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The broad church means the ANC is too big not to fail

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

Next week's all-important ANC policy conference has missed something. The broad church, for a party in government, creates a paradox whose contradictions lead to inaction. That, as much as anything else, is why 18 years of ANC governance has not been all it was hoped to be. Without discussing that, nothing will change for party and state.

Except for Motsoko Pheko and others, mostly Africanists, few would dispute the virtues of the Freedom Charter – the glue that holds the broad church that is the ANC-alliance together and informs much of what’s in the South African Constitution. Fulfilling the role of a bible to the broad church, the document describes heaven, in principle, without being prescriptive on how to get there, which is where the ANC’s policies fit in. 

These policies, which form the subject of the party’s conference next week, are supposed to provide the ANC with a roadmap to the aspired country envisioned in Freedom Charter. However, next week’s discussions take place in the stark reality that 18 years of the ANC as the governing party have failed to realise significant enough progress toward the stated goal of improving the quality of life of all South Africans, especially the poor. 

Admittedly, 18 years is not long given goals set. However, one would have expected to see some kind of change. For starters, how can it be that the education system continues to produce the same results as a system informed by Verwoerd’s thinking, that all you need to teach the black child is to understand the white master? In addition, asset ownership and wealth distribution, while changed marginally, are still too close for comfort to those achieved by apartheid-era policies that restricted black asset ownership and spurned black wealth accumulation.

In preparation for next week’s discussions, the ANC has recognised, in a series of diagnostic documents, that part of the problem has been its own internal democracy and attendant processes. The documents say factionalism, clandestine parallel structures and personality cults have hampered the performance of ANC-led governments. As a result, the party has called for “renewal”, which isn’t actually a renewal but a return to the morality it had as a liberation movement engaged in a selfless struggle.

However, what won’t be discussed – and there’s a reason why – is how the concept of a broad church plays out in the real world. The idea that all are welcome, regardless of political philosophy or ideological outlook, has a romantic, feel-good appeal in a nation scarred by divisions. But for a party that wants to develop policies and effectively implement them, it is a recipe for inaction because the broad-church concept falls prey to the same paradox present in monotheism: what happens when two believers pray to the same god for two different, mutually exclusive things?

In the case of the ANC alliance, where diametrically opposed ideologies hold equal sway, it’s a stalemate. Nothing happens. Not in the ANC. Not in government, which is why the past 18 years have largely not been transformative for the country. 

Take, as a recent example, the youth wage subsidy, a policy that ANC members have both maligned and praised. It was proposed by an ANC-led government, yet was rejected by highly influential structures within the ANC alliance. The net effect has been inaction on youth unemployment, a contributor to the lack of economic transformation. 

If you recall the ANC’s internal flurries over other policies – the reconstruction and development programme, the growth, employment and redistribution plan, the new growth path, and the national development plan – you will see that this stalemate plays itself out in many other aspects and, in effect, renders the ANC a lame-duck government.

In theory, next week’s conference, as with previous policy conferences, is supposed to get the entire alliance on the same page. But because fundamental beliefs are almost always immutable, regardless of operating as a democracy, those who disagree and are outvoted will continue to disagree long after a certain path of action has been chosen. They will lobby and bring pressure to bear in the hope that at the decision-making event, their preferred path to realise the same objective is chosen.

But the alliance will not discuss these flaws in the broad church concept next or any other week because it will lead to the realisation that the ANC is too big not to fail. Of course a break-up isn’t the foregone conclusion of that realisation, but discussing it would signal doubt, which in politics scatters supporters and attracts opponents ready to bury you.

As a result, the renewal strategies decided upon will do little to improve the ANC’s efficacy as a governing party and will further postpone the realisation of the better life for all. This also further assures the ANC a future in opposition benches. DM


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