YACOOB ABBA OMAR: Ramaphosa’s boast can be a long shot, or a short-cut to the future
If the ANC thinks big enough and leap-frogs the past, it can surprise with a straight majority come the election
The assertion by ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa that his party will achieve a clear majority after the 2024 election has already elicited a huge response.
Speaking at the ANC’s 112th anniversary celebration, Ramaphosa called upon the electorate to judge the ANC on the basis of its 30 years at the helm of democratic SA.
This could turn out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can be used to demonstrate how profoundly different SA is now compared to the apartheid state. This perspective, called by French philosophers the longue durée, is contrasted with the histoire événementielle or “event history”, which is more short-term.
The former approach highlights the slow pace at which permanent change is achieved, arguing that conclusions should only be drawn from historical trends and patterns. It allows us to judge the ANC taking into account the many challenges it and the country have had to face from the period of apartheid through crises such as the 2007/2008 global financial shock and the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, the longue durée argument has been turned on its head by some — ANC internal critics and outside detractors alike — who claim that independence movements have usually lost the plot after three decades in power. These include the Indian National Congress, which has come to be replaced by the Hindu chauvinist BJP.
However, history abounds with examples from the democratic world where leaders and parties have been around for decades, such as Lee Kwan Yew’s 31 years as prime minister of Singapore at the head of his party, with another 17 years as the city state’s most important influencer. One should include in the mix the four terms of the US Democratic Party’s Franklin D Roosevelt, as well as Swedish prime minister Tage Erlander, who served in that post for a 23 uninterrupted years, albeit with a variety of different political computations.
Politicos could do well to read a nonpolitical book published in 1994, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, which is based on the histories and performance of a range of US corporates.
Authors Jim Collins and Jerry I Porras defined a visionary company as one that is a premier institution in its industry, is widely admired by knowledgeable peers, has made an imprint on the world, had multiple generations of leaders, and had come through multiple life cycles.
Among the observations the authors made about such successful companies were the presence of a core purpose and ideology, taking on “big, hairy, audacious goals” (BHAGs) to think big and aim high; a cult-like adherence to the company’s culture; and having what they termed home-grown management — internal leadership cultivated from within its ranks.
Building a nonracial democracy has been at the core of the ANC’s beliefs. Reducing poverty, unemployment and inequality remain its topmost priorities. Having multigenerational leaders in its top echelons is proving a strength as more young people feel they are being heard by the “dinosaurs” at the top.
There are therefore many reasons for Ramaphosa’s confidence about a decisive ANC victory, the primary one being the sense that the ANC, like the visionary companies of Collins and Parras, is implementing the renewal vision and roadmap it adopted at its 2022 national conference.
The formulations of Built to Last have not been without criticism, in particular that 10 years after its publication almost half of the visionary companies on the list had slipped dramatically in performance and reputation.
What is needed in the ANC is a new set of BHAGs. Getting the country onto a higher economic growth path should be part of its mantra; enabling the smooth transition of leadership and management of the young cohort who have been elected to its national and provincial committees and actively committing itself to uplifting the lives of all South Africans.
These elements could well be the cornerstone of its new life cycle as it contemplates another few terms in office.
• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.
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