Listening to Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula spew forth emptily, during his report-back on "Organisational Renewal" at the ANC's National Policy Conference, was simply proof that the ANC is virtually bereft of substance. Mbalula clearly revels in being behind a microphone. What followed can only be described as a stream of consciousness of which James Joyce might have been proud. Unmediated, it certainly was.
Fikile Mbalula fired off at Black First Land First (BLF) for its protest outside the home of journalist and editor, Peter Bruce. On that, his vacuous utterances went as follows, "We must hit them hard even when they march to [South African Communist Party second deputy general secretary] Solly Mapaila's home; we must also hit them hard when they march to Peter Bruce's house... when they come to my house, I'll finish them."
"Finish them." (sic)
But it was the throwaway bit at the end that was even more disturbing. Mbalula bellowed that it was "the ANC" who gave South Africa its free press. He would do well to remind himself that it is, in fact, the Constitution from which we all derive the right to freedom of expression. It is dangerous and careless rhetoric to claim that our rights are gifted by the ANC. But it is an old trick; akin to the one the ANC peddles at election time - that the social grant will be lost if people do not vote for the ANC. It is disingenuous and dishonest.
Earlier that day the ANC via its spokesperson Zizi Kodwa had put out a thoughtful statement on the incident outside Bruce's home as well as the importance of freedom of the press. That seemed more in keeping with what was required of the moment. While reading the statement one could guess which part of the ANC sanctioned it. One also wondered what President Zuma's views were on the matter? After all, there appears to be evidence in the public domain that BLF is a Gupta-sponsored paid-for ragtag bunch of protesters.
Mbalula continued his monologue with the press virtually held captive. He then turned to the issue of the motion of no confidence vote in Parliament now scheduled for 8 August. On MPs voting with their conscience, Mbalula invoked the party's constitution and was clear that those who voted against Zuma would be disciplined. His words were more graphic and colourful however, "They are suicide bombers. It's political suicide. We are not running a beer hall, we are running an organisation that is accountable to the people." Mbalula seemed to be forgetting that MPs swore allegiance to the Constitution of the country that transcends the ANC's constitution.
Later that day ANC MP Makhosi Khoza said that Mbalula's comments lacked "intellectual application". She was being generous in her understatement.
Where is the thoughtfulness and the intellectual application, one wonders? Everyone simply mouths off as if words have no consequence. ANC Women's League chair Bathabile Dlamini can always be counted on to add to the vacuity. Dlamini declared that the ANCWL had included men in their delegation as "experts" because women become "too emotional" when making their case. This is what the once proud league has become.
Where is the intellectual application and what is the ANC, one asks again?
It was of some comfort to see policy guru and intellectual Joel Netshitenzhe reporting back from the "Strategy and Tactics" commission where it was decided that the phrase is now "monopoly capital" not " monopoly capital". At least with Netshitenzhe one knew that he had a grip on the content he was presenting. Netshitenzhe, however, made the cardinal mistake of saying that "nine out of 11 commissions" had rejected the use of "white" monopoly capital. It seems he was asked to apologise but refused to do so, saying what he said was accurate. That led KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Sihle Zikalala to suggest that Netshitenzhe's refusal to apologise should be referred to the conference steering committee.
For whatever is going on behind the scenes, it is clear that the Zuma faction will not give up without a fight and did not want to be seen as having lost the WMC Battle. "White monopoly capital" is, after all, a rallying cry which can emotively be used to whip up crowds, appeal to the unjust past and provide cover for all manner of corruption. But it provides no real antidote to the current economic challenges we face. Six days of internal navel-gazing by the ANC has brought us no closer to dealing with the crisis of unemployment and deep inequality in South Africa.
The final day of the NPC was dominated by the proposal to "nationalise" the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). Enoch Godongwana, reporting back on the Economic Transformation commission, admitted that the state had no money to pay out the SARB's private shareholders and that the idea of nationalisation is a "sentimental thing". The "sentimental thing", which does seem to be more about optics than substance, moved the markets, however. The rand lost considerable value on the back of the announcement.
It can be argued that there is a need to relook at the mandate of the SARB to include a socio-economic mandate, just as the US Federal Reserve does. The problem is that with Zuma's reckless decision-making in firing Gordhan and Jonas and inserting two ethically dubious men at the economic helm, the trust deficit between government, the ANC itself and business is at an all-time low. And, in the wake of the Public Protector's meddling regarding the SARB mandate, the bank is now viewed as a political target. To business, Zuma is dangerously unpredictable.
ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe has said government needs to partner with business, but how is that relationship repaired after the Gordhan axing? Gigaba has no credibility to fix it and neither does Zuma. So regrettably, any reasonable intellectual debate about the role and independence of the SARB becomes tainted with the toxic politics of the ANC. Who are the thoughtful people left in the room with whom a proper discussion about the mandate of the SARB can be held? Who are the ones who actually care about the poor and who recognise that words matter?
Following the NPC has often been painful even as Zuma declared himself pleased with the discussions that were taking place. That could mean just about anything. It has been painful because this NPC has shown quite clearly that it is unable to deal with the elephant in the room - state capture.
Policy cannot be discussed in a vacuum. By all accounts Mantashe's diagnostic report made for uncomfortable reading for the ANC but what will be done about rampant corruption and state capture?
That ought to have been at the forefront of the NPC deliberations. Apart from Zuma and others in Cabinet, Finance minister Malusi Gigaba and his deputy, Sfiso Buthelezi, are both deeply compromised by their links to the Guptas. The disgraceful corruption presided over by Buthelezi when he was PRASA chair should be reason enough to disqualify him from any position of power. Ditto, the SARS Commissioner, Tom Moyane, who is alleged to have personally intervened in ensuring a R70-million VAT refund to the Guptas. This trio controls the financial levers of power.
But we should not be surprised. This is Zuma's World, where the corrupt and incompetent reach the highest levels and survive multiple scandals. Yet, the collective indignation one might expect from a party whose leadership has veered so far from its founding principles seemed muted at best.
No matter the policy pronouncements, if those who have their hands on the levers of power are fleecing the state for their own gain and that of their associates, then South Africa will continue on its paralysed path, with a dose of dangerous populism thrown in for good measure.
In Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson's book , they posit that societies that are prosperous are ones with accountable institutions, both political and economic. The economics generally follows the politics, they argue. In societies in which institutions are extractive and serve only the narrow interests of a small elite and thus lack accountability, chances of prosperity and dealing with economic and other social challenges remain low.
It's a compelling argument backed up by reams of evidence and comparisons between countries. Creating a culture of accountability within society is an ongoing process. Of course, they also make the point that at various moments in history institutions become shaped and whether countries are able to reshape institutions to become accountable and transparent depends on how they respond at critical junctures.
South Africa is at a critical juncture and the ANC is weak, corrupt and flailing in the face of economic crisis.
Ultimately it is citizens who will determine South Africa's fate. Will we face the critical juncture by pushing for a new social pact or will we passively accept this unsatisfactory path of low accountability and increasingly extractive institutions?
The 2019 national election and the period leading up to it will be a game-changer, whichever way one looks at it.