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Justice Malala | Greatest threat to SA lies in populist tendencies in ANC

The greatest risk to South Africa is not our exploding inequality, our booming unemployment and our grinding poverty.

The greatest risk to South Africa over the next 10 years is not our exploding inequality, our booming unemployment and our grinding poverty.

It is not the plethora of dire scenarios that can be painted on the back of our people’s unmet expectations.

Our greatest threat lies in the possibility that the ANC and those few left among its intellectuals will lose confidence, and will allow the slothful, the weak-kneed, the corrupt and spineless among them to embrace the fashionable populism of our times.

For 10 years until Valentine’s Day this year the ANC had a leader who despised education (remember his accusations of “clever blacks”), who discarded the party’s key intellectuals and who, right from the onset, flirted with populism at the expense of evidence-based policy-making. Jacob Zuma’s greatest gift to the party of Pixley ka Isaka Seme and John Dube was to drag it down to a breathtakingly fact-free policy-making process. In his rush for votes and to please the adoring crowds outside his numerous court appearances, Zuma fully embraced populist rhetoric, thoughtlessly uttering racist, homophobic and sexist slogans while failing to come up with a single coherent idea about raising economic growth, denting unemployment, and throttling the rise of poverty and inequality.

Zuma’s gift to policy-making was victimhood. Poor economic growth? Blame the global economic meltdown. Rising unemployment? Blame business. Poor education outcomes?

It’s because we are not being judged scientifically by the rest of the world. Rising crime? It’s because of the human rights culture embedded in our constitution. The man never took responsibility for anything. He never seemed to take time to apply his mind to solving the problems we faced. The ANC has been a key champion of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, just and democratic South Africa for ages.

Leaders like Oliver Tambo faced many challenges – from Robert Sobukwe’s Pan Africanist Congress of Azania to the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko – but they did not choose popularity and populism. They chose principle and innovation. This is an ANC that had the courage of its convictions. It was criticised in many quarters here at home and across the globe, but it acted according to its beliefs.

In the early 2000s Thabo Mbeki showed this attribute beautifully – he told Cosatu that perhaps its relationship with the ANC had come to its end if it did not see the efficacy of implementing economic reforms under his Gear policy.

It didn’t make him popular, but it saw the explosion of the black middle class and a GDP growth that touched on 6% in 2006.

Increasingly, though, the ANC is swayed by the loud mouths that pepper our political establishment.

When the EFF shouts about expropriation without compensation, the same ANC that has introduced, championed and jumped through hoops to push through an expropriation bill cannot even point to it as a solution.

Instead, intellectual lightweights like Sihle Zikalala and his Zuma faction of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal barge through to mimic the EFF’s expropriation without compensation mantra. Confused and discombobulated, the likes of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and others rush behind Zikalala and Kebby Maphatsoe, mouthing even emptier slogans like “radical economic transformation” – the meatless bone that the Guptas and Bell Pottinger have left behind in South Africa.

Sadly, the ANC’s lack of conviction seems to be spreading to its very top. When people like Deputy President David Mabuza invite – no, beg – Julius Malema to return to the ANC, you can see what’s going on. They are going for the easy route.

They can’t stand up for their own ideas, no matter how glorious these may be. Instead of confronting the man on his ideas, Mabuza and Cyril Ramaphosa would rather bribe him with a position in the ANC. It just means they have lost confidence in the superiority of their ideas.

This laziness of thought is not confined to the ANC alone. It is all-encompassing. It is a laziness whose response to challenge and criticism clutches at conspiracies, what-aboutism, personal attacks and all sorts of other red herrings.

We need to have some serious and difficult discussions in South Africa about turning this economy around for the betterment of our people.

Civil society stood up against Zuma and the Guptas, and won. Civil society needs to remain vigilant, for the populists are at the door – and the ANC has walked away from the battle of ideas.

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