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The root cause of South Africa’s decline that shall not be named

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Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a political economist interested in Africa’s development. He tweets @mandlalisaacs

The ANC cannot lead South Africa in a new direction because of its adherence to failed ideology, its dysfunctional internal culture and because its leaders are vested in the status quo.

South Africa cannot function under the “leadership” of the ANC.

Despite all the evidence that ANC misrule is the cause of our continuing decline, it is the thing that most of us dare not say.

No growth for a decade. Sky-high unemployment. Daily examples of absent leadership and ineptitude from the government. War on women. A school system that fails most children. An impending debt crisis.

And yet we still won’t say the obvious: The ANC has failed. The ANC is the problem.

Anything we tell ourselves to the contrary is fantasy.

“The ANC will self-correct.”

“Benign, virtuous Cyril gets it and will save us if he can prevail over the irredeemable looting faction of the ANC.”

“The NPA will arrest and convict the worst looters, giving the white hats a clean slate to rebuild anew.”

The ANC has run the country into the ground. It wrote documents – Gear, Asgisa, NDP – calling for 6% growth while not doing the things successful developmental states actually did to achieve that growth: focus on exporting increasingly sophisticated goods, keep the currency (and cost of capital) cheap, invest in human capabilities, let skilled technocrats focus on creating an enabling environment for an entrepreneurial business class while resisting capture by same.

No, not our ANC. In 2008, they invited the world’s best development economists to give them advice they would not heed (Treasury’s Harvard panel on growth). In 2012, they repeated the exercise, this time with homegrown experts (the NDP), with similar results. Government wrote an energy policy in 1999 saying the private sector should participate in energy generation, then spent a decade not allowing it to – and not allowing Eskom to build either – leading to a 13-year-and-counting power crisis that would limit our economic growth.

While other countries jockey for position in the Fourth Industrial Revolution – competing ferociously over 5G, semiconductor supremacy, hyperefficient robotic-based manufacturing, artificial intelligence and green technology, among other arenas – we’ve been unable to complete two power stations in 14 years (Medupi and Kusile). Imagine talking to global companies to market South Africa as a manufacturing base, competing against the Asian leaders – and you can’t even guarantee the availability of electricity.

No wonder South Africa has been deindustrialising, continuously and uninterrupted, for 30 years.

Almost as if in pique that an export sector – tourism – had escaped the state’s notice and, improbably, actually grown, the government implemented poorly designed immigration regulations in 2014 that threw the plucky, labour-intensive sector into chaos for several years. It’s taken us years to pilot an electronic visa to make it easier for tourists and business travellers to visit.

In late 2019, I found out on a Thursday I needed to be in Addis Ababa the following Monday to advise a government client. I got a visa online in about 30 minutes. No leaving my passport at their embassy for a week or more waiting for a visa. Ethiopia, whose GDP is a quarter of ours, somehow managed to launch this service in 2018. We launched a pilot last year, and are scheduled to roll it out to all countries this year, three years behind Ethiopia.

Great Depression-level unemployment rates are standard stuff here in Mzansi, home of the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. A heartbreaking 55% of young South Africans are unemployed or have given up looking for work.

As growth has slowed due to our unproductive, uncompetitive economic structure, the ANC-led government has sustained itself through ever-growing numbers of Cabinet posts, through contracts for the connected (from government departments and SOEs), and through the public wage bill, which grew unabated over the last decade even as the economy did not. The public wage bill not only sustains the ANC but pays for the unions’ support come election time, and buys the sympathy of a significant share of the black middle class, many if not most of whom are employed by the state. The poor masses who continually vote the ANC into power are bribed, or at the very least restrained from open revolt, through social grants.

And to be clear, it is you and I who will have to repay this massive, growing debt over the next decade through our taxes, even as we pay a second time for higher-quality private services – education, health, security, transport – because of the poor quality of the public ones our taxes were supposed to pay for in the first place.

Meanwhile the tiny tax base and massive government borrowing – now R4-trillion and growing by R2.1-billion a day – pay the bills. (The NDP: “We know our leaders as we have elected them and pledged them to office… They are wise in the use of our wealth.”)

And to be clear, it is you and I who will have to repay this massive, growing debt over the next decade through our taxes, even as we pay a second time for higher-quality private services – education, health, security, transport – because of the poor quality of the public ones our taxes were supposed to pay for in the first place.

Note to this point I haven’t even said anything about the massive corruption that has become commonplace in our country: the arms deal, Travelgate, Nkandla, the Mandela funeral, Estina, asbestos removal, Prasa, Transnet locomotives, Eskom-Trillian, VBS (just to name the ones that come immediately to mind). Bosasa. Covid-19 looting.

We stood still for a decade between the last global financial crisis and pre-Covid 19.

Between 2006 and 2019, national income per South African increased by just 5% (while public sector salaries grew by 45%). Over the same period, income per person increased by 170% for Chinese, 139% for Ethiopians, 94% for Indians, 93% for Vietnamese, 82% for Rwandans and 69% for Indonesians. The average annual increase for these countries was 5.7%, over 14 times our own growth rate of 0.4%.

Thais, only 8% richer than us in 2006 (earning $927 more per person), are now 48% richer (earning $5,978 more), having increased their income by 44% over the period.

And yet we continue to wait vainly for the ANC to “self-correct”. Political parties around the world – in competitive, multiparty democracies where parties actually have to meaningfully improve people’s circumstances to win elections – must marvel at the ANC. What a wonderful racket the party has. Only the ANC can run a country into the ground, and then run for election promising a New Dawn to repair what it has massively screwed up.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is South Africa’s last hope for the ANC self-correction fantasy. Let’s examine the New Dawn a bit more closely.

Lest we forget, it was Ramaphosa who helped Jacob Zuma secure a second term as president by joining his slate to defeat the challenge from then Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at the 2012 Mangaung Conference. Motlanthe tried to prevent the nine wasted years Ramaphosa campaigned for, was deputy president for half of, but is somehow not accountable for (eg, in December 2014: Ramaphosa was appointed head of the SOE war room. Five years later, in December 2019: Ramaphosa was “shocked” at Eskom’s inability to supply sufficient electricity to the country).

It gets even better. We are meant to believe Ramaphosa was quietly appalled by Zuma’s leadership, but chose to play the long game to take over and ultimately get the country back on track.

Okay, let’s play this out. One might think during this long build-up, he would develop some ideas on what needs changing. That he might develop, say, an economic vision. He threatened one during his quasi-campaign – remember the New Deal speech? – but that went nowhere. Okay fine, let’s accept that victory was not assured, given the vagaries of ANC conferences, so he could not devote much time to developing an actual vision until after he won.

Let’s accept that while spending hundreds of millions of rands on his internal election campaign, he couldn’t possibly have spent some money on a team of policy experts to develop actual ideas on how to govern in the event that he won.

Fine.

Our would-be saviour wins at Nasrec in December 2017, and in the ANC’s customary, assassination-of-Caesaresque fashion, is elected state president in February 2018.

Imagine. Not only was he virtually guaranteed his own five-year term, he got a bonus 15 months of President Zuma’s second term to settle into the job.

Surely he would use this boon to develop a bold new vision to change the trajectory of our country? Well, not exactly. No grand vision in the first two years of his now 6.25-year first term. In his first State of the Nation Address, he promised a new economic advisory council packed with top local and international economists to advise him. It took him 18 months to appoint it.

So it took President Ramaphosa two full years until his third State of the Nation Address to come up with something approximating a grand vision lite – infrastructure investment, promising to solve the 12-year-old electricity crisis – and 10 months into the worst economic downturn in a century to come up with an economic recovery plan based on the now-customary public jobs programme, a state-directed localisation drive and as almost an afterthought, commitment to finally, “no really this time”, implement long-delayed, obvious economic reforms.

The ANC cannot lead South Africa in a new direction because of its adherence to failed ideology, its dysfunctional internal culture and because its leaders are vested in the status quo.

In fact, as South Africa’s fortunes have dimmed under the ANC’s watch, so has our level of ambition. In the mid-2000s, the ANC government explicitly took on the task of becoming a developmental state. This was significant. Few countries had actually taken on this mantle. The Asian miracles (Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) were described this way by scholars only after the fact. Our developmental state aspirations culminated in the NDP, which aspired to inclusive growth of 5%-6% per year from 2012-2030, to “eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030”.

While the NDP was the brainchild of then Minister of Planning Trevor Manuel, then private citizen and businessman Ramaphosa was the deputy chairperson of the Planning Commission. Almost a decade later, as president, he has almost completely abandoned the ambitious aspirations the NDP he co-chaired set out. His Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan – his biggest opportunity to reshape the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic crisis on top of the pre-existing crisis – hopes to raise growth to a pedestrian 3% on average over the next decade.

No, South Africa cannot function under the “leadership” of the ANC.

The ANC cannot lead South Africa in a new direction because of its adherence to failed ideology, its dysfunctional internal culture and because its leaders are vested in the status quo.

The ANC does not see the world as it is, but through its ideological lens.

It insists that it lead a big, overbearing state which directs the economy even as, paradoxically, it tacitly acknowledges that after 26 years of rule, it has not built a capable state. It insists on having big state-owned monopolies at the centre of its economic strategy, regardless of the fact that they hold back growth (Eskom), depress our export potential by adding a self-inflicted inefficiency tariff to our manufacturers (Transnet) and burn through taxpayer money (Eskom again) for little obvious strategic benefit (SAA). It insists on piously denouncing capitalism – while presiding over our declining economic competitiveness – while its leaders enjoy all the trappings of global capitalism: the mansions, the German cars, the European-designed/Asian-made clothes, the Asian-made gadgets, the blessees plied with French Champagne and cash.

The biggest ideological failing, however, is best pointed out by one of our most incisive political intellectuals, Moeletsi Mbeki. He argued in 2012, “the ANC government is about consumption, it’s not about production. The production in South Africa is totally secondary to them, and where production competes with consumption, consumption wins.” What a devastating indictment. Looking critically at 26 years of ANC rule, and the decade since Mbeki’s prescient words, who can disagree?

The ANC’s culture is irredeemable on the current trajectory. Ideas and capability matter little. Election contests – from branch to national level – are not about contestation over competing visions and ideas from aspirant leaders, but about who can “mobilise” the most delegates and members, very often with cash, T-shirts and food. And promises of positions, jobs, contracts. The ANC’s own leaders acknowledge the cycle of members recruited merely as political currency to contest conferences.

My limited experience in the ANCYL echoed what I’d heard from others a hundred times over: the majority of time was spent plotting for conferences, jockeying for position (and the favour of senior leaders), discussing political intrigue, with frequent lectures on the glories of the Lembede-Mandela generation of young lions in positively disrupting an ineffective ANC leadership in the 1940s. Praising and defending the ANC and parroting ideological dogma are valued; new, critical and independent thinking are not.

Elites within the ANC are not just vested in the status quo, they have evolved in symbiosis with it. The Zondo commission has shown the toxic relationship between businesses vying for lucrative government contracts, the ANC itself and the ANC politicians who have come to see gifts from businessmen amounting to hundreds of thousands, even millions of rands, as their due. Many of these politicians don’t see the economic dysfunction the rest of us do, shrugging off the downgrades and lack of private sector investment as plots by “capital”, shadowy reactionary forces or the West.

And then sometimes as the adage goes, the simplest explanation is usually the right one: we’re in this mess because the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing. The leaders of the ANC in government are largely the same leaders who led the country, in Cabinet and the ANC NEC, during the “nine wasted years”. They are not suddenly going to “get it”, and turn into latter-day Lee Kuan Yews.

Even if President Ramaphosa had a bold vision for South Africa – which we now know he doesn’t – he couldn’t overcome these features of the ANC.

The ANC has so lowered our expectations of public governance that we rejoice when political leaders acknowledge a problem, even if it is not actually solved. We’ve long since given up hope of transformational leadership.

So weary have we become of the decline, that we draw our optimism from news reports of consultations with social partners, behind the scenes processes and task teams.

Nonsense.

The ANC is out of ideas, and couldn’t implement them even if it had them.

I ask you simply, in which core aspects of life – economic opportunity, education, healthcare, public safety, basic services – are we on a trajectory of sustained, substantial improvement as a result of focused action by our political leadership? Not isolated factoids of projects completed and “efforts under way”. Actual visionary leadership and decisive action for the public good.

Are your economic prospects (and those of the people around you) markedly better than they were five years ago? The quality of education in public schools? The quality of care in the public health system? Violent crime levels? Reliability of basic services? Reliability of public transport?

That’s the job. Improving those things, not attending press conferences talking about improving those things and then not actually doing so.

The ANC is out of ideas, and couldn’t implement them even if it had them.

Curiously, everything I have written here you already know. It’s why the ANC’s share of the vote has declined at every election since 2004. It’s why, despite our population having grown by 24% from 47 million in 2004 to 59 million in 2019, the ANC received 8% fewer votes in 2019 (10 million versus 10.9 million in 2004).

We all know that South Africa cannot function under the leadership misrule of the ANC. We are just afraid to say it out loud. Mostly because most people, most of the time, take the path of least resistance. It is hard enough in this life to stay afloat, let alone to take on big, seemingly intractable, problems.

Some of us are afraid because it could be costly to our personal fortunes and prospects to do so. Calling out the ANC risks lucrative state job appointments, board appointments and contracts. This essay is not helping my career prospects.

Some of us who could do something about it are afraid because acknowledging it would mean we would have to do something about it.

And yet having correctly diagnosed our problem, the solution is obvious.

We are thankfully not a country where elections are not free or fair. Where opposition candidates are jailed for campaigning, tortured by security forces, or even disappear. We can vote failed leaders out if we want to.

South Africa will go nowhere slowly until we have a credible alternative to the ANC. The ANC cannot lead us and none of the existing political parties has convinced the electorate that they offer the new vision, leadership, ideas and ability to implement that South Africa desperately needs.

What features must a credible and compelling political alternative entail?

To be continued. DM

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All Comments 32

  • Named, shamed and blamed – the anachronistic ideology and proponents of Marxist socialism who have led the children of South Africa blindfolded into the economic wilderness.

  • Cannot someone unite the opposition parties minus the EFF. And, maybe The Press could help by not slating the DA.
    WILL THE Vaccine be our next scandal?

  • A candid and clear picture. I eagerly await the next instalment to see if it answers that last question, not so much the ‘What’ but the ‘How’.

  • There is a spiritual song “Go tell it on the mountain” This author needs to “go tell it in the township” That’s where the electorate is. I’m convinced already!

  • An alternative will only be possible when people like this writer put their hands up politically. I can see this alternative. Hear it, and even smell it. It’s right outside the door …

  • Democracy is conceptually not difficult. Vote for someone else; almost anyone else….a few exceptions! A one party state is like a monopoly. If there was only, say, PnP to buy groceries from then the prices would be high, the stores dirty, service poor and the quality of the goods poor. What has happened to SA is just a more complicated version of this. Loyalty to the ANC monopoly of power turns out to now be disloyal to SA Inc.
    = Vote for someone else…

  • Great article – for once some incontestable facts rather than just moaning about Government.
    The biggest omission in this piece (IMO so easily discountable) is the devastating impact of B-BBEE. This policy has been applied almost exclusively as a kind of balm to pacify high socio economic ANC supporters and to act as a mask for corruption. It has no hope of invigorating economic growth and has the same devastating consequences as Zimbabwean “Indigenisation” . It can at most assist maybe 1% of the population. The whole notion of fixing a past economic injustice in the present is bizarre.

  • A pertinent and important observations. At the same time, a clarion call for the citizens of SA to get off their butts and engage for building a country true to its potentail

  • If only there were an opposition party that could:
    a) be relatively reflective of SA’s population demographics
    b) Have a clear, coherent and understandable set of policies to define themselves (as opposed to simply being ‘not-the-ANC’) and a definitive blueprint on how to overcome the current economic and unemployment hardships
    c) Be able to show how well they can govern nationally, through demonstrations of effective governance at provincial and local level

    Sadly, none of the potential opposition parties currently out there meet ANY of these requirements, with the exception of the DA, who are still, sadly, only sitting at one out of three!!

    Our country’s problem is as much the insipid opposition parties as it is the failed ANC…

  • Never a more true word spoken, Mr. Isaac sure is hitting on the nail. Like he said, Ramaphosa played a major role in securing Zuma’s tenure for a second term. He was the deputy president during the “wasted (as per Ramaphosa) Zuma years”. But he was also the deputy president whilst the looting and crimes by the Zuma’s, Gupta’s, Bosasa’s, SSA, VBS Bank, SSO’s, Life Esidemeni, and many more took place. So how can we trust anything he says, or does? To the common man, he and his comrades are simply frauds, but more important, traitors of the nation, if nor real, but at the very least perceived. Then he dares to speak about poverty whilst he can count himself, with some family members, as one of the wealthiest people in the country. One wonders how?

  • Very well put together, thank you. The country is still gripped by “fear” – or shall we say fear-mongering. That is why the centre is disappearing. The Malema’s of the world are promoting the “fear” that white-rule will return. The right is still touting the fear of the “swart gevaar”. The ANC cannot move, because they have a deal with Cosatu – they fear the loss of votes. Cosatu does not protect worker-rights; they protect the inflated salaries of those who already have work against creating more work for the unemployed. The unemployed does not understand this; they still believe the promises at election time, rather voting for the “party who brought freedom”.

    Your article explains it perfectly. Now the correctly-minded silent masses need to get together and form a viable alternative. There are many who still vote DA simply as the best-of-a-bad-lot-alternative. The moment a good, viable alternative with sensible policies appear, they will garner huge support.

    • “The best of a bad lot alternative” ? The policies of the DA are not sensible? The Daily Maverick was accused in its latest issue of DM168 of having a blind spot about the DA and I think with much justification – Rebecca Davis calling it the Dinosaur Alliance. I challenge the DM to write a series of articles in which it compares the government of Gauteng (Limpopo would not be fair) with that of the Western Cape in terms of health, education, economic growth and opportunity, transport, race relations, corruption, public service generally. The DA wouldnt win in every category but without a doubt would win most. It starts with its premier, Alan Winde, who has done an outstanding job in managing the Corona crisis in the Western Cape and continues down into the team he leads. Yes, the DA has its flaws and it has made some very stupid decisions especially around its national leadership team, but cut it some slack DM and get behind its many good points. The only pro-DA articles I have read in the DM recently have been written by DA office bearers. How about one of your objective, independent journalists taking off his/her anti-DA hat and writing a fair summary of its performance in the Western Cape as against the performance of the ANC in Gauteng. Under whose government would you rather be living? A lot better than waiting for “a good, viable alternative with sensible policies to appear” – how long are you prepared to wait?

      • Why limit the comparison to the Western Cape. Let a journalist do some comparison to Nelson Mandela Bay. How it was improving when the DA ran it and how it is going backwards at a rate of knots since they were thrown out again.

      • Well said. the problem appears to be the “press” who feel that they would be branded and labeled as ‘racist’ and unsupportive of the poor or being part of the ‘right wing’ trying to re establish apartheid. They simply refuse to state categorically where the DA performs better than the ANC. ////not perfect … but better! please mention but one single area of ‘excellence’ within the ANC govt. *** this is so frustrating!

      • Thanks for the response. I actually agree – the DA is outperforming the ANC and is still the only current party one can vote for. I did say “best”, but how would they perform against a proper alternative? Why are their votes diminishing? They still cannot garner the support of the majority in South Africa. So in that sense, they are failing this country as they will not unseat the ANC given their current performance, approach and policies. They are not unifying the country. Maybe the whole current political landscape is too much bathed in our history, and what we need is a whole new political landscape.

  • I believe the saying goes something like: “How does one climb a mountain? By taking the first step, of course” . One does not wait to start climbing said mountain just because an appropriate pair of shoes is not available.

    By using said excuse, quoted below, it becomes part of all the others preceding it, w.r.t. “…South Africa will go nowhere slowly until we have a credible alternative to the ANC…”

  • “… the simplest explanation is usually the right one: we’re in this mess because the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing.” Say no more.

  • “South Africa will go nowhere slowly until we have a credible alternative to the ANC.” Agreed. So give us one or at least define the steps towards one.

  • The real skill will be to write this on a one page document in language that the vast majority of people can read.

    The bigger skill to to say what needs to happen – a change to the method of deployment to key Government posts away from Cadres to skilled, ethical people, and ways to support private sector economic growth are the key. We can all throw stones at a massive target that is impossible to miss. The target is so big that it, and the supporters that helped build it, do not even see or feel them.

  • Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the day the ANC looses a majority, they will simply cosy up to a pliable party to form a coalition, say even the EFF. And then what? The elites in that coalition party will rightfully claim their time at the trough and it will be business as usual – grand scale looting. And what will have changed in the plight of the poor? Imagine where they will be given the accelerated decline across another 2 cycles of elections. South African politics is morally bankrupt and cannot self correct. There will be no transfer of power to an opposition party nationally, just an ever revolving roster of looters. Only a deep crisis can change the status quo. Seems even bigger than C19 will be required.

    There are only 2 possible “political” alternatives as end games, social revolution or an authoritarian dictatorship supported by the elites. If we are not there, we are not at the end. The bigger question is what happens when we run out of credit and cannot pay grants and public servants, which are the biggest budget items? This will happen before a fabled “political/democratically driven correction” How will SA handle the loss of sovereignty? Ah yes, social revolution and dictatorship, or an long dance between the two.

  • We need a coalition. rooted in communities, which is the current equivalent of the UDF – but far more inclusive and development based. The Constitution will provide a legal and political framework, and the 4IR provides a digital platform for networking locally and globally. It will negotiate with the state and hold it accountable and help drive reforms of the political, economic and state systems. Power will shift if every community establishes a non-party inclusive development committee.

  • What can we do to break this leadership logjam? Put our money where our mouths are. Sponsor quality education for the youth. Support media which teach voters to think critically. Pay our workers more so that they don’t have to depend on social grants. Start today.