We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
25 April 2014 08:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

Road To Nowhere, by the ANC

  • Sipho Hlongwane
So maybe it was the Talking Heads (rather apt name) who sang it first, but we’ve heard it time and again: the government must introduce certainty. Instead, we’re seeing it introducing more and more uncertainty in the economy, media freedom and now the judiciary. It’s not because the ANC enjoys unsettling the world, but because the ANC has run out of ideas and is unsure how to proceed.

Since Jacob Zuma became the president of the country, the word “uncertainty” has returned to our national dialogue. Perhaps it will be a word that will someday be used to describe Zuma’s presidency, as words like “autocratic” are sometimes used to describe his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.

When was the last time we were guaranteed a particular move by Zuma? We weren’t sure what he would do in the economic field. He had ridden in partly on the promise to be a caring president who would do better at ensuring the poor masses weren’t neglected anymore. Let’s not forget Cosatu were his bedfellows at the time. We knew what they wanted, but not how much they’d influence Zuma’s economic policies.

When he appointed his new Cabinet, Zuma created the economic development ministry which was supposed to help guide us to a state capitalist economy alongside treasury, the department of trade and industry and the public enterprises ministry. We also had the national planning commission. Who was supposed to do what? It wasn’t clear.

When some of his Cabinet ministers top appointments began displaying less than exemplary traits, the president took his time to react. Actually, an intolerably long time during which we were uncertain about the futures of Sicelo Shiceka, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Bheki Cele.

And, of course, there was the economic uncertainty created when Julius Malema revived the nationalisation of mines debate. Even now that Malema is out of his position in the ANCYL, the secretary general of the mothership, Gwede Mantashe, has made sure uncertainty about nationalisation will not die with Juju, by declaring that the debate was an ANC matter, not a Malema matter. He’s right, of course. The ANC commissioned a study into state capitalist models for what they call the “mining and energy complex”, which the NEC will distribute to the branches for debate before the policy conference in June.

None of this is new, actually. The word “uncertainty” featured very strongly in the Codesa years and when the unity government was in power. Nelson Mandela’s mantra was jobs: nobody had a good idea how they would be created, given that the economy of the country was in the dumps and more unskilled people were being registered on the jobs market for the first time after apartheid had simply ignored them, leading to a sharp rise in unemployment figures. The Reconstruction and Development Programme that aimed to create a gigantic welfare state was abandoned in hopes that the more market-orientated policies of Mbeki would help create more jobs. That hasn’t worked either, and now we’re back to a government primarily concerned with the welfare state after the “tide that lifts all the boats” project was abandoned.

The ANC will have realised in the last 17 years that governance is really hard, but it hasn’t dampened the party’s ideological marriage to weak-tea socialism and a transformation-above-all-else social engineering project. In fact, these two certainties go a long way in explaining why the ANC government makes moves which exacerbate uncertainty in other areas.

Sometime this week we are apparently going to hear from the department of justice on what the president means when he said the judiciary needed to be reviewed. Cabinet spokesman Jimmy Manyi said that the Constitution would still be honoured, but that nothing was exempt from a transformation audit, so to speak. Given Zuma’s rough history with our courts, and his already-expressed view that the courts shouldn’t be a higher authority than an elected executive, it is not difficult to see why so many people are nervous about the future of judicial independence.

The next certainty: save for a radical change of heart brought about by god knows what, the ANC will not change into a liberal party. Which means the options of fully liberalising the market, breaking up with the unions and selling off state-owned enterprises and monopolies are all off the table. At the same time, the ANC’s own solutions haven’t given us great market growth or a massive drop in unemployment. And even though we now have the NPC’s National Development Plan, it still runs along the lines of a state-driven economy. If this doesn’t drive growth up to 8% and beyond, what else could the ANC do?

Aside from fiddling with transformation, there’s really nothing else they can do. In the meantime, the welfare state will continue to weigh down the fiscus, forcing the state to borrow abroad in lean years and to lean on taxpayers in years of flush to continue to fund it. Cosatu will continue to press for socialism and a few in the ANC will continue to ponder whether increased state control of key sectors of the economy may bring about the jobs it promised and failed to deliver.

A government that isn’t sure itself what to do will never be able to provide certainty. Perhaps we start getting used to it. DM


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  • Sipho Hlongwane
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Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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