There is an important question people used to ask before Nkandla, state capture, Thuma Mina and Ramaphoria became the most important issues in South Africa: Who comes first: the country or the ANC?
The party’s democratic-centralism framework means the ANC policy and resolutions are taken during conferences.This is the position of all party members, including the president of the country, as an ANC member.
At the ANC national executive committee (NEC) lekgotla last week, we saw how the ANC, and a particular faction in the party, is trying to revive the democratic-centralism habit.
ANC secretary general Ace Magashule’s statement on the lekgotla outcomes showed how Cyril Ramaphosa — the president of both the ANC and the country — will have to battle a stronghold in the ANC, while showing that the party has the ability to transform the country. If anyone is asking who comes first, South Africa or the ANC, it is citizen number one himself.
According to the secretary general, the lekgotla resolved that poverty, inequality and unemployment are the country’s most pressing problems, and that the solution is growth of the economy and tackling unemployment. Later in the statement, he referred to a capable state.
Though these are nice ideas, they are not new. They were punted in the National Development Plan (NDP), which was endorsed by Parliament in 2013. At the time the ANC had the full support of Parliament, including opposition parties, to implement the ideals of the NDP.
The major opponents of the NDP were the South African Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu. Though these ANC alliance partners did not have a robust retort to the plan, they were the only major political organisations that recognised the problem with the NDP: it was not implementable because it is vague.
That in 2019 the NEC lekgotla is propagating the same old rhetoric — without saying why it thought these ideas had failed to be implemented since 2013 — is a major deception.
The ANC should be acknowledging, publicly, that these ideas are not new and improving their statements with points of concrete action. Instead, the same nebulous notions are being recycled. This shows that the ANC comes first, especially if that means leading South Africans down the garden path of false hope.
The next point of concern is the lekgotla resolution that the South African Reserve Bank’s mandate should be revised. This has become the main headline.
The reasons to expand the Reserve Bank’s mandate abound; reasons not to do so, for now, are also plenty. But there needs to be clarity on when this will happen, why and under which conditions. Instead, the ANC continues to contradict itself as different members of the party, within and external to government, say different things about the Reserve Bank’s future role.
Thus democratic centralism has dissipated and it has happened because the party is not putting South Africa first. The fact that these contradictory statements emerge shows that there are parts of the ANC that are trying to re-establish a form of democratic centralism by saying what they want to see happening in the country and in so doing, arm-wrestle the president into following suit. If they cannot secure democratic centralism in the party, they are hoping to turn their statements into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But these party members are also using issues such as the Reserve Bank as small battles in the ongoing war to secure their interests and power in the party and over the country. In this way democratic centralism could be used as a tactic in a much larger scheme. The Reserve Bank and its mandate matters, but it will matter most when its future role is determined according to the urgent and long-term needs of South Africa’s most vulnerable people.
Finally, the secretary general’s statement contained the bold declaration that the ANC remains the centre of the country and policymaking. In this regard the ANC is not unlike other political parties that are grappling with the contradictions between their ideas and the needs of South Africans.
For instance, the Democratic Alliance keeps railing about meritocracy and earning positions in the party and in the country as a whole, as if it cannot see the historical and current injustices against the majority of South Africans who have been kept out of a meritocratic system.
Similarly, the tension between ideas and pressing needs is not novel to the ANC. On this occasion, however, the ANC saying that it is the centre of the country and policymaking undercuts the president’s (in)ability to determine the direction of policy in the interests of South Africa.
This declaration also goes against the president’s previous statements about investment and employment, having imbizos and sourcing funding, in the year before he was elected and not just at the ANC Nasrec conference.
In the end, the shift in democratic centralism may be a good thing because it demonstrates that even in party structures, there must be robust engagement on ideas. After recent events it is clear that toeing the party line is a red herring for other battles that will affect South Africa as a whole.
Thokozani Chilenga-Butao is a doctoral fellow and research associate at the Public Affairs Research Institute and associate lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. These are his views