OPINION: ANC policy: A big shift is coming. Really
One of the ANC's big slogans is 'A Better Life for All'. It's an easy catch-all that doesn't require any kind of ideological battle to get it past the various constituencies that make up the right and left wings of the ANC, and the even more left positions of the SACP and Cosatu. Of course, there have been huge fights about how to achieve that ideal, but as a slogan, it's worked for the party. Part of the big promise of voting for the ANC has been 'government will provide', that the state will do everything: provide houses, water, electricity, safety, and even in some cases, land. As a longer-term policy it is simply unworkable. Now, finally, it seems the ANC, and its alliance, has actually realised that. We may be about to witness perhaps the most fundamental shift in policy within the ANC since 1994. Really.
On Wednesday night, the leaders of the organisations that make up the alliance - the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu (plus an almost forgotten body known as Sanco) - held a press conference to announce what they had agreed. Part of this is what is known as a 'declaration'. There was much about the rule of law, Omar Al-Bashir and issues currently in the news.
Then came these three sentences: "This resourcefulness of South Africans is a remarkable asset, but these strengths and traditions have become somewhat weakened by a message that 'the state will deliver'. While public resources must play the major part, a different relationship between state and communities must be fostered. Our grassroots organisational structures must play a leading role in mobilising communities to appreciate that freedom comes with rights and responsibilities."
It's worth repeating part of that, "these strengths and traditions have become somewhat weakened by a message that 'the state will deliver'".
This is surely, surely, a statement that the current policies of using government to provide everything has created some sort of shift in culture. Sure, the word 'entitlement' is not there, probably correctly, but it is worth examining exactly what this means. When called for comment, the SACP's spokesperson Alex Mashilo said what it really meant was that people should not "wait for the government truck to arrive, or for services to come", but that they must "take charge of their own development". Being the SACP, he's quick to say that government does have a huge role to play here. That part is in the statement too. But he is saying that people must not sit back and simply wait for government to do things.
How big a shift you think this is is likely to be a result of whom you speak to. But certainly those in the know think it's big. Political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni suggested on the Midday Report on Friday, that this is possibly "the most fundamental shift in two decades of our transition to democracy". He says that up until this point, the message has pretty much been the state will provide, with no accompanying message that people must get up and do it for themselves.
It's easy to simply point fingers at the ANC at this point, and claim that they've done the wrong thing all these years. But surely it is only human, and humane, to have come out of apartheid, and immediately try to produce the best services you possibly can to the largest number of people possible. And it is undeniable that social grants have made a huge difference to the daily lives of millions of people. Just know that children growing up in homes that receive grants are taller than those who don't, and you can see the impact they've made.
And of course, we mustn't forget the ANC has been fighting elections. Politicians everywhere promise the world when they're in campaigning phase. Even if they can't deliver it; just ask the Greeks.
However, over time, the fiscal position of government has changed. There have been several warnings recently about how if the current patterns of spending don't change, we will simply run out of money. This is to do with the two main expenditures of government, social grants, and the salaries of civil servants. The salary bill of course has been rising above inflation for years; it was Pravin Gordhan who in government first started sounding the alarm here some time ago.
The head of the Institute of Race Relations, Frans Cronje, suggests this new statement by the alliance is a "political reaction to an economic problem". He says that it is clear the message that the coffers will soon run dry is beginning to come home to Luthuli House.
There have been some signals that the current policies were going to change. Last year human settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu said that her department would not be building houses for able-bodied people who were of working age. Various organisations such as the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, which has campaigned on the housing issue, said that while policies could change, that comment certainly went against the current housing policies of government.
And President Jacob Zuma himself, the man with probably the most to lose should an ANC campaign go badly, has said several times that we cannot become a "nation of social grants".
It is particularly interesting that this came through an alliance summit. In other words, it's a meeting of leaders of the various organisations, rather than of the members of those organisations. Perhaps it has found expression here for two reasons. Firstly, because there is some anonymity in doing it this way, in that no one has to actually stand up in say it's their idea. In the same way that a recent alliance document could be more scathing of the movement than a normal document, precisely because it was written by Blade Nzimande, Gwede Mantashe and Bheki Ntshalintshali. Which means none of them have to take ultimate responsibility for it.
The second reason may be that it is simply easier to get this kind of policy shift through the leadership than through the membership. In other words, rather than try to convince the ANC's one million members of the idea, it's easier to get the leadership of the alliance on board first, and take it from there.
So, if this is a policy shift, and possibly a big one, what will happen from here? Firstly, it is likely to give confidence to those, such as Sisulu, who already agree with this kind of direction. We may well see more ministers and other leaders coming out and suggesting similar policy changes in public. However, it would be naive to think that such a big shift can come without some opposition. Many in the ANC will point to the fact that local government elections are due next year, and ask how this message would play in public. They may in fact be surprised at the response it gets, in that older people, who were part of the resourceful communities before 1994 may well tell the youth to simply get on with it.
But it would seem that the centre of gravity in the ANC is shifting towards this kind of shift. Which makes it likely that policies in the end will change. If only for the simple reason that we are running out of money, and won't have much choice.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes