OPINION: The recent flip-flopping of South Africa’s governing party, the ANC, on several key policy issues has been baffling, writes Trevor Ngwane.
By Trevor Ngwane
THE RECENT flip-flopping of South Africa’s governing party, the ANC, on several key policy issues has been baffling.
Its party leader and state president, Cyril Ramaphosa, declared a national state of disaster during his State of the Nation Address on February 9 to ostensibly avert the devastating power failures that have become part of our everyday life. “Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures”, he argued. But what was truly extraordinary was the sudden termination of the national state of disaster less than two months later.
In a week of climb-downs, the Finance Minister, Enoch Godongwana, withdrew gazetted regulations that exempted Eskom from disclosing irregular and fruitless expenditure in its annual financial statements, a move designed to project a cleaner image to lenders. Like the announcement of the national state of disaster, this caused such a furore that Trevor Shaku, the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) spokesperson, said: “It must be noted that Treasury did not just volunteer the temporary withdrawal of the exemption, it is a concession that has been forced out of them by us and other organisations that have protested the exemption”.
Despite evidence that the national state of disaster was terminated because of political and civil society’s rejection, notably a legal challenge by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) and trade union Solidarity, at least three ANC ministers gave a different spin on the reasons for the government’s policy back flip. These were the Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs, Thembi Nkadimeng, her deputy Parks Tau, and Minister of Electricity, Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. Their self-mortification was excruciating to see because two months earlier, they were arguing in the affirmative and now they were equally eloquent in the negative. However, the contemptuous scepticism was constant.
Notwithstanding his triumph over the ANC government, Outa CEO Wayne Duvenhage, somewhat perplexed like many others, wondered aloud: “I guess (our victory) starts to ask questions as to why is government making these decisions without really applying their mind to the long-term consequences and the backlash that they are going to be receiving on a number of these matters.” Why, indeed?
The government suffered reputational damage from the botched Department of Arts and Culture R22 million flag project. Next it was the Tottenham Hotspur R1 billion sponsorship deal, which the government was also forced to disgracefully scuttle away from. Let’s not even mention the Gauteng e-tolls. Is the ANC competing with the ghost of the apartheid National Party to degenerate from unpopularity to becoming the most hated and despised political party in South Africa?
On the face of it, the takes and explanations that abound in the media ring true, such as the accusations of ANC incompetence, fecklessness, corruption, lack of imagination and loss of control. However, a closer look may reveal underlying factors that are worthy of careful consideration.
The Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, arguing against the idea that ‘countries get the governments they deserve’, suggested that ‘a government, once it has established itself, may endure much longer than the relationship of forces which produced it’. In other words, it is the balance of power between the various classes and social layers that produces and sustains a government.
The ANC emerged as a governing party in South African history during the height of the Struggle against apartheid and the transition to a non-racial democratic order. But the balance of social forces and the accompanying political, economic and cultural challenges facing society have changed tremendously since then. We must remember how the transition was led by the strong political leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, whose policy of reconciliation sought to create a national consensus based on certain alliances, accommodations, continuities and discontinuities. But things have moved on. It could be that the ANC has reached its sell-by date.
How else can we explain the fact that, increasingly, whatever the ANC touches seems to turn into dust? Its policies and practices are often criticised by parties across the political spectrum and by a cross-section of people. Its shortcomings, including its vacillations, about-turns, factionalism and corruption, suggest a party and a movement led by a leadership that suffers from a complete and irredeemable inner degeneration.
Trotsky suggests that the proletarian masses may tolerate this leadership until it proves completely useless in the face of a great crisis wherein it is revealed the big gap between itself and the class it leads. When we reach that point, the political degenerates will be thrown into the dustbin of history.
The economic crisis in South Africa intersects with various other social problems which have exposed the ANC, especially its failure to deal with the energy crisis. Increasingly, we see social instability and upheavals, such as the unprecedented 2021 ‘July Days’ when there was mass looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces. The only question now is which direction will the upheavals push political development towards.
The emerging coalitions of conservative and centre-right parties and organisations which are giving the ANC a run for its money, especially in the law courts and the court of public opinion, are learning to orientate towards and even grab the attention and allegiance of sections of the working class and the poor.
But they are not the answer. The challenge lies with the trade unions and grassroots movements to rebuild the working-class movement and fight to take power when the ANC falls.
* Trevor Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg.