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[OPINION] The ANC has lost its intellectual heart

There was a time when the ANC dominated and led the national discourse, filling the public space with ideas for debate and further discussion.

But for a while now, there has been an uneasy feeling that the ANC has slowly but surely lost its intellectual heart. Before, many in the ANC welcomed policy debate as a battle of ideas, but now it seems that a greater number of its members have started to shun detailed debate about policy.

The recent ANC national policy conference (NPC) was mostly mired in factional battles and detail such as whether we ought to be using the term ‘white monopoly capital’ or simply ‘monopoly capital.’ That conference was also overshadowed by ‘state capture’ and the party’s inability to deal with the allegations swirling around President Zuma and many of his Cabinet members.

The final day of the NPC was dominated by the proposal to “nationalise” the South African Reserve Bank (Sarb). Enoch Godongwana, chair of the ANC’s sub-committee on economic transformation, admitted that the state had no money to pay out the Sarb’s private shareholders and that the idea of nationalisation is a “sentimental thing”.

The “sentimental thing”, which does seem to be more about optics than substance, moved the markets at the time. The rand lost considerable value on the back of the announcement. It can be argued that there is a need to relook at the mandate of the SARB to include a socio-economic mandate, just as the US Federal Reserve does.

The problem is that with Zuma’s reckless decision-making in firing Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas and inserting two ethically dubious men at the economic helm, the trust deficit between government, the ANC itself and business is at an all-time low. And, in the wake of the Public Protector’s meddling regarding the Sarb mandate, the bank is now viewed as a political target.

After this weekend’s ANC lekgotla, it would seem that Godongwana is going to look into the mining industry as a whole and how to ensure that it remains an engine of economic growth. One might ask where Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s disastrous Mining Charter fits into this ANC sub-committee’s work? Where is the policy clarity within the ANC and what is business to make of all this back and forth which has its roots in an organisation which has no real leadership and a fast diminishing intellectual centre?

The ANC cannot steer public debate in large measure also because it is in a state of disarray and held captive by the corrupt and inept. This past week we heard that Minister of Public Service and Administration Faith Muthambi flew 30 of her family and friends to hear her Budget speech in Cape Town in May, at public expense.

Apart from this there are myriad examples of such corruption and excess by Zuma’s cronies and then also the capture of the state via #Guptaleaks emails. In the face of increasing electoral competition (which only intensified after the 2016 local government elections), the ANC has run out of transformative ideas and we now talk openly about the possibility of it either losing an election in 2019 and beyond, or the prospect of coalition government.

Our greatest challenges remain poverty, inequality, unemployment and fixing the corruption and governance crises we have. This past week Zuma has lamented low economic growth and said the economy was ‘in duress’. Whatever the latter means, it is Zuma’s incoherence, corruption and disastrous governance decisions that have aggravated the situation ten-fold. Shuffling a Cabinet at midnight and removing the Finance Minister who was incorruptible and competent is no way to attract investment. Neither is a rudderless ruling party.

No one seems to be able to provide a coherent explanation of what ‘radical economic transformation’ is and whether the National Development Plan still drives government policy. Or indeed how the work of Rob Davies at Trade and Industry fits with the work of Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and his New Growth Path, launch in 2010. These are important questions if we are to rescue this economy and create much-needed jobs.

The answers seem to depend on which bit of the ANC one speaks to, the populists or those leaning to a more social democrat position. Unfortunately, Zuma is too beholden, preoccupied with satisfying his own avarice and interests of his associates to reconcile the positions. In fact, he has deliberately caused the confusion, one could argue. But this confusion, incoherence and mismanagement of the economy have real consequences for real people, lest we forget. The latest economic figures make for dismal reading as the agricultural sector sheds jobs and companies like Pick ‘n’ Pay ask 3,500 workers to take voluntary retrenchment packages.

And so as the ANC muddles along, it will be up to other sectors of society, business, civil society and the media to persist in trying to steer the national conversation into a more constructive and honest direction and to expose corruption in all its forms. This will take time, energy and a commitment to building cross-sectoral coalitions. It will also mean challenging the ANC at the ballot box in 2019 if it is unable to clean up its act and govern in the best interests of all South Africans.

This past weekend Gordhan said that he was still hopeful about the future and our collective ability to self-correct. He is right when he said that we must not become cynical but develop an understanding of our challenges and push in all corners for proper policy conversations that will bring meaningful transformation. It will be a long tough road ahead.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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