SA POLITICS IN CRISIS
How fast will the ANC fall, part three: The party’s cars tell a turbo-charged story
In five articles this week, John Matisonn assesses the crisis in SA politics and the reforms needed to turn it around.
When the ANC suffered its first serious election defeat in 2016, its losses were so unexpected nobody seriously contemplated interfering with the peaceful transfers of municipal power. And a few outgoing mayors were too hungover.
Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters had their own surprise in store when they backed DA candidates against the ANC. Since the EFF and DA have nothing in common, EFF leaders explained the decision as a vote against ANC corruption.
Now former president Jacob Zuma is gone, yet the EFF backed the DA a second time in 2021. Why? Though there is a personal element — Malema has a grudge against President Cyril Ramaphosa for kicking him out of the ANC — the long-term strategy is unchanged.
Malema aims to break the ANC as a national force in 2024 or 2029. If he succeeds, he hopes to brush the DA aside. If no party has 51%, there will be a rush to coalesce with whoever he needs. If the ANC’s divisions have advanced to the point of splitting the party, the EFF will absorb its Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction.
So the populist alternative to the current political impasse is the EFF, with or without the RET faction. EFF/RET policies would inspire capital flight because investors will fear their assets will be confiscated. A failed state will be a real possibility.
But the EFF is not that strong. Fear of the EFF reminds me of the exaggerated fears of the apartheid-era Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, which wore Nazi-like insignia. The grammar of TV news gives frightening images excessive airtime. But wearing Nazi clothes doesn’t make you Hitler; it just makes you odious. Likewise, the EFF adopts communist insignia, but that doesn’t make Malema Stalin.
In fact, election results show the EFF has hit a ceiling for the present. Its success is a consequence of a failure of national leadership, and a warning. More failed leadership could see it grow.
If the EFF/RET is the populist alternative, what is the job-creating, 21st-century South African option?
Ramaphosa might be able to consolidate his support by 2024 to squeeze back to 50% plus 1. If he gets less than 50%, the ANC will include a party or two to get its coalition over the hump. If he is defeated at the elective conference in December the chances of a split are high and the CR17 faction could find a new partner, which may be the DA.
But is there a blueprint in any of the parties for the 5%+ annual growth we need to put some of the millions our generation has let down to work? It’s not yet clear to me that there is.
South Africa’s failure would bring joy to the country’s most craven critics. Regardless of when the pandemic ends, South Africa’s jobs crisis and infrastructure collapse demand a national sense of emergency.
The task of political leadership is to clean up the party that governs and transform the state into a 21st-century government. Where in South Africa are the right intellectual and practical skills to do that?
Just as the government was hollowed out far more than we appreciated, so too the ANC. Fixing both has proved harder than expected and they’re running out of time.
The ANC’s most influential intellectual remains retired president Thabo Mbeki. He offered an eight-page post-election prescription for recovery. Mbeki recommends accepting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) advice to remove members of insufficient quality.
The ANC has sent hundreds of members to Beijing for training with the CCP. Mbeki’s letter adopts the CCP’s advice that Luthuli House must not delay in eliminating members “who neither perform their duties nor qualify” as members.
It sounds like a reversion to the days when selfless activists worked to end apartheid out of idealism. When Mbeki was president the party addressed the same problem by undertaking to create the “new man” (sic) within the ANC. Then State Capture happened.
Mbeki’s letter took me back to a day in July 1986 when Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara sang for Mbeki and his delegation of banned ANC leaders at the tail-end of the famous Dakar talks with white Afrikaners.
Sankara’s house was adequate for a president, neither lavish nor shabby. He played the guitar for us. We admired his commitment to fighting corruption and his modest lifestyle. We were told that he and all his Cabinet rejected ministerial limousines and travelled in modest Renaults.
To tackle rampant corruption, Sankara set up peoples’ courts. We attended one. They were remarkable for the transparency as well as relative leniency — Sankara’s most powerful tool was shame.
Anyone could present evidence to which former ministers had to answer before the crowd. That day a minister’s secretary gave evidence that she saw the minister receive a shoebox full of money. The minister sat alone and uncomfortable on an empty stage. Ministers were sufficiently humiliated that a punishment of several years in jail just confirmed that they had failed their people.
Sankara talked of revolution and many drank the Kool-Aid. South Africa under the ANC would not be quite as modest, we thought, because we are a more sophisticated country. But the spirit would be similar, right?
I wonder if Mbeki thought about Sankara and those idealistic days as he penned his letter a few weeks ago. Mbeki used the word “revolution” three times in the first four paragraphs, then referred to his National Democratic Revolution, opposed by “counter-revolutionaries”.
If the ANC is currently engaged in a revolution, ANC ministers, premiers, mayors and councillors must be revolutionaries. But does the average working or unemployed South African see our politicians as revolutionaries?
They probably credit the ANC for social grants and fear the DA might take them away, but revolutionaries?
Most ANC bigwigs drive luxury cars made in Germany, even though there would be more South African jobs if they chose cars made here. South African union workers make beautiful BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, for example, but ANC bigwigs reject them in favour of even fancier German-made limousines.
If every ANC politician, civil servant and state-owned enterprise employee drove only South African union-made cars, that decision alone would create hundreds of jobs overnight. As important, it would signal that their commitment to South African job creation was sincere. Our leaders have never made that a rule. Perhaps they haven’t even considered it.
South African union members make Mercedes C-Class cars which are exported around the world. We also made BMW 3 Series cars, now being switched for the X3. They are all exceptionally impressive, smart cars. Only when I joined government service did I discover the different models, seeing government garages upgrade from BMW 3 to 5 to 7, or Mercedes C to E or S, with each above-inflation annual pay increase.
Nobody in government made the obvious point: if you switch from a C or 3 to something fancier, South Africans lose jobs. There are a couple of ANC bigwigs who know the difference and care enough to drive locally made cars, but they also know enough about their colleagues’ lost moral compass not to press them to follow their example.
Of course a luxury, R1-million-plus, German-made limousine isn’t good enough for every ANC leader. Former communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane explained her preference for a more extravagant Aston Martin this way: “We are a family that has got friends who understood our pain of always being deprived of opportunities.”
In fairness to Mokonyane, she contributed R900,000 of the cost, because “I have my own pride.”
Needless to say, the Aston Martin factories in Gaydon village in Warwickshire and St Athan village in Wales do not employ South African union members. Yet no leaders rushed to a microphone to say not getting a multimillion-rand Aston Martin is what being “deprived of opportunities” means.
I cannot recall a single apartheid minister who indulged in such excess. Perhaps it’s past the time to say that out loud.
Voters are not fooled. They may call one another “comrade” out of wistful nostalgia for the party that gave them hope and ended white rule. Some will go to their graves loyal to the ANC, to a lost past that meant so much to its members in its heyday, like Bloedsappe and Nats before them.
Why do our leaders seem not to think of the jobs they cost their own voters when they make these decisions? Apartheid wielded such destruction to citizens’ basic rights that since 1994 we have emphasised our rights and lost touch with our obligations.
Our leaders don’t prioritise fellow South Africans’ jobs when they make shopping decisions. They know union members, but their distance from business keeps them disconnected from how the jobs are made.
Mbeki’s letter recognises that many in the ANC have a distaste for the economic engine that drives South African jobs: “I am aware that some of us feel uneasy about the idea of our working closely with private capital,” he acknowledges with regret.
Mbeki (and Zuma) look to the Chinese Communist Party for answers. But the ANC is nothing like the CCP. In China, the CCP maintains sweetheart unions that frankly identify their interests with the companies they serve. Working six- and even seven-day weeks with extensive overtime is common. Health and safety often come second.
“If there are no profits, there are no jobs,” Chinese union leaders tell members who complain about excess overtime or safety concerns. See American Factory, a Netflix documentary about the work and union culture in a Chinese-owned factory in the US.
On the other hand, the CCP’s success is aided by incentivising party members who get jobs like mayor in much the same way capitalists do. In the CCP, if a mayor does not meet his economic growth target he or she gets demoted or fired!
The CCP requires villages to report on how finances are being spent each year. This allows the party to make sure revenue is used to meet targets from above. If they are missed, the party sends in “the anti-corruption people”. It does not meet our rule of law requirements, but it is very real consequence management.
Our system is fundamentally different. Since our most urgent crisis is jobs, we have to work out how to do it under our Constitution. There is nothing wrong with a developmental state. Japan and other Asian developmental states have succeeded spectacularly.
The state had a key role, but governments don’t create jobs at jobs summits. Some jobs can be created by good macroeconomic policies, stopping corruption and good governance, but that will never be enough.
The DA’s policies of stable macroeconomics, good governance and privatisations that would create some jobs seem to fit in that category. Our greatest success post-apartheid was under Mbeki when growth peaked at 5.8% and unemployment fell. But he didn’t create the developmental state he spoke of. We need to squeeze out an extra 2-3% to get to the 8% area if we are going to combat the joblessness scourge. Developmental states have done that in the past.
Mbeki’s talk of a developmental state is valid and he shows refreshing modesty saying that others may have better suggestions which he would welcome. I’m taking him at his word.
Here’s the good news: it can be done. The bad news is economic conditions now are tougher than when Asian economies did it. The path many Asian Tigers took is no longer open to African economies.
For the past three decades we have let the best job-creating opportunities in growth sectors slip through our hands. South Africa paid high school fees to Bain & Company and other consulting firms to learn that the country has to be driven by South Africans with skin in the game. DM
Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Tomorrow: How it can be done.
John Matisonn is a former senior United Nations elections official, Independent Broadcasting Authority councillor and long-time political and foreign correspondent. He is the author of Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform; and God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past.