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After the ANC Policy Conference, what’s the take-home message?

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA) – President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives at the ANC Policy Conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 28, 2022. There is a need to embed climate action in the economic recovery plan by linking job creation to bold climate action, ther writer says.

By Chris Maxon

“The goal of politics is the best of ends, and the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions, “says Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics.

Most people who cared to listen to the recommendation coming out of the ANC Policy Conference would disagree with both parts of this statement. We are likely to regard politics (and politicians) as aiming at shameful, selfish ends, such as enrichment and power, rather than the “best end”.

The reporters from the commissions failed to give a sense of urgency in resolving what we see as a crisis moment. In a country that faces one of the highest youth unemployment in the globe, deteriorating public infrastructure, worse health and education outcomes, and fast economic regression; one was expecting that the conference would, at least, chart a way to dealing with pressing crises that the country is facing.

Worth noting was the conspicuous silence on climate change amidst serious climate catastrophes that we have recently witnessed in the country, and areas in KwaZulu-Natal, in particular. Climate Change knowledge portal estimates that South Africa has had over 100 disasters in the period 1900 – 2017 resulting in over 2200 deaths and 21 million people affected and about $ 4.5 billion in monetary losses.

The recent heavy rains and mudslides in April 2022 exposed how unprepared the country is and unconscious its people are of climate change. It’s interesting that President Cyril Ramaphosa while visiting eThekwini to see for himself the damage caused, had said; “We no longer can postpone what we need to do – we must deal with climate change.”

Sadly, it seems the policy conference may have forgotten about the devastation and the people who haven’t found closure because they are yet to identify the bodies of their loved ones, let alone bury them.

There is a need to embed climate action in the economic recovery plan by linking job creation to bold climate action. This will be by ensuring that every rand spent on infrastructure rebuilding ensures that we prevent, reduce and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis. This job solution could start by creating a youthful climate cadre that will be responsible to clean township rivers, and unused mines, and restoring public parks thus creating better living environments.

There seems to be over excitement with left-sounding policy rhetoric, such as the debate on the “nationalisation” of the reserve bank, at the expense of pragmatic solutions to the pressing crisis.

One would commend the ANC for an honest admission in dealing with economic transformation. The document admits that “despite certain undeniable progress, we have not yet transformed the economy for the majority for the benefit of the majority of our people, and have regressed, to an extent, over the past decade” (ANC Policy Document, p141).

While the admission is admirable, the policy proposals fail to inspire a sense of interest in changing the course of the past economic zig-zag. The regular press briefings during the conference only demonstrated that, while the nation seeks some urgent solutions to pressing crises, the ANC seems confident that it is on the right track and there’s no need to hurry.

This is also evident in continuing to ‘reaffirm’ past resolutions when there’s glaring evidence that there has been poor performance in the past two decades. They absolved Thabo Mbeki’s assertion that there is no plan to resolve the triple challenges (I prefer crises) of unemployment, poverty, and inequality – macroeconomic policy challenges.

It seems there is an urge to build back the way things have been. One doesn’t get a sense that they appreciate the fact that this is a moment to reimagine and rebuild a new knowledge economy that creates jobs, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and position South Africa to outperform its continental peers.

Some of the quick wins that could have been adopted for immediate implementation include, firstly, fixing rail, ports, and road infrastructure that will improve economic access to marginalised communities. The second is delivering clean water to communities, improving the electric grid, and affordable high-speed broadband to all towns and cities. And thirdly, modernising housing, prisons, police stations, public schools, and hospitals so that they are energy efficient and rehabilitate the old ones.

The truth is that decades of declining public investments has left rail, roads, and many public infrastructures in a state of disrepair needing billion of rands to fix them. Bringing much-needed focus to these infrastructures will provide the connection with rural communities and ease of access to markets for the agricultural sector.

There is a tendency to want to mimic China but fail to fully appreciate that China’s transformation was a struggle led by visionary leadership that introduced a knowledge economy and favoured merit over political connections.

Under Deng Xiaoping, China abandoned the ideological strictures of the past and embraced policies based on practicality and experience under the rubric of ‘reform and opening’. This unleashed creative and entrepreneurial potential and allowed China to break free from self-imposed isolation.

Lest we forget that Deng had, first, to deal with the wrought brought about by Mao’s cultural revolution, which in our case can be likened to state capture, Mao’s cult of personality, and the need to loosen the economic and social policies that had stunted China’s growth. Similarly, allowing the leftovers of state capture to roam freely within the ANC and at large in government will continue to stunt our potential for economic development and growth.

I shun to ask: after all is said and done, what was the real take-home message delivered by the much-heralded policy conference? I still ponder.

One would have expected that the ANC Policy Conference would be obsessed with modernisation and technology, focusing on building capacity through science, technology, and entrepreneurship skills development, and lifting hundreds of millions of our people out of poverty, not through welfare but instead through job opportunities.

The ANC needs to learn that the confused interpretation of the link between economic development and political freedom will always draw it the greatest flak. To create development and jobs, command economics must be abandoned; otherwise, the ANC would undoubtedly lose control of the government.

The ANC has dismally failed to inspire the “best of ends”. It must desist from trying to impress ideologues but the millions of disgruntled young voters who have given up on politics. It needs to move towards practical solutions that will impact the living experiences of young people, in particular. China did!

Chris Maxon is a South African analyst.

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