‘Moving South Africa forward’ requires an honest appraisal of the problems facing the country
On Monday, 14 April, I attended a press briefing by the African National Congress’ (ANC’s) subcommittee on Human Settlements and Social Services attended among others, by Lindiwe Sisulu, Lechesa Tsenoli, Edna Molewa and Connie September – all members of the above subcommittee and Ministers in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet.
Normally, I do not enjoy attending press conferences, choosing rather to do my analysis using established political theory, information available in the public domain and material not readily obtainable, such as internal chatter within political parties and state institutions. However, at times and on rare occasions, press conferences provide unique insight that completes the political analysis puzzle.
This insight lies not in the boring speeches and rehearsed ‘ad libs’ often seen at press conferences, but in what is not said, that is, in the body language and in the blunders and off-the-cuff remarks that seldom make it to mainstream papers and broadcast stations. And Monday was such an occasion.
First up was Lindiwe Sisulu, the Chairperson of the subcommittee. After reading out a number of ‘governmentisms’ – a bunch of good things often said by government officials and their political principals – which include words such as development, inclusivity, human, our people or whatever feel good word or term one can conjure up. All terms, whose intentions are to reinforce the ANC’s mantra of “we have a good story to tell”, and that indeed, such a story is “not a myth” according to Sisulu. She went on to say why it was vital to have such discussions (her at the podium and the press listening, with only three opportunities to ask questions) because there has been a lot of bias and propaganda by opposition parties during the election campaigning phase.
Second, third and fourth were Connie September, Edna Molewa and Lechesa Tsenoli – all Ministers of second tier portfolios in the cabinet, who on the day had second-tier things to say, and were all in agreement that the ANC has a good story to tell. To be sure, journalists present at the briefing did ask some questions, ranging from deplorable standards of free government houses, the delayed construction of some dams such as the Umzimvubu Dam in the Eastern Cape, the absence of qualitative standards when it comes to governance in South Africa, the proliferation of protests because of deteriorating service delivery standards at the local government level – all vital questions and concerns summarily dismissed with a recurring theme of: we acknowledge the problem, it either has been resolved, or will be resolved, there is no need to worry – if it was only that simple.
The point of these briefings I am told is to engage the media, affording journalists the opportunity to rigorously debate and interrogate the ANC’s 2014 election manifesto, and the policies proposed therein. However, what I saw was the shepherding of the press to conclude that “the ANC has a good story to tell”, and at one-point Jackson Mthembu, who seemed to be ‘too happy’ for a Monday morning and whose phone rang at some stage, even corrected himself, saying it is not just a “good story” but a “very good story”.
What was meant to be an opportunity for rigorous discussion ended up being a time for niceties, and what was an occasion to engage the public through the media became an opportunity for empty self-congratulation by seemingly clueless and out-of-touch Ministers. Ministers who appear intent on looking and sounding good, in contrast to giving an account of the true state of the country – Lindiwe Sisulu at one point hastily “Googling” for immaterial statistics and wonderful quotations for her hurriedly written closing address.
In the end, there is no doubt that South Africa has progressed in the past 20 years and that such progress was under ANC rule, and fair credit goes to the party as a result. Such an acknowledgement, however, goes hand in hand with the areas where the ANC government has failed in the past years, which include on-going problems such as the proliferation of service delivery protests and wage strikes, rampant corruption, cronyism and the ANC’s internal strife and that of its tripartite partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). To put any of these items off the table, just as Jackson Mthembu did when a question about Ronnie Kasril’s “Vote No Campaign” was asked by one journalist, is tantamount to a dishonest appraisal of current problems facing South Africa. This also begs the question, if the ANC’s story is such a good one to tell, “why are some items off the agenda?”
Next week, the ANC will be “rigorously” engaging with journalists on issues of gender, and what the party has done in advancing women since 1994. This will probably again be a self-congratulatory orgy no doubt, but one hopes that the party will on this occasion acknowledge that rigorous discussion at the very least requires an honest acknowledgement and approach to South Africa’s current problems – especially given that they are the only party in South Africa that has been convening regular press briefings on each section of their 2014 manifesto.
Mzoxolo Mpolase is an Analyst at Political Analysis South Africa