Looking forward — the issues ahead

The inauguration of the president and the Cabinet this week also signaled the start of a new set of political and economic debates in South Africa.

Under President Thabo Mbeki, the African National Congress has broadened the political mainstream so much that it now includes Africanism — witnessed by his determined efforts to advance African leadership of the country — and South Africa’s “centre-left”, which wants to see a greater role for the state in the economy. The ANC has described itself as “social democratic”.

So powerful is this new mainstream, that most political organisations outside of it have been reduced to fringe movements, be it the white rightwing or radical black socialists.

The new Cabinet is ANC dominated and African run. The politics of the centre-left will dominate, ushering in an era of new debate. Here is a guide:

The economy

The core elements of macro-economic policy will not change, but micro-economic policy such as job creation, poverty alleviation and black economic empowerment take centre-stage.

For the first eight years, the ANC’s economic effort was focused on stabilising both the macro-economy and markets jittery at the thought of a liberation movement coming to power.

The action and power now shifts to the Department of Trade and Industry, where many government empowerment initiatives are located. It is also from here that the move to make South Africa a globally competitive developing economy will be driven.

Cabinet and premiers

While the focus has, predictably, fallen on the incumbent personalities, individual ministries and provinces are less important than they were in 1994. The Presidency is a powerful nerve-centre where national policy is increasingly determined. With a budget that has doubled since 2000, Mbeki’s Presidency will become a much more hands-on manager of policy and implementation in his second term as he seeks to leave a national and African legacy.

The provinces have never become federalist institutions as the Inkatha Freedom Party may have hoped and premiers are increasingly administrators of policies and budgets. A trend that started during the 2004/05 budget and which is likely to grow apace is the ring-fencing of budgets by the Treasury to ensure that national imperatives are met.

Tripartite alliance

Predictions of the death of the ANC’s alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party have always been exaggerated.

Ahead of the election, both the ANC-allied unionists and communists threw their weight behind the campaign for reasons of both historical loyalty and trade-offs. The left scored a victory when the ruling party accepted in December 2002 that the growth, employment and redistribution strategy (Gear) was a “necessary but not a sufficient” policy for growth and job creation. Since then, economic policy has been more expansive than in previous years.

This is not to say that intra-alliance debates are still not the most vital to watch. After the skirmishes with Mbeki from 1998 to last year, both Cosatu and the SACP are much more vigilant about their independence roles as well as more aware of their bargaining power.

Cosatu mobilised to stop the passage of the Anti-Terrorism bill on the eve of the election and the outcome of the draft law will be a good indicator of how relations in the tripartite alliance will fare. In addition, while wholesale privatisation is unlikely, both the concessioning of the Durban port and the establishment of regional electricity distributors are likely to meet with protest from the left.

However, what is interesting is that differences over social development and economic policy are beginning to cut across trade unions, the government and the SACP.

Local government

On the campaign trail, Mbeki came face to face with the shortcomings of local government. He often met people who complained about electricity cut-offs, sporadic water supplies and poor roads.

Ahead of the next election, fixing local government is likely to take top priority. It will be given added impetus as the stronger social movements intend to contest local elections next year. Where they are well organised, social movements which lobby against power cut-offs, water meters and council housing evictions have managed to attract significant support. Some in the ANC are wary that they may contain the seeds of a new political force.

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