Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 10 July 2020

The ANC needs to move on from 1960s Soviet-styled cadre deployment

We have the global pandemic which has virtually destroyed the political economies of almost every country in the world, infected more than 11 million people and caused the death of at least 500,000 people. Back in Luthuli House, the ANC is pretending that nothing has happened in the past three decades and insists on maintaining a 1950s- and 1960s-style appointment’s authority to the public service.

In September 2019, I suggested that our focus on the EFF, as well we should, was causing us to lose sight of a greater danger in the country – the ANC, and its ruling partners. What was it that French poet Charles Baudelaire said?: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” 

While the ANC is not quite devilish, the EFF’s performative politics, populist rhetoric, theatrics and manipulation of public emotions have distracted us from recognising that all is not well with the party of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada. Indeed it is not. It may be time, therefore, for the ANC to transform itself from a 1960s underground liberation movement, supported by now dead communist regimes, to a political party more adapted to contemporary global political economic realities and expectations. 

Unless you’re a card-carrying member, or an early 21st-century incarnation of the “com-tsotsis” of the 1980s, and now a “com-trepreneur”, the ANC is dangerously ill-equipped and has failed to adapt, as have most political entities and institutions, to the realities of, the new era. 

While there have been at least seven or eight tipping points over the last three decades, the ANC is still run like a 1960s and 1970s Soviet-style party, with a secretary-general, Ace Magashule, and any number of high-placed members of the nomenklatura having to answer very many questions around allegations of corruption, maladministration and, just about any balls-up imaginable. 

This includes angel-faced folk like Neil Coleman, formerly of Cosatu, who was in the ruling alliance for the duration of the Jacob Zuma years, and who, like so many in the Alliance are now trying to place themselves on the right side of history. They’re intellectuals that were organically linked to the Zuma administration and are worthy of scrutiny. They are all still with us. Like there were communists after the collapse of the Soviet Union; racists after the end of apartheid; Italian fascists after World War II, there are intellectuals organically linked to the Zuma years who are still with us.

But let us take a step further back and look somewhat briefly at the turning points in global political economy; I think I can get away with focusing on the last 30 years of the longue durée (Journal article behind paywall, but can be read online).

Turning points

The ANC seems to have several ideological blind spots. I suspect that that may be tautological. Ideologies are known for their semiotic closure – they read and listen only to things that lie within the boundaries of their own beliefs and values. Nonetheless, the first major turning point was the collapse of Soviet communism, and consequently the capitalist creep in Cuba, Vietnam and China’s embrace of a form of capitalism, and North Korea’s no-name brand communist dictatorship. 

This ought to have changed the ANC’s ideological leanings. It did not. They’re still run by a secretary-general who enforces a politburo type of command and control, and a democratic centralism that would make Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev proud. Oh, sorry they’re dead. My bad.

A second turning point was just as the West was bathing in Frances Fukuyama’s triumph of liberal capitalism, the East Asian Crisis effectively discredited neoliberalism, and even the World Bank spoke of “bringing the state back in”. 

Just like that, the ANC and fellow travellers like Professor Patrick Bond lost their telos. Their enemy started retreating, to the point that the International Monetary Fund admitted that neoliberalism may have been oversold in the first place. Now the ANC and its fellow travellers were indulging in wayang kulit between communists and capitalists.

Those of us who were studying global finance started speaking of its creaky and unreliable architecture and decried the financialisation of globalisation, and then the DotCom Bubble burst in 2000. Finance capital faced another crisis. But the ANC, it seems, took no notice, and scrambled to take the country into the 21st century in its faithful old Trabant – metaphorically speaking, of course.

Then, in September 2001, the New York Twin Towers were attacked, and the US began yet another war against dark-skinned others. They went to war against the people of Iran and Iraq, launched the global war on terror, and virtually all attention shifted from important multilateral processes, like the failed collapse of Doha trade negotiations

Nonetheless, South Africa was in the midst of significant economic expansion. While the finance ministry did its job, most every department failed. The ANC and its allies were still playing wayang kulit. They did not realise that the finance ministry was successful in its main tasks. The Treasury secured macro-economic stability, expanded the economy, spent enormous amounts of money on processes like land reform, education and healthcare.

Magashule was clear, only once the deployment committee approved of a “comrade”, the Cabinet would have its say. What is clear is that every senior post in government will not be made on the basis of professional skills and competence. They will be made the way the Communist Party of the Soviet Union created “nomenklatura lists”, what was described as the Party’s “appointment authority,” based on the nomenklatura system, and under conditions where the party’s secretary-general held more power than any Cabinet minister.

Much of the money, and the surplus that the Treasury had achieved, seems to have ended up in the wrong places. It’s now December 2007, enter Jacob Zuma, who became president in 2009. But between Polokwane in 2007 and his election in 2009, the American crisis started (if Trump can call the Covid-19 pandemic the China virus, because it started in Wuhan, we may call the 2008 global crisis the American crisis – because it started there). This was a significant turning point that the ANC seem to have missed or ignored. They remained intact, as a 1960s or 1970s liberation movement, only now, they had their hands on the levers of power. 

In the last five years, we witnessed another turning point; the rise of fascism or crypto fascism from Washington to Budapest, New Delhi, the Philippines and Brazil. Then came the fascist pretenders like Marie Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Julius Malema in South Africa, taken altogether with their nationalism, patriotism and othering of “outsiders” (like non-Africans in South Africa who have been told to “go back to Europe” or “go back to India”). 

And now we have the Covid-19 pandemic, which has virtually destroyed the political economies of almost every country in the world, infected more than 11 million people and caused the death of at least 500,000 people. 

The numbers will, no doubt, increase by the time this is written and published. While President Cyril Ramaphosa, and probably about 10 people around him have a sense of global historical perspective (I make this statement drawing on World Systems thinking, and on the back of fairly solid understanding of processes inside the state and presidency), back in Luthuli House, the ANC is pretending that nothing has happened in the past three decades. 

And in typical 1950s or 1960s politburo style, the ANC secretary-general earlier in June 2020 insisted that only people vetted by the “deployment committee” be placed in positions of power and influence. These positions include directors-general, chairpersons, “CEOs”, and “all boards of SOEs”. 

Magashule was clear, only once the deployment committee approved of a “comrade”, the Cabinet would have its say. What is clear is that every senior post in government will not be made on the basis of professional skills and competence. They will be made the way the Communist Party of the Soviet Union created “nomenklatura lists”, what was described as the Party’s “appointment authority,” based on the nomenklatura system, and under conditions where the party’s secretary-general held more power than any Cabinet minister. (See, for instance, Soviet Union: a country study, by Raymond Zickel and Eugene Keefe.)

This, then, is the party, or “movement” which seems to have missed the turning points in global political economic relations, and changes in social and historical forces of 30 years, and would insist that the party’s old Soviet-style “nomenklatura authority, maintained a list of ministerial and ambassadorial positions that it had the power to fill as well as a separate list of potential candidates to occupy those positions”.

This is a long way from the professionalisation of the public service, and breaking the interface between political cycles and public administration, staffed by a professional, experienced and skilled group of public servants. DM

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