Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Breaking the ANC’s dictatorship of no alternatives

President Cyril  Ramaphosa at the ANC's elective conference at Nasrec in December 2017.

2019-10-03 07:23

If reports of the outcomes of the recent ANC NEC meeting are anything to go by, there seems to be indications that the dying ideological divide might have visited some decision makers in the party, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

Brazilian intellectual Roberto Unger opens
his book, What Should the Left Propose? with the statement: “The
world suffers under the dictatorship of no alternatives.” Published in
2005, the book is a searing critique of those who dogmatically believe in
either the market or command economic systems.

He argues that it should not be an either/or
side of the ideological divide that dictates economic management. In the course
of the 20th century, some countries did well at both market-oriented
and government-led economic arrangements. Others have tried both and failed

Unger observes that the contrast between
market and command systems, which has shaped economic debates for over 200
years, “is dead or dying”. One of the reasons this is the case is
that societies that have succeeded at market-oriented and government-directed
arrangements are those that have been able to deploy a superior set of
cooperative practices and innovation.

So, in the end, it’s not about ideology,
which “is dead or dying”. It’s about what works. And what works is
about how things can be done and for what purpose/s.

The ANC-led tripartite alliance has for
some time been stuck in this “dead or dying” contrast, with the
left-leaning components of the alliance resisting fundamental reforms of
state-owned companies. For them the state must hold on to state-owned enterprises
(SOEs) for dear life whether this works or not.

In South Africa, except for a few
exceptions such as Transnet, state ownership has become a drag on the economy. It
poses a risk to the country’s entire fiscal position.

Those in the ANC-led alliance who have
advocated for a change of position such as outright or partial privatisation
have been labelled “neoliberals” or proponents of the “96 Class
Project” – a supposedly derogatory reference used to refer to the Mbeki
economic reforms of the mid-90s.

Yet, if reports of the outcomes of
the recent ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting are anything to go by, there seems
to be indications that the dying ideological divide might have visited some
decision makers in the party. This death must be fast-tracked to allow for
alternatives beyond ideological considerations. Indeed, Unger might have been
writing about the ANC-led alliance when he observed: “The dictatorship of
no alternatives will never be overthrown by a combination of narrow interests
and impractical pieties.”

READ: Magashule says there are no fundamental challenges to Mboweni’s economic plan

Willingness to cut through the ideological

The country’s fiscal crisis and Finance
Minister Tito Mboweni’s unconventional – what he calls disruptive – way of
policy making have forced the governing party to hold the much-needed urgent
discussion about the future of the country’s economy, particularly reforms for

The result could be long-overdue pragmatism
including inviting private sector players to invest in state-owned companies. This,
in addition to the recent statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa suggesting
workers should sit on boards of companies, means there is a willingness to cut
through the ideological divide, that included a neat line between owners of
capital and workers.

If Ramaphosa’s statement is to be taken to
its local conclusion, workers should also have shares in companies. When
inviting private sector players, the government should create space for workers
to hold shares in companies, and move the country from shareholder capitalism
to the stakeholder version. This could be another way out of “the
dictatorship of no alternatives”.

Telkom is a great example of weaning the
state off an unnecessary burden. If it was still a state entity, it would be in
the never-ending queue for a state bailout. Taxpayers would be subsidising
airtime in the same way they are subsidising South African Airways (SAA). Telkom’s
partial privatisation is a good example of the state combining forces with the private
sector. Now the state is earning dividends from Telkom.

The only downside in the Telkom case is the
fact that workers received no shares and had no board representation. But the
demand by SAA pilots for a seat on the board of their company is encouraging.

Voters have no other options

The problem of “the dictatorship of no
alternatives” extends beyond the ideological fan clubs and preferred economic
arrangements within the ANC-led alliance which Ramaphosa recently criticised as
dysfunctional. Notwithstanding this dysfunctionality, South African voters have
no luck on options.

The ethically challenged leadership of the
top two opposition parties – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the
Democratic Alliance (DA) – means voters are not spoiled with the options they
deserve. If the quality of our democracy is to be measured by the quality of
the opposition, recent reports of the EFF and/or its leaders benefitting from
tenders in hung municipalities, where they play a kingmaker role, as well as
accusations of non-disclosure of some material benefits by DA leader Mmusi
Maimane suggest South Africans might be suffering from a dictatorship of no
alternatives to the ANC-led alliance.

A senior ANC leader recently remarked in a
private conversation that although it was taking a lot of energy and time to
rid the party and government of the resistant culture of state capture, which
has a tendency to reproduce itself through different players, there was simply
no political alternative for South Africans. He said the ANC remained the only
party that could give South Africans hope for a better future. He might have
sounded arrogant, but is it not true?

The failure of the DA to reorganise itself
beyond narrow factional interests, coupled with the latest internal attack on
its leader, and the radical decline of the EFF’s moral high ground in exposing
wrongdoing in the governing party, means the ANC does not have sufficient
pressure to move fast with required reforms. It is not facing a threat of
immediate removal by the opposition. If anything, the threats are internal

Given the governing party’s electoral
decline in the last election, a well-organised opposition would either force
the ANC to fast-track economic reforms or at least present voters with viable political
alternatives. A dictatorship of no alternatives in political choice, like its
counterpart in economic ideology, could belittle our hard-earned constitutional
democracy. The essence of democracy is choice.

– Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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