/ 20 September 2023

The ANC’s ‘Big A’ blame game

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The Democratic Alliance has threatened to have President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC’s top six held in contempt of court should the party fail to meet the constitutional court’s Monday deadline. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

The 2024 election polls paint a very dark picture for the ANC. A reckoning cannot be avoided when the key indicators are this negative for the government. The people of South Africa are unemployed, living in fear and in hunger as they struggle daily to make ends meet. The promise of 1994 has been betrayed and the rainbow coat of many colours is in tatters. 

On top of the long-term problems of crime, unemployment, miseducation, poverty and poor service delivery the people now have to contend with the cumbersome and exhausting shortage of electricity. In recognition of poor managerial creativity and capacity it appears that the government has decided that they will search for a scapegoat.

It is a scapegoat that has been rinsed off, air-dried and is now being trotted out by ANC ministers and politicians at every chance. It is the tried and tested “Big A”. The ANC cannot hide behind the apartheid legacy to mask its conveyer belt of failures. 

First, what exactly are ANC leaders saying about apartheid? Over the past few weeks, I have observed a series of ANC leaders in senior cabinet positions test out the talking points of blaming “the Big A”. 

Speaking about the Marshalltown building fire, this is what minister Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development, had to say to the media: “Unfortunately for us, whether we like it or not, this is the result of apartheid that kept people under such conditions, and we are expected to changed those conditions within the 30 years.” 

Gwede Mantashe, the chairperson of the ANC and the minister of mineral resources and energy, said this at the ANC manifesto review event held recently in Soweto: “Many people who criticise us say we must never make reference to apartheid. What they forget is that this country was colonised for more than 300 years. Apartheid under the architect DF Malan, who was in charge was for 40 years. People are expecting us to clean the slate in 30 years. A slate that was destroyed for more than 300 years and more than 40 years. We must insist on referring to apartheid and actually acknowledge the consequences of apartheid.” 

Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga said the following recently about the railways crisis: “We came into government in 1994 and, at the time, there was no investment on rail services by the apartheid government. We took a long time as the government to say, we need to invest. So yes, there might be some areas where we say, yes, we took long to decide on that, but it is not us that decided not to invest in rail, it was the De Villiers commission that was put in place by the apartheid government. It is the history, and it is the correct history.”

This is rhetoric borrowed from the ANC of 1999, largely because the party has nothing to offer by way of new ideas and by way of a positive report card on key performance indicators. They have no choice but to attempt to fight using old songs that worked for them. This is a feature and not a bug of liberation movements in Africa, be it Zanu-PF, ANC, Frelimo or Swapo. 

Sadly, the ANC knows this works electorally because we have a wound that persists in our nation. We must acknowledge that the project of reconciliation and redress is not complete. Incidents of racism continue online and in the media, which show that we have some way to go to achieve social cohesion. We have also seen opportunists who will drive those divisions for their political gain. The ANC sees the same thing and rather than work on unifying the country, they are focused on re-litigating apartheid. 

Aside from the motives discussed above, are these arguments from the ANC fair? Have we, as South Africans, set unrealistic timelines for the attainment of quality government services for all and for the inclusion of all South Africans into the economy? No. These arguments are disingenuous and misleading. As the saying goes, the best lies are based on the truth, at least in part. The same could be said of these ANC talking points. 

It is a neat strategy as it diverts the focus from the sharpest criticism of the ANC from the public. The criticism is not that there was not a long laundry list of work to be done in 1994, the criticism is that reasonable progress was not made in reasonable time in the areas where more was possible. The argument is also a deflection and a red herring — it seeks to reframe the discussion to a terrain the ANC thinks is favourable to them. It is a bad faith argument in that respect and an attempt to once again use liberation party credentials to accumulate voter sympathy. 

But even if we are to take them at their best and assume a good faith argument, how long does it take to unravel systemic oppression, be it apartheid or colonialism? Is a 30-year period sufficient time to make tangible progress in fixing the social problems created by the apartheid regime and the preceding period of colonialism? 

Japan, South Korea and Botswana show us that 30 years is more than enough time to improve standards and get them ticking in the right direction. Our story is one of stagnation and separatism. 

The stubbornly high unemployment rate of 42.1% on the expanded definition is not moving. Within that 42.1% there is a high level of unemployment among people under the age of 35 — and it is higher than the national unemployment rate. 

Of people aged 15 to 24, 70.1% are unemployed, and 49.1% of people aged 25 to 34 are unemployed. One out of two people in their twenties are unemployed and that alone should paint the urgency of the situation. Long-term unemployment has gone up from 3.3 million in 2013 to 6.1 million in 2023 — it has almost doubled in the last decade. 

This is undergirded by the ANC replicating separate educational systems in South Africa. That is on them. This is one of the areas where they could have changed things. Unfortunately it remains true that if you have access to funds your education is better and your life opportunities will also be better. 

We have a reading and maths emergency as a country, the recent PRILS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) results show that 81% of children in South Africa in grade four cannot read for meaning in any language. The objectives of the Bantu education system — to keep the African child limited and locked out — are now being upheld de facto by the ANC. 

Hendrik Verwoed would be proud. 

For too long difficult problems such as fixing our schools, technical and vocational education and training colleges and universities have been deferred and only focused on when movements such as the #feesmustfall broke into the news cycle. 

We need to urgently increase the numbers of teachers in our schools, we need to change the marking standards and we need to remove unions from the classroom. 

We must provide vouchers so that people can choose the best education. This will enable the creation of privately run and affordable charter schools in townships so that quality education is not a privilege of those living in the economic hubs of South Africa. 

Give teachers more skin in the game, give parents more skin in the game and the quality of our education will dramatically improve. 

We also need to invest in the township economy. I took part in the 2023 edition of the annual Township Retail Investment Summit last Thursday at the Mall of Thembisa. The purpose of the summit is to unearth the power of the township space with a keen focus on entrepreneurs who already live and operate in townships. 

I was invited to open the summit and themed my address around the duality of the South African economy and stark divide between the formal and informal sectors with our economy. 

In that the South African economy still represents a concentrated model with a focus on a small triangular stratum of big business, labour and government at the very top. Below that, millions remain locked out of the formal economy. 

The proposal is to have township special economic zones. These will be funded from the sale of listed shares owned by the government’s Industrial Development Corporation, currently valued at R200  billion, and are tax free. The government doesn’t need to own shares in big companies. 

To address outstanding issues of reconciliation we must set up a jobs and justice fund, for reparations and development. 

This country does not need to relitigate the past ad nauseam. We do not need parties trying to divide us on race and history. We do need strong proactive ideas that get this economy growing, get our citizens working and prepare our children for a very competitive future with artificial intelligence, internet of things and so much more. 

Mmusi Maimane is the leader of Build One South Africa.