Panic adds urgency to ANC rhetoric

On parade: Some of the 12 urgent tasks the ANC has set itself are costly, giving rise to concerns that another attempt will be made to loosen the finance minister’s grip on the public purse. Photo Delwyn Verasamy

On parade: Some of the 12 urgent tasks the ANC has set itself are costly, giving rise to concerns that another attempt will be made to loosen the finance minister’s grip on the public purse. Photo Delwyn Verasamy

The ANC has urged that the State of the Nation address should endorse the 12 urgent tasks identified by the movement but critics say the list offers few fresh ideas. From returning the land to the people to finalising the minimum wage and fighting corruption, South Africa has heard it all before.

But there is hope that as the election year of 2019 edges closer these objectives will gain a great deal more momentum.

The list was formulated to aid in the goal of radical economic transformation, which was identified as the movement’s most urgent directive at the party’s national executive committee’s lekgotla held at the end of January.
The subsequent Cabinet lekgotla adopted this as a programme of action for the government.

Top of the pops is to return the land to the people by constitutional means.

Ben Cousins, at the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, said the wording was a code for expropriation below market value, as the Constitution provides for several factors that can be taken into account when deciding on land value. The tool will be the new Expro­priation Act.

Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti said last week that the ANC would consider the possibility of expropriation without compensation, in line with constitutional provisions.

The bold rhetoric about land reform is “waving a red flag in front of the public to say, ‘Look at how revolutionary we are,’ ” said Cousins.

But the provisions in the Constitution are not new. “The real reason it wasn’t done before was because of a lack of political will and legal complexities,” he said, adding that the key beneficiaries of land reform so far have typically been relatively well-off people such as business people, public servants and chiefs.

Political economist Ralph Mathekga said: “This renewed ‘commitment’ comes purely from partisan politics. The ANC is concerned the Economic Freedom Fighters have appropriated some of the agency of the ANC … it needs to regain its presence in the discussion.”

That brings us to number two on the list, which states simply: “Invest money in township and rural communities and ensure we build post-apartheid cities in our rural areas and vibrant businesses in our townships.”

The third requires “no less than 30% of all government spending must go to black businesses and small, medium and micro-enterprises”. This is likely to be supported by treasury, which has already included the figure in the proposed new preferential procurement regulations released for comment in June last year.

Another straightforward, and sufficiently vague, task is to “review South Africa’s trade policies to prioritise national interest and support and promote local businesses”.

Although the national minimum wage has been highly contentious, the urgent task to “finalise the national minimum wage to give income security to all our people” would appear to be easily achieved, given that the wage of R20 an hour was signed off this week and should come into effect in May next year.

Another on the list of urgent tasks is the “massive roll-out of broadband infrastructure, ensuring connectivity of schools, universities, hospitals, police stations and other public spaces”.

“Didn’t we hear the same thing last year with SA Connect?” asked tele­communications analyst Richard Hurst.

SA Connect was the project intended to carry out broadband policy. The roll-out of broadband infrastructure received more than a few mentions in the State of the Nation address last year but, in the months that followed, the SA Connect tender was cancelled.

Information communications technology is an area that, despite the rhetoric, has fallen victim to scant attention from the government, Hurst said.

A commitment made at an African Union conference in 2003 was dusted off and placed on the urgent list, which is to “implement the Maputo Declaration and ensure 10% of GDP [gross domestic product] goes to agricultural development”.

Thirteen years ago, African Union heads of state agreed to allocate at least 10% of national budgetary resources to its implementation within five years. To date, only a few African nations have achieved this, and South Africa is not among them.

Wandile Sihlobo, the head of economic and agribusiness intelligence at Agbiz, said undoubtedly more support was needed if the National Development Plan’s vision to create a million jobs in agriculture were to transpire. “Any improvement on money invested in agriculture, including research, would really make a difference.”

Although the declaration is not often mentioned, the emphasis on revitalising agriculture is commonplace in ANC policy bombast, even featuring in the nine-point plan presented at last year’s State of the Nation address.

Still, there has not been much progress, Sihlobo said. But this urgent task would require R100-billion from the incredibly stretched fiscus.

Another task is to “turn South Africa into a construction site, deliver water, sanitation, roads, electricity and houses”, which would also imply additional budget demands, as would another crowd-pleaser on the list, which is to “implement free higher education for the poor and produce no less than 5 000 PhDs per annum by 2030 and urgently generate more artisans”.

“Certain members of Cabinet are feeding into this rhetoric about budget constraints,” said Mathekga. “There are internal processes within Cabinet where this can be aired. Why is this aired to the public as if they are not insiders? They are trying to kick the ball to [Finance Minister Pravin] Gordhan, who will keep saying no.”

Concern is growing that there might once again be a plan to remove Gordhan from his position — along with his tight grip on the public purse.

Feeding into a related feud are two urgent tasks to address the growing rhetoric about monopoly capital in South Africa. That is to “diversify ownership in the financial services sector, license the Post Bank, introduce new players and transform the industry in favour of the people as a whole”; and to “increase the requirement for black ownership in mines, ensure that a significant amount is in the hands of the workers and advance local beneficiation”.

The issue of transformation is undoubtedly important: it is one of the key backlogs in the country, said Mathekga. “We don’t have a more equitable and inclusive economy because it is not designed to be so.”

Although there are monopolies in the financial sector, “it is one thing to break them down, but if you don’t have a plan for what happens after that you are going to leave the industry in limbo,” Mathekga said.

But in the current political climate these urgent tasks are more of a political tool. “You can hardly talk about banks these days without mentioning the on-going battle with the [politically connected] Guptas. The immediate context makes it difficult to have a decent conversation about this long-running issue,” he said.

The ANC whimsically phrased the final task as “mercilessly deal with corruption, fighting both the tigers and the flies”.

But Zuma took to the stage once more to deliver his address just months after a court declared 783 criminal charges against him should be reinstated. So the party’s lack of political will to tackle this last task is self-evident.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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