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South Africa’s governing party celebrates with eye on tough year ahead

South African President Jacob Zuma, who is also the president of the governing African National Congress, with his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

These days, most big ticket political speeches are written by a committee. The South African governing party’s January 8 Statement was no exception.

Formally from the African National Congress’ National Executive Committee, a mere summary took President Jacob Zuma an hour to read out. Zuma is president of the country as well as the party.

One example of the collective character of the statement is that Zuma, personally a cultural traditionalist, read out full party support for equality for specifically lesbians, gays, transgendered, bisexual and intersexed persons.

During its decades as a banned, underground organisation, the ANC used its January 8 statement to announce its agenda for the struggle, and a theme for the coming year.

Since democracy, the ANC uses it to set the tone ahead of the February State of the Nation address in parliament. This January 8 Statement held no surprises, and reaffirms the ANC’s current course.

Tensions in the ranks

The days ahead of the statement included a controversy that the ANC’s alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), were denied their usual speaking slot. This was granted to them at short notice.

Their messages of support included an appeal by the Cosatu leader Sdumo Dlamini for unity amidst their split, and the SACP leader Blade Nzimande urging the ANC to follow its own procedures for nominating municipal councillors.

Both the SACP secretary-general and the ANC president reiterated their support for the permanent alliance.

Globally, the only analogies for such an alliance come from the other side of the political spectrum: the relationship between India’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation), and the six-decade-old alliance between Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union.

Symbolism of venue choice

The choice of venue for the January 8 rally and statement is always made with strategic considerations in mind. That this one was held in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg obviously had two objectives.

  • First, to mitigate the memories of the nearby Marikana massacre. The state has not yet paid out compensation to the bereaved. Thirty-four miners were shot dead and 78 injured on that fateful day on August 16, 2012. The events followed the killing of ten people, including two policemen, by the strikers, at Marikana.

  • Second, ahead of the coming municipal elections, to rally the ANC in the province where support for the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters is highest. It is the official opposition in the area after winning 13.21% of the provincial vote last year.

Constraints on the ANC’s ability to act

Every January 8 Statement includes much of what Americans term motherhood and apple pie. Who could take issue with the five pillars: people first; deliver basic services; good governance; sound financial management; and building strong institutions? Or to oppose and expose corruption?

Here, the ANC is judged, and will be judged, on the extent of its ability to actually implement these ideals. The media have frequently highlighted corruption scandals. Another problem has been churn in high-level executive positions such as ministers, directors-general, and the chairs and board members of parastatals.

These repetitive dismissals have disrupted smooth operations of the entities affected. These problems, plus severe budgetary constraints, limit the government’s ability to implement policies.

Similarly, will denouncing factionalism and “slate politics” have any impact on the day-to-day behaviour of ANC provincial executives, including Zuma supporters?

Parts of the January 8 statement sounded like an opposition newspaper editorial page – full support for chapter nine institutions. Included on the list were the Public Protector and the Independent Electoral Commission.

The institutions, which also include those mentioned elsewhere in the constitution, are those which support democracy. Examples include the Auditor-General, the Reserve Bank, and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

Zuma also pledged sound fiscal management and prudent financial policy. Could this perhaps have been intended as reassurances to ratings agencies and the international investment community?

He also declared that restitution of land taken from black people during white rule must be followed by improved farm productivity. Here too, the ANC will be judged by its actions.

The ANC’s 1994 election manifesto pledged to restitute and redistribute one-third of white-owned farms within five years. Even this has not been achieved. Some of the redistributed farms continued as going commercial businesses, but others provided merely household food subsistence for the families concerned.

The ANC conflict with opposition parties and NGOs came across in a grumble about “low-intensity lawfare”. This refers to claims by the ANC that the country’s courts are being used to deny it the space to govern, despite it winning elections.

Here, South Africans will have to accept that one unintended consequence of having the world’s most elaborate Bill of Rights is, and will always be, the “judicialisation” of politics, especially when one party repeatedly wins election after election.

The only paragraphs of the address with specific details and figures were on post-school education, with pledges of a fees freeze for 2016. Zuma announced R4.5 billion extra for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NFSAS), and that NSFAS loan-holders would not have to pay upfront registration fees. Significantly, this got the loudest rounds of applause and vuvuzela-blowing of the entire speech, perhaps reflecting who made up a significant portion of the ANC members bussed in.

Both condemnation of racism, and restitution of land, received their routine reiterations.

Eye on elections

With the municipal elections only four months ahead, most eyes on the statement would have this perspective. Here the January 8 Statement reiterated that each ANC branch must nominate three municipal election candidates. Their performance in front of a community meeting will be the key criterion in choosing one amongst them, not their popularity within the ANC members themselves.

The reality is that in all working class wards, the municipal councillor posts are the most highly paid jobs: up to R500,000 – about US$30,000 – a year. So factionalism is at its most brutal. This includes assassinations when it comes to electing candidates as well as ruthless competition among candidates’ donors who have been awarded municipal tenders.

The ANC pledge that promulgating the first nationwide minimum wage is in its final stages is also clearly made with Cosatu voters in mind in the upcoming elections.

In recent years, public responses to the January 8 statements has been muted. This is due to growing realisation of the government’s limited capacity and capability to implement them. This year promises to be an interesting one, though, made tough for all governments by the international depression caused by the end of the commodities super-cycle.

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