David Maimela


Eyewitness News

The African National Congress (ANC) or any other political party will not survive another century or continue to govern the country unless it combines both organisational and state reform in its renewal efforts.

What does this mean?

It means that it is not enough for the ANC to simply appreciate that access to state power and resources has changed its character. The party needs to evolve a new dynamic understanding of the state and its role in the economy and society. This is so because, the failures and successes of the ANC in government affect its electoral fortunes.

The marginal gains by opposition parties since 1994 are not because of better ideas or pedigree than the ANC or alternatively, more rootedness than the national liberation movement. Rather, it is due to the systemic and continuous decline of the ANC: the sins of incumbency!

Others see the "renewal" gospel as detached from the state and public policy. That is dangerous and misleading. By its own admission, since 1997, the ANC accepted that access to state power and resources has changed its character and, perhaps inadvertently, its historic mission and ability to govern.

Although it takes longer due to the balance of factions, the institutional constraints in our democracy make it easy to check the excesses of a leader or party. The fact that South Africa could delay the sprint to a dreaded failed state is evidence of the vibrancy of our institutions and the power of activism from grassroots and the middle strata.

But as we know, the factions in the ANC and even in the opposition are not about ideas. They are not groupings organised around certain political beliefs and programmes. They are factions of positioning, power balances, and the fight for prestige among the political elite. So, even the debate about choices over this or the other faction is essentially a false debate!

For example, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the best example of a party that combines organisational renewal and state reform. In the CCP, succession and factions demonstrate a discernable pattern of progression in terms of ideas and programs. Mao Zedong is credited with uniting the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping with modernisation, and Xi Jinping with prosperity and a civilising mission. What this means is that renewal of the party is tied to the reform of the state and prosperity of society. After all, economic development is the basis of state and party legitimacy.

In Central America, we find a curious example of party renewal, adaptation, and survival: the Sandinistas of Nicaragua. A left-leaning national liberation movement that took reins of power in 1979 though revolutionary means has had mixed fortunes electorally due to similar factors that cause the decline of the ANC today.

The Sandinistas won their first democratic elections in 1984 and thereafter went on to lose two successive elections in 1990 and 1996, after which they became the official opposition. And unsurprisingly, their 1988 economic austerity measures are partially to be blame for their electoral misfortunes and so were sins of incumbency. They finally returned to power in 2006. Ahead of their return to power, the Sandinistas struck a coalition pact with Liberals and gave concessions to how ministers and directors of agencies are appointed. The Sandinistas remain a leading and important political player to this day.

Across the Limpopo River, we have Zimbabwe and the Zanu-PF. The first decade of governance in independent Zimbabwe was glorious in so far as human development indicators are concerned. Education and health outcomes improved for the black majority, and so did other basic services.

And yet later, it was proven that the failure to seriously confront state and economic reform can undo the steady progress the country was making in improving people’s lives. Of course, the external factors imposed by negotiations with London at Lancaster House impacted the politics, governance, and evolution of the Zimbabwean society – as so did the degeneration of the party. Today the Zanu-PF is unpopular and relies on the security apparatus to stay in power.

The three examples cited above have taken place at different times, geographies and certainly, different actors and ideas were at play. However, they remain relevant and instructive to the ANC for purposes of understanding change, managing transitions and how to adapt as a political party. Importantly, they also demonstrate different kinds and levels of reform in the political process of adaptation based on positionality, interests, and the balance of power.

What then are the lessons for the ANC and what must it do from now onwards?

Firstly, the ANC needs to appreciate that there is a connection between organisational renewal, state reform and developmental outcomes. The leader or the party must be held accountable first and foremost on how they build legitimacy through economic development.

So far, the 100-year-old organisation of OR Tambo is focusing on recalling its ethical foundation as well as building an ethical state in its fight against corruption. And yet the more urgent task is to build a capable state and grow the economy. Remember that the effect of colonialism is to keep the neocolonial state busy with "delivering services" and of course, 30 years later, fighting against corruption. It is the same script for most erstwhile colonies.

By renewal, the ANC is largely referring to a restoration of the values of the organisation in a time when corrupt values have usurped its soul. And so, the focus is to appeal to the conscience of members to recall the ethical foundations of the party. So that is why activities such as voting and membership buying are outlawed in the group.

However, as demonstrated above, renewal alone is not enough without a reform agenda. We also learn this from the African Renaissance agenda as championed by former President Thabo Mbeki, among others. The re-awakening of Africa is not only a cultural process but a material one too. The change from the Organisation of African Unity to the Africa Union was accompanied by a reform agenda: the New Partnership for Africa's Development, and now, Agenda 2063. The performance of the reform agendas notwithstanding, true reformers always understand that renewal without reform is meaningless.

Secondly, reform refers to a deliberate agenda to change the way the state functions and improves human development outcomes. It means putting in place ideas and programmes that change the structure of the economy so that it is increasingly inclusive, just, and fair. As things stand, our economy is either stagnant or regressing. We are marking time!

The ANC may want to return to the alliance paper of 1998 titled "The State, Property Relations and Social Transformation". In that paper, the basic concepts and tenets of a progressive reform agenda are spelt out. The paper explains the connection between political power, the state as instrument of change and development outcomes. It is one of the papers that show a seamless understanding of reform ideas that connect with the Macroeconomic Research Group (MERG) Report, the aspiration of a developmental state and the latest version of the Strategy and Tactics.

State reform is even more difficult in an environment where appetite for serious policy engagement is arguably low. For example, the Competition Commission has produced the only comprehensive study of private healthcare in South Africa – the Health Market Inquiry (HMI) two years ago. It is probably five PhD studies in one. But government has not yet begun to study, let alone implement, the recommendations. Former statistician-general Pali Lehohla calls this kind of lethargy, "a low appetite for insights that have a bearing on public policy by decision-makers". A progressive reform agenda is contained in the HMI that endorses the National Health Insurance but it is either ignored or unknown.

We need to recall that the Union of South Africa in 1910 was essentially an elite pact between the economic and political elite of the white community. Then, a compromise was reached that the interests of the elite are best served under united republics wherein the state will be used as an instrument of racist oppression for the black majority and economic development for the white minority. The introduction of the 1913 Native Land Act was a key reformist intervention for property relations. White peasant and small-holder farmers emerged, mining property rights were strengthened, the migrant labour system and job reservations for whites evolved into a grand scheme of white economic empowerment.

By the time the National Party took over in 1948, the mining, energy, agriculture, and financial sectors were firmly in the hands of the white elite. The parastatal sector evolved in the same vein to support and deepen the political economy of the expanding cities and the suburban life of the white community. The white elites survived through the decades by exploiting the black and white underclasses, albeit at varying degrees. That was reform and empowerment in action. In a sense, state and economic reform meant the introduction of new industries and the growth of some, not just assimilation into existing economic structures.

Finally, it is clear that conducting a successful struggle for freedom is one thing and reforming the state and society is another. Without a strong and deliberate political leadership, as well as appropriate institutional arrangements, the country will not be able to move forward or even efficiently manage the forthcoming transition that can be described as the "next South Africa". By the way, this observation applies to all political parties.

In the end, the ANC’s renewal efforts look like one foot in, while state reform, the more crucial foot, remains out at best and non-existent at worst.

What a miss!

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