South Africa: A critique of the ANC and COPE election manifestos

Neither the ANC or COPE offer answers for South Africa's poor.

On April 22, 2009, South African voters go to the polls to elect a new national government. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) government will be opposed by a new split-away group, the Congress of the People (COPE), led by former ANC leaders opposed to the current ANC leader Jacob Zuma. Below, the Anti-Privatisation Forum's Dale McKinley assesses their policies.

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By Dale McKinley

March 11, 2009 -- By their very definition, electoral manifestos are documents that are mainly designed to persuade people to vote for a particular political party. As such, they are essentially propaganda tools containing very broad ``visions'' of the respective political parties, thinly sketched frameworks for societal development and a host of promises around more specific policy ``problems and challenges''. Nonetheless, electoral manifestos do provide us with a very generalised exposure to the politics and ideology of the respective party and give us a glimpse into what we can expect in terms of key economic and social policies, the role/character of the state and relationships with various class forces, should that party win the elections and gain political power.

In each of the two national elections since 1994, the manifestos of the African National Congress (ANC) have been fairly predictable, merely providing confirmation of what most South Africans already knew about the ANC and the way it intended to govern the country. Those manifestos did not play a key role in determining the outcome of the 1999 and 2004 national elections precisely because the ANC remained so politically dominant, the main question in people's minds being the extent of the ANC’s overwhelming electoral victory.

While the ANC will, once again, most certainly emerge victorious in the 2009 elections, the more recent internal leadership and political/organisational battles within the ANC, resulting in the ascendance of Jacob Zuma, the increased influence of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the organisational split leading to the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE) has galvanised renewed interest in politics in general and electoral politics in particular (both having consistently waned since 1994). In turn, this has, for the first time, raised the possibility in many peoples minds of a more serious electoral challenge to the ANC’s dominance, including among sections of the organised working class and the poor who have suffered under, and thus grown increasingly hostile to, ANC rule.

Accompanying this though are also renewed political illusions: that a new ``political saviour'' (e.g. Zuma or Shikota [COPE] etc.) will break from the past and lead the country onto a new path of desired radical change; that because of the shake-up in the ANC the party has fundamentally shifted to the left and will thus govern much more decidedly in favour of the workers/poor; and that participation in elections is not only the most meaningful form of democracy but also the best and most direct way for the majority to effect political and socioeconomic change.

It is within this overall context that it is useful and important to offer a critique of the respective manifestos of the ANC and COPE. As one of the key radical social movements in South Africa which has been at the forefront of struggle and opposition to the core [neoliberal] policies of the ANC and the state it controls, it is incumbent upon the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) to understand and fully grasp why both the ANC and COPE (which is really nothing more than a rightward extension -- in a new political party form -- of the ANC) manifestos offer little for the workers and the poor. Indeed, why they represent, in macro terms, a continuation of the same ideology, same politics and same policies that led to our formation and against which we have fought so hard.


What follows below – for the ANC manifesto - are bullet points that contain firstly, selected excerpts from the manifesto – highlighted in italics - on key perspectives/issues/promises; and secondly, brief critiques to match.


The ANC’s manifesto: Working Together We Can Do More

  • Fifteen years into our democracy, together we have achieved much in building a new society, uniting all of our people, expanding opportunities that the new freedom brought to our people, reducing poverty and improving the quality of life of millions of South Africans. ANC policies have pushed back the frontiers of poverty. In 1996, only 3 million people, had access to social grants. Today 12.5 million receive social grants. In 1996, only 34,000 children had access to social grants. Today nearly 8 million children younger than 14 years, receive social grants. In 1996, 58% of the population gained access to electricity. Today, 80% do. In 1996, 62% of the population has access to running water. Today, 88% do. 3.1 million subsidized houses were built, including 2.7 million free houses for the poor, giving shelter to an additional 14 million people.

As with all previous manifestos, this once again presents the nonsensical proposition that South Africa is one, big happy ``rainbow nation'' in which the key social and economic divisions have been dealt with and in which class oppression is virtually non-existent. It is this never-ending false portrayal of our country that allows the ANC to ``play both sides'' of the political/ideological coin under the misplaced framework of ``nation building'' – the result being that those with existing political and economic power continue to accumulate further wealth and concentrate more power around themselves.

Even more crucially, the bald claim that the ANC has reduced poverty is representative of a dishonesty that has been the hallmark of a party which is simply unwilling to admit the harsh reality that its capitalist policies have actually increased poverty. The ANC simply ignores all but its own ``statistics'' (which it repeats again and again at every opportunity) to pedal this untruth and thus to continue to propagate a key myth –- that the ANC is ``pro-poor'' and a ``force of the left'' --  that many have unfortunately bought into. It is not so much a matter of whether or not there has been an increase in social grants or whether there are more people with ``access'' to water and electricity etc.

Rather, the questions are: Why is there so much increased need for social grants if indeed poverty has been so drastically reduced and what longer-term social and economic impacts do such grants have?; What does it matter if people have increased infrastructural ``access'' to basic services but cannot afford to access sufficient quantities for basic needs and dignity?; and, Why is it that the housing backlog continues to grow, that the quality of ``RDP'' houses is so poor and that those in informal settlements are treated as trespassers and criminals?

  • In the period ahead South Africa will need a government with both experience and political will, a government that fully understands what needs to be done to address our apartheid past, a government that puts people first (batho pele) and builds a participatory democracy. We are committed to a service delivery culture that will put every elected official and public servant to work for our people, and ensure accountability to our people. We will continue to develop social partnerships and work with every citizen. We will manage our economy in a manner that ensures that South Africa continues to grow, that all our people benefit from that growth and that we create decent work for the unemployed, for workers, for young persons, for women and for the rural poor.

One of the most consistent features of ANC rule over the past 14 years has been a complete lack of ``political will'' when it comes to adopting and implementing policies and positions that it politically claims (in manifestos and other party documents/speeches etc.). Whether applied to basic service provision, land redistribution, ``disciplining'' capital, the environment, freedom of expression/dissent, a human-rights centred foreign policy and many others, the ANC has shown a complete lack of political will to confront those issues/problems/challenges that have the most negative impact on the workers and poor. When it comes to accountability of elected representatives, it is also a lack of political will that has created a political culture of greed and opportunism, and an arrogance that is the furthest thing removed from any ``partnership''. This is precisely because the ANC itself represents, in core political and ideological terms, a class elite that has long ago abandoned any serious commitment to an anti-capitalist politics/practice.

  • On average half a million new jobs have been added to the economy every year since 2004, reducing unemployment from 31% in 2003 to 23% in 2007. ANC government policies such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action have contributed to the growth of South Africa's black middle class by 2.6 million in 2007.

Again, the ANC is being dishonest when it comes to claims of job creation. It continues to use the ``minimum'' statistical determination of unemployment which does not include those millions who have simply stopped looking for a job and those whose ``jobs'' are little more than survivalist and/or temporary. All independent figures show that there is an actual/real unemployment rate of around 40% (if not more). All one has to do is to spend some time in most townships and informal settlements to know that the extent of unemployment is far greater than what the ANC wants people to believe –- it needs to continue to propagate this myth to project an image of economic success to the capitalist class (both domestically and internationally) as well as to make the majority poor believe that its economic policies are working for their benefit. Its (more honest) claims regarding black economic empowerment and affirmative action partially reveal the main beneficiaries of the ANC’s economic policies – i.e. the black middle and upper-middle classes alongside the rapidly expanding black capitalist class (which the ANC does not want to admit for fear of being exposed for what it truly is …).

  • There has been a growth of casualised, low wage and outsourced jobs, contributing to the rise of the working poor. Inequality has persisted and increased in our society. Workers' share of national income has continued to decline. The rural areas remain divided between well-developed commercial farming areas, peri-urban and impoverished communal areas. The benefits of economic growth have not been broadly and equitably shared

This small section (not prominently placed in the manifesto) reveals that the ANC feels the necessity to provide a degree of truthfulness when it comes to the realities and inheritances of their 14-year rule. However, these truths are treated as a footnote (an afterthought) and are not accompanied by any serious indication of why this is the case or what can be done to change them. So for example, the fact that so many jobs are casualised/outsourced and that “inequality has persisted and increased” is not treated/seen as being in total contradiction to the ANC’s main claims of success in job creation and/or reducing poverty and creating a ``better life'' for the poor. It is as if the ANC wants us to just ignore (or, at best, minimise) these facts -- alongside the continued ANC policies which allowed and encouraged such realities -- and instead concentrate on its false claims of the opposite. It is this kind of opportunistic deception and unapologetic dishonesty that should convince even the sympathetic that an electoral manifesto -- and in this case, the ANC’s -- is really more smoke and mirrors than anything else.

Below is a brief overview critique of the COPE manifesto

COPE manifesto: A New Agenda for Change and Hope for All

The bulk of COPE’s electoral manifesto is very similar to that of the ANC’s. After all, the creators and main leaders of COPE were also the ANC. Just because they have formed a new political party to the right of the ANC does not cancel out the fact that their core politics comes from/out of the ANC.

Not surprisingly, COPE (trying to market a new political ``brand'') is not nearly as detailed or confident in many of their policy offerings, as is the ANC. But what the manifesto adds are electoral applications of the classic political ``liberalism'' of the middle and chattering classes. So, the ``rule of law'' (led by the reconstituted [elite police] ``Scorpions'' squad) is highly prioritised, as is the ``independence'' of the Reserve Bank and the judiciary without, of course, any consideration as to who that law predominately serves or the character of the practical application of the Reserve bank’s and judiciary’s ``independence''.

Another ``bright light'' of COPE’s slightly more public embracing of a ``liberal'' capitalist politics is its desire to encourage “the practice of voluntary community service and corporate social responsibility and promote philanthropy”. Of course, a COPE-run South Africa would also be “globally competitive”, there would be “transparency” for elected representatives and public officials, environmentally friendly policies and energy-generation would be introduced and foreign policy would be guided by the “NEPAD objectives and principles”.

But most importantly “within the first six months after the elections we will announce a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy which will activate the poor in every household to participate in programmes to extricate themselves from poverty”. So there we have it –- COPE’s strategy for dealing with poverty is going to be to get the poor to “extricate themselves from poverty”. What more needs to be said?