OPINION: A new year, a new ANC?

There is a strange stake we human beings put on a new year. From 31 December to 1 January things will change so dramatically that we will see ourselves thinner, more fulfilled and for some, perhaps the dream of being richer. We wish for world peace and determine that the new year will be the year of tolerance and understanding. It is an essential part of the human condition and the meaning of life to dream and imagine that which is better and different. It has to be so, surely?

Yet, we know too that the world's intractable challenges remain with us from one day to the next and one year to the next. For there are no easy solutions to the challenges of inequality, social exclusion, war, disease and poverty. And 2015 has started off on a specifically bad note with scores killed in suicide bomb attacks in Nigeria and another 35 we know of dying in the Yemen on the same day as the chilling assault on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris.

Around us we look for leaders to say the right thing and find the words that reflect some of the confusion and anger we feel when we witness these attacks on the innocent and on democratic values. The United Nations seems entirely without a plan to deal with events as they happen and global leaders seem less interested in finding solutions that take them out of their comfort zones and into more inclusive policy solutions.

Here at home in South Africa, 2015 holds promise but equally, it holds the continued concerns about inequality, poverty and exclusion.

This past week we were reminded of that as the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated 103 years of its existence. As Africa's oldest liberation movement the ANC can be rightly proud of leading South Africa to its first democratic election in 1994. It is also easy to forget the ANC's proud struggle against racial oppression when compared to the materialistic brashness with which current birthdays are celebrated.

Founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), it was later named the African National Congress. Its first president, John Dub, was a minister and school headmaster, while Pixley ka Seme was a lawyer and prime mover in organising the meeting to establish the congress. The diary of secretary-general Sol Plaatje is an erudite attempt to record the conditions of the time.

These were individuals who understood the value of education as a tool for liberation and also the power of engagement.

This week, as the ANC 'came to Cape Town', one got a decidedly different feel, with national executive committee (NEC) members living large at the most expensive hotels in Cape Town. It truly felt as if the ANC leadership had swooped into Cape Town to cursorily deliver some goodwill messages to the poor. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was seen paying R100 for chicken feet (which usually cost R5) on the streets of Langa. Meanwhile, Jessie Duarte, ANC deputy secretary-general, was clear in her call to 'liberate' the Western Cape and calling it an 'apartheid' province. To start interrogating her flippant comments would take a while, but clearly we are in election mode ahead of the 2016 local government elections.

This is not to deny the challenges the Western Cape faces and the unique and damaging race politics that plays itself out here every day. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is also facing renewed contestation from within, and the so-called 'toilet saga' and the increasingly heavy-handed manner of city governance are issues the ANC should rightly exploit and call the DA to account on.

Yet, while the Western Cape's political dynamic might be very different, to suggest that other ANC-run provinces don't have challenges or to gloss over those is simply disingenuous. The Eastern Cape has some of the poorest-performing schools in the country and some departments in ANC-run provinces such as Limpopo were in such disarray because of corruption and maladministration that they were placed under administration.

It was also the ANC that formed an alliance with the New National Party to gain power in the Western Cape in 2004. The facts are often inconvenient but selective memory will not take the ANC further in this province, neither will its largely vacuous, bickering and opportunistic leadership.

Swooping on a shopping mall in Mitchell's Plain will not be enough to regain this province and neither will a few flyers and eating chicken feet with 'the people'. That simply feels like a modern-day version of the Roman 'bread and games' in the Colosseum - the politics of theatre punctuated with a jolly Mshini wam.

President Zuma's speech on 8 January also fell far short. We have heard it all before and given his credibility problem, it's hard to take seriously what he says about fighting corruption specifically. Despite the cheers in the stadium, the Expropriation Bill is old news and was approved by Cabinet in September 2014. Talk of the youth wage subsidy or fixing local government is not new and neither are mutterings about judicial transformation and cohesion within mining communities.

At government level President Zuma has left a great deal to his deputy, Ramaphosa to fix. Whether he is able to do so almost single-handedly and deal with the crises in state-owned enterprises will be hard to tell, for instance. We wait and see and hope for improvements in relation to Eskom, SAA and the SA Post Office. A tall order but his success will be the country's success, surely?

The president should flesh issues out further in his State of the Nation address, although his record at the opening of Parliament has been poor. Of course, there is also the ANC national general council (NGC) meeting in June which is essentially a mid-term review of ANC policy. In the past some of these gatherings have been catalytic. Who can forget the NGC of 2005 and the tensions surrounding policy and personality?

At the end of the day, the facts are that the ANC knows the local government elections will see it face its greatest electoral challenge countrywide. A brief look at the metro results during last year's elections indicates quite clearly the ANC's loss of support in key areas. The party also knows that despite the bluster of this past weekend, its president is deeply flawed and that increasingly citizens are asking what the current ANC leadership, sipping on Moet and living it up in five-star hotels, have done with the rich legacy of Pixley Ka Seme, John Dube, Sol Plaatje, OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Chief Luthuli and others? What has it done with its intellectual tradition and why has divisive rhetoric replaced real engagement?

Despite the weekend's show, it feels as if the ANC has run out of ideas and steam.

South Africa cannot afford a limp, lethargic ANC if it is to face its challenges head on. It is for this reason that the rejuvenation of the ANC is in the country's best interests. The question is whether that ship can be turned around and by whom?

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).