Trying to understand what is going on in the ruling party is a difficult task, but vital to the country’s future.

If there is a document that can offer the hope of an insight into the ANC, it is the recently released Discussion Documents for the upcoming Policy Conference.

The overwhelming worry of the ANC is that its own assessments point to the party receiving less than 50 percent of the vote at the national elections in 2024. And there is a full admission that the party now faces ‘an existential crisis.’

These documents are for consideration at a policy conference that will be held next month. In December, the party’s national conference to elect its leadership will be held. It’s pretty certain that President Cyril Ramaphosa will be re-elected as party leader, but beyond that, the party’s prospects are pretty uncertain. Last year’s local government elections at which the party only received 46 percent of the vote, although there was only a 30 percent turnout, was a big shock for the ANC party. Even if the ANC gets less than 50 percent in 2024, there is little doubt that it will remain a substantial force in our politics.

There is a candid admission in the documents that matters have deteriorated with the growth of government debt, the inability to turn Eskom around, “regression on some basic services,” worsening poverty, and rising inequality. With low growth, high unemployment, a depressed national mood, and fuel and food price shocks on the way, the ANC realises it should brace itself for torrid times. The documents point to a number of own goals like, “enormous service delivery problems, leadership conflicts, weak and non-existent party primary structures, and ANC financial problems.

Hope is offered that ANC votes could be clawed back, as their voters did not support the two major opposition parties – the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. But getting back support from a disillusioned electorate that is gravitating to small parties might be very difficult. The party feels that it has been kept out of municipal government, “by the growing phenomenon of small opposition parties ganging up to keep the ANC out of office.”

‘These coalitions which have less in common than a crowd of drunkards in a beer hall, are on a crusade to obliterate the defining goals of our national transformation project.’

‘A Sustained Programme of Unity and Renewal’ is laid out, but there are no new policy ideas.  The statement that it is now a modern political party is unconvincing. It is a party that remains stuck in its view of the world and what it should be doing. It points to the party’s “capacity as a vanguard movement”, which is a view most Marxist parties have about their very special role. But that might not be much good when it has to form coalitions. We still have no ideas of how the ANC will respond to potential loss in 2024.

As service delivery erodes, public enterprises go bankrupt, and electricity is increasingly cut off, its credibility as a vanguard movement is left in tatters. 

There is nothing in the documents which allows one to expect at least a course correction or an age of reform to take the country into a new era. Slightly encouraging is the admission in the discussion of state-owned enterprises that, ‘What is clear is that the current model is dying.’

 ‘The era of bailouts for state-owned corporations is over’, the documents say.

It is positive that a new approach to state-owned enterprises is discussed, and the possibility of reducing public ownership is mentioned. The encouraging words on state-owned enterprises will only be credible once sell-offs happen.

But would the private sector want to invest in entities where they are up against the rigidities of government control and endless red tape. The document does not deal with the present situation where some enterprises which perform significant roles, like defence company Denel and the Post Office, are in financial distress, and therefore cannot perform their roles. They are in a sort of limbo that is no good for the company itself or the customers.

No changes are envisaged on the labour laws and the system of centralised bargaining, which means the wages paid by smaller companies are set by the larger in bargaining councils. ‘Labour legislation is often incorrectly blamed for economic stagnation. This is done for ideological not economic reasons.’

That legislation is favoured by big corporates and the unions, but is a system under which small businesses must pay big company wages and fewer people are employed.

There is an admission that cadre deployment, the practice of transferring union or party employees to government jobs, has been wrong not in itself, but in its application. The documents envision “a civil service with the correct skill sets to manage a CAPABLE developmental state: and to undo the damage caused by flawed application of ANC cadre deployment processes.”

The documents want black economic empowerment speeded up and enlarged. Yet empowerment regulations for contracts often add an extra layer between original suppliers, and raise the prices paid by government agencies.

Indeed, the ANC has pretty much run out of new ideas, and those that are new and may have merit tend to be implemented at a snail’s pace.

 Some of the ills of the party are blamed on the lumpen proletariat, a giveaway that the ANC is still heavily influenced by Marxism. The lumpen proletariat are, in Marx’s words, the “refuse of all classes, easy to manipulate to support the capitalist system.”

The document decries ‘lumpen tendencies’ that it says are, “flourishing in many structures of civil society today.” Lumpen elements include many of the individuals involved in the July 2021 ‘partial insurrection’: parasitic bureaucrats, some trade unionists, and sections of the political elite. The policy documents call for a weeding out of lumpen elements within its structures for its own survival. And to achieve this, it says a strong, highly political and disciplined security structure to support its leadership organs is needed. That could be a call for a crackdown on dissent within its ranks. 

One way that the ANC can renew itself would be to lose an election and spend time outside of government, reflecting on the reasons. Lack of political competition has meant the party has never had to seriously look at its policies. A split in the party could also bring about renewal in at least one faction. Both scenarios would mean progress for the country and could help bring the party into the modern era. 

The views of the writer are not necessarily those of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.