Opinionista Ian Ollis 12 December 2012

Fiddling and fussing while the country burns, Mangaung-style

Let’s face it, the future seems all out of focus. The ANC’s conference in Mangaung is masquerading as an earth-shattering national event. “For the sake of unity” is the rallying call and all eyes are focussed on the leadership elections. Will Zuma win? Who will be the party’s deputy president? But set against the backdrop of a country in crisis, it’s largely much ado about nothing. 

A colossal amount of money and logistics will go into this event. The immediate environment has been upgraded at taxpayers’ expense. Visiting dignitaries will no doubt be flown in to share their congratulations and members of the state security apparatus will be deployed in large numbers. The media are descending on Bloemfontein and international speculation is high.

Behind the scenes, we are told, political diplomacy is being exerted in all quarters to avert a leadership crisis that would damage the governing party. Polokwane produced a splinter group and we sit and wonder if another could emerge. “For the sake of unity” has become the rallying call and no doubt a unified slate would be preferred to keep the peace. The fact that every juicy morsel of this high drama is reported on, on a daily, and on the Internet, even an hourly basis, shows the extent to which we have elevated the importance of the ANC’s conference and the potential danger it creates for the country if it goes wrong – if the wrong policy platforms emerge and if the wrong leaders get chosen.

If the pundits are to be believed then the likely outcome will be a restatement of the old puddings of ANC policy, sabre rattling on land reform, pretend nationalisation, whipping of labour brokers, mine bosses and of course Western Cape farmers, because, of course, they’re so much worse than those in Mpumalanga or Butterworth. We may see some new policy emphasis of course, but the ANC is recently so directionless and Zuma so inept at policy debates, that the ANC seems to find itself in a policy backwater. With the National Development Plan on the table and perhaps the New Growth Path (What was that again?) we could see an endorsement of at least a general plan. The NDP is the one with the broadest support. Even though ANC leaders promise a firm future direction, there is little chance of very much new being put on the table. To contradict the NDP or introduce new policy when the ANC policy conference didn’t produce it would put the governing party in an even greater mess than it already is. What would be much more useful to the ANC is to flesh out what is contained in the NDP and get the rank and file to truly come to terms with its implications. However in the cut and thrust of Mangaung I suspect that is to expect too much.

On the leadership front, I would be very surprised if the ANC elected a new president or even deputy president. A unity slate will probably emerge in the next few days to put the glue back together. Of course the Cosatu and SACP congresses lead the way in this regard. “For the sake of unity” led the way and with Zuma having basically neutralised any serious competition, the talk these days is about “saving Motlanthe”. Sad really. The grinning robber baron of Nkandla is bound to ride again. The extra 90,000 members in KwaZulu-Natal and 40,000 fewer in the Eastern Cape say so. The outcomes are mostly predictable and therefore the collective emotional energy of South Africans spent on Mangaung seems to be somewhat wasted.

However, while all this effort, money and talk is being expended at Mangaung and we all wait with bated breath for what I suggest will be largely much ado about nothing, the country is facing a real crisis elsewhere. This year has produced trends which are putting the poor and the government on a collision course and there is no real solution in sight yet. If we look at the Gini-coefficient, the fact that 20 years has passed with many still unemployed and the social package at its financial limits, there is nowhere for the poor to go. In the past 12 months, apart from the effects of the global economic downturn still being felt (more than a third of those jobs lost during the down turn are still lost), we have seen job losses starting to mount up in the mining industry as a result of the prolonged and violent strikes affecting mines’ productivity. What is even more concerning now is the drop this year in South Africa’s GDP and the fact that inflation has started to rise. If this trend continues the country will be in stagflation before too long. The effect of this on job losses is going to be ugly.

Into this environment, we had the mining strikes, the Marikana massacre, the violent transport strikes and the burning of Western Cape farms. In the last case it appears that, despite protestation to the contrary, Tripartite Alliance leaders such as  Marius Fransman, Tony Ehrenreich, Nosy Pieterse and the like have perhaps been putting fire under the kindling and turning what could have been a minor wage dispute into what became a violent protest. The danger of this is that they could well ignite a “fire” that spreads into other provinces and regions, a fire that the “Unity slate” at Mangaung would find difficult to put out. As we head into a slowing economy in the near future, this might be more likely in 2013 than it was in 2012. 

2013 is also the beginning of election season as the general election of April 2014 is looming. I will be completing my first term in Parliament and the pressure around the country to win in election 2014 can already be felt with new faces jockeying for position. The desperation of unemployed activists in all parties for a job is already mounting as political parties are now seen as an employment opportunity rather than a vehicle to work for power for one political ideology or another. A phrase I have heard more than once or twice in township areas is “join the DA, the queue is shorter”! The ANC and IFP have long been vehicles of employment opportunity. But that is another symptom of the problem. With entrepreneurship a dirty word to lefties and the slowing South African economy, the last thing the country needs is more violent strikes and police thuggery ahead of a fractious general election fought over the issue of “jobs”. In anyone’s mind, does the pomp and ceremony of re-electing the “unity slate” and rehashing badly constructed and unimplementable Polokwane resolutions sound like something to take notice of? We should rather be worrying about how this government plans to get the burgeoning number of unemployed people off the streets and into meaningful employment. But is that going to come out of Mangaung? I seriously doubt it! DM

Ollis is a DA MP.


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