Saul’s bold last stand for the ANC

From a premier who spent R50 000 on KFC in just 10 days in office to one who is rejecting excesses such as flashy cars, blue-light convoys and the premier’s residence in his first week in office, the Northern Cape has turned a corner.

The newly appointed premier, Zamani Saul, has raged against even a bowl of fresh fruit awaiting him in his office each morning, dismissing it as “wastage”.

“If I want fresh fruit, I can go and buy it myself,” he said.

Saul’s approach to governance thus far was neatly encapsulated in a fiery address he delivered at the ANC’s provincial lekgotla in preparation for his State of the Province address on Friday.

“Institutional practices that place us on a pedestal and deify us at the cost of service delivery must be done away with … a critical part of our struggle now is to fight against self-indulgence and self-aggrandisement,” he said.

His approach is novel and fresh — but likely to ruffle feathers in a country and a province in which political office is a fast track to the high life; a career and not a calling.

Saul said his approach — in which he has thus far diverted funds from cars for officials to buying ambulances, vowed to get rid of the premier’s residence and allocate the proceeds to a premier’s bursary fund, and ban blue-light convoys and pictures of himself and MECs in provincial government offices — is based on ANC resolutions from its national conference at Nasrec in December 2017.

These, however, are not the resolutions being punted by ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, who has fixated largely on the South African Reserve Bank.

The resolutions Saul is implementing entail closing the gap between political leaders and the people. The premier said in the lekgotla that his approach is by no means a “surprise package” — the resolutions imply that political leaders should “unclothe” themselves of executive luxuries and serve as “ordinary activists”.

Saul is aware of the risk should he and his executive fail to do this, and the risk of maintaining the status quo in his province.

“We are on notice.We are only left with 7%. If we lose that in the next election, we are going to be relegated to the opposition benches,” he said.

Saul is the ANC Northern Cape chairperson and his election to the helm of the province in 2017 was tightly fought. Under his leadership, the province became the first ANC structure to endorse President Cyril Ramaphosa as a successor to former president Jacob Zuma.

In the 2019 general election, Saul was among three ANC chairpersons and premier contenders who were effectively put on notice by the electorate. The ANC’s support in the province slipped to below 60% for the first time, with the party winning only 58% in former stronghold and the Democratic Alliance making serious inroads.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura won back the country’s economic heartland by a sliver, with just 50% of the vote, and KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala presides over a divided province, where the ANC got just 54% in the last poll.

The three are the next generation of ANC leaders, but they are all on notice and in a perilous position with the electorate. Their failure to turn around the fortunes of the ANC in their respective provinces is set to have a far-reaching effect on the party’s future in these areas, and nationally.

In fact, a loss in these three provinces in the next election would relegate the ANC to a rural party, with its bases limited to provinces such as Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Free State and the North West. But declines in electoral performance were recorded even in these provinces.

Saul, Makhura and Zikalala, then, are burdened by the reckoning of an electorate no longer inhibited by loyalty to the liberation movement.

According to Saul, this means shedding the “status quo bias” which has plagued the party for two decades and calls for his generation of leaders to “reinvent the future”.

“Reinventing the future means we must not take anything for granted; we must question the current institutional practices and cultures,” he told the lekgotla.

He provided a stark example of how political leaders are prioritised at the expense of citizens.

“I was informed that when the vehicle of the premier or officials reaches 120 000km, it must be changed. That is what I was told. This is what the ministers’ handbook is saying … but in the same province we have ambulances with mileage of 952 000km that carry sick and vulnerable people to and from health centres.

“We cannot, as revolutionaries, be confronted by a moral dilemma and think this is a difficult question … it requires boldness for us as leaders to put ourselves at a disadvantage in order to create an advantage for the poor.”

The leader with a doctorate of law in public law and jurisprudence, a master’s degree in development studies from the University of the Free State and a master’s law degree from the University of the Western Cape, has his work cut out for him. The Northern Cape is in a precarious fiscal position, with debt in excess of R3-billion. The auditor general’s recent municipal audit report showed that 62% of the municipalities in the province are in a vulnerable position. And Saul said that half of the province’s households were poor, with unemployment standing at 26% — 60% of those unemployed are young people.

His success will be imperative if he hopes to improve the ANC’s electoral fortunes in the Northern Cape. For now, his stance is welcomed but the key question is whether he will translate it into action. If he and his executive fail, he is aware that they would be handing the province over to the opposition.

“If we don’t address the question of youth unemployment … I see myself as the last ANC premier of the Northern Cape … we cannot lack imagination, we have to be creative,” he said.

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Natasha Marrian
Natasha Marrian
Marrian has built a reputation as an astute political journalist, investigative reporter and commentator. Until recently she led the political team at Business Day where she also produced a widely read column that provided insight into the political spectacle of the week.

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