It’s tempting to focus on the ANC as if its history and prospects are a proxy for the history and prospects of the country as a whole.

The party’s centenary celebrations this week will strengthen the sense that this is indeed the case.

The last hundred years of South African history has been about the formal subjugation of the black inhabitants of the country by European colonial powers and settler groups; the fight for national liberation and self-determination; the victory and then seventeen years of the complex process of democratic rule.

Running like a spine through that body of history is the African National Congress –  which not without some legitimacy claims to be the organised expression of black people’s struggle to be free of colonial and then apartheid oppression and exclusion.

Then in the same way that the back bone’s connected to the … neck bone it follows naturally that post-1994, given the ANC’s overwhelming dominance at the polls, the party can legitimately be seen as the ongoing expression of black South African’s attempts to govern themselves and use the state to redress the inequalities and distortions caused by that apartheid and colonial past.

So this week the ANC celebrates its 100th anniversary, kicking off with a centenary golf day (for only the luckiest of revellers) and including gala dinners, interdenominational church services and culminating in a public rally in Bloemfontein (Mangaung) on Sunday January 8.

The sense that the ANC is a proxy for the country itself is strengthened by the fact that this year will culminate in and ANC national conference electing a leadership that will, almost automatically, become the leadership of government after the general elections in 2014 – again, given the ANC’s electoral dominance.

Additionally an ANC policy conference in July will pronounce upon a range of  matters concerning the role of the state in the economy and it promises to make policy on (amongst other matters) the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land – with or without compensation.

But hang on a moment …

One of the key tasks of political parties in their struggle to become or remain the party of government is to present their agenda as identical to the national agenda, their leadership as automatically the national leadership and their interests identical to the national interest.

The ANC can legitimately point to how central it is to South Africa’s political and cultural life, but as we wilter this week under the the searing overstatement of that message it is useful to bring a few proviso’s to the front of mind.

We are a country with a small, open economy nestled in the most depressed region of a world overwhelmingly interconnected and subject to monumental forces that grind their way irresistibly through the Ozymandian vanities of governments significantly more powerful than ours.

The more we learn about the world and the history of human societies the more apparent it is that we have been hopelessly overoptimistic about our ability to understand let alone predict how the complex systems of our economies, national entities, ecological systems and cities function, evolve, collapse and change.

I am sure that this week newspapers will be full of huffy assertions that the ANC does not represent “the nation” and therefore treating its centenary as if it was a sacred ritual akin to Fourth of July in the United States (which celebrates independence from Great Britain in 1776) is a travesty.

Quite right too. The ANC has diverted significant national resources to traditional US style pork belly politics  but has also made itself guilty of more overt Angolan style looting. All that combines to makes its claim to represent the “national interest” an insulting insinuation about “the nation”.

Also new political forces are emerging and growing – most obviously Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance – that will further erode such ANC claims in future – as will the shifting ethnic bases of parties and groups that contest in the political arena of South Africa.

However, these were not the points I wanted to make – and I am sure they are going to be done to death in the next few days.

My point is that sovereignty itself – and certainly who the ANC elects as leaders and what the party decides vis-a-vis nationalisation of mines and expropriation of land without compensation – will have much less force and effect in determining South Africa’s political and economic future that we might imagine.

Economic policy, laws governing ownership and general “good behaviour” around fiscal and monetary policy are rigidly constrained both by the discipline of global capital markets and by a myriad bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries and blocks of countries.

As I said to clients earlier this week (concerning the ANC centenary):

“Obviously we must continue to watch the ANC as carefully as always in 2012 – but this small open country and economy will continue to be tossed on the currents of the global economy and the various geopolitical, technological, cultural and environmental forces that shape the world. We might miss a trick or two if we lull ourselves into believing the myth that the ANC is a kind of metaphor for the country as a whole.

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