OPINIONISTA: Debilitating and dogmatic: Nasrec 2017 and its vice-like grip on our imagination

The ANC’s dogmatic hold on Nasrec 2017 policies, notwithstanding changing conditions, prevents the emergence of new ideas and fresh thinking, when the world has pulled the rug from underneath our feet.

For most of the past decade I have watched, sometimes at close range, how some of the most decent, honest, extremely smart, ethical and humble people stayed within the ruling alliance. I have also watched, and come across, some of the most expedient, lazy, semi-literate and privileged members of the ruling alliance, as they go about their days and life with little to no sense of shame, embarrassment, urgency or compunction and, dare I say, with deep senses of entitlement. These are The Untouchables.

One of the things that keeps The Untouchables active, some with barely a smidgen of relevance and purpose in society, is membership (and complete fealty) to the alliance – the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party. This oath of fealty strips each one of The Untouchables of independent thought and denies them agency. It was Ace Magashule, we may remember, who said ANC members should not act on their conscience, but on the position of the party.

“You can’t be a party member and you vote with your conscience. That can’t happen,” he was reported to have said in the context of the no-confidence vote on Jacob Zuma in February 2018.

It is difficult, then, to figure out why the better ones remain within the alliance – or remained as long as they did. With respect to the latter, the best I could come up with is that it may be like when you’re stuck in a really bad marriage, and you stay loyal and faithful; you defend your relationship and stay in it, until it becomes impossible to look at yourself in the mirror. Alternatively, I recall (what is surely) an apocryphal tale of a discussion between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, sitting in their high-back chairs, with one saying, “Things will get better”, and the other replying, “We just won’t ask when.”

It’s the other lot that do my head in. They are the last on my mind before I go to sleep every night, and give thanks to god that I am not a member of any political party. Okay, I made up the part about god and pillow prayers, but really, it is quite befuddling, just how loyal and “disciplined” members of the ANC are. This, I think, is the problem with the alliance; the inflexibility and wilful submission to party rules and regulations, to “positions” and policies – with no apparent regard for changing social conditions, or the life-world of people who are not in the alliance.

South Africa’s world turns on the axis of Nasrec 2017

Senses of entitlement come from the belief that the ANC liberated South Africa, that its military wing beat apartheid’s security complex (military, intelligence and police), and that they, our liberators, deserve eternal gratitude. This entitlement gives members the right to return to the buffet and eat until they are tired, and at least in Parliament, return to the backbenches for a snooze…. And so we became used to the corpulent cadres cavorting about in ill-fitting suits and luxury vehicles.

What is debilitating is the ANC’s dogmatic hold on policies, notwithstanding changing conditions. We often are reminded that the ANC remains committed to implementing decisions taken at Nasrec in 2017, and in the same breath speaks of “renewal”, as did President Cyril Ramaphosa. There is something to be said about having policy positions, but when conditions change, it may be necessary to adapt. Consider how rapidly the world has changed over the almost four years since Nasrec. 

While I usually am interested in long-term social and historical change, the years since 2017 may turn out to have been decisive. The administration of Donald Trump pushed the multilateral system closer to collapse. This has significant implications for South Africa. The US is also approaching an “improbable war” with China, which, as with all great power rivalries, holds naught for the comfort of poor, less, least developed, and even middle-income countries, such as South Africa. Speaking of China, the rich and powerful are spreading horror stories of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Explained Forbes magazine last year, “In some markets Chinese investment has nearly become a euphemism for wasteful spending, environmental destruction and untenable debt. Many major projects are currently strewn around the world in half-finished disrepair and the opportunities that were sold to local populations rarely materialised. All up and down the Belt and Road, projects have been marred by delays, financial implosions and (occasionally violent) outpourings of negative public sentiment.”

The US, for most of the past 70 years the main driver of the global economy and lender of last resort, has made some high-level (propagandistic) moves, but President Joe Biden has not yet turned his multilateral rhetoric into (actual) actions: punitive tariffs against allies remain in place, the US is still blocking the appointment of new judges at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) Appellate Body, and seems increasingly incapable of using use the WTO’s rules-based system to deal with China’s “neo-mercantilist” policies.

In short, and at least so far, the Biden administration’s actions continue to threaten the rules-based world economic order and are pushing the trend towards deglobalisation, explained Josef Braml, a US expert at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies at the University of Bonn, and secretary-general of the German Group of the Trilateral Commission. While one should take all of that from whence it comes (like it or not, the West remains, still, albeit in a somewhat denuded way, the rule-maker in the world) it’s useful to bear in mind that much of politics is about perception.

Conditions at home really suck

Back home, South Africa (a rule-taker) slipped into a recession, and on top of that, the country was downgraded to junk status in March last year. Also in March, South Africa went into a hard lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. South Africa now has to deal with a shaky multilateral system, renewed global power rivalry, shortages of national and foreign investment, rising unemployment and poverty, a virus that has exposed all the weaknesses in the country’s healthcare system, and an economy that seems to be in reverse gear. But, we are told, the key to a prosperous future, with shared prosperity for all, and a stable society with high levels of trust is based on Nasrec 2017.

When he was asked whether the ANC remained loyal to Nasrec 2017 resolutions, ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile, replied: “If I’m asked if Radical Economic Transformation is still the policy of the ANC, my answer is yes. If I’m asked if the Nasrec policy resolutions will be fulfilled, my answer will be yes. We will fulfill the policies adopted by our members. If it is taking too long we will address those issues at the NGC [National General Council]. We have a responsibility to our members.” 

So, between the demand that there is no room for individuals within the movement to make decisions based on their conscience, the ANC’s commitment to Nasrec 2017 (never mind how the tectonic plates of the global political economy are shifting), rising global tensions and fears, a recession, and a global health crisis, we are led to believe that everyone should turn their faces to the sun, (Nasrec 2017). To paraphrase (and twist) the words of Anton Chekhov, South Africans really don’t want to stare at the sun, when they have to battle, every day, with the glint of broken glass. DM

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