Architecture of SA’s latest red peril has flawed foundations

Anthony Butler, Business Day, 17 March 2008

The courting behaviour of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the aftermath of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Polokwane conference may have been the surface manifestation of a deeper political pathology.

The DA appeared to be holding out an olive branch to ANC activists from Thabo Mbeki’s camp who had been evicted from their party positions. The implication seemed to be that the two sides should join forces in order to battle some dangerous communist or populist insurgency.

The DA’s implicit reasoning appeared to be as follows. Yes, Mbeki’s faction did try to engineer an internal coup that would have allowed the outgoing president to linger on as newcomer Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s ghoulish puppet master. And yes, Mbeki’s ANC was facilitating factional enrichment so enthusiastically that a fully fledged patronage state was becoming a reality. And yes again, on policy matters of exceptional importance, such as HIV/AIDS treatment and Zimbabwe, DA leaders concurred with their counterparts in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Nevertheless, the DA seemed to imply, the workers remain so odious and the red peril has become so menacing that the official opposition must embrace Mbeki’s team to keep these forces at bay.

A full scale seaborne invasion by ex-Soviet forces is evidently not the threat today’s red scare enthusiasts anticipate. Instead, they see three broad dangers in the resurgence of the ANC left. First, they believe the left’s leaders will undermine SA’s economy with their proposals for nationalisation, a basic income grant, overactive industrial policies and inflexible labour markets.

However, it is difficult to find genuine proposals for radical change anywhere in South African Communist Party (SACP) or Cosatu policy. The economic positions adopted at Polokwane rebutted welfarism and unfocused economic intervention. Vague incantations about the “developmental state” and wishful thinking in industrial policy were bequeathed by Mbeki’s government and not invented by the left.

Trade union opposition to many initiatives that might encourage job creation and an unwillingness to entertain productivity enhancing changes to work organisation are severe problems — but they have been problems unresolved for more than decade and not ones invented at Polokwane. Indeed, only a government of the left can realistically hope to engage organised labour in a productive social dialogue and to create the trust that politics of concession will demand.

In a second supposed danger, red peril mongers allege that the ethical character of the alliance that routed Mbeki’s faction in Polokwane is highly questionable. Here again the condemnation of the left seems sorely misdirected. High-profile figures accused of or convicted of malfeasance come disproportionately from exile and conservative elements and not from the cadreship of Cosatu and the SACP.

The ANC’s old national executive committee (NEC) presented itself as an assembly of nuns and monks fretting and frowning over the looting and pillaging of the provinces and municipalities. The new NEC is at least representative of the ethical assumptions and behaviours of the movement, and can at last directly confront the patronage and procurement demons that are tearing at the liberation movement’s heart. More-over, although it has been dismissed as merely a vendetta, the reopening of party funding and arms deal scandals creates a healthy fear of exposure and punishment that Mbeki’s one-faction state would eventually have suppressed.

It would be wrong to idealise communists and trade unionists who transport money in the boots of cars, and who have highly questionable understanding of political democracy. Nevertheless, starting with ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, the leftist components of the tripartite alliance possess genuine determination to fight back the tide of greed and impropriety that has threatened to sweep the Mbeki government’s achievements away.

The third alleged danger from the leftist ascendency concerns competency in government. Mbeki has traded for more than a decade on his image of technocratic and managerial skill. The loose thinking and looser tongues of leftist leaders such as Blade Nzimande and Zwelinzima Vavi have, meanwhile, undermined confidence in the ability of “socialist” ministers to realise a modern government’s complex objectives.

Even before the Eskom debacle, however, there were grounds to question the technocratic interpretation of the Mbeki era. Mediocre ministers and officials have been protected for political reasons and many of the most competent ANC leaders have been driven from government into the business world. In retrospect, moreover, most of post-apartheid SA’s best ministers and officials — as well, admittedly, as some of its worst — have been drawn from the left of the political spectrum.

The ascendency of the left at Polokwane could never have succeeded without the striking of some dangerous bargains with the corrupt and the embittered but the left’s competency, energy for mobilisation, capacity for social dialogue and determination to combat corruption will all be necessary, if not sufficient, requirements for any government that hopes to steer SA out of its economic and political crisis.

  • Butler teaches public policy at UCT


824 words