The folly of good news quotas (from 2013)

THE state broadcaster’s acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, recently reduced hardened reporters to tears, when he observed that positive news stories help nation-building: “You are building the future of the kids.” Guptarian media celebrity Jimmy Manyi equally movingly explained that creating a country with evenly dispersed coloured citizens is hard when “a lot of work that government does isn’t considered newsworthy”. But it has been another difficult week for patriotic journalists trying to fill their 70% “good news” quota.

Fortunately three resources are available for newshounds struggling to escape the chains of negativity. First, the government is generating a blizzard of selective pre-election statistics: adult literacy has soared; malnutrition has halved; access to water and sanitation has doubled; and so on. Second, the Government Communication and Information System’s South Africa News offers living proof that a “good news” approach can work. President Jacob Zuma’s “Senegal visit”, the organ incisively commented this week, “was a great success!” Every day, fresh headlines bring to life fascinating stories ignored by the mainstream media: “Big boom in Switzerland’s SA investments!” “SA, Kazakhstan to boost relations!”

The achievements of maligned Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies are also, at last, properly showcased: “DTI initiative pays off for Limpopo company”; “Entrepreneurship centre for Butterworth students”. The minister’s accomplishments (like the minister’s speeches) simply go on and on.

Third, the African National Congress (ANC) is a great font of liberationist good news. It has taken big steps to liberate South Africans from exploitation by international capital (in particular by BMW). It is also emancipating citizens from sin. Under the Higher Power, Thabo Mbeki, any ANC relationship with God would have represented an unnecessary duplication. After 2007, however, the original Supreme Being was back in charge, selecting a humble Zulu pastor to be Number One, personally picking out the chief justice from his flock, and elevating the deeply spiritual Cyril Ramaphosa (who earlier this year told Pentecostal Holiness churchgoers in Rustenburg that Christians like himself must become the country’s “moral conscience”) to the ANC’s deputy presidency.

Women’s liberation is another wellspring of positivity. ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete, unelected AgangSA life president Mamphela Ramphele, and all the president’s wives, have all been decisively freed from material deprivation.

There is admittedly tension between the ANC’s twin goals of spiritual and gender liberation. Religious activists are apparently clamouring for the righteous Ramaphosa to become state deputy president next year. They observe that only Ramaphosa combines financial management expertise, an excellent short game and profound godliness.

Radical feminists in the ANC Women’s League, by contrast, have been shouting: “We want one of the president’s wives to succeed him!” Their campaign is modelled on the world’s most advanced banana republic, the US, where Democratic Party activists insist the next incumbent should be Hillary Clinton, the present wife of a former president. In order to avoid accusations of nepotism, the ANC may opt instead for the former wife of the present president. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, after all, has already vanquished HIV/AIDS, defeated western imperialism, turned around the Home the Department of Affairs in one month, and transformed the African Union into a dominant actor in global affairs. Speculation about her prospects is now so rampant it has even reached the ears of national newspaper editors.

Confusion in the league this week suggests this issue has suddenly become very sensitive. On Monday, league president Angie Motshekga reportedly described the search for a female leader as “futile”. Later in the week, however, a different spokeswoman insisted there was “absolutely no truth in the reports that the ANC Women’s League has said South Africa is not ready to have a female president”. For Ramaphosa, at least, this may not be entirely good news.

 Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Lawyer jokes (from 2013)

AMID the general doom and gloom about skills in South Africa, it is often supposed that the country simply does not have enough lawyers. According to the Law Society of South Africa, the reality is rather different.

Over the past 15 years, undergraduate enrolments in law programmes have almost doubled, articles of clerkship have mushroomed and the number of practising registered attorneys has increased by more than half to 20,000.

Despite this success story, the legal profession continues to enjoy an uneven reputation.

The ethics of our most prominent legal professionals are constantly questioned in the media. Scrutiny may be especially harsh when, like presidential legal adviser Michael Hulley, the lawyer in question happens to be black.

Challenges of affordability and access further mar the legal profession’s public image. Senior counsel can charge upwards of R50,000 a day for their services, creating the perception, in the words of a former chairman of the Cape Bar, of a silks’ “feeding trough”. Even candidate attorneys in small firms can bill R1,000 for an hour’s work.

Citizens earning less than R5,500 a month can ostensibly access legal aid, but the government provides only about R1.5bn a year to fund such services. This money is spread thinly because almost 500,000 citizens face criminal charges at present.

Resentment of high fees may explain the aggression that typifies popular lawyer jokes. Question: what should you do if you run over a lawyer? Answer: back over him just to be sure. Question: how do you save a drowning lawyer? Answer: take your foot off his head.

Race, once again, is an issue. Highly paid white senior counsel are typically lauded by the newspapers for their allegedly astonishing analytical powers. Dali Mpofu, by contrast, has been lambasted for seeking payment of the modest sum of R17,000 a day, no doubt a reasonable consideration given his inestimable capabilities.

The profession has been slow to improve access to legal services. There is little pro bono work, and lawyers have failed to champion postqualification internships in community service. Unjustifiable barriers to entry, moreover, exclude foreign lawyers and international law firms from competing in the domestic legal services sector.

The central issue, of course, is transformation. The recent dismissal of advocate Paul Hoffman’s complaint against Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, stemming from a speech the latter delivered in July on judicial transformation, will hopefully encourage reflection on this matter. Lawyers are still overwhelmingly white; briefing patterns, in the public and private sectors, still perpetuate discrimination.

As matters stand, citizens have little sympathy for lawyers of all races. When inebriated high court Judge Nkola Motata crashed his Jaguar into the wall of a Hurlingham property in 2007, many cruel jokes were circulated. Question: what do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 100? Answer: Your Honour.

But international studies have shown that lawyers are often heavy drinkers. They are more likely than almost any other professional to get into a car crash. Their suicide rate, according to one Canadian study, is six times that of the general population. And lawyers everywhere are susceptible to episodes of serious depression.

None of this is surprising. Legal practitioners cannot succeed in their work without suppressing human considerations of fairness and efficiency. People enjoy autonomy in the workplace, but lawyers are constrained and tormented by the law itself, as well as by the demands of legal regulation. Because they are at the service of their clients, they must ignore their deepest moral intuitions and pursue objectives and values that may be repugnant to them.

For all these reasons, citizens really should not spread jokes that deepen negative stereotypes of the profession. To take one reprehensible example: Question: how can you tell when a lawyer is lying? Answer: his lips are moving.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Presidential enquiries usually change nothing (from 2013)

AN unfortunate misunderstanding prevails in South Africa’s public life: citizens labour under the false impression that a presidential commission of inquiry is meant to uncover the truth. The commission of inquiry, an institution found in most Commonwealth countries, is an ad hoc investigation initiated by a head of state. An inquiry is typically appointed for one of four reasons.

First, it can help a president evade responsibility for a tough decision. Typical inquiry subjects in Commonwealth countries include the treatment of ethnic minorities and the siting of airports or nuclear power stations. Political leaders who are unwilling to take electoral flak by defending hard policy choices can pass responsibility on to an allegedly “expert” and “neutral” body.

A commission also allows a leader to garner “objective support” and quasi-judicial credibility for a decision he has already taken.

Second, and here the Farlam Commission comes to mind, an inquiry can protect a government from popular outrage. As Anthony Downs observed in his 1972 study of the “issue-attention cycle”, human beings cannot sustain interest for long, not even in the most appalling human tragedies. Deferring judgment allows guilty parties time to get their stories straight. Findings can be couched in legal jargon and published in multivolume sets to render them inaccessible. By the time a report comes out, public emotion has invariably subsided.

A third motivation for appointing a commission is to dissipate blame. As Herbert Hart and Tony Honoré explained in their classic 1959 study, Causation in the Law, we ordinarily ascribe responsibility for a crime or disaster by imagining a chain of causes and effects that led to it. We do not select any old background conditions. Instead we search for those “free, informed, and voluntary actions” without which the event in question would not have occurred. (Sometimes, it is true, we also look for accidents.)

What citizens want to know about Marikana is fairly straightforward: who took the free, informed, and voluntary decisions that led to the massacre?

A commission of inquiry, however, is designed to bring general background conditions to the fore — to turn a hunt for culpable actors into a general sociological and historical investigation into all of the myriad circumstances that ultimately resulted in a “tragedy”. Should such an inquiry inadvertently stumble towards a guilty party, it can be brought rapidly to a close, on the grounds that it has already exceeded the duration of four months specified in its terms of reference.

The final motivation for an inquiry is to attack political enemies.

The Seriti Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Fraud, Corruption, Impropriety or Irregularity in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages could be just such an inquiry.

The terms of reference direct undue attention to relatively trivial matters: are the arms being used? have offsets been realised? The avowed search for “improper influence” in the award of contracts is likely to confirm only that the “consultants” who advised international arms companies benefited handsomely from doing so.

Someone who is safely in the grave and so cannot easily respond — perhaps former defence minister Joe Modise — could easily be painted with a broad brush of culpability.

More pertinent to the underlying political goals of the inquiry is the list of witnesses for the first round of questioning: it features former ministers such as Ronnie Kasrils and Mosiuoa Lekota, former president Thabo Mbeki, and officials from the National Treasury. It is a virtual roll call of President Jacob Zuma’s factional enemies and contemporary irritants.

This inquiry could perhaps be named the “Maharaj Commission” in honour of the president’s extraordinarily able political strategist, Mac Maharaj. When Judge Willie Seriti finally releases his “findings”, perhaps towards the end of the decade, it will be interesting to see whose fingerprints can be found on the covers of the multivolume published report.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Why the electoral system should not be changed (from 2013)

IT IS now 10 years since the Electoral Task Team, chaired by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, released its famous report on electoral reform. A Cape Town round-table discussion this week, organised by the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD) and the University of Cape Town’s Van Zyl Slabbert visiting chair, Prof Roger Southall, met to contemplate the continuing salience of this report and to consider the relationship between electoral systems and political accountability.

The task team’s majority report, supported by Slabbert, championed a “mixed” system in which 300 out of 400 MPs would be elected in 69 multimember constituencies. Because constituency voting favours large parties — small parties cannot win any constituencies — a further 100 “top-up” MPs would be allocated to restore full proportionality between votes cast and MPs elected. The purpose was to create a link between MPs and constituents and so to enhance accountability. The government rejected this and concurred with the minority report’s judgment that a closed-list proportional system, without constituencies, should be retained.

FPD research commissioned for this week’s discussion suggests that the relationship between electoral systems and political outcomes is complex: institutions cannot simply be transplanted from one society to another. An element of constituency-based competition might allow citizens to engage with certain political events and arguments more closely than the present system allows. But elections are not strong instruments for holding politicians to account. Citizens do not know which politician has actually done what. This is especially so when the institutions required for an informed citizenry — effective education systems, free and accurate news media and strong civic associations — are lacking.

Reformers’ energies should arguably be directed towards these institutions and intrastate accountability systems, such as the auditor-general, the public protector and parliamentary oversight committees.

The changes proposed by Van Zyl Slabbert could also bring significant political hazards.

First, constituency competition might greatly weaken parties’ capacity to act coherently. Despite the African National Congress’s electoral strength, it is organisationally very weak. Local party barons are already plugged into provincial and municipal resource systems and greater autonomy would free them still further from party discipline. Those who believe strong and coherent parties are important for democracy therefore have reason to fear reforms that would disempower party bosses.

Second, constituency competition might introduce new political pathologies. The minority report observed that fierce local contests could “compromise racial and ethnic harmony”. The mobilisation of support around ethnicity would be almost inevitable. The present system, by contrast, obliges aspiring MPs to obey the nonracial doctrines of their parties.

Third, constituency-based elections would politicise boundary demarcation. As we have seen in Khutsong, this is a potentially fraught matter. In a postreform system, big parties would gerrymander and bus voters into swing constituencies.

Fourth, the personality politics that constituencies encourage can turn ugly. Business interests will want to buy constituency MPs; candidates will feel obliged to sell themselves. Every MP will be expected to bring resources to their constituents or even carry bulging suitcases full of cash for them ahead of elections.

Finally, local issues are already addressed in local elections (using very much the electoral system that Slabbert recommended for national politics). National elections should allow citizens to vote on manifesto commitments and on the overall quality political leadership, and not on a mishmash of local and populist concerns.

Given today’s political environment, constituency competition threatens to worsen tribalism, patronage and populism — all to secure accountability advantages that are at best unproven. The majority report’s recommendations should probably enjoy at least another decade of well-deserved slumber.

•  Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Agang SA and umbrellas (from 2013)

THERE is nothing more sinister than people with umbrellas. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected to the West in 1969, poured scorn from exile on the regime that once persecuted him. On September 7 1978, at a bus stop close to London’s Waterloo Bridge, Markov felt a sting in his leg. He turned to see a man hurrying away with an umbrella. A micro-engineered pellet, containing the poison ricin, had been injected into his thigh from the umbrella’s tip. Within three days, he was dead.

Fictional villains have added to the umbrella’s ghoulish reputation.

Batman’s long-standing adversary, the Penguin, was a wobbling, waddling, hoodlum, who never left his lair without an umbrella. The Penguin’s umbrella was more than a rain-repelling accessory: it could fire bullets, double as a bullet-proof shield, or expel toxic gases. It could even serve as a parachute.

A more sympathetic parasol-wielding vigilante featured as the arch-villain in a long-running Thabo Mbeki-era miniseries, Fiscal Judge Dredd (recently revived as Planning Man).

Portrayed by Bollywood heartthrob Trevor Manuel, this imposing “Master of the Future” was an adversary of, well, more or less everybody. He also nursed inner demons. In a notorious 2007 horror flick called Polokwane!, Fiscal Judge Dredd ran amok, berating photographers and trying to attack a journalist with his neo-liberal golfing umbrella.

Now South African opposition politicians have “umbrella fever” once again as a result of Saturday’s launch by Mamphela Ramphele of a fictional political party called Agang SA.

Democratic Alliance (DA) activists believe that apartheid was wrong; but they also believe that somebody else was responsible for it. (They are not quite sure who.) Meanwhile, African citizens are disinclined to vote for a party that is willfully forgetful about history. DA leaders therefore need shielding from the black historical chickens that may come home to roost on election day. Could Ramphele, they wonder, pull a chicken-repellent umbrella out from under one of her hats?

The need for such an accessory was first identified by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who observed long ago that only an opposition “umbrella body” could counter a dominant African National Congress.

Two clues about the umbrella’s potential size and pattern were revealed in Ramphele’s address to the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday.

First, her promise to “unveil” her policy platform during Saturday’s launch said a lot about the so-called party’s character.

Unlike real political parties — which argue about policy, fight over candidate lists, and elect leaders — Agang (according to its website) wants to put “citizens … at the centre of public life” by “having conversations across the country, to understand people’s needs and expectations for the future”.

Ramphele’s soon to be “unveiled” leadership team is probably made up of Mbeki acolytes. Associates of Moeletsi Mbeki’s Foundation for Global Dialogue helped set up the party. Pro-Mbeki intellectuals, and businesspeople who made money doing business with the Mbeki-era state, are likely to become funders. Agang will aim to cannibalise the electoral carcass of the Mbeki-aligned Congress of the People.

Second, Ramphele told the Press Club that, in certain petitions to the Independent Electoral Commission, her party would be “working as a team” with the DA. “Working as a team”, of course, could go much further than this.

The Agang life-president claimed earlier this year that the DA and Agang could form a “mutual umbrella”. As a result of her close personal relationship with DA leader Helen Zille, an informal deal might already have been struck.

Perhaps Ramphele has consented to serve as the black front for a DA-controlled opposition alliance? Such an agreement might look like a clever way to dig the DA out of its racial hole; but it is unlikely, in the end, to win over many African voters.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

What does the new technological revolution mean?

We are at the beginning of a great information and communications revolution. Already the mobile phone has become almost ubiquitous, with seven out of 10 of the world’s poorest people owning one. The internet now reaches more than 3-billion people. Routine work is increasingly open to automation. And powerful new capacities for mass data analysis promise to transform all knowledge-based social and economic activity.

The full implications of such rapid technological changes are impossible to predict.

Human history has seen the relentless replacement of animal and then human labour by machines. The latest great waves of displacement saw agricultural labour decimated, and then manufacturing employment supplanted by service industries.

As in previous centuries, the most pervasive fears and hopes to which today’s new technologies have given rise concern their ramifications for employment.

One key difference today is that technology is starting to displace professionals and highly educated workers, as well as more ordinary folk. Writing under titles such as The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, and What to Do When Machines Do Everything, a new generation of technology sceptics observe that the jobs of many industrial workers have already been lost. The positions of travel agents, truck drivers, paralegals, and taxi-drivers are imperiled. Soon the careers of doctors, lawyers, and computer programmers will also be on the line.

Advanced economies confront rising inequality and increased polarisation in their labour markets. The owners of businesses, and the possessors of non-routine higher-level skills, are likely to be the primary beneficiaries of change. Others, at least initially, will be clear losers.

 

Despite these fears, new technologies also hold great promise. As in the past, fresh techniques, and the efficiency gains they encourage, should generate the resources for education and training, and for social protection programmes to mitigate the strains of change. They will also create new and unexpected forms of work. There is already significant employment, for example, in fields such as social media, and the drone industry, that simply did not exist a decade ago.

The more fortunate citizens of technologically advanced countries, moreover, are increasingly becoming freed from many mundane and routine activities. They will enjoy progressively greater choice, convenience, and access to cultural and creative opportunities.

Both the potential gains and possible costs of the technological revolution are likely to be greatest in developing countries. As the World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report pointed out, there could be major dividends for developing countries from the spread of digital technologies.

New technologies can help businesses become more productive, lowering information and transaction costs and spurring innovation. Transaction-intensive tasks, in particular, can be accomplished significantly cheaper and faster.

Technology can also make economies more inclusive, by bringing goods and services into the reach of the poor. The cost of sending remittances from cities to rural families, for example, has plummeted as a result of digital payment systems. Some women enjoy unprecedented opportunities in business-process outsourcing and web-based commerce. The costs of job seeking have fallen dramatically.

Meanwhile, governments should be able to provide public services far more effectively. Digital ID systems make complex social grant programmes possible. Mass data can be used to target public health and social programmes more effectively.

While digital technologies have been spreading fast, however, these various “digital dividends” have so far been disappointing. One reason is that 60% of the world’s people do not have the reliable internet access that enables real participation in the digital economy. Countries such as SA continue to exhibit a variety of “digital divides”: gender, location, wealth and age significantly affect technological access and so skew access to benefits.

Equally important, the new technologies will not bring benefits in the absence of the traditional foundations of development: a flourishing and well-regulated business environment, a capable state, and effective education and training systems.

Businesses tend to be the prime beneficiaries of efficiency gains because the economics of the new technologies favour market concentration. Online platforms and internet intermediaries often secure dominant positions that they will exploit in the absence of strong regulators. Big firms, moreover, can use their power and wealth to limit the entry of competitors.

Second, the failure rate of e-government initiatives is extremely high almost everywhere, and their potential is often wasted. Digital technologies, for example, could be used to monitor teacher attendance and to improve learning outcomes in rural schools. However, these benefits will only accrue where appropriate accountability mechanisms are put in place.

Third, automation is in many countries already “hollowing out” labour markets and encouraging inequality. In a frightening prediction, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim suggested earlier that month that, “two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist in developing countries will be wiped out by automation … At the same time the internet, smartphones, and social media allow everyone to see exactly how everyone else lives, which is causing aspirations to rise all over the world”.

Far from promoting an inclusive economy, new technologies threaten to exacerbate economic exclusion. This means that the importance of education and training has redoubled, and that the skills that are imparted to the next generation of citizens must equip them not with particular skills that may soon become redundant but rather with the capacity to cope with a world of work that is undergoing dramatic change.

As the World Bank has observed, “policy-makers face a race between technology and education, and the winners will be those who encourage skill-upgrading so that all can benefit from digital opportunities”.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan?

Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan? This question is widely contemplated even in England, the country in which the club is nominally situated. One typical joke concerns what one should call an Arsenal fan who has done well on an intelligence test. The answer: a cheat.

If Arsenal is not a popular club in London, how can it be legitimate for it to have numerous supporters in one of Britain’s distant, former colonial possessions?

A weekend listener to radio stations in SA might conclude that only soccer played in the English Premier League is real; local football games are a flickering shadow of the original. Little wonder then that the definition of success for a local footballer is to play for a European team, or that Bafana Bafana are so often held in low esteem.

Is this a problem that the disciples of decoloniality* in our universities can solve? After all, almost all South African sport exemplifies the unaddressed legacies of colonialism, racism and black dispossession. As in other colonial societies, settlers ridiculed “indigenous pursuits”, and these were increasingly confined to rural areas.

English-speaking settlers brought with them the major team sports of the colonial middle classes: rugby and cricket. They also introduced a codified version of the beautiful game.

It would be both fascinating and valuable to recover the history of African recreational traditions to understand how they were linked to the organisation and flourishing of precolonial societies. But to resuscitate such traditions, and to ban those that displaced them, is surely as undesirable as it is impossible.

Cricket and Christianity may be aspects of colonial domination, but they may also embody truth and beauty. (Cricket, anyway.) And they can be turned against those who introduced them: soccer’s offside rule may be a western import, but so too is Karl Marx’s theory of history.

To crush the colonial powers at their own game — as Australians, Indians, Brazilians and Afrikaners have all discovered — can be deeply satisfying. If only such rewards had been available across the previous century to the men in Xhosa and coloured societies who also embraced rugby.

Football associations were thriving by the early 20th century. But the black leagues were starved of resources, and the game was remorselessly segregated. Race laws meant SA had to send either all-white or all-black teams to international events, a restriction the Confederation of African Football rejected on principle — perhaps its first — in 1957. By 1976, segregation had resulted in SA’s expulsion from Fifa.

After 1994, institutional and economic barriers remained in place. Soccer in SA is starved of financial and political resources because it lacks both the deep-seated popular enthusiasm that buoys the sport elsewhere, and the real engagement of knowledgeable supporters.

 

Wealthy Arsenal fans here complain that South African football is just not clean and that this is why they have abandoned it. But many Premier League clubs are the money-laundering investments of Russian oligarchs. Arsenal’s biggest shareholder is Stan Kroenke, a dubious multibillionaire who hails from a land where there is no real football.

We do not have many choices when it comes to identity. Inadvertently, “I am an Arsenal fan” may mean that what happens there matters more to you than what happens here. And, if you can’t tear yourself free from the allegedly mesmerising attractions of the colonial heartland, at least show some respect and judgment: support Crystal Palace instead.

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

*Decoloniality was wrongly changed to decolonisation in the newspaper version.

Zuma’s terrible policy conference

President Jacob Zuma had a disastrous policy conference. Widespread expectations that a coalition of pro-Zuma provinces and leagues would sweep aside all opposition proved unfounded. Instead, events confirmed the analysis of sceptics who have doubted the prospects of the Zuma faction in the elective conference of the ANC due to be held in December.

Fears about political instability and policy uncertainty were stoked by Zuma’s theatrical opening address to delegates, and by the initial swagger of many of his supporters on the conference floor. As the president’s initiatives foundered one after the other, however, some broad realities became clear: Zuma has little control over leadership elections, factional consolidation, policy direction or organisational change.

First, supporters of the candidacy of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Zuma’s successor were subdued. Dlamini-Zuma reportedly made little impact when she spoke. Her evident unsuitability to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2019 national elections inspired ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete to throw another one of her hats into the ring as an alternative “credible woman”.

For such an unlikely idea to have been aired at all indicates desperation in the Zuma camp about Dlamini-Zuma. Pressure will escalate for Zuma to identify a fresh candidate to more energetically wave the flag for KwaZulu-Natal, the premier league and the current patronage apparatus.

Second, the fragility of the coalition behind Zuma was further exposed. The incoherence of the “premier league” of maize-producing, rural provinces, was made clear by the fence-sitting of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza.

Even the pro-Zuma KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, Sihle Zikalala, was careful to balance support for Zuma’s broader agenda with caution about the damaging impact of the Gupta family.

The Youth and Women’s Leagues still have votes to deploy in December, but they are now organisationally and intellectually impotent. The Women’s League’s decision that six men should join their delegation — because they are “less emotional” than women — marked a new low in ANC patriarchy.

In the commissions, the Youth League proved to be ineffectual in trying to deliver a carefully rehearsed script about the racial character of “monopoly capital”.

Third, the quite conservative policy agenda of the ANC emerged unscathed. With regard to the expropriation of land without compensation, black empowerment targets in the mining industry, Reserve Bank inflation targeting and the creation of a state bank, the Zuma camp’s anticipated symbolic victories all came to nothing.

Positions long supported by Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe — that the Bank’s private shareholder anomaly should be removed, that a state bank based in the Post Office should target small business finance, and that prudent negotiations are required in a fragile mining industry — all held sway.

Mantashe’s post-conference observation that capitalism is a “nuisance” — but that it is inescapable — captured the ANC’s enduring pragmatism on this issue well.

There was also little appetite for the usual rhetorical attacks on the media or the courts — presumably because their value has been demonstrated by the actions of Zuma and his associates.

Finally, various proposals for institutional and organisation change were advanced, but none was of any immediate significance. Gimmicks about the size of the top leadership — including an invitation to a defeated presidential candidate to become “second deputy president” — are meaningless in the absence of wider electoral system reform. Such wider changes cannot happen in advance of December’s watershed conference.

Zuma is down even if he is not out. In his closing address to the conference, he said the ANC has emerged both wiser and better. “We have a keen understanding of the challenges and how to overcome them,” he observed. No doubt he has a “Plan B”; all indications are that he will need one.

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

Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler