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Perils of populism – why the ANC’s national conference matters

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As most South Africans head for their holidays, from 16 to 20 December 2022, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will gather for its 55th national conference. It will elect its 80-member National Executive Committee, choose its “top six” leaders, and bash Israel. Should we care?

The discussion documents prepared for the ANC’s policy conference in July contained familiar refrains. Israel is accused of “ever-growing aggressiveness … (with the support of its [United States] ally) manifested through its support of terrorist groups in Syria; its increasingly brazen transgressions of international law, agreements, and [United Nations] resolutions, particularly in relation to the Palestinians and its total disregard for the territorial integrity of Lebanon and Syria”.

A grand conspiracy is suggested, positing that Morocco, Israel, and France act in cahoots to undermine “progressive forces”. Israeli engagement with Africa apparently indicates South Africa’s weakness: “The growing role of Israel in African affairs signals a waning influence of progressive African states including South Africa.”

Analyst and broadcaster Stephen Grootes said, “The resonance of the apartheid experience with Israel is so strong in the minds of the ANC. And it’s a useful rallying point to unite everyone … I don’t see much changing, and it’s not helped by Israeli politics shifting to the right.”

Michael Bagraim, the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister for employment and labour, said, “[South Africa is] almost bankrupt, there’s an enormous amount of civil unrest, threats of strikes, and very little service delivery. The entire structure of our economy has been threatened, and the living conditions of almost 90% of the country are horrific. One would think that Israel … wouldn’t be an issue to be debated by the governing party.

“Unfortunately, it’s still heavily and vigorously debated in ANC ranks whenever the opportunity arises. Certain influential ANC cadres seem to deem Israel to be more important than South Africa’s well-being. In particular, Minister [of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi] Pandor will seize every opportunity to mention Israel in a negative light. My experience is that the majority of the ANC MPs aren’t really interested in the debate, and certainly don’t think Israel is relevant to us here in South Africa.”

“The Palestinian issue is one with a high degree of symbolic consensus in the ANC,” said Terence Corrigan, project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. “It lets the ANC be what it wants to be – a liberation movement. It’s appealing for the ruling party of a failing state. In this sense, it’s more real than the reality.”

However, might there be a rethink on the 2017 resolution to downgrade the South African embassy in Tel Aviv? The discussion document implies this, while simultaneously swiping at Israel: “Reflecting and reviewing its resolution to downgrade the [sic] diplomatic relations with Israel, given the aggressive expansion of Israel on the African continent and the necessity to engage Israel on the intensification of the brutal occupation of Palestine, and given what we know about the implications of this resolution on our Diplomatic [sic] capital.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any such re-examination will take place. Has the downgrade decision backfired? Or am I clutching at straws here?

“Although it’s written in an incredibly negative light, at least it does call for discussion,” Bagraim said of the July discussion document. “I think that it’s carefully worded at least to get influential anti-Zionists within their caucus to consider future discussions.” However, it’s naïve to think the ANC could now be an honest broker or have any leverage.

On the leadership front, Cyril Ramaphosa will probably easily be re-elected ANC president. Eight of the nine provinces back him, with just KwaZulu-Natal behind former Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. “The most likely outcome by far is that Ramaphosa wins,” Grootes said. “He remains the party’s best chance for the 2024 elections.”

South African Jews should care. “For the Jewish community to thrive,” said Grootes, “South Africa needs to thrive. The Jewish community has a huge amount to offer – resources, lessons, resilience – to the wider society.”

Sara Gon, the head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations said, “The policy discussions will be dominated by issues that point to the populism that the ANC thinks is necessary to drum up for voters to continue to support it. The fact that nothing the ANC does will improve the attractiveness of South Africa as a country to live in over the next 18 months means that emigration by members of the community is likely to continue, if not increase. The ANC’s communist policies will add to the sense of hopelessness that investment, local and foreign, will become even more sparse. The greater effect will be the loss for the broader community if its Jewish population keeps shrinking.”

Said Corrigan “Even though the ANC’s decline is now pretty much inevitable, it will play a large role for some years. Until particular issues are addressed and some policies abandoned – think labour-market regulation, empowerment, and expropriation without compensation – South African won’t achieve stable governance, economic growth, and make a proper dent in unemployment. But within the ANC, there’s no significant support for such an agenda.

“We’ll need to rely increasingly on our community and social institutions to step into the void created by a receding state, and get us into the future. The Jewish community, with its long experience of self-reliance, its history of cordial co-operation with others, and its robust institutions, is well placed for this.”

Sol Cowan, a former ANC councillor and member of the mayoral committee in Johannesburg, said, “Like the country, the ANC is at a tipping point. I worry that complex, critical policy issues will be decided on in a meeting with many lacking even basic knowledge – such as National Health Insurance. Who will the ANC get into bed with after the 2024 elections – the radical populists or more reasonable, mature voices? Jewish South Africans can’t put our heads in the sand. We can’t isolate ourselves. The ANC does listen to the Jewish community, and we must raise the key issues.”

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