Nine wasted years: The ANC leadership must assume collective culpability

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Supporters sing during the launch of the ANCs election manifesto in Durban. Picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA-EFE

Oliver Tambo, the longest serving President of the African National Congress (ANC) famously opined that “nothing can destroy the ANC except for the ANC itself”. While meant as advice and warning, these words have a prophetic ring to them. Over the years, disgruntlement with the ANC has led to creation of many splinter groups. It could be that the party of Tambo, Sisulu, Mandela has outlived its purpose. The broad church far from being united, is actually imploding under the weight of deep internal ideological contradictions.

Triumphalism, expediency and crass opportunism have quickly displaced the promised unity and renewal. In the absence of a clear vision, party leaders have resorted to desperate measures. Nothing exemplifies this more than the party’s attempt to use Jacob Zuma as its scapegoat for its failures. The party has become so desperate that it characterized the past nine years of the Zuma years as wasted signalling a dark period. But politics of desperation are dangerous. They easily lead to self-mutilation and self-entrapment.

First, in advancing this narrative the ANC leaders risk exposing themselves to charges of hypocrisy. After all, these same members served under the Zuma administration. They served with the former President either as members of the top six, members of the national working committee, as members of the powerful National Executive Committee or as Cabinet Ministers. Their expedient attempt to seek a scapegoat is self-serving. It is an attempt to exonerate themselves from assuming collective culpability. But such desperate measures are understandable.

Some leading members of the ANC joined forces with many in stating that Zuma was the main reason the country is hobbled from being prosperous. This is hardly an objective or accurate account. Zuma himself admits that mistakes were made but under his administration the nation achieved many significant socio-economic milestones, particularly for the poorest and most disadvantaged. Early  indications are that the removal of Former President Jacob Zuma will bring little relief to the majority of South Africa’s people; who are poor and landless, or that his removal has or will better South Africa’s prospects in any way. The New Dawn, puffed up as a ‘spring of hope’ has shown little promise of taking South Africa out of a ‘winter of despair’ or what President Ramaphosa depicts as South Africa’s ‘dark period’.

Second, these members risk exposing the ANC of charges of perjury for deliberately misleading parliament. The notion of nine wasted years stands in glaring contrast to the many statements they made in parliament.  Delivering his 2016 Budget Vote, Minister Blade Nzimande noted that under the Zuma administration university access expanded by establishment of new institutions. “Sol Plaatje University and the University of Mpumalanga… R1.6-billion was invested and seventeen new buildings built, enabling this expansion. New infrastructure for further expansion in 2017 valued at R1.26-billion is under construction….On behalf of all of the beneficiaries, allow me to express our profound gratitude to the President”. In 2017 Minister Ebrahim Patel noted that “investment in infrastructure has grown in the past year, with R300bn in investment in the National Infrastructure Plan by the public and private sector. This is more than R1 billion per working day spent to improve the foundations of the economy and service-delivery to our people….More than a million South Africans getting electricity for the first time last year.”

Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe pointed out that the ocean economy unlocked investments amounting to around  R17 billion and led to 4 500 jobs being created. And that R7 billion was b allocated by Transnet National Ports Authority to improve our ports. Unfortunately these and many achievements remain largely under-reported if they are reported at all. Painting failure is the default position of most of the South African media. If the narrative of nine wasted years is to hold, then parliament must accept that it was lied to. Triumphalism and factionalism are at the heart of this inconsistency. This does nothing but arms  the opposition with effective political weaponry.

Third, such pronouncements betray their lack of appreciation of constitutional stipulations. Section 92 (3) is unequivocal in that “members of cabinet are accountable collectively and individually”. Put differently, those who now want to conveniently distance themselves to whatever mess was created during their term are asking the nation to forgive them as if they were bewitched by the person of Jacob Zuma and as result rendered helpless without any power of influence. Indeed, the refrain that is easily accommodated is that we didn’t know. Surely this will not wash for  discerning voters. Interestingly, the concept of collective accountability is invoked whenever it is convenient to do so.

Responding to the question from the Democratic Alliance (DA) on whether he supported the government nuclear Programme, Ramaphosa indicated that he attended the meeting that took a decision to proceed further with a nuclear build programme but was quick to point out “all members of Cabinet, regardless of their personal views, are bound by decisions taken by Cabinet and are collectively responsible for implementing those decisions”. Indeed, even the most propagandist pens cannot ink out that Ramaphosa served as Deputy President over many of the ‘9 wasted years’.

With this understanding it is nothing short of dishonest to be part of collective decisions to then seek to distance oneself from the same when seasons change. Only those with integrity will be wise to own up and accept culpability in real-time.  ANC Ministers, Members of Parliament and key officials of the ANC have all had ample opportunity and bountiful time to distance themselves from all the decisions that would implicate them. Effectively they are saying they were willing to enjoy the benefits while doing nothing to stop the mess.

Understandably, the ANC appears to suffer from an incurable bout of schizophrenia. On the one hand, it tries to distance itself from Zuma. On the other hand it seems resigned to having to embrace him, even if it is to use him and dump him later. Politics is about numbers and by all accounts the former President continues to enjoy enduring support among ground-root members of the ANC.  

It would seem that the ANC finds itself between the rock and the hard place. Either it should allow its conduct to be calibrated by media and markets or expediently appeal to its traditional base of the African majority who remain trapped in conditions of squalor. It cannot prostrate itself before the new gods of the investors and still expect that such investments will not come without conditions. Sensing the party’s desperation, foreign government and investors have become emboldened to the extent of wanting to dictate national policies.

It would seem that the current self-mutilation and self-entrapment are symptoms of a revolutionary party on its deathbed. There may still be time for the ANC to redeem itself. But such redemption must start with honesty and acceptance of collective culpability.

Professor Sipho Seepe is an academic and political analyst and Kim Heller a communication strategist and analyst.