The politics of time

ANTHONY BUTLER: Deep in the ANC’s slo-mo matrix, Mantashe dodges bullets

He has so far managed to resist demands regarding scores of issues

First published in Business Day 3 June 2022

Philosophers sometimes enquire, typically after a drink, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. The answer, in SA, is that we are still waiting to see.

The irresistible force in this case is a looming and multifaceted crisis that imperils the cohesion of the social order. The immovable object is the ANC, a monolith that retains an astonishing capacity to obstruct change.

That the unstoppable momentum of crisis and the unprecedented inertia of the ANC can continue to coexist seems possible only with a warping of time itself.

In the movie The Matrix, the hero Neo — a character who in many respects closely resembles mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe — can dodge bullets as a result of the slowing down of time.

In the same way, critics may demand from the minister immediate action to unblock clogged regulatory approvals, release outstanding prospecting licences, or introduce a transparent cadastre system. Mantashe knows, or at least believes, he can hold time back, or twist it to his own advantage.

Heretical former president Kgalema Motlanthe related an ancient truth to President Cyril Ramaphosa after his rise to the presidency of the ANC: it is important that meetings — and by extension everything else government does — should occur “on time”.

An impending fiscal cliff briefly focused ANC leaders on this wise advice, but Covid-time was a godsend for inertial procrastinators: the clocks seemed to stop; normal politics were put on hold; and very slow — extremely slow — policy-making once again seemed defensible.

Despite the laudable efforts of presidency teams, digital migration, structural reform of network industries, electricity co-generation, a new visa regime and many other essential initiatives seem always to be happening, but somehow never drawing to a close.

How can we explain the continuing disjuncture between crisis time and ANC time? ANC leaders are often exceptionally competent. They can combine the power of money with intimidation, they centralise and extract rents, and they plough most of what they make back into their organisational machines. They do not start out greedier than any other SA citizen.

However, the mechanisms that select them for advancement predispose them to assemble war chests — and ensure that all but a few have absolutely no idea how to address the real challenges facing their country.

The ANC’s time horizons are meanwhile muddled by the movement’s long range theory of history, or “national democratic revolution”. A dysfunctional black empowerment framework and hugely destructive and corrupt state-owned enterprises are insulated from reform because they ostensibly contribute to such historic longer term projects.

The politics of time also make possible symbolic policies that have no chance of realisation — at least before Jesus comes again. Land expropriation, fleets of nuclear power stations, the National Development Plan 2030, and even the AU’s Agenda 2063 (an SA export): all displace the impossible to an imaginable — but imaginary — tomorrow.

ANC folklore celebrates “Umrabulo”, ostensibly a practice among prisoners on Robben Island. It refers back to traditional beer drinking sessions, in which the cup is passed from hand to hand, and — more importantly — knowledge is passed, by deliberation, from person to person.

The problem, while we are deliberating, lies with time itself. The bullet does not really slow down while we act to evade it, and the crises we face do not wait for us to resolve them. Contrary to Karl Marx’s famous dictum, history does not only set human beings challenges they have the tools, and time, to resolve.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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