What the national executive committee does next is all that really matters
This column was first published in Business Day
There is a lot of having-cake-and-eating-it going on in the SA commentariat and market commentary. It is quite nauseating. A positive story is always required even when the facts are tenuous.
First, 60% for the ANC was required for reform, now actually having less is better. The reality is that the election results matter little for what comes next.
The real question now at the heart of what comes next is this — what does the neo-patrimonial majority within the ANC’s national executive committee do? This is all that matters.
Currently this disparate grouping is split, but with a sufficient number supporting President Cyril Ramaphosa to bring him to power at Nasrec and then bring him to the presidency.
They will stick with him, and their numbers will grow if he can deliver an electoral narrative in the next five years through the 2010 local election to the 2024 national elections that keep the ANC in power and rent extraction running.
However, equally as the taps get turned off and the clean-up progresses they will be forced away and will support alternatives into the 2022 next ANC elective conference.
These two-way forces will dictate what comes next politically but also on policy. The ANC decided at Nasrec (just) that politically it needed new appeal through a shift in personality offering. A slow but steady clean-up, that maybe is selective, combined with the advantages of incumbency will likely mean Ramaphosa survives until 2022.
However, Nasrec did not change direction in terms of policy to ensure its electoral success through either its policy offer or implementations subsequently.
Indeed, these elections were incredibly dull for the lack of policy contestation. Sure, there were stand-and-deliver speeches on policy but it never felt like there was a true battle of ideas and head-to-head comparison of alternative visions. Instead it was a clash of party machines and emotions.
Nasrec shifted policy towards populism (and rent extraction) with the Reserve Bank nationalisation, prescribed assets and land (as conceived through the need for a constitutional amendment as opposed to fundamental institutional change).
Policy has the added complication that it is complicated, hard to implement and requires the deployment of political capital — a mastery of the functioning of the state.
The interplay between policy and the functioning of the state has been a central theme of my past 12 columns here since I joined Intellidex. It is incredibly important for investors and the economy.
We know that Ramaphosa can give amazing state of the nation speeches and can crowd-source ideas for policy. Implementation, however, has shown, at best, no urgency until a crisis — like Eskom — becomes apparent. Unemployment and inequality clearly do not count as crises.
The issue is that a fundamental system for the deployment of political capital to move the levers of state efficiently and sweep out vested policy interests was certainly not evident in the past year. Presidents cannot do implementation; they must provide the leadership that puts systems in place that allow others around them to deploy their political capital on their behalf and drive implementation and change.
This means capable proactive ministers and advisers. Hence the first test will be how the presidency is shifted after the elections and the choices for cabinet (and indeed things such as committee chairs in parliament given that is an increasing route for policy formation). If this is not gotten right then what follows stands a much lower probability of success.
The ANC’s parliamentary list unfortunately did not contain a strong list of policy wonks (those generating policy for change) nor managers or implementers to get things done. One can probably count on one hand those that tick both these boxes.
The problematic nature of trying to have debates over credible, sensible succession options for various ministerial posts such as finance and public enterprise in the long term speaks to this capacity constraint.
The complex interwoven web of the ANC’s factions, but also the political and ideological forces within Ramaphosa’s own faction, are a key constraint on policy and potential growth rising. However more so is a generalised mindset of state-is-best and a distrust of business and the private sector.
This mindset has been evident through the campaign, most alarmingly around renewable energy (sceptical of the private sectors involvement) and coal (supportive of the status quo against the international direction).
A mindset change will have to come from the top, clearing away the factional and ideological web that is wrapped up in collectivism and that will be the core test change.
Collectivism can be used by Ramaphosa’s political and policy opponents to wrap him in knots. A lesson is needed from Jacob Zuma. He wrapped his opponents in the ANC’s collectivism, tying them down and allowing him to do what he wanted to construct state capture. He turned collectivism back in on itself and was the way he welded power and survived so long in the face of the obvious.
Ramaphosa needs to be the other side of the same coin. Turn ANC collectivism inside out to in effect be a loyal cadre of the party deployed to keep a seat warm in the presidency, but actually being a powerful deployer of effective political capital to drive implementation and change in the state into potential growth-boosting policy.
Now if that actually happens, that would be exciting.
• Attard Montalto is head of capital markets research at Intellidex.