It is a small sign, but hopeful and interesting.

In the last week:

  • Billy Masetlha has drawn on deep ANC traditions to argue that the role Cosatu and the SACP are playing threatens the ANC’s ability to lead all classes and groups in South Africa. He has restated a clear premise of traditional ANC thinking: the organisation can never be socialist in its policy and orientation.
  • Joel Netshitenzhe is quoted in several newspapers this morning calling for the ANC not to attempt to micro-manage government and the state – and urging respect for the constitution.

Why is this important?

It’s important because :

  1. at Polokwane in 2007 resolutions were passed (and a general ethos prevailed) that would paralyse government by forcing it to wait for a mandate from an ill-defined “ruling alliance” before it could do anything – including make key appointments to parastatals;
  2. weakness at the ANC centre meant “the left” (and many other players) came away from Polokwane with the confusing notion that “the left”, including Cosatu and the SACP, were the cornerstone of the new management and the new atmosphere of “ultra-democracy” meant that their policies must be the policies of government.

Thabo Mbeki dealt with the same issues.

Mbeki on socialism? The much reviled “1996 class project” refers to the macro-economic policy developed by the then ANC government under Mbeki which was market friendly and compliant to global capital markets. Mbeki’s theory was South Africa needed foreign investment and the only way we would get it was to guarantee private property and the relatively free movement of capital. “The left” hated the thrust and the details of the policy.

Mbeki on government being micromanaged? Post the infamous Growth, Employment and Redistribution macro-economic policy,  Mbeki set in motion a process of moving power – in the form of day-to-day decision making as well as policy formulation – away from the ANC and towards government. Because of his predisposition and because his policies were under attack from “the left” he centralised power further, into the presidency and his own office.

There is no question that Polokwane was mostly a good thing – Mbeki’s centralisation had made the ANC and government an intellectual wasteland and a rubber stamp for decisions he himself was taking – decisions that both at the time and certainly in retrospect seem barely competent.

But Polokwane went way too far. The snap-back effect from Mbeki’s deathly centralism was ultra-democracy and a set of policies that are potentially deeply hostile to the private sector. You can’t play honest broker if you are specifically cheering for one side – which is what Cosatu and the SACP are, on a very wide scale, vociferously calling for the ANC to do vis-a-vis the private sector – especially with regards to the labour market.

Joel Netshitenzhe and Billy Masetlha have both, at one time, been confidants of Thabo Mbeki. But their credentials as deeply committed democrats who have given much of their lives (they are both in their mid-50’s) to the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa is beyond question. Both Cosatu and the SACP have already launched counter-attacks against Billy. I have no doubt that they will see Joel as a more complex and subtle – but potentially more powerful – threat to their narrow agenda.

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