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Give the ANC credit where credit is due

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

There’s rational disagreement, and then there’s irrational prejudice. Last week’s column debunking the myth of the competence of the Apartheid state elicited a storm of comment. A few appeared to come from the kind of people who hang out at the aptly-named After recovering from laughter at being derided as “politically correct”, a response seemed justified.

Apparently, I “posture to PC sensitivities”. Allegedly, I “hailed Caesar”, before comparing the ANC to the Apartheid government.

These charges are, besides being laughably ignorant of my work, quite serious. They allege a degree of partisan bias that is worthy of a response.

Anyone who has read my columns will know I not only routinely criticise the present government, but frequently call the ANC as bad as the National Party. In fact, the comparison with the Apartheid state is a bit of a hackneyed old saw in my toolbox, because I am often struck by the distinct echoes of nationalism and socialism.

However, it stuck in the craw of a few readers when I wrote: “While the ANC doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its successes and its great merit is racial justice and democratic fairness, it is hard to dispute that on balance, it fails at many basic duties of an effective government.”

I won’t apologise for giving credit where credit is due. Doing so is merely honest.

The present dispensation really does have as its great moral virtue the fact that all South Africans are able to vote, and are, barring some measures permitted by the constitution that aim to redress past injustice, equal before the law. That constitutes “racial justice and democratic fairness”, whether you like it or not.

You may well be philosophically opposed to measures of historical redress, such as black economic empowerment (BEE). I have argued it is achieving diminishing returns and should be ended. When I wrote as much, in a column for the late lamented Maverick magazine, CNBC Africa invited me to debate the issue with the charming Jimmy Manyi. He played identity politics, accusing me of wishing to perpetuate my white wealth and privilege. Sadly, the TV cameras did not show him driving off in his brand new Range Rover HSE, while I climbed back into my rusty 1994 hand-me-down.

Even though I think BEE has achieved what it can, and now does more harm than good, it is still more just and fair than the Apartheid dispensation. That is a caveat worth stating.

Moreover, the ANC’s successes, about which you almost never read, do deserve credit, if only as a matter of basic fairness. If you’re going to criticise the ANC, then at least have the decency to give them credit when they do not fail.

For example, in contrast to the failure to maintain South Africa’s electricity generation capacity, the ANC government has had great success with its important programme of household electrification. In 1990, about a third of South Africans had access to electricity. Between 1994 and 2000, more than 400,000 new households per year were electrified. By 2000, the number of South Africans with access to electricity had doubled. The original target was to supply all South Africans with electricity by 2012, and last I checked that target was only a year or two overdue, despite the fact that every year the unelectrified remainder becomes harder to reach.

Since 1994, 15-million South Africans have gained access to a source of improved drinking water for the first time, raising the number with access to potable water to 89% from 62%. In urban areas, piped water supply is now universal. In rural areas, it is improving. Progress with sanitation has been more modest, but it is progress nonetheless. Between 1990 and 2008, the share of the population with access to sanitation increased to 77% from 69%.

The ANC has also succeeded in areas that are part of its policy mandate, even though one might disagree with the policy objective. Welfare grants have been extended to millions of children, elderly and disabled people, lifting many of them out of abject poverty. Purely from a policy implementation perspective, that constitutes a success, even if you oppose government welfare programmes on principle.

According to the South African Institute for Race Relations, the share of South Africans living in formal housing had increased to 75% in 2009 from 64% in 1996. Even if most of these houses were built by government programmes and handed over without conferring the full property rights that would have turned them from dead capital (as Hernando de Soto famously called it) into useful assets, it is better than nothing.

Despite the fact that official crime statistics are subject to suspicion of manipulation and perverse incentives, the incidence of crime has decreased. Murders per 100,000 population are down 25%. Serious assault down 29%. Aggravated robbery down 30%. Residential burglaries down 23%. Vehicle theft down 32%. Stock theft down 32%. Illegal firearms down 20%. Sexual offences down 7%. In fact, the only crimes that have increased in incidence are drunken driving, drug crimes and commercial crimes, which, for better or for worse, is evidence of improved law enforcement. Even if these successes are exaggerated, mask crime levels that remain far too high and distract from very real problems in policing, it is hard to conclude that there has been no progress at all.

There are other examples of success in infrastructure development, resource management, economic policy and foreign relations, however thin they might be on the ground, and however overshadowed they might be by failures.

One does not often see the ANC get credit for its successes, so when one describes it as a failure on balance, to be seen as fair and balanced, it is important to acknowledge its successes too.

For example, in 1994, only 29% of South Africans had a telephone. Today, the number exceeds 85%, depending on how you measure it. This was not a success of deliberate government policy, however. The growth of mobile telephony took the government completely by surprise. In some ways, it happened despite the best efforts of government to restrict competition, which kept prices stubbornly high. These problems remain, and I frequently write about them. However, to make a credible argument that an undeniable improvement in circumstances had little to do with government policy, one needs to be honest enough to acknowledge government policy when it does succeed.

I wouldn’t deserve to be taken seriously if I couldn’t bring myself to give credit where credit is due. In fact, I would rightly be suspected of harbouring animosity towards the ANC that stems from something less rational than economic policy disagreement. Like racism.

My critics on the right (politically speaking, since there isn’t much space on my economic right) can call it “false praise” or “political correctness” all they like. That not only reveals their animosity towards the ANC, but betrays that this animosity is not grounded in rational fact, but in irrational prejudice. I can only speculate on the nature of that prejudice. DM


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