The ANC’s National General Council is a particularly interesting event. It is supposed to be an opportunity for the masses to find out wassup from the classes in the party. That is, one gets together at a gigantic conference venue to listen to the masters telling one what splendid fellows they are. If one is lucky, one gets invited to a few small-group discussions on policy matters which have been decided by the masters and their friends before the Council, which is likely to be rather frustrating if one does not agree with the masters and their friends. The agenda for the Council is set in advance by the masters, so unless one happens to be a master or the friend of a master, one will have very little to do or say about what gets discussed at the Council. The Council does not decide anything; it has only advisory authority, so the National Executive Committee can reject anything it chooses, just as the National Working Committee can reject anything the NEC submits to it.
Now, all this aside, the tragedy is that the ANC remains the nearest thing to a democratic political party in South Africa because it (until now, anyway) has permitted discussion and debate within its ranks to spill over into official gatherings like this NGC. The reason for this was that when the ANC was unbanned there was a large body of people who supported the ANC but didn’t necessarily agree with everything the ANC’s leadership wanted, so there had to be a lot of discussion and debate, and then there came the fact that the ANC’s leadership changed their minds about policies in the early 1990s, so there had to be a lot of discussion and debate.
The current NGC has not seen a lot of this. Well, actually, none of this. Arguably, the NGC is not the place for this kind of thing. Actually, the NGC is precisely the place for this kind of thing, because anything said there could be repudiated later. So, therefore, the fact that there has been a shutdown of discussion and debate in the NGC, where it could have been harmless blowing off of steam, shows the panic-stations approach by the ANC’s leadership.
What issues have been raised elsewhere in the ANC which could have been debated at the NGC?
On the one hand, there is economic policy. The current economic policy has failed to deal with the current economic crisis, in much the same way that the Obama administration has failed in the United States or the Brown and Cameron administrations have failed in Britain — failure for ninety percent of the population, while ten percent are doing very nicely. Therefore, some kind of alternative policy could have been presented.
On the other hand, there is the administration of the party itself. This is, surely, the core of having an NGC in any case. If there is a malaise in the party, if party members have a feeling that the party is no longer functioning in a way which pleases them, then they are supposed to raise the matter at the NGC. And the party’s masters are supposed to take the matter seriously. If they don’t, the party is in much worse trouble than before.
Straddling the two issues is that of corruption. If people feel that the ANC is no longer on their side but is simply an organisation enriching the few and serving the purposes of the enriched few, then the bulk of them will no longer feel enthusiasm for it. If people notice that the party is cuddling up to the rich and powerful, then they will feel worried, and their worries will be justified. Corruption is not necessarily criminal; it represents the decay of ideals, the collapse of democratic structures into a process of private gain. Nor do you have to be a billionaire to participate in this process.
Only two factions brought economic policy to the NGC table. COSATU brought a 130-page document about transforming the economy. This might sound like an impressive thing, but it is actually much less so because it is a completely defocused plan. It has no arguments supporting its nonspecific demands. As a result, it is anything but a political document. It reads like something written by a consultant who was a left-winger in the early 1990s and has managed to remember many of the good ideas which were current back then, in order to create the illusion of social democracy, but has not really kept up with what’s going on in the country or indeed the world so doesn’t really know whether these ideas are still practical. Indeed, many absolute preconditions are largely absent from the document, as if the global banking system and the South African plutocracy had somehow been wished away and would not prevent any of the plan from being implemented.
The ANC Youth League brought a 30-page document about nationalisation. This is fairly clear-cut, although almost equally vague about how ’tis to be done, or indeed how anyone is going to overcome the hostility of the South African plutocracy to nationalisation, whether of mines or banks. The point about the document is therefore not that it is better-argued than the COSATU document (although it undeniably is) but that, because of its focus, it is easier to support and substantiate than the COSATU document. As a result, the ANCYL document has been much more thoroughly denounced by the white ruling class media than the COSATU document. The point being, the ANCYL document represented a concrete threat; the COSATU document represented a mass of cotton wool.
The response to this was made by Jacob Zuma in his address to the Council: he denounced the ANCYL and all its works, accusing them of being disrespectful to their elders, and also denounced nationalisation, without troubling to substantiate his denunciation. In this approach, Zuma followed the dictates of the ruling class media to the letter, including the ruling class media’s claims that the ANCYL were plotting to overthrow him (claims which are somewhat lacking in evidence, but since Zuma is notoriously paranoid it was sensible for the ruling class media to try to panic him, and the ANCYL did its utmost to reassure him, but to no avail). In a modest aside, Zuma also condemned COSATU for not knowing their place within the Tripartite Alliance, which was to lie across the entrance and be nice and soft for rich people to wipe their boots upon it. This “firm stand” was much applauded by Cyril Ramaphosa (ex-COSATU, now Anglo American) and Tokyo Sexwale (ex-uMkhonto we Sizwe, now Anglo American). Hurrah for the people’s plutocratic elite!
So that took care of economic policy, in a way which rather cleverly ensured that economic policy would not be discussed at all. The masses, whose tickets to the junket had been paid by the ANC (almost certainly courtesy of large corporate donations), leaped to their feet and cheered their President for boldly preventing debate on the most important issue before the government, the party and the people. Behind the scenes, the SACP, who had been undermining the ANCYL and dissing COSATU for some time, also politely applauded, smiling with their knives beneath their cloaks.
The whole question of the administration of the party was of course fully and frankly dealt with by its Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe. He has, for instance, received much acclaim for daringly acknowledging that perhaps it was not a good idea, in retrospect, to have supported the Xhosa racists around Mcebisi Skwatsha in the Western Cape, aided by the SACP via the sleazeball Max Ozinsky, in their struggle to overthrow the provincial premier Ebrahim Rassool. Of course, this made perfect sense at the time, since Rassool was the man whom Mbeki had backed to defeat the DA in the Western Cape by winning over the coloured vote, and any man backed by Mbeki had to be eliminated regardless of consequences. However, as a result of this, the SACP was allowed to gut the whole ANC organisation in the Western Cape and between this and the collapse of coloured confidence on the party, the party’s support-base collapsed and the stage was set for endless conflict and smearing contests which still continue. In other provinces the same practice led to no negative effect because the ANC had no real competitors in other provinces, but in the Western Cape the result was disastrous. Mantashe admitted this. Naturally, without saying why the ANC leadership chose to pursue this disastrous course. Naturally, without saying that the same disastrous course had been pursued elsewhere. So he has been praised for admitting that sometimes, when the ANC kicks itself in the pants, it busts its piles and needs urgent surgery which it can’t get.
That tells you all you need to know about the brilliant stewardship of Gwede Mantashe.
In addition, Mantashe went further. He noted that there were people who were joining the ANC, not because they cared about the people, but because they wanted to make lots of money (like Gwede Mantashe) and get offices (like Gwede Mantashe). This, he warned, was a serious problem. Something needed to be done about this. Such as? Setting up a special tribunal to deal with careerists and corrupt functionaries? Screening membership for their record and current behaviour? Promoting honest people and demoting or expelling bunglers and greedheads (like Gwede Mantashe)? Heavens, no. It is quite enough to say that people should not do this sort of thing. And to say that people who antagonise the elite in the party in any way may now be disciplined for this kind of behaviour as well as anything else that the party elite can think of.
So the malaise in the party was acknowledged but it was clearly stated that nothing of consequence would be done about it. The party’s failure to develop any programme to resolve the core problem of the nation, and its resistance to the introduction of any such programme, was not actually explicitly stated but was absolutely clear to all. Therefore, the malaise was encouraged and corruption tolerated. Nothing good to be expected there.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Most of the newspaper articles on the NGC mentioned the immense lobbying and marketing antechamber set up at the Council premises for big business to schmooze with politicians. A few mentioned the fact that some small traders had been able to sell products to the politicians and delegates at the Council. In short, the purpose of the Council was to make money for big businesspeople and to pretend to make money for small businesspeople. Kabisa!
But there was a Press Conference to announce the National Health Insurance Plan. Oh, yes. In 2007, imitating Obama, the SACP called for a National Health Insurance. This has fallen off the radar screen lately, and for good reason. However, with COSATU and the ANCYL having to be slapped down for their unseemly concern about the trampling of the poor and the disintegration of the economy, something had to be pretended and so health insurance was rolled out.
Now, the thing about Obamacare is that there is lots of healthcare in the United States — it’s just that healthcare is too expensive for most Americans to afford without gigantically expensive private health insurance. The idea of Obamacare was to make that health insurance available to all. It probably won’t, but that’s the plan. The same was true of the National Health in Britain; there were plenty of doctors and nurses, but they were mostly working for the rich, and the National Health made their services available to all.
Unfortunately, in South Africa there isn’t a lot of healthcare. Vast numbers of South Africans have no access to it. Providing people with health insurance merely enables them to pay for the healthcare which they don’t have access to, which isn’t a hell of a lot of use. Hence, the place to start would be to straighten out the mess at the hospitals and to reconstruct the primary health care structures established by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma but defunded subsequently because of austerity and the greater apparent needs of the AIDS treatment programme. That would take a lot of money, but it would be cope-with-able.
But that would entail increasing taxes and plowing them into the people’s needs, which is way outside what the ANC and the SACP could comprehend. So they’re proposing an increase in taxes to raise some R250 billion at some unspecified time in the future (about 60% of the current national budget) in order to give that money to some unspecified financial institution which will dole it out to the deserving masses who have access to healthcare. Meaning, most probably, the urban masses. Most accurately, this will probably mean the middle-class urban masses who currently have to pay for their healthcare. In other words, a subsidy to the middle class, possibly overseen by middle-class financial institutions. OK, this could be an exaggeration and maybe they really will spend some money on the reconstruction of the healthcare system. But where will they get that money from, when they are busy taxing people to pay for health insurance?
And note that one little proposal for taxation was the suggestion that they might whack up Value Added Tax, the flat tax which compels the poor to contribute to the welfare of the middle class. This tax is tremendously unpopular and the idea of increasing it used to be something which brought COSATU out into the streets as a matter of course. Now it’s proposed, and COSATU, already spanked by Baas Zoomer, sits quietly in their seats, waiting for everything to be over. It’s entirely possible that this whole National Health Insurance Plan may be a pretext for turning off the electricity to the third rail of South African taxation policy, and that in a few years we shall have VAT up at 20%, like Britain, so that there can be cuts in income tax (to promote wealth creation, you understand).
The despondency this all induces, the sense that the leadership of the ANC have sat down and said “How best can we destroy our party and all it stands for” is a bit like the ending of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current” and all that. But what we will see at the end of our little boat trip is definitely not going to be the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. What South Africa and the ANC face is much more like Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom. And from that gigantic political whirlpool, there will be no escape.

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