Since the emergence of forces to the ANC’s left, the governing party has been robbed of its ability to talk from the future, writes Jonny Steinberg
IN SEPTEMBER 2011, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, then a deputy minister, published a sensational newspaper article condemning SA’s constitution as a reactionary document. Apartheid’s rulers may have handed over political office in 1994, he argued, but not before they emptied it of real power. They got the liberation movement to agree to a constitution that renders elected representatives impotent and places the capacity to decide in the judiciary, civil society and business.
The joke is on us, Mr Ramatlhodi implied, and the white minority is laughing behind our backs. It allows the majority to win one election after the other, knowing very well that they are just “regular rituals handing empty victories to the ruling party”.
Less than three years later, Ramatlhodi has been made a full Cabinet minister and now wields the hollowed-out executive power he so laments. Appointed as minister of mineral resources amid the longest mining strike in South African history, he had to hit the ground running.
What is the first thing Ramatlhodi has done with his empty office? He has proposed that the best way to deal with protracted strikes is to ban them. Put less kindly, he has advocated that if poor black people make trouble, their rights should be curtailed. He has done this in the context of the oldest and unhappiest of the industries apartheid bequeathed to us, on behalf of multinational corporations run largely by white people earning multimillion-rand salaries.
If ever there was evidence that Ramatlhodi was talking nonsense when he said that the constitution was for rich white people, this is it. Ramatlhodi is for rich white people and the poor have the constitution to thank for the protection it affords them against him and his ilk.
But even as a servant of rich white people, Ramatlhodi has not done terribly well.
For if one is to exercise political power on behalf of wealthy minorities, one must at least know how to do it. Ramatlhodi appears to think that legislation is akin to biblical decree. Thou Shalt Not Strike For Longer Than A Month — and so it shall be. Laws are enforceable only if there is a degree of consensus that they are fair. Just ask the rulers of the apartheid regime; they spent their last decade in power watching millions of people flout the entire edifice of apartheid laws they had so carefully crafted.
Were Ramatlhodi a more effective minion of wealthy minorities, he would understand that the situation calls for a light touch. The spirit that held together a delicate industrial consensus has broken down; that is why there has been such a long strike. You cannot decree that spirit back to life. You need to talk and listen and bargain. That is how the foundations of sustainable societies are built.
The article Ramatlhodi wrote three years ago was part of a syndrome. For its first 18 years in power, the African National Congress (ANC) spoke to citizens as if from the future. We have acquired office, its leaders kept saying, but we are only slowly acquiring power. That is why change is so slow. Be patient. Stay with us. Only we can liberate you and liberation has not quite arrived.
Since the emergence of forces to the ANC’s left, the ruling party has been robbed of its ability to talk from the future. It is now for the Julius Malemas and the Irvin Jims to say that liberation has not yet arrived, and when they say it they are damning the ANC. For the first time since coming to power, the ANC is forced to talk from the present.
The result is a subtle, but crucial change of language, and each ANC leader accomplishes it after his or her own fashion, some with subtlety, others with less success.
When, for instance, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was asked a hostile question about the rate of unemployment the other day, he did not say that his government was in office but not in power; he did not lament that if only his hands were untied he could find everyone a job. He said, instead, that the oversupply of unskilled labour was a global problem, that countries across the planet were dealing with unemployment, that it was a question of putting heads together and finding what worked best.
It was not a scintillating answer, but it was a sign of new times.
The ANC can no longer say that liberation has not arrived. That is now the language of its opponents. The ANC must talk as a party that rules here and now.
Ramatlhodi, too, is learning to talk from the present.
Gone are his newspaper articles about empty offices and intolerable compromises. He is wielding power now and he is doing so with a big stick.
Thank goodness we have a constitution to protect us from his mistakes.
• Steinberg teaches African Studies and Criminology at Oxford University.
Via Business Day