South Africa

Op-Ed: Twenty-one years later, how did the ANC do?

By Stephen Grootes 28 April 2015

Monday was, in a sense, South Africa’s 21st birthday - by one measure, the day in which we became a new nation. It’s worth, then, examining not necessarily how we’ve done, or how we are doing, but how we are doing compared to how we should have been doing. In other words, is the ANC living up to its claim of a “good story to tell? And if not, why not - and will it correct its mistakes, or continue on a problematic course? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

When trying to work out where a country “ought to be”, it’s very important to be as objective as possible. This is very difficult to do: one would have to be a political eunuch, a connoisseur of politics, but also with no views of one’s own (not something you’ve ever been accused of – Ed). But as a thought experiment, it can be quite valuable: it can illustrate certain problems, and also provide a context through which to understand whether some of the problems we have now are the result of bad political decisions, or would have been unavoidable with the best will in the world.

One way to do this is to use the concept of potential: what was the potential of South Africa in 1994, and where is it now? What was the potential of every South African, and is that potential being used fully, or have we even exceeded our potential? As an example, imagine a child of, say, three years old. In a country like the US, one of the biggest determinants of whether that child would be able to live up to its full IQ would be the opportunities its parents could provide: is it born into the privileged household, or just a few blocks away into a neighbourhood with terrible schools. In Scandinavia, government and “the system” would probably be able to ensure that child’s potential was fully realised, and it could possibly even increase the potential of that child. (For example, if the child had a learning difficulty, it’s very likely that would be properly diagnosed, and dealt with early enough, and thus the child’s potential would be greater than where it started). In some other places, a child can be deliberately held back, or only hope to realise the potential with which it is born.

In our case, the first, and most obvious thing the ANC did, was to release the potential that had been held back by Apartheid. Black kids went to formerly white schools, electricity and water supplies were given to people who didn’t have them before. Roads were tarred in places like Soweto (but not yet all of Alexandra), and the gates of government were thrown open to all.

This was the first, and perhaps most important step. From an objective viewpoint, unless one was a dictator or wanted to suppress a population, any government would have done this. It is also relatively easy: all you are doing is removing barriers to entry. Of course, it puts strain on certain systems, such as your ability to provide enough power, and enough school places in quality schools, but often an apparent goodwill can give government of the day plenty of space to operate and innovate.

On this, the ANC has obviously done very well; it’s hard to fault it. But it could be accused of falling down on the planning side. In other words, there was, in certain instances, a failure to provide proper capacity. The most obvious example of this is Eskom, where despite the warnings of its own officials, not enough capacity was put in place. And education first did well in breaking down the barriers, but not nearly enough has been done to fix township schools. That much is obvious from the number of children in townships who commute to “Model C” schools every day.

One of the worst legacies of Apartheid was our health system; it simply was never properly designed to meet the needs of all South Africans. Here capacity needed to be increased as quickly as possible. While there have been huge improvements, the fact is much more should have been done earlier. Story after story about Chris Hani Baragwanath, scandal after scandal about hospitals in the Free State; at the moment a Human Rights Commission inquiry is underway into the Eastern Cape health situation, surely all of this is proof that health has been a failure on any objective level.

And that’s before we even touch on HIV/Aids. The ANC let down the country during the Mbeki era. But, it then did something very few political parties in power have done anywhere. It did an about-turn, and started to implement the correct policies shortly after Mbeki was sent packing. And the scaling-up of that capacity was impressive: millions and millions of people have now had tests, and most government hospitals prescribe ARV’s routinely. This is evidence that the party can change its course quite rapidly, should it need to do so.

One of the problems almost every government runs into is that of corruption. It is human nature to try use the power and money you have to try and get more power any money. From an objective viewpoint, surely the amount of corruption we have in our society now is simply way too high. Too many ANC cadres are accused, tried, and then convicted of corruption. And then don’t appear to lose their standing within the party as a result. Tony Yengeni is the obvious example, the mayor of East London Zukiswa Ncitha, and others have been charged with corruption through benefiting from the funeral of Nelson Mandela, and yet no action has been taken against them by the ANC.

Faced with this, most parties would have tried to bury their heads in the sand. In some cases, such as those around President Jacob Zuma, the ANC has tried. But at a general level, the party has admitted, both in public and in discussion documents, that this is a huge problem. Gwede Mantashe himself has admitted this, and even gone so far as to say it’s a predictable problem, considering all the other liberation movements in Africa who then go on to hold government power. He says his job is to try to limit the amount of corruption.

On this, surely, the ANC has failed. Corruption seems to be almost unbeatable at the moment, it is pervasive: everyone has stories about the metro cop at the traffic light, or knows someone who knows someone who was involved in a deal with government. Of course, the symbol for this, is Zuma himself. It is surely unanswerable that without him in power, and his strange path to the Union Buildings, the culture of corruption may have found it harder to take hold so strongly.

One of the main problems facing any government coming into power in 1994, was that of the divided nation it inherited. When it comes to reconciliation, the ANC has done better than an objective government would have. This is testament to some of the people involved in the reconciliation project (Nelson Mandela, of course! – but there were others) and to its own policy of non-racialism. On this issue, despite some occasional faltering particularly of late, it has surely done better than anyone else could, from an objective point of view. While this is still debatable, the ANC has ensured that minorities still have their place in the sun, even if may have been tempting from time to time to act otherwise.

The ANC’s “story to tell” is, at best, mixed. It has done well in some areas, but hasn’t yet grasped how to increase our human potential. It may change course. In the area of corruption, should Zuma leave the party’s leadership (probably in just two and a half years from now), the culture of corruption may be easier to fight. Building capacity in the longer term is likely to be an easier sell to politicians, after the Eskom fiasco/saga/disaster/tragedy. Education and health, often the most difficult and expensive services to provide in a democracy, remain huge problem areas. But they are receiving attention, partly because the ANC’s track record in office, rather than its track record in the Struggle, are coming under more focus. DM

Photo: African National Congress former deputy Jacob Zuma is announced as having won the election to party president by some 824 votes against incumbent Thabo Mbeki, Polokwane South Africa 18 Dec 2007. (Greg Marinovich)



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