causes, for inevitably he is the cause of her distress and sometime hallucinations.

Thus the SACP continually launches attacks on “unaccountable civil society” and “anti-majoritarian constitutionalism” (conveniently forgetting it was civil society in the USA and Europe that forced their governments to impose sanctions against apartheid; today it is business and NGOs and not the state most helping the Young Communist League to distribute sanitary pads for its school campaigns).

Nor should the alliance deflect criticism by pointing to the hypocrisy of its critics, even if it is tempting and quite correct to point out that the apartheid regime totally mismanaged the economy, was corrupt up to its eyeballs, and morally bankrupt. It should rather answer in good faith the questions raised in public debate beyond its own structures.

Are the 12 ANC policy documents the apostles of a new order (Minister Jeff Radebe called whoever leaked the documents to the press Judas Iscariot)? Or is it just so much more hot air, like the National Democratic Revolution itself?

As the M&G reported the thoughts of the ANC policy wonks were quickly watered down to better cohere with the blueprint of the National Planning Commission. Alarm was spreading to the markets.

On the positive side, the second transition taken together with the infrastructural plan tries to claw back some legitimacy for a party out of touch with the people and increasingly equated with elite economic interests.

The danger is that the issues become politicised and start to feed into the ANC leadership intrigues, with Malema toyi-toying on the bandwagon as he did at the Cosatu march (which compared to his own attempt at an “economic freedom” march put him to shame).

The ANC seems to envision a bigger party-state (a nightmare scenario given its capacities and competence) accountable only to the quinquennial ballot box (which is hopelessly inadequate electoralism). Participation of the private sector is seen as “inevitable” rather than desirable.

An aggressive, coercive state is not the answer. The consociationalism of Mauritius would be a far better model to emulate.

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Two other success stories of co-operation from the world might serve as inspiration.

When Barbados went into financial meltdown in the early 1990s (not dissimilar to Greece now), the government got unions and employers together to try and convince the IMF to bail it out without devaluing the currency and imposing austerity measures (which had destroyed the other island economies in crisis around it).

In the words of one key union leader, “We took a patriotic stance”. Labour agreed to an 8% cut across the board.

The mercantile community agreed to fix their retail rates. They watched profit margins erode, but they kept in business. The state introduced rules such as no two breadwinners could be retrenched in one household. Pension funds voluntarily repatriated their foreign holdings. Labour, employers and government formed a solid partnership. All took some pain.

By contrast, Jamaica forged no such broad pact. Its charismatic leader pushed through radical and very popular (with the masses) economic policies. The middle class fled and took their money and skills with them. The economy shrank by 2% per annum for the next 15 years. Tax revenues dwindled; debt ballooned. Today Jamaica has recovered somewhat; it is 79th on the UN Human Development Index, but Barbados is 47th  (South Africa is 123rd).

Another example comes from Germany. From 2002, its unemployment rate began to soar above the European Union average, peaking at 11.5%.

Dr Peter Hartz, former human resources director at Volkswagen (he was once convicted of bribing union leaders) was tasked with finding a solution. He came up with mini-jobs – employ workers for short periods, a few hours at a time for additional help, with the maximum they can earn set at 400 Euros per month, but tax free. The powerful German unions agreed. Largely thanks to the unpopular “Hartz reforms” Germany’s unemployment rate stands today at 5.5%. The European Union average and France’s unemployment rate (where no leeway was given by unions) is nearly double, at 9.9%.

In South Africa we must hope political posturing won’t trump co-operation. It’s too early to say, but the documents are not a promising start. The space to watch will be the policy conference in June in Mangaung.

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