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ANC secretary general looks back on SA’s first 20 years of democracy

Interview - October 21, 2014

The ANC has been in power in South Africa since the installation of democracy in 1994. In the general elections in June this year, the party of the late Nelson Mandela once again won the majority vote, securing another five years in power. The current Secretary General of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, gave this insightful interview to United World, where he spoke about progress made in South Africa over the last 20 years under the ANC, the party’s rejection of neoliberal policies, the importance of both public and private investment, and his interesting take on the reasons why corruption in Africa became so commonplace. He also discusses his personal background—from rugby coach to Executive Director Development Bank of South Africa—and where he and the party are heading in the future.


You are such an integral figure within the ANC. By the end of your term you will be the joint longest-serving Secretary General of the modern era together with Kgalema Motlanthe. That has afforded you huge experience and overview of the South African landscape. Since the establishment of democracy in South Africa, what has been the ANC’s biggest achievement?

The biggest achievement has been creating stability. At the time, in 1994, there were two things that were critical. We were almost in a state of civil war and there was a big surge from the right wing to derail the elections and plunge the country back into a more violent war. This first aspect, stability, has been our greatest achievement. That is why, when people criticize the ANC, or the slowness of development, I always say to them that it is because they do not know what has been happening before and the base we come from. Firstly, there was a state of war, total instability, and therefore, what we needed was political stability and peace and stability in our society so that we can do other things very well. This is the first achievement – the major achievement. This has been transforming a country from a country based on racial segregation to a country that is beginning to see its citizens as citizens. Everything else follows from that.       

Currently the national government is pursuing policies to combat unemployment, poverty and inequality. The ANC has been governing for twenty years. In that time, what have been the learning curves and what does the future hold in terms of challenges for the party? 

The main thing that we have learned over the last twenty years is that people do not live ideas. People want material things. If we are going to be a governing party for a long time, we must address the needs of the people. If you do not, you will lose power. If we look at other sister parties in the region, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe almost lost power after twenty years. They produced very good propaganda, rhetoric. However, people do not eat ideas; they eat material things in society. Secondly, we have also learned that when you get access to global economic and political activities, one of the effects is that you get influenced by global developments. I always tell people that over the last thirty years, the strongest ideology in the world has been neoliberalism. We didn’t adapt well to it, we committed certain mistakes, we moved into neoliberal policies.

That is not for us. In 1993 we implemented a policy called ‘growth, employment and redistribution’. That was a neoliberal policy. It did not work for us. It promised everything, looking nice on paper, but did not deliver. At that time, when we implemented that policy, it set us back. What we needed to do actually was to learn from it and try to move out of it, because one of the biggest beliefs of neoliberalism is to reduce the state into a night watchman for capital. To me, if you make the state into a night watchman for capital, you make a mistake because the state must be a partner. It must direct developments in this country because it is actually managing the interests and expressions of the people.

The night watchman for capital that is not the government, would be small, mean and protect the interests of companies. This cannot be; it is wrong. If you look into our programs now, even during the global financial crisis, we were in a recession only once, when we registered negative growth for three quarters in 2008. The only thing that saved us then was government-led investment and spending. Otherwise the national economy would have been in trouble because exports declined, imports increased, and we had a trade balance deficit. Therefore, what we did helped us avoid recession.     

You mentioned the economic performance of South Africa, which has been very positive over the last twenty years. I read an article recently where you criticized the private sector for not moving quickly enough. Could you please elaborate on what you meant by this?

What I meant is that the private sector has not invested during this difficult time. It is the state that has invested in infrastructure. It is basically what kept us alive. I always describe our private sector as less patriotic, and they complain half the time, instead of finding solutions together with government. That is what will help us. If we can work together we can do better. We will grow slower than the rest of the continent. My explanation for that is that countries that are growing from a lower base will naturally grow faster. It is true that compared with many countries on the continent our growth is very slow. Crucially however, we are not growing at our full potential. We can only grow at full potential when the government and the private sector and labor, work together and appreciate the need for growth.

When we spoke to Dr. Rob Davies, Minister of Trade and Industry, one of the things he mentioned was the need to have productive economic sectors flourishing with less dependence on natural resources. How do you see South Africa’s economy performing in future and what gifts does the country have in the productive economic sectors in order to create jobs?

The starting point is to beneficiate your minerals. We are a mineral rich country. That will always be our starting point. Do not think that you can destroy what we have and start something new. You move from the known to the unknown. That is how you survive in the long term. To me, the first thing we must do is add value to our minerals and not export too many raw commodities. That will create a number of jobs. Secondly, we should invest more in our agriculture. Our agriculture is adding around 2.5% of GDP and has the potential to contribute around 12%. If we invest in it and direct it, we will do much better. Basically, there must be a focus on specific sectors. If we do not have that forecast, we will always theorize and speculate about the economic growth. What we have done is relatively successful because over the last twenty years our economy has grown threefold.

In terms of service provision when speaking, for example, of energy supply. In some cases it is very difficult to marry the ability of people to pay with the ability of government to subsidize sectors like energy. What is your view on how to create better living standards for the people whilst making sure that it becomes sustainable and affordable and attract investment in those areas such as energy?

I met four ambassadors from the continent on Sunday, around Heritage Day. They were telling me that the people of South Africa do not appreciate what they have. One was saying that in his country, only 16% of the population has access to electricity. Here we took that number from 39% in 1994 to 86% in the present day. If you take that, that is really changing the lives of people. Basically, we increased access to electricity from five million in 1994 to twelve million South Africa households today. To me that is a massive improvement.

You can say the same about water. Furthermore, we have allocated free houses to 3.2 million South Africans at the bottom end of society’s hierarchy. Free houses are provided to them because shelter is one of the basic needs for our people, as is food and clothing. We have been criticized for putting too many people on social welfare system. Our view is that everybody should have that chance if they need it. Social welfare reduced poverty by 9% over the last five years. If we did not do that, we would not be paying attention to where it is needed most. Yes, it is important to invest more into a productive economy, to ensure that people work, reduce the risk of crime. The issue with welfare is that you run the risk of running a passive society. I think we should change that as well a balance is needed.              

Last year the world lost an iconic figure in Nelson Mandela and South Africa lost one of its heroes. In the African Union recently, the main issue discussed was that of the next generation of leadership and the ability to stop corruption and create effective governance. How is the ANC working to create new leaders and ensure that corruption is stamped out in South Africa?  

Let me tell you my sociological understanding of corruption. You have a generation of leaders on the continent, who were freedom fighters, ascending from the liberation movement into government parties. That phase in any liberation movement is the most difficult. All of us activists and militants suddenly are in charge of a huge resource base. The risk of behaving like a mouse looking after a cheese factory is very high. The risk of eating oneself to death is real. This is the phase we are in.

We in the ANC call this the sins of incumbency. We are trying to theorize it. We think that the next generation will be better off because it will be a generation that is growing in an environment of freedom, where people will know that they must use their opportunities, and not try to be greedy. The more we theorize it, the more we engage society, the better it will be. I always discount leaders which say that they do not know what the next generation will be, because if a leader says that, he/she is not investing in the next generation. My view is that every generation of leader should invest in the next generation so you cannot blame that generation. If there is nothing coming out of that generation then you should blame yourselves. I don’t think we have that problem in South Africa. The ANC has a youth league with an active structure.

The ANC won by an overwhelming majority in the election.  However, we have seen the start of a generation where apathy has started to creep into the youth, where the EFF is calling upon a more extreme vote and the DA feel that they are gaining ground. With regards to the future of the ANC and the engagement of the people, what is it that makes you optimistic about the future of the ANC?

I always give the Nordic countries as an example to people. Social Democrats created welfare states and set a floor of standards. Those floors of standards are now those for the country. If you go to Sweden or Norway, even when the right wing wins, it will not go below that floor of standards already set. And as our democracy matures, what we stand for in the ANC will become a norm in society.

You occupy one of the most important posts in the ANC. What is the challenge that you enjoy the most in your job?

I do not know if it is the most important apart from the fact that it is operational. If it is operational, I don’t know if it is important. All it means is that I deal with the dynamics and problems of the party on a day-to-day basis. When there is a problem in a branch of the ANC in the provincial office, it is 80% sure that the problem will end up on my desk. We must intervene effectively. In our structures, we say that we must go to root to deal with a problem, I enjoy that. I enjoy the hectic programs. I think if I were in a more relaxed environment, I would suffer from depression.

I was in the Union of the National Union of Mineworker’s before I came here.  I spent 18 months in the Development Bank of South Africa as Executive Director. That was the dullest period of my life. I was paid well and working normal hours but it was dull for me. That is why I had to opt to take a salary cut and come back to the ANC. The reason is that I wasn’t getting the satisfaction that I am getting here. I may be earning less money, but I am happy. I will be in the regions tomorrow. I am likely to come across a rowdy crowd that will shout and insult me. I enjoy that. It keeps me going. 

You are a very symbolic person and one who stands for your beliefs and your country. Aside from the weariness of being bored, what is it drives you?

I always tell people that in whatever you do, you must ensure that you are making an impact – that’s it. If you can taste my work here you will see that I have always been driven by impact and material benefits. At one point I was a Sport Administrator. In that job you are driven by results. You want to win matches. I played and coached rugby. From there I became a trade unionist. As a trade unionist you want to represent your people to the best of your ability. That is how it works. What drives me is whether what I am doing is making an impact or not. If it is not making an impact, I want to leave it.       

You will be ending your second term in the next two years. What is next for you?

There is one unique thing about the ANC. You do not go out and ask to be nominated for a position. The ANC believes in bottom-up democracy so branches must decide that. We have many branches who nominate people for positions. I always tell them that if you take a third term as a Secretary General, you will die mid-term. It is very stressful you see. If you want to avoid dying mid-term you must say stop after two terms, say thank you for the opportunity and move on. If you are given a chance to do something else, you do it.    

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