No policy basis for a ‘second transition’

Some, like the document on organisational renewal, are marked by a welcome break from the paranoia and authoritarianism into which the organisation has collapsed under Jacob Zuma. 

It includes a remarkably sober assessment of the organisation’s failings and some thoughtful although limited reflections on ways forward. 

Others are a mixture of crude party propaganda and empty inanities about a better future. Jargon, some Stalinist, some from the World Bank and some managerialist, often substitutes for clear thinking about the real problems that we face. Across the set of documents there are moments where the party is conflated with both the state and the nation in a manner that is plainly anti-democratic. 

And there is a general although not uniform tendency to present all the threats to progress as outside of the ANC and to fail to take the threats to progress within the ANC seriously. Moreover the documents are often infused by an a priori faith in the steady unfolding of the ANC’s progressive vision that, as well as being more like a form of religious belief than a hard headed engagement with the serious problems that we confront, carries a palpably authoritarian underside. 

The education document is possibly the worst of the lot. It begins by asserting that the ANC “remains a leader, a shinning example and the only hope for many at home, in Southern Africa, the rest of Africa and beyond” and that “the correctness of ANC policies is one of its strengths”. 

The document doesn’t even gesture towards a full acknowledgement of the crisis in our schools, and some of our universities, and many of its recommendations are merely banal statements of common sense, like the need to get schools wired. There is no serious attempt to think about how to turn basic aspirations into reality. 

Its positive recommendations don’t go much beyond throwing around some jargon about performance management and a series of statements about the good things that will happen in the future. It’s all very well to assert that by 2025 learners and teachers will attend well-resourced schools each day but this assertion is meaningless without a serious attempt to understand why this is not happening now and how that can be changed. 

The ANC’s failures with regard to education are gross and are a key reason why both material inequality and general social exclusion have been actively re-inscribed after apartheid. If the education document really does reflect the best of the party’s thinking on how to resolve the education crisis the only rational conclusion is that the party’s ability to be a progressive actor in society has been exhausted.

The gender document is a better but its still largely trite and, at some points, simply fantastical. For instance it informs us that the ANC Women’s League has played a critical role in ‘women’s empowerment’ and that “South Africa has moved from strength to strength towards the total emancipation of women”. It does acknowledge “setbacks” with regard to “gender practices within the ANC” but reduces these to the number of positions held by women. 

The commitment to ensuring gender equity in terms of access to training, jobs, tenders and credit is certainly welcome but in the context of a total failure to acknowledge the profound regression in the organisation’s de facto commitment to gender equality since Zuma took the presidency it doesn’t amount to anything like a genuinely transformative vision. 

And while a commitment to the empowerment of women is a welcome response to the failure of technocratic and legal reforms to win sufficient substantive change for women its more than a little dispiriting to see that attaining World Bank funding for “women empowerment” is listed as a policy priority. This is not the only point in these documents where lofty rhetoric precedes actual policy proposals that are a world apart from the declarations that frame them.

The social transformation document begins with the usual genuflection to the permanent inner greatness and nobility of the ANC and the inevitable unfolding of its progressive vision through the National Democratic Revolution.

We are informed that the ANC intends to “forge a nation inspired by values of human solidarity” and to secure “total human dignity for all South Africans” and that there should be a “People First” approach to any development. But the actual content of what this entails doesn’t extend much beyond grants, service delivery, promoting entrepreneurship and job creation. None of this is new and none of this has, in reality, moved us to towards a more equal and just society.

When the document turns towards housing, a key point of conflict between the state and its citizens, and one of the areas where the ANC’s failings in government have been particularly acute, there is very little positive substance beneath the jargon and what there is appears to indicate a shift away from state responsibility for public housing, a desire to sustain or even escalate the criminalisation of popular strategies for accessing housing and concern at judicial decisions that have taken the state to task for the systemic illegality and indeed criminality with which it responds to the urban poor. 

The failure to recognise the human cost of the urban crisis, and the lack of vision in developing responses to it, are astonishing.

There’s no question that we do need to rethink both the policies and practices that have led to our failure to offer any real grounds for hope to a large proportion of South Africans. 

But with key figures in the ANC and the tripartite alliance responding to the internal crisis of the ANC, sustained and escalating popular protest and increasing hostility to the party in the elite public sphere by presenting the second transition as a credible project with a future that is threatened only by the Constitution, the judiciary and white liberals, we need to enquire in to its ideological function as a mask for the increasingly predatory and authoritarian elite that have a firm hold on both the ANC and the state.

Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University, where he lectures on contemporary political theory and urban studies. He writes regularly for journals and newspapers, both print and online, and his commentary is widely read.
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