Making sense of COVID-19: ANC Context

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By: Hadebe Hadebe

The emergence of the novel coronavirus in SA early in March 2020 put the country in a panic frenzy like most parts of the world. It led to a complete shutdown of the country and its economy, but with the exception of mainly Big Capital (banks, producers and retailers) only allowed to trade. One of the key events that was supposed to take place in this period is the much anticipated National General Council of the African National Congress (ANC-NGC). The new dates were tentatively set for early August 2020 depending how the country fares in controlling the virus. Based on the available information that COVID infections will peak at that time it is unlikely that it will take place then.

The NGC is a mid-term evaluative gathering to assess the progress made by government towards implementing the decisions made in the previous elective conference, “as well as to discuss and debate strategic organisational and political issues facing the party.” This year’s NGC, whenever it’s held, would review the resolutions of the 54th elective conference held in December 2017. Some of these resolutions include nationalization of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) and the expropriation of land without compensation. Reports which purported that there was growing discontent within the ANC ranks “over the party’s inability to implement several of its resolutions” started growing in 2019.

¥ Building of a storm

Former North West premier and ANC national executive committee (NEC) member Supra Mahumapelo launched the first salvo by sending a strong word of warning to warned those serving in government that “their ‘loyalty’ to the governing party’s resolutions on the economy will be judged [at the 2020] NGC.” Speaking to City Press (07/08/2019), he said “All the resolutions that are around the economy of this country, there must be no compromise on those particular resolutions.” Parallel to this, several media houses reported that the opponents of President Cyril Ramaphosa within the ANC were plotting to oust him. The likes of PowerFM, M&G and Daily Maverick suggested that his detractors planned “making a play to remove him as the party’s president at the gathering.
Although there is nobody or group that that has come out to confirm the speculation about President Ramaphosa’s future, the level of underground seismicity has been building steam. Late in 2019, ANC national chairman Gwede Mantashe said, “No president can be removed by a national general council. The president is there. There are only two methods of removal of a president. If you go to a conference or ask for special conference; and that requires an application by a majority of the provinces.” Dr Zamani Saul and Sihle Zikalala who are ANC leaders in Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, respectively, also warned in February 2020 against who were allegedly hatching the plot to unseat President Ramaphosa.

If there were to happen, Mr. Ramaphosa would join a growing list of one-term leaders in the ANC’s 108 year history, i.e. long-serving president Oliver Tambo and short stints presidents in Josiah Gumede and JS Moroka. Makhanda ka Lima wrote in the M&G (10/01/2020), “It would not be counter to any so-called ANC tradition to add Ramaphosa to the list of one-term leaders.” Makhanda raised another point that President Ramaphosa has not really build a solid support based that could cushion him. Issues involving plans to cut the public sector wage bill, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), COVID stimulus package, etc. appear to have caused a rift in the ANC-led alliance.

The tectonic shift in alliance has been a subject of debate for a while now but it is possible that that the COVID crisis has catalyzed the chemical formula that seemed very unlikely in the latter years of former president Jacob Zuma’s leadership of both the country and the ANC. In her article ‘Impatient left could align with Ace’ in the M&G (14/06/2019), Natasha Marrian suggested that all left-leaning groupings from Cosatu to the Institute for Economic Justice could side with ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule in agitating for economic change. This is something that that the member of the central executive committee South African Communist Party (SACP) Jeremy Cronin opposed by saying that critical discussions were being hijacked by a “parasitically linked state capture bunch.” The natural laboratory has promptly put all chemical elements in a single test tube, political maneuvering is taking place while elderly Cronin is on self-quarantine.

Writing in the East London-based Daily Dispatch (06/04/2020), journalist Andisiwe Makinana reported that the secretariat of the alliance (made up of the secretaries of the ANC, SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu) “rejected any suggestion that SA may turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank for funding to fight the coronavirus.” This was unusual considering their respective opposing positions in the buildup to the 2017 conference. Financial Mail (14/04/2020) columnist Justice Malala called them “numbskulls” for refusing help from the IMF. Malala saw the objections by the alliance secretariat as an attack on finance minister Tito Mboweni and President Ramaphosa.

¥ Going for political power play in the middle of the lockdown

The lockdown nonetheless gives those who oppose Ramaphosa’s removal sometime to breathe, re-group and to devise new strategies on how to cope with the onslaught. But at the same time, COVID shenanigans lays bare the deep divisions that are just too visible to ignore. Even a recently born infant can sees them.
The lockdown pits the warring factions within and without the ANC. After all, the instability in the ruling party has way too many sponsors, and is not definitely not an internal matter. The President shutdown the country from 27 March to date, and there was no challenge though many companies and people were not going to be active throughout the lockdown. It was quite surprising seeing that lobbyists and other groupings did not approach courts to block the nationwide lockdown. Instead, South Africa’s richest man Johann Rupert merely commented on Financial Times 09/04/2020, “This isn’t just a pause – it’s an entire reset of our economic system.” In addition the media drummed up the support for the lockdown and even shied away from pointing to flaws resulting from the harsh measures including hunger, impossibility of social distancing, brutality on citizens, etc. It was clear that the lockdown was aimed at positioning President Ramaphosa as a leader of choice – a superhero concerned about saving human life (and to a lesser extent the economy).

However, this was taking place against a complex background of alleged power battles with the ANC, see above. General squabbling hasn’t been so much on the health side of the crisis but the battle for the control of the economy has been prominent, and maybe subtle politicking. With the national treasury and SARB in the centre, Mboweni is the leader of the defense against those who have been pushing for increased macroeconomic policy interventions. This is exactly what placed him as stationery target for the alliance secretariat and others. And the announcement of the R800Bn (or R500Bn) has done nothing to calm the rising tide. Proponents of unconventional monetary policies such as quantitative easing (QE) and ‘helicopter money’ continue to question the commitment of the SARB but Mboweni has said he “just don’t have time for ideological conversations at the moment.” It it obvious that he sees this whole saga to be linked with the ANC resolutions introduced earlier on. He and SARB governor Lesetja Kganyago, with the support of the ANC economic policy head Enoch Godongwana, have openly opposed the ANC resolution on the central bank which prompted a condemnation.

Nonetheless, the cracks are now all over the paper wrap that was meant to present the national command council as a united front with a single purpose. When there is what people considers glaring policy failures on implementation of lockdown, individual ministers are isolated as a problem and this may result in further polarisation. Ebrahim Patel has been called all sorts of names for not permitting the sale of warm foods. The likes of Bheki Cele and Fikile Mbalula have been criticized for having ‘dictatorship ambitions’ in the way they have carried out their functions. However, the protracted attack on governance minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma pertaining to the reinstatement ban on the sale of cigarettes indicates that COVID has not really distracted anyone from the bigger fight. Dlamini Zuma lost to Mr Ramaphosa in her bid to become the ANC leader.

In what first appeared as a suspicious move, veteran journalist Max du Preez twitted that Dlamini Zuma has “overruled the president of SA…” Du Preez isn’t alone in this tirade. One member of the public wrote, “You are not the president… President said that we are allowed to buy cigarettes.” Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the minister overreached, the sustained attack continued from every front. It later emerged that Mboweni told the media that he “does not support the continued ban on alcohol and cigarette sales.” One can only predict the walls of the command council are as porous as the ANC national executive committee meetings where a small busy bee connects confidential discussions and the public space.

Representing British American Tobacco South Africa, law firm Webber Wentzel in a letter dated 30 April “has demanded that Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma amend regulations prohibiting the sale of tobacco products by Monday, 4 May 2020.” In this unusual move, the demand is not directed at the chair of the national command council but a single minister. In addition, Malala criticized tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane for suggesting that the R200m Tourism Relief Fund “would give preference to applying enterprises with the highest B-BBEE scores.” This government position was later challenged by the Afrikaner nationalist lobby Afriforum in court, and they lost the bid. What is quite disturbing is that Malala and Afriforum know fully well that black economic empowerment is a policy of government and that the state has been using this policy as an equalizer in the economy.

There are speculations that communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who is presently on suspension for breaking lockdown rules, was set up in what others continue to view as part of a bigger war for the soul of the ANC. Furthermore, scandals and smear campaigns have been allegedly and widely deployed in ANC ranks to deal with opponents. It will not be feasible to tabulate all of them. Additionally, even larger battles are purportedly fought in the economy front to decide who will have a final say on such things as public finances, SOEs and the overall economy. A narrative is growing that ‘looters’, ‘imigodoyi’, ‘barbarians’ and thieves want to take over the country. In his interpretation of events, political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi uses an analogy of ‘angels with horns and devils with halos’ to aptly describe the contestations. Fighting over the invitation of last apartheid president FW de Klerk rattled present and past ANC leaders. Vocal Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina claimed that De Klerk’s attendance in parliament “made him emotional.” Late ex-president Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindzi Mandela has been throwing bombs from sidelines on any matter, from the De Klerk saga to land reform.

¥ How ANC sees the post-COVID economy?

In one of many ZOOM-inspired ANC events during the lockdown period, finance deputy minister Dr David Masondo made very disturbing comments on the economy and one could sense that his comrades were either getting frustrated or irritated. The reason for this was that their comrade and head of political school was speaking like an employee of Rothschild or another big ruthless bank. First, his economic orthodoxy appears to be properly anchored among those old-school, conservatives in the treasury and the central bank – inflationary Zimbabweans and Venezuelan economies are scarecrows without mentioning how sanctions destroyed output in those countries. His standpoint on monetary policy easily make him a Kganyago clone, and with this posture he is almost certain to get a cushy position in one of the financial institutions like Nhlanhla Nene, Lungi Fuzile, Daniel Mminele, Trevor Manuel and others.

Secondly, he understands very well that economics is not one of the strongest points of consumerist cadres, Masondo suggested the Recovery Plan and structural reforms aimed at reviving the economy after COVID could spell a disaster for the majority black population. He conceded that they may be objections to BEE by companies and investors (read: whites and market fundamentalists). This is proof enough that the ANC now wants to abandon black economic empowerment to placate whites, see complaint by the Black Business Council (BBC) following a snub on public procurement of ventilators and protective gear. He added that the poor majority could be sacrificed in attempts to reinvigorate the economy. What is strange is that these are the millions who have been voting the ANC to power must be made public so that loyal voters who have supported the ANC since 1994.

In fact, this ANC position needs to be made public so that the black majority can decide if their favourite party and its office bearers have their right interests at heart. Even the Stimulus Package has been about Big Capitalism (large corporations and banks) and less about them. What is R50Bn for six months compared to the rest of the money that is spent on big corporations? R20Bn for healthcare during COVID is not necessarily meant to revive ‘black’ hospitals like Mamelodi, Prince Mshiyeni or Cecilia Makiwane (Mdantsane) as well as a litany of dysfunctional and under-resourced clinics in mostly black settlements across the country. Just like lockdown, this is to grab headlines to catch the attention of the dodgy World Health Organization (WHO) and its vampire friends in Seattle and Beijing. The truth is the country’s poor will bear the burden of the coronavirus.

In his address, finance minister Mboweni spoke like a nationalist (xenophobic) to placate the majority of South Africans by suggesting that he foresaw revised labour laws that will restrict immigrants and allow nationals to work in restaurants and agricultural sector. What he did not say, and though obvious, is that the population will be forced to work in a much changed environment with precarious conditions and for minuscule wages. It was made clear in Masondo’s address that this is where the country is headed. The black majority will be sacrificial lambs in order to advance and entrench the interests of Big Capital. If anyone thought Marikane in 2011 was extreme, kindly hold on tight because that could become a norm. Black life never matters. And Big Capital runs amok.

In conclusion, the battle for ‘the soul of the ANC’ will continue to characterize SA’s political landscape for many years. What is quite difficult to postulate for now is who will ultimately with the war, and who will be the major winner. Capital appears to be responsible for messing up the country through the ANC – it supports both sides in the bigger strategy of divide and rule. There is no need to guess who will be the biggest loser. The black majority only reads about democratic gains since the end of apartheid and their leaders ride on high horses and also engage on rent-seeking stunts.

There is no hope that COVID will be an ‘equalizer’ as many analysts have claimed.

* This article is dedicated to the people of Mpindweni in the Eastern Cape and other nearby areas such as Mnambithi, Mgungundlovu, Xholobeni and Mpongweni as well as other forgotten communities across South Africa whose dreams are deferred and who children face a bleak future due to poverty, unemployment, neglect and abuse by capital who forcefully wants to take their lands and wealth with the assistance of ‘angels with horns and devils with halos’.