As is the nature of such things, the ANC January 8 Statement delivered by President Cyril Ramaphosa in Kimberley last Saturday was an appraisal of South Africa according to the party.
The question exercising the minds of those who listened to Ramaphosa and, subsequently, read the statement is whether the account was accurate and the prescription of what needs to be done to address the problems we face adequate.
The statement arguably contained some remarkable silences, omissions and evasions.
Albeit important, the lengthy historical voyage which the statement undertook was somewhat of a tedious overkill. Were the drafters perhaps making an inadvertent statement that the party agrees more on history than the here and now?
As for the “priorities of the year”, there is no doubt that South Africa needs to build “a capable state that serves all the people”, “a united and cohesive society”, “investment, jobs and inclusive growth”, “an effective land reform programme”, “eradicate poverty and improving people’s lives”, “education and skills for a changing world”, “social cohesion and safe communities” and “a better Africa and the world”.
We need to do all these things and more.
But there are some real challenges which the statement overlooks, alternatively does not adequately reassure South Africans and the world that we can and will find our way.
Firstly, there is no acknowledgment, even if tacitly, that the country is in dire straits.
Such an acknowledgment would help rally the nation into a business unusual frame of mind which would, in turn, provide the wherewithal to fend off temptations towards narrow sectoral interests and sheer inertia across society. Besides, there is value in honest political communication about the state of the party and nation.
The statement omits to point at some well-nourished elephants in the room.
Whereas “several of our key state-owned enterprises [SOEs] are facing great difficulties” – something we have known for some time – “the movement must undertake a thorough and sober assessment of the state of our SOEs and take clear decisions about what must be done to place these entities back on a sustainable path”.
So, there is a sense in which, as correctly as it has identified the priorities, the statement communicates a state of normalcy in a time of crisis. It is high time that the ANC and its alliance partners appreciated that the longer the assessment and decision-making, the more the ANC places itself and the country in a position where the decision will likely be taken by force of circumstance, and the agency of those predisposed to little, or no, state involvement in the economy.
SOEs, the next round of public sector wage negotiations, the unacceptably high public debt, a shrinking economy alongside diminishing public revenues constitute a glaring Achilles heel, not only for the ANC, but for SA.
Their successful handling requires a unity of purpose far more solemn, visible and capable of inspiring societal-wide action than the mere recitation of unity if we are to avoid the brace command.
Secondly, unless the ANC will urgently conceive a plethora of programmes – which it will implement – on the variety of measures the statement promises, last Saturday’s significance will amount to nothing more than a ceremonial ritual.
For example, and despite the fact that the statement does not address uncomfortable truths that impede on education, such as rogue and underperforming teachers, it correctly reasons that to “undergo a skills revolution and break the cycle of poverty” requires “an intensive focus on early reading” – a task that should be “undertaken across society by parents, teachers, civil society formations and ANC structures”.
But does the ANC have such an organisational programme, one that rallies society to achieve this vital endeavour? A similar question can be posed with respect to the statement’s promise to “focus on effective support to those who have acquired agricultural land” in the context of land reform. The land issue having served on the public agenda for a number of years, is a policy and programme to this end in the making?
The third is internal to the ANC, but one which bears on the public interest. The statement likens the party’s current problems to those before its 1969 Morogoro Conference in Tanzania. The comparison is tenuous to say the least. Morogoro was about the pace of the execution of the struggle against apartheid and policy matters that attached to the task.
The comparison suggests somewhat of an imprecise diagnosis of the state of the ANC and calls into question the claim that “much progress has been made” towards unifying the movement. It will not help the cause of those who yearn for “an ANC that is able to continue effectively serving the people of South Africa”.
Neither is obscurantism a safe haven or stimulant for unity, such as when the statement strenuously navigates the land mines of decisions of the ANC’s 2017 national conference, like the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank.
As in Morogoro, the most reliable mediator between demands for implementation of decisions at all costs – which some in the ANC, rightly or wrongly, believe may not serve the interests of the country – is an informed and honest political debate, infused with a measure of military tactical literacy. When and how to implement decisions is just as important as the decision itself.
At issue is the fate of the country and not an individual. But Ramaphosa sits in a particularly unenviable place. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The former, it would seem, may earn him atonement from ancestors of the ANC and the people of South Africa alike.
Perhaps one of the most profound assertions in the statement’s is this: “We must unite our society in order to transform it; and we must transform our society in order to unite it.”
The unavoidable question for the ANC is what right or capacity it thinks it has to take up such a feat when it is an embodiment of the feuding houses of Verona.
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