THE BLOG

ANC Meddling Is Dangerous, Even When It's Trying To Fix Things

Cyril Ramaphosa has been given a blank slate by all and sundry to clean up the mess Jacob Zuma has left behind. This is not necessarily a good thing.

22/01/2018 18:05 SAST | Updated 22/01/2018 18:05 SAST
MUJAHID SAFODIEN/ AFP/ Getty Images
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa addresses supporters at the ANC's 106th-anniversary celebrations at Absa Stadium in East London. January 13, 2018.

Here is a lateral proposition: the fact that agencies such as the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) are suddenly moving against the Gupta family is no more or less worrying than their failure to act in the first place.

Why? Well, these are ostensibly independent institutions, designed both in structure and purpose to operate without fear or favour. They are beholden only to the Constitution, not politics.

Thus they require no political mandate to act. Quite the opposite; they should balk at the idea.

That ANC internal politics is a prime mover behind the AFU's and NPA's newfound enthusiasm seems more or less inarguable. The only thing that has changed, after all, is the ANC president. Their failure to act, the theory went, was because Jacob Zuma would not allow it.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma sings next to newly elected president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa during the 54th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

But with the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, things have changed. There now exists an institutional appetite for action. And because we approve of that, we ignore the underlying problem.

Here is the rub: It doesn't matter what kind of light the ANC gives these agencies in pursuing corruption – green or red – the ANC has no business, ever, giving them any kind of light. The party should have nothing to do with independent state institutions.

But it has had everything to do with this, and thus the public has struggled to properly grasp the importance of a separation between party and state. The ANC, hegemonic in moral and political terms, has benefited greatly from this.

What is not understood is that, when you excuse this kind of party meddling in the name of benevolence, you set the precedent by which any future malevolent force will conduct its business.

Much of its appalling behaviour was inadvertently sanctioned by a public that generally makes judgements based on whether a given action can be understood as benevolent or malevolent; not on principle. It is an attitude encouraged by many in the media.

Thus, typically, if the ANC takes some meddling action in state business that is deemed good and necessary, or appoints someone that orthodoxy would have is heroic or brave, then this is praiseworthy indeed. It was like this for most of Thabo Mbeki's tenure.

However, should the ANC do exactly the same kind of thing, only with the decision-maker compromised, the action corrupt or the person appointed incompetent, this is deemed unacceptable. This was the ANC under Zuma.

What is not understood is that, when you excuse this kind of party meddling in the name of benevolence, you set the precedent by which any future malevolent force will conduct its business. All you have done, really, is sanction the meddling. It is only the kind of meddling you have a problem with. SA found that out the hard way over the past nine years.

Nevertheless, with the age of Zuma seemingly drawing to a close and the dawn of Ramaphosa breaking, it would seem he has been given carte blanche to meddle his heart away, as long as we approve of his party's choices.

So today, the Eskom board can mysteriously have new life breathed into it overnight. From where did this new life force come?

Not from government – it is structured just as it was before the ANC conference. It comes from the party – the place all power has always flowed from. But whatever... because we approve of the change, it is cause for celebration. We don't mind this meddling, because it is the "right" kind of meddling.

Like Mbeki and Zuma before him, Ramaphosa is a party man. And that means the party comes first, always.

It is, of course, a generally mad state of affairs only the ANC could dream up: a change in party presidency some eighteen months before a possible change in the state presidency. It's a system hardwired for the conflation of party and state, as these two centres of power negotiate or undermine one another. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean it should be tolerated.

RODGER BOSCH via Getty Images
Cape Town City Mayor Patricia de Lille (C) talks to media at a site where the city council has ordered drilling into the aquifer to tap water, in Mitchells Plain, about 25km from the city centre on January 11, 2018 in Cape Town. De Lille is currently fighting for political survival, as her own party, the Democratic Alliance(DA) is investigating her of charges of corruption. / AFP PHOTO / RODGER BOSCH (Photo credit should read RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

It is a problem, unfortunately, exacerbated at the moment by the DA's handling of the Patricia de Lille affair. Historically, the DA has been the one opposition party that held the line on this subject, and that was willing and able to identify the ANC taking state business directly into party hands. But the DA has been doing a fair bit of conflating of its own recently.

As it continues to try and rein in De Lille, the party hand seems to be ever-extending into its governments, sometimes to directly influence decisions and policy – whether it be in preventing De Lille from talking about renovations to her private property, or actually directly determining how the city structure its water-crisis response team.

The DA's party interventions in state business are not nearly as egregious as those of the ANC – and they are a relatively new phenomenon – but the centralised, party-orientated control of its governments is intensifying nonetheless. You would be hard-pressed to describe the DA as becoming more federalised.

And again, as with the ANC, these sorts of interventions are justified by the party faithful, for the most part, by whether they are "good" or "bad" – as opposed to whether the relevant party is overstepping the mark, with the dangers inherent in that.

Cyril Ramaphosa has been given a blank slate by all and sundry to clean up the mess Jacob Zuma has left behind. It is tempting, therefore, to endorse or sanction any ANC behaviour that would seem to do exactly that.

But one should be careful in this regard. If the Mbeki presidency taught us anything, it is that "cadre deployment" was the political system on which a giant nepotistic chamber of secrets could be built.

Like Mbeki and Zuma before him, Ramaphosa is a party man. And that means the party comes first, always. It is easy to forget that, amid the din of all the applause he is currently receiving.

Some thought before the next ovation might be in order, or you could find yourself cheering the very thing you will soon enough be booing.

Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance at the SA Institute of Race Relations