Polokwane's Failed Promise of Economic Change: The Continuities of the ANC on the Eve of Its Centenary

By Dale T. McKinley · 9 Dec 2011

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Picture: www.bidorbuy.co.za
Picture: www.bidorbuy.co.za

The ANC might be about to turn 100 years old but when it comes to its contemporary politics, the last four years seems like a lifetime of its own. It was four years ago, almost to the day, that the ANC gathered at the now infamous Polokwane Congress and when it was all over the general view both inside and outside the ANC that it marked a fundamental ‘turn’ for the ANC and the country; not simply in respect of a new national and ANC leadership but more crucially, in respect of the promise of a political economy of change as applied to the ANC itself and the majority of people in the country as a whole. 

However politics, like a majority of marriages, always has a way of reminding us of the often wide gulf between promise and lived reality, whatever the respective lifespan. In the case of Polokwane, rather than signifying a fundamental organisational and ideological ‘turn’ that marked a radical departure from what had come before, it was a great deal more representative of a transitionally constructed continuity of intra-ANC and Alliance elite power politics.

On the one hand there was a visible and indeed intense class character to the desire for change. A majority of the rank-and-file delegates in Polokwane came from the broad working class. Their lived experiences of the accumulated and combined impact of the ANC government’s neo-liberal policies, the centralisation and abuse of political power as well as intensified corruption and mismanagement created a situation in which this core of the ANC’s own constituency were ready and willing to embrace organisational, ideological and leadership changes. In this sense, an important part of what happened at Polokwane was nothing more and nothing less than the realities of class struggle being taken onto an organisational and political ‘stage’. 

On the other hand though, there was a clearly organised agenda dominated by the desire to simply replace one set of incumbent leaders with another. Not surprisingly, this emanated largely from within various ANC and Alliance leadership strata. Here, the content and character of change being sought was neither framed nor organically informed by the desires and lived realities of the majority of delegates that this leadership represented.  In this sense, the other side of the Polokwane coin was undeniably driven by self-interest, intra-elite competition and factional power mongering.

The combined weight of these two levels of ‘grievance’, however disconnected, succeeded in fomenting the desired change of leadership. The new Zuma-centred leadership was then given a mandate to implement various degrees of organisational and ideological change. Under the banner of “iANC ibuyile” (the ANC has returned to its members) key resolutions were adopted on the transformation of the economy as well as state and governance, international relations and the battles of ideas amongst others.  

On the most crucial of fronts though – transformation of the economy – the potential promise of change at Polokwane was stillborn. Rather than a clearly enunciated need and plan to move towards a radical change of macro-economic policy, the desire for which had been at heart of long-running struggles involving the organised working class and various movements of the poor and community organisations, there was a droll continuity; an injunction for “macro-economic policies that support and sustain growth, job creation and poverty eradication on a sustainable basis”. Confirmation of this status quo approach came from none other than the person chosen at Polokwane to lead the evident process of change, President Jacob Zuma. Addressing a gathering of the American Chamber of Commerce less than a year after, Zuma confidently stated that, “we are proud of … the general manner in which the economy has been managed … that calls for continuity.”

This is all the more crucial given the Polokwane demand for “employment expansion” and the “creation of decent work opportunities as the primary focus of economic policies”. As every working class person is all too aware from their own experiences, this is a practical impossibility if it is not tied to a macro-economic framework that prioritises people and puts the principles of redistribution of production, wealth and opportunity at its centre. As night follows day, so too has the post-Polokwane period dished up the opposite of its stated promise. Only a few months ago, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that since 2008, over 900 000 people had lost their jobs, the vast majority of whom were lower skilled black workers – the ANC’s main constituency. 

Another key Polokwane promise was that a reconfigured and rejuvenated ‘developmental state’ would “intervene” to “shape key economic sectors”. More specifically, such intervention would target the natural resource and transport sectors, as a means to “transform the economic structure” as well as “maximise development and the sustainability of local communities”. And yet, what we have witnessed over the last several years is: a privileging of private sector capitalists alongside politically connected BEE elites who have accumulated more capital than ever before; a sidelining of poor mining communities when it comes to socio-economic benefits and environmental concerns; a rank failure to provide leadership on and commitment to, developing sustainable sources of cleaner and alternative energy generation/supply; and, the pursuit of privatised, elitist and hugely expensive transport infrastructure that largely benefit the richer residential areas and the needs of corporate capital while largely neglecting the same in the poorest residential areas where the majority of people live.

A recurring historical and more contemporary feature of the South African economy has been its high levels of monopolisation/concentration of ownership that have continued to feed gross inequality and imbalances of social and economic power. Importantly then for poorer consumers and workers, Polokwane enjoined the ANC to implement “anti-monopoly and anti-concentration” policy as a means of broadening ownership and overcoming barriers to small business growth and market entry. However, despite a few small and effectively meaningless fines levied against some corporates for price-collusion and anti-competitive behaviour, the real test came in the form of the approach to the Massmart-Walmart merger. Instead of an unambiguous rejection of a clearly monopolistic merger that will impact negatively on sizeable sections of local manufacturing capacity, the retail and distributive opportunities for small and medium scale enterprises as well as on the possibilities for decent work and increased employment, it has been allowed to go ahead. 

Correspondingly, Polokwane called for the “regional integration of the South African economy on a fair and equal basis” and the adoption of a ‘developmental approach” that would “diversify regional economies”. Regardless, when the newly elected ANC leadership was provided with the opportunity - in late 2008 - to begin such a process of change on the regional front, they instead wholeheartedly embraced the very thing - a neo-liberal regional free trade agreement (FTA) – that has only exacerbated already existing macro-economic deficiencies and disparities amongst Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member states. The practical result has been a further crippling of weaker nations’ already limited domestic manufacturing base and increased reliance on the production of primary/raw commodities. What potential there might exist for the development of infant industries and thus sustained employment creation in such nations is simply overwhelmed by the sheer scale and reach of such ‘free trade’ inspired penetration with South Africa as the vanguard.  

Last year, COSATU’s Central Executive Committee issued a statement that goes some way in capturing Polokwane’s failed promise of economic change. Namely, that within and amongst the ANC-Alliance’s “working-class constituency, there is a degree of despondency … there is the danger that the 2nd decade of freedom, like the 1st will belong to capital and not the workers and the poor … we face a serious crisis of legitimacy … not only COSATU but also the Alliance as a whole will be in serious trouble.” That time has already come. Enjoy the centenary.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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