RONALD LAMOLA: Populism will not save us


Post-democratic South Africa is not where it ought to be, this is an assertion which is difficult to rebut.

The assertion is made stronger by the fact that we can now debate whether we are a functional state. Whichever side one lands on in that particular debate, one may argue that the assertion still holds because despite 28 years of democratic governance, the basic structural tenants of apartheid remain deeply entrenched in our communities.

The policy conference should add impetus to our renewal agenda to enable the ANC to be an agent for change in society.

In our endeavours to correct this assertion, we should avoid the temptation of being populist. Populism will not save us, if anything, it is likely to deepen our differences.

The ANC Strategy and Tactics explains this as follows: The preponderance of factional activities has resulted in the emergence of what can be characterised as organisational populism: that is, the inclination to shy away from taking difficult decisions and to cave into the conduct and demands of rogue elements.

In the 28 years of democratic governance, the African National Congress has been, by and large, lauded for its ability to churn out good policies, but we struggle with implementation.

In other words, our policies which by and large are intended to undo the basic tenets of colonialisation of a special type, have not been adequately implemented and so the refrain has been South Africa has an implementation problem.


To date, we have had several reports and commissions which sought to diagnose the systemic problems we have grappled with as a governing party. Undoubtedly, the Zondo Commission is most incisive on the question of maladministration and corruption.

Some may want to point all and sundry to the imperfections of the Zondo Commission, and they may be right, but equally important is to accept that given the task at hand, it was bound to have some imperfections. Where there is consensus on the findings, we simply cannot afford to dither.

Some of the findings will raise the ire in the room, and the finding on cadre deployment comes to mind. We will have to measure this against what is articulated by Matheson et al writing in an OECD Working Paper on Public Governance, with specific reference, to appointments of senior public service staff: “Political involvement in administration is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Without this, an incoming political administration would find itself unable to change policy direction. However, public services need protection against being misused for partisan purposes, they need technical capacity which survives changes of government, and they need protection against being used to impair the capacity of future governments to govern.”


Institutions of state need to be recalibrated to ensure that those who have become intransigent counter-revolutionaries and agents of corrupters and proponents of corruption are not spared any retribution.

To this end, we are beginning to witness a revamped National Prosecuting Authority where staff morale is on the increase. Cohesion and additional skills have been put in place and much-needed systems are beginning to mature. The impact in recent months has been seen in the enrolment of seminal cases against the architects of State Capture.

Chapter nine institutions such as the Public Protector, the Auditor General of South Africa, the Independent Electoral Commission, the South African Human Rights Commission, Commission for Gender Equality, along with civil society and the media, are increasingly becoming the legitimate voices of society. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what our democracy could be without these institutions.


The upcoming ANC Policy conference has to be a yardstick of the renewal programme which the Nasrec Conference mandated the National Executive Committee to embark on. With the searing challenges which confront our post-democratic society, one thing we cannot afford to do is bury our heads in the sand or focus exclusively on internalities.

The ANC does not have the luxury of being overly reliant on externalities. We cannot blame the constitution or a constitutional democracy for maladministration, corruption, poor implementation, dilapidated state-owned enterprises and weaker state institutions. On the contrary, the Constitution and our democracy are best felt by South Africans when these institutions are strengthened.

Organisational renewal cannot be a slogan; it must be a surgical tool which remoulds the ANC. Renewal must expand into the character and organisational design of the ANC. Sharp lessons have to be drawn from other liberation movements on the African continent. Their failure to renew has led to them being rendered either illegitimate or irrelevant.

The time has come for a major shift in strategy and tactics and for that to happen, we cannot afford to be inward-looking only. The world in which we have attempted to prosecute our democratic vision is littered with problems. Even in countries with strong institutions and lesser incidents of maladministration, it is clear that democracy itself is being persecuted.

The world-renowned intellectual Francis Fukuyama expands this observation by noting that in the past 15 years, in the world at large democracy itself is either regressing or depressed. All democracies in the world are faced with the reality that economic injustices need to be tackled as they are becoming deeply entrenched. This has given rise to the right wing and extreme left personalities across the world. South Africa itself has not in any sense become immune from this rise of the extreme right and left.

This inevitably means that we have to be concerned about the efficacy of our democratic project. We know very well that democracy is responding to the Asian Tiger countries from developing nations to developed nations.

The success of these nations lay in their ability to leverage state-owned enterprises' ability and potential to deliver infrastructure which unlocks economic growth.

As called for by Ready to Govern - we must on a balance of evidence assess all state-owned enterprises' capabilities to deliver on their national mandate, take decisions on a balance of evidence to have a mixture of the state playing a role and the private sector playing a role in certain instances.


More pragmatism is required, policy conference has to be more practical in this regard. This must also extend to critically reflecting on governance taking into consideration failures, weak accountability mechanisms, and efficacy.

As such, we now need to move from a culture of who gets what, to who is fit for where. We need an organisational culture that gives rise to meritocracy, meaning our political processes must ensure that the best amongst us are placed in positions of responsibility.

From devising revenue strategies to formulating extensive membership criteria - these are some of the reforms that we have to undertake in earnest.

In reality, non-racialism, non-sexism and deepening democracy are not for everyone, they require dedication and pragmatism. Populism will not save us.

As Vladimir Putin says: "Political populism always poses a great danger because it disorients people, creates excessive expectations or, on the contrary, prioritises objectives that are clearly not priorities or are simply impossible to achieve."

Ronald Lamola is an ANC national executive committee member.