Political Economy Watch

ANC policy and South Africa’s complex, brewing revolution

Jeff Radebe, setting an agenda
Jeff Radebe.jpeg

It appears to be a frank admission of failures disguised by blaming “a strange coalition” of opposition forces, but the ANC’s National General Council (NGO) “discussion documents” cannot hide the socio-economic revolution brewing in the country.

For perspective and for gleaning the real intent of the documents released last week and marked by the typical South African Communist Party (SACP) rhetorical gymnastics, one should first note the status and purpose of these documents. They are not policy documents, but intended to “inform” discussions aimed at policy decisions at the October NGO meeting.

The documents, formulated under the leadership of Minister Jeff Radebe, the ANC’s head of policy and a member of the SACP’s central committee, are aimed at the outcomes of the NGO meeting: policy stances for the future

At their core the documents will be “informing” the delegates to the NGO that in the ongoing “battle of ideas” (vintage SACP speak) a “strange coalition” of opposition “forces”, aided and abetted by the “white capital”-controlled media and even the judiciary, are creating the impression that the state is “fraying”. It amounts to a sustained attack on “the movement” and its campaign for “radical economic transformation”.

It is an exercise in seemingly acknowledging failures and shortcomings, only then to blame them on “the balance of forces” (both domestic and global) determined by “objective conditions much beyond the ANC’s control”.

There is also the secondary objective of laying the foundations for the ANC alliance’s campaign during next year’s local government elections and shifting the blame for unfulfilled promises and expectations.  

Dwindling support

The documents could not ignore the steady and consistent decline of support for the ANC over the past few years. This is largely blamed on the media and other channels of public information.

One of the clearest signals emanating from the documents for the road ahead is then also that there will be a sustained campaign for tighter media control.

It amounts to a failure to address the real problem of spreading social discontent, as is evidenced by the renewed uptick in violent protests and last week’s surprise loss by the ANC in a municipal by-election in the Nelson Mandela Metropole.

“Shooting the messenger” after claiming that the media, as part of the “strange coalition” creates discontent among ANC members and supporters, will not change reality for people where they live, work or battle to find work or are subjected to shoddy service delivery and are failed by Eskom and other state-owned institutions.

Response to problems

It is true that many of the problems experienced by especially the South African economy emanate from sources over which the ANC government, or the domestic business community for that matter, has no control. What, however, matters most is the response to those problems.

The biggest threat is arguably an oversimplification of problems resulting in oversimplified responses inspired by narrow ideological stances, which fail to recognise and deal with the complexities of issues like inequality, poverty, social depravity, rapid urbanisation, and more.

In an article last week on The Conversation website two researchers from Rhodes University, for instance, illustrated how a fixation on the country’s high rate of unemployed has led to the neglect of the “employed poor”. They found that one-fifth of South African workers are poor and that half of all poor South Africans live with at least one employed person.This would suggest that the contribution of the labour market to human development is not reaching its potential.

On another front, the fact that South Africa is in the process of rapid urbanisation, an article on the Econo3x3  website by the acting executive director of the Human Sciences Council, Ivan Turok, suggests that the country needs to come to grips with the reality that its expanding informal urban settlements can be either poverty traps or ladders to employment and upward mobility.

In this regard government has a special responsibility. Turok, among other things, conclude that:

  • Few shack dwellers appear to progress beyond entry-level or low-skilled jobs. Such limited upward mobility could be a reason why there is so much frustration and social unrest in these communities;
  • A deeper understanding of the interactions between people, places and jobs is essential for more appropriate policies to realise the positive potential of informal settlements; and
  • Research is needed to, among other things, identify which settlements in which cities have the greatest positive effect – and why.

No amount of rhetorical outpourings in as many documents or propaganda will change people’s lived reality. 

China and ideology

Discussion documents with comments and actions by leading figures in government during recent times have strengthened the perception that South Africa is moving away from the Western sphere of influence to a position more closely aligned with the BRICS grouping of countries, and especially China and Russia.

There are also plenty of indications that the ANC alliance is aspiring to replicate or mimic the Chinese development model.

This, however, misses the point that the basics in South Africa is vastly different from that in China, from South Africa’s much more diverse demographic compositions to China coming from a dispensation where a single party (the Communists) had absolute control over just about every aspect of society, from family size to gender composition.

It also comes at a time when the world is discovering, at the price of serious global economic disruption, that the Chinese has not found a magic formula to mix market forces with total state control, or “statism” with capitalism.

The fact that the ANC can equate its own dwindling support to “fragility of the state” in itself, besides the tensions between the government of the day with other state institutions, illustrates to what extent ideologically driven policies have seen a blurring of the lines between the ruling political alliance and the state.

While South Africa is, with much of the rest of the developing world, facing serious economic headwinds, some serious job losses and persistently high poverty and inequality levels (also read Let’s Think), the “blame game” and narrow ideologically based policies will not save the country from a brewing and complex social revolution.

We now need pragmatic and cross-sector responses to the serious challenges ahead.

by Piet Coetzer

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