The birth of African states is widely documented as a result of a protracted struggle against imperialism; a design of government that embodies sentiments of nationalist leaders who conceived of 'unity' as the means to counter colonial tactics of 'divide and rule' and the threat of post-colonial polarization. This is important to understand as it provides explanation for the roots of why leaders in the African National Congress embraced the ideals of a single party state and bureaucracy and found themselves drawn to Marxist ideals and why, in economic terms, the party positions itself as a benevolent amalgamation of political and economic authority seeking to provide for the needs of the marginalized masses.
In other words, in both substance (National Health Insurance (NHI), expropriation without compensation (EWC), District development model) and rhetoric ('our people', 'the oppressed black child') there are deep psychological and ideological reasons for why the leaders of the ANC continue to embrace failed policies - despite clear evidence and objection to the contrary.
They are, in their own minds, the avuncular heroes and are locked in a 'struggle' (perpetually frozen in time) against imperialist and colonial usurpers, which is why criticism against their efforts is often met with accusations of racism (if done by white people) or agents of some third force (if done by other black people). In a strange and perverse way, this is not just about economics and politics for them, but about a deeply moral and just struggle. Why would they throw corrupt cadres under the bus if they are engaged in a struggle? In times of war you don’t seek perfection from your allies.
The main downside of their ever-centralising management of the economy is that more cunning actors have stealthily capitalised on the synergy of a dominant public sector and hysterical one party politics, to tighten their grip on power extract rent from any productive sector of the economy - and more nefariously divert money away from the desperately poor to a small coterie of connected individuals and hangers on.
As others in the party have seen this, divisive tendencies have developed in the party, causing a feeding frenzy that, at times, has become very deadly. The Apartheid government certainly stole eggs from the chicken, but our postcolonial leaders have stolen the eggs, slaughtered and braai’d the chicken in front of us and then pretended it is the thief down the road who did it.
It would be all so comical if it wasn't so tragic, and did not result in a perversely double-minded psychology in which party operatives could see themselves as avuncular heroes with a mission to liberate the starving and oppressed masses, while progressively strangling any productive part of the economy and any free market reforms that could set the country on a path of growth and prosperity.
Free market reforms threaten not only their grip on power but attacks the very essence of their collective identity and shatters their myth and metanarrative (again, frozen in time) that the main culprits of black poverty are evil white colonialist usurpers and systems. Free market advocates need to be fully aware that they are in a struggle whether they realise it or not; not just an economic and political one but a very deeply moral and psychological one - sometimes, one to death. Party operatives kill each other over this and it should not be glossed over. According to researcher Mary De Haas, around 90 municipal councillors, political party officials and senior municipal officials, have been murdered in KwaZulu-Natal since 2015. Most of the deceased were affiliated to the ANC, the party that governs both the province and the country. The South African investigative journalist Greg Arde provides an impressively researched and well-written account of scores of political assassinations in the province in his book, War Party: How the ANC's Political Killings are Breaking South Africa.
Some of the victims of the killings were honest councillors and officials who had sought to expose corruption over tenders, kickbacks, budgets and fund allocation. Others were rivals, competing for access to power and the goodies it could buy.
It is important that free market advocates offer the beleaguered citizens of this country, many of whom are stuck in collapsing or collapsed municipalities that have high unemployment, poor to nonexistent basic services and failing schools and healthcare facilities, a compelling vision free from state paternalism. Responsible fiscal policy undergirded by progress in privatization and ending concessions to state enterprises and limiting the power of labour unions - in order to create a competitive and job intensive marketplace, especially for young people - should substantively be on the national agenda along, with school vouchers that will incentivize private providers to enter township and rural markets where schools fail more often than not.
In embracing an economic agenda that resists a tenacious bureaucracy under what is essentially a one party state, we must attack the politics of racial distrust that activate a cynical animus towards free market ideas and those who espouse them. Focusing on the symptoms like the NHI or EWC simply isn't enough because, as the economic pie gets smaller and factional politics get more vicious, the ruling party will invent even more ways to crush reform, tighten their grip on power and extract maximum rent from any productive part of the economy.
This article was first published on City Press on 20 April 2021.