President Cyril Ramaphosa has laid down the law as decided by a wide ANC forum on a number of contentious issues such as state-owned enterprises and land redistribution.
“We should avoid political interference in operational matters of our state-owned enterprises,” he said, “and if there is to be any, it should be on strategic matters and also where there is mismanagement and a clear company failure,” he told the closing session of the ANC’s lekgotla – a six-monthly party policy forum – on Monday night. Ramaphosa added that this was in line with the ANC’s resolutions at its 2017 conference held at Nasrec.
There was a lot of clamour from detractors on the issue of state-owned enterprises before this weekend’s meeting, especially those who want the removal of one of Ramaphosa’s most trusted lieutenants in his efforts to revive economic growth, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. This is an effort by Ramaphosa’s detractors in the party to get at him at the party’s National General Council in about six months’ time for what they say is his failure to stick to the 2017 Nasrec resolutions – one of the reasons Ramaphosa mentions the same resolutions so expressly. In the end, the beleaguered state energy utility Eskom was not moved out of Gordhan’s department to the Department of Energy, as some of Gordhan’s detractors in the ANC and in labour federation Cosatu had asked for, and Gordhan is still in his job.
Ramaphosa made clear that, on SOEs, the ANC would be guided by a 1992 policy document called “Ready to Govern: ANC policy guidelines for a democratic South Africa”, which pre-dates the ANC’s time as a governing party. It also dates back to the time when Ramaphosa had just stepped out of his trade union role into that of ANC party secretary-general (policy documents came in hard copy then). Ramaphosa said the guidelines “stated that the balance of evidence should continue to guide our structuring and restructuring of state-owned enterprises and our decisions of when we need to increase or reduce public ownership in order to advance our economic programme”.
Ramaphosa also reported the lekgotla decision as saying “commercial and developmental mandates” of SOEs should be clearly stated, and where necessary, reviewed, and the institutional design should support development. “There should be greater and more effective attention on operational efficiency, integrity and functionality of our SOEs, as well as ensuring that people who are fit for purpose are appointed in the various institutions.”
The 740 SOEs will be rationalised or consolidated, he added.
There were other important issues too, like land reform (again, Ramaphosa emphasised the ANC’s participation in the process of amending legislation currently underway in Parliament), appointing capable deployees and monitoring them (we’ve heard this before), getting local government right (ditto), fighting crime (ditto) and social cohesion (ditto).
Those in the camp opposing Ramaphosa have the ability to be quite boisterous, so the potential for disruption was big. Media reports towards the weekend suggested that something could happen at the national executive committee meeting on Friday and Saturday, or even at the lekgotla which followed the next two days. ANC alliance partners, the leagues, student organisations – joined the ANC leaders for the lekgotla.
Ramaphosa appeared to have won this round.
“Many had thought this lekgotla will descend into arguments, fighting, walk-outs, sit-ins and protests,” he said in his closing speech, to which journalists were, unusually, invited, and which was also live-streamed on the party’s Facebook page. “I’m sorry to those who reported it would, because this is the best forum that is demonstrable of the unity of our movement,” he continued, to laughter and applause from NEC members. He also said the NEC was “united around most of the important issues that concern the nation, the economy, state-owned enterprises, the building of a capable state, and how we should go about strengthening local government.” He added that discussions were “robust”, an ANC euphemism to indicate differences of opinion.
“We all agreed that we will all speak and communicate one message with the many voices that are here,” he said. Had he left it to secretary-general Ace Magashule to communicate the outcome of the lekgotla, as is usually the case, this one-message goal might not have realised.
Following the last lekgotla in June, for example, with a fresh new government just after the elections, Magashule managed to sow confusion about the mandate of the Reserve Bank by saying the ANC resolved that there should be “quantitative easing” to pay off debt. It took a lot of social media posts by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to clear that one up, and it’s still a contentious issue. A few days ago, as he was dusting off his Team South Africa scarf for the World Economic Forum, Mboweni was still giving assurances about the independence of the Reserve Bank, and he was still being attacked for this. With Davos starting today [21 January 2020], Ramaphosa wasn’t going to chance Magashule’s antics.
Ramaphosa gave up his favourite annual trip to the Swiss ski resort to take control of the local situation. He also didn’t go to the first UK-Africa summit in London (Brexit has the island looking for friends now), just so he could be at the lekgotla at St George’s Hotel outside Pretoria. Ramaphosa looked relaxed but he spoke firmly. The mood appeared light and ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe was his usual jovial mood for the show. Deputy President David Mabuza and ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashathile were absent, as they had other things to attend to. Incidentally, these two are emerging as Ramaphosa’s most dangerous detractors within the party on the Eskom debacle.
In the end, said those who were in the meeting, only two national executive committee members, namely Mosebenzi Zwane and Bongani Bongo, called for Gordhan’s removal. Zwane and Bongo are two previously relatively unknowns elevated into important portfolios in former president Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, but neither made the cut when Ramaphosa took over in February 2018. Bongo, in fact, is currently out on bail after he was arrested at the end of last year and charged with corruption. Zwane was himself deeply involved with the Guptas.
This lekgotla was more about process – rallying all the “colleagues and deployees”, as Ramaphosa called them, in one direction – than about deciding on the substance of policies that have already been decided on in 2017. Ramaphosa flattered attendees by calling them a “brains trust”, and reminded them that, through this demonstration of a unified purpose, “we are able to show the country that we are prepared to serve the people of our country”. He thanked everyone, down to the party staff and the secretary-general’s office which organised it.
Ramaphosa put his foot down in this round, but there’s likely to be many more battles in the months to come. DM