The ANC is tired. It’s also tiring

Obviously now that the ANC’s national policy conference has come and gone, your intellectual life has been enriched more generously than the troughs at the Saxonwold shebeen. In no time at all, the material conditions of your life will also start to improve, flowing from this festival of policy ideas debated (robustly, of course) over the past week, ready for imminent adoption at the ANC’s elective conference in December.

By the time we get to the 2019 general elections, you will experience orgasmic joy as you witness the early and demonstrable positive returns on the policy debates that took place in Johannesburg some two years before. Evidence of the ANC having started to “renew” itself will be everywhere, from the branches of the organisation, functioning as world-class debate chambers, right up to the quality men and women heading up critically important institutions such as the South African Police Service, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and the SABC.

The state itself will show signs of no longer rotting and the government will be proudly showing off an economy out of recession and growing at above 3%, employment figures on an upward trajectory, inequality coming down and many more people lifted out of poverty.

The strategists from the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance will be chewing their fingers off as they struggle to come up with cogent argument why you and I should not vote for the ANC.

If you believe that to be a feasible scenario, then you need to get your head checked — yesterday, already. Only someone who has lost the plot could imagine that the ANC debated itself out of a crisis at Nasrec in Soweto, where it gathered for its policy conference.

I argued on these pages last week that the conference is essentially a waste of time and nothing that has played out since has undermined the core of my scepticism.

Do we have fresh ideas to get the economy out of recession? No. Do we have fresh ideas to deal inequality a death blow? No. Do we have exciting new proposals for achieving sustainable growth that can enable the economy to soar and the spoils to be shared equitably? No.

The policy conference came and went, but we are none the wiser as voters about how the ANC will tackle the economic injustices that are a crucial driver of the discontent of millions of South Africans living on the margins of society.

It is hilarious that some delegates insist that behind closed doors they were locked inside the most brilliant of dialectical battles. That claim can only be true if there is evidence of cogent and original arguments about how to get the economy on a growth path that can deal effectively with structural injustices. The conference did not gift us any such outcomes.

Instead, there was an arcane debate on how to characterise the status quo most accurately. It is, frankly, a monumental embarrassment that the ANC thinks the most crucial political economy debate should be about whether the word “white” should be included or dropped in a sketch of monopoly capital. Monty Python has nothing on the ANC.

There was also another pseudo-profound nondebate about the pros and cons of phrases such as “radical economic transformation” as opposed to “radical socioeconomic transformation”.

All of this is hot air. Nothing more. Nothing less. It does not tell me as a citizen how we get rid of looting in the state. It does not tell me how we get state-owned enterprises to be engines of growth. It does not tell me how we reindustrialise. It does not tell me how we may better use technology, innovation and our human capital to get our economy to be competitive in the context of global economic dynamics that demand a more educated workforce of graduates who are analytical, numerate, culturally agile, technologically savvy, digital citizens who can play in the contemporary world of work. It’s a world very different to one in which our extractive industries were looked to as generators of wealth.

So, forgive me if I do not buy the spin of ANC communications staff, delegates and politicians who were trotted out daily to debrief the media. They simply never got to the heart of the challenges in the state, in the economy and in society.

The ANC is tired and tiring. Rehashing old debates about the political lexicon that bypass the plain realities of the present show that the ANC doesn’t have fresh ideas to reinvent itself, let alone to improve the performance of the state.

At the end of it all, the policy conference was doomed to be a dull and useless affair because of one simple reason: you cannot insist on driving a wedge between policy and people. No party can rock up for a conference about ideas when the people are the real reason for the crisis it is in.

Do we know how the ANC is going to deal with state capture? No. Do we know what ANC delegates think of the Guptas? No. Do we know what the ANC thinks of our law-enforcing agencies that show little appetite to investigate economic crimes? No. Do we know what the ANC delegates think of their party president in charge of the rotting state? No.

As much as some of us would like to pretend there is some value in debating policy without talking realpolitik and leadership, and examining the state of our bureaucracy, these issues are inherently linked.

The people in charge of the state tell you something about the ideas and norms that have triumphed inside the party. The people really in charge of the ANC — Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta — did not even rock up for the policy conference.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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