Budget austerity and parliamentary lists present Ramaphosa with a moment to make good on ANC’s promises of renewal
As the ANC prepares for next year’s election, a difficult dispute over government spending is coming its way too. For insiders, this could be a chance to make major changes in governance, especially when the ANC is drawing up its parliamentary lists. Together, these processes present President Cyril Ramaphosa with an opportunity to make major alterations, both to the government and to the party.
There has been consistent reporting over the past month that the government is about to make major spending cutbacks.
At the same time, it’s also claimed that the government will have to make major spending cuts if the R350/month Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant is to be kept.
This comes at the worst possible time for the ANC — no governing party wants to go into an election with less money for its government to spend than in previous years.
Cutting back on social spending would have a powerful impact on our society. Food costs have risen dramatically, while transport costs are higher than ever. The Budget Justice Coalition and other groups have accused the National Treasury of scare-mongering and attempting to find a way to stop the SRD grant. They point to the suffering that would be caused if there were fewer nurses and police officers on duty because there was no money to pay them.
No matter where you stand on this, it is surely true that our crises would deepen if the government were to spend less.
Of course, there have been promises of change through a Budget before.
Back in 2020, during the intense parts of the pandemic, then finance minister Tito Mboweni claimed zero-based budgeting would be introduced, a process where the entire Budget calculation starts from scratch (rather than just basing this year’s Budget on last year’s Budget adjusted for inflation).
But this never happened, maybe simply because there was too much pushback from the great majority of departments.
And if ANC members discuss this in any way (for instance, through the National Executive Committee) any major changes may well be stopped.
This is because it is likely that ANC leaders would find it difficult to agree on any major change to the Budget to start with. As Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe once put it, “economics is the essence of politics”, and a debate in the ANC on this issue could be incredibly divisive.
A very useful crisis
However, for a small group of people, those in power in the government and the ANC, this could be a very useful crisis.
The Sunday Times has reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa is considering cutting back on the number of government departments and agencies. This would fulfil a promise Ramaphosa made several times to reduce the number of departments in government — there is much fat to cut, with an extraordinary number of institutions run by the government, including at least 700 state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Already, it appears the government will lose the Public Enterprises portfolio and that the SOEs it administers will go to other relevant departments (Transnet to the Transport Ministry, Eskom to the Energy Department, etc).
Within this is yet another plan to reduce the number of SOEs controlled by the government.
Again, there have been similar promises in the past.
In 2012, Riah Phiyega (before she became National Police Commissioner) presented then president Jacob Zuma with an extensive report after chairing a commission into SOEs.
As far as is known, none of the recommendations was implemented. Instead, their performance appears to have deteriorated; several were looted during the State Capture era.
Yet, this could be the moment for Ramaphosa to successfully argue that the government must be made smaller and that it must become more effective.
There may be a simple test for voters to determine if he and the ANC are serious about their commitment to making the government work for voters.
The government spends R1.7-billion a year on the VIP Protection Unit. This is the unit that protects a very small number of people, while its members feel no shame in assaulting ordinary citizens.
The government spends only R2.2-billion on the Hawks, a unit that is supposed to fight crime on behalf of everyone, everywhere in South Africa.
If Ramaphosa intends to prove to voters that his government works for them, then he could reduce, dramatically, the amount the government spends on protecting people who are supposed to represent the very same public.
This would be the best way for him to demonstrate both that he is trying to fulfil his promises and that the ANC is attempting to govern for the people.
While this process is under way, another one is quietly running behind the scenes.
The parliamentary lists
The ANC’s Electoral Committee, under former president Kgalema Motlanthe, is starting a process to determine who can represent the ANC in Parliament and the provincial legislatures — the ANC’s parliamentary lists.
Before the 2019 elections, the then ANC secretary-general, Ace Magashule, was able to control this process, with the result that Bongani Bongo, Mosebenzi Zwane and Supra Mahumapelo were elected to important positions.
This time, Motlanthe’s committee has said that it will not consider people who are facing criminal charges.
And the ANC’s Veterans League has said publicly that no ANC member against whom the Zondo Commission made findings should be considered for any position.
If this principle is accepted, a very large number of people within the ANC may suddenly not be able to be MPs after next year’s elections.
This would include ANC chair and mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, and minister of sport, arts and culture Zizi Kodwa (Mantashe has lodged a legal application to have the findings against him set aside).
There are signs that Motlanthe and his committee are becoming more assertive.
At the weekend, Sunday World reported that Motlanthe had rejected a list of candidates presented to him by Free State ANC provincial secretary Dihelele Motsoeneng, saying it did not meet the criteria.
Also, new chair of the ANC’s Integrity Commission Frank Chikane has suggested he is prepared to act against ANC members who have not presented themselves to his commission to explain any findings or charges against them.
It may be the biggest possible electoral incentive for the ANC to ensure that these processes result in the outcomes Motlanthe and Chikane claim to want.
Many voters will want to see the proof that the ANC really is changing, that it is going through a process of what Ramaphosa claims is its “renewal”. A very different parliamentary list, excluding those with question marks against their names, may well be the best possible proof of this.
This could result in a group of MPs that are more supportive of Ramaphosa’s stated agenda.
It is clear that these processes can result in major changes in the government and in the ANC.
But the party has made promises like this many, many, many times before. Despite these new promises, in the end, there may be virtually no change at all. The question, of course, remains whether the voters’ reaction will reflect no change either. DM