It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new lease on political life for South Africa’s governing party. This, at least, is what the newly elected leadership and several pundits want to believe, and want to persuade the rest of us to believe as well. Politics, after all, is like religion, not only in that both make for potentially awkward conversations when in confined spaces with strangers (think taxis, dinner parties, or workplace canteens). Both require proselytes to the party creed to convince others and bring them into the fold.
Much has been made of the shifts which could be observed at the ANC’s 106th anniversary celebrations in East London’s Buffalo City Stadium. Not only did proceedings begin on time – four minutes earlier than scheduled – but the entire programme ran mostly to the timetable. The event was well-attended, the supporters were vocal in their support for the new leadership, especially the party’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa. While starting on time and running to schedule should not be a cause for celebration, the party’s record on this score over the last few years made this shift notable.
Many critics have long maintained that those who cannot run an event should not run a state. Hopefully, the changes indicated in the ambitious programme of renewal announced in this January 8th Statement. Of course, such announcements are the stuff of every recent January 8th Statement, but this time, the expectation is that it will be implemented. And that, indeed, is the test for the governing party. With just over a year before the next general election, the importance of the ANC’s ability to make good on the promises cannot be understated.
Much of the work lies inside the party, cleaning up its structures and processes. The dysfunction in the branches and in the provincial structures led to several public and at times humiliating court battles, some of which have yet to be concluded. This may be tested earlier rather than later, with questions about the functioning of the party’s disciplinary processes. Can they function effectively, without fear of interference, and will members and officials abide by the findings and recommendations? The historical record on this matter does not necessarily inspire confidence.
In response to the ‘two centres of power anxiety’, Jeff Radebe was unequivocal: Luthuli House, named for one of the party’s two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, would be the strategic centre of power. Ramaphosa went further, indicating that any deployed cadre, no matter how senior, who sowed division, would be instantly called to account for their conduct. Does this mean that even the President of the Republic of South Africa could be called to Luthuli House if his cabinet members continue to flout declared policy and he fails to act against them? South Africans are watching to see what develops.
Post-school education reform was another key point in the address. When South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, then also still party president, announced fee-free higher education for up to 90 percent of the student population, several questions had not been answered. Where would the money come from given the mid-term budget policy statement from his finance minister had just indicated a R50-billion shortfall in the fiscus?
University administrators indicated that they had not been consulted prior to the announcement, and there were consequences for individual organisations in the tertiary education sector, both in planning for and implementation of their 2018 programmes. The January 8th Statement restated the announcement by the Republic’s president from December 2017 but gave no further details for where the money would be sourced to finance this essential and laudable policy’s implementation.
Economic transformation (now called radical socio-economic transformation, as per the party’s published reports from 2012) was another focus. Integral to such change is overturning the lopsided concentration of ownership and control which is not unrelated to those conditions which make South Africa the most unequal society on the planet. To use the state procurement mechanisms to effect such change, of course, requires addressing another set of challenges: maladministration and corruption, especially in state-owned enterprises. Who can forget the explosive revelations of the parliamentary inquiry into Eskom, or the horrific details which surfaced in the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings?
The test of the party’s commitment to its anti-corruption stance will, of course, come in the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture. What will the party do if some of its most senior officials are implicated? Will it continue to support the process which has now been implemented by the Republic president, Jacob Zuma? If Deputy Chief Justice Zondo’s work uncovers material which points to the involvement of party apparatchiks, will the ANC leadership abide by those, or will we see a repeat of 2017, with endless and groundless court challenges? Time will tell.
The party has less than a year to convince the majority of South Africa’s voting population that it can back its statements with actions. Of course, there will be push-back, from within its own ranks, but also from those who have thus far benefited from the problems which have beleaguered the South African state. Old habits are hard to break, even when new times call for it. Organisational renewal of the kind South Africa’s governing party wishes to embark on is not going to be easy. And the stakes are very high. The last thing anyone in the party wants is a repetition of the August 2016 municipal elections: a tainted victory which tastes like defeat.
Starting on time may sell the symbolism of change, but holding your officials to account, no matter the seniority of the office they hold, and abiding by the legal processes of those institutions of state you say you want to strengthen, including the National Prosecuting Authority once rehabilitated, is the true acid test for the ANC's ambition to reform and renew.