Sara Gon: The ANC has never understood how to run South Africa

Sara Gon highlights the enduring consequences of apartheid in South Africa, particularly its impact on education and job opportunities for the majority. While some black South Africans have achieved desirable positions in business despite the challenges, the ruling ANC’s lack of understanding of the importance of skills and experience has led to disastrous governance and the failure of state-owned entities. Gon argues that loyalty alone cannot ensure success and calls for embracing skills and mentorship to transform the country positively.

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The ANC has never known how to run South Africa

By Sara Gon

Perhaps the worst thing about the legacy of apartheid is that the Nationalists limited the majority of South Africans’ access to decent education and opportunities to hold the jobs they may have wished to.

The laws of apartheid forbade people to live where they wanted to and go to the schools they wanted to go to, stymied their ability to go to universities of their choice, or prevented them from being trained in the skills that could secure decent employment.

Notwithstanding this, many black South Africans did get to hold down desirable jobs and positions in business, but not easily. They proved that social engineering inevitably fails.

However, those who went into exile or were jailed for long periods seldom worked in the ‘real’, ordinary world. They lived abnormal lives.

The ANC and SACP were funded by foreign (largely Western) governments with no performance requirements attached. Cosatu, like other union movements, earned most of its income from monthly contributions from their members. We live with the disastrous consequence of having a 30-year ruling party that doesn’t know how to run a country. It has no idea what effort is required to do so.

Very few people in the Tripartite Alliance earned a living in the usual sense of the word. That is not to deny the great difficulties many of them experienced. But with subsequent access to eye-watering sums of money once it was in government, as well as being wedded to an ideology that collapsed on its own contradictions over 30 years ago, the ANC alliance never gave much attention to the free market influences that are necessary to grow our economy.

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In November 2004 Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC’s then national spokesman, said, ‘I did not join the struggle to be poor’. As described by Inside-Politics.org: ‘Said in defence of his involvement in a BEE deal involving the sale of a R6.6 billion stake in Telkom to a consortium led by former director-general of communications Andile Ngcaba. Ngonyama stood to make up to R160 million. It was through this kind of “redistribution” that the ANC created a wealthy, politically connected class that not only benefited repeatedly from BEE but, in turn, would fund the ANC and its activities. If it was not technically corruption, certainly it was ethical corruption on a grand scale.’

BEE served a variety of purposes, including being the alternative to having knowledge and skills. Cadre deployment is premised on loyalty. However, success depends on knowledge and skills, not loyalty. 

Here in 2023, we have major state-owned entities (SOEs) which have failed catastrophically through theft, fraud, the perverting of procurement processes and so much more.

The public sector was transformed to represent the demographics of the country. Often experienced whites were offered redundancy packages to hasten their departure; reliance on white employees was reduced often precipitously; and electoral support would be strengthened ad infinitum.

Having little leadership experience in the real world of work, the ANC neither knew, recognised nor cared that skills were crucial to success. No criterion trumps that. Acquisition of skills might slow transformation a bit, but it would have (and should have) happened inexorably.

Putting loyalists in public positions at every level without the necessary knowledge and skills was always going to be a disaster, first for the people of South Africa, and ultimately for the ANC itself.

To do a job well for the benefit of the individual, the community, the country and, in the long run, the party, people need to know what to do and how to do it, and then get it done properly. This applies at every level – mundane or complex. It literally seems as if the ANC has only now realised, through the failure of institutions necessary for the success of the country, that loyalty without skills is a recipe for failure.

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Most tragically it was revealed recently that about 300 (probably many more) public sector employees are illiterate and/or innumerate: that’s how little the ANC understands. Although said employees have asked for exposure to adult literacy skills, only about 27% of adults succeed. After too many years of under-education and inadequate exposure, it is cognitively too late to create learning pathways.

Professionals will know how sobering it is that, despite having spent years studying, real-world work bears no resemblance to what you studied when it comes to getting a real job done. You’re still going to have to learn a whole of different lot of stuff and this is done by being trained and mentored by people who have extensive practical knowledge and experience.

And this is what the ANC needs to understand and accept – that you should hang on to the grizzled white guys to teach the young black guys. Knowledge of a workplace – ‘institutional knowledge’ – is invaluable and, without it, performance of an enterprise is vulnerable. 

One has heard of many of the problems at Eskom being that there are too many employees with a theoretical education but no training, and too few employees with experience.

Linked to this are the risks that those who run SOEs have not understood the crucial necessity of maintenance. Problems must be tackled in anticipation of them getting worse, not as or after the infrastructure collapses, which is what most of the country is now experiencing. 

The government was warned about the state of our electricity in 1999 and about water at least by 2008.

In the private sector, the entities would have gone insolvent; but in the public sector the government can prop them up by throwing our taxes (uselessly) at the problem. 

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Why were these warnings never heeded? Did none of these issues seem urgent? Was the party just arrogant in its status as the ‘struggle party’ that had ‘won’? Could the leadership just not comprehend the necessity of skills for transformation?

Was the immersion in Marxist ideology under the Soviet Union so profound that what works has never been considered? 

Very rarely do people succeed overnight. Most people need between seven and ten years’ experience before they can go into business for themselves and create jobs. Cyril Ramaphosa is that very rare creature who became a billionaire by wielding influence and charm. It certainly had nothing to do with his knowledge of how to run a business. His skills were inter-personal not institutional.

Skills can only be gained by working for people with institutional knowledge, irrespective of their colour. Without that, institutions will falter, become corrupted and eventually collapse.    

Peter Bruce, in ‘The skill-killing skills of our ANC government’ – written in response to the absence of skills to deal with the gas explosion in central Johannesburg – says that ‘the fact is the ANC doesn’t care about your skills’. 

He goes on: ‘It literally doesn’t understand what skill is or how you get it, and it has no regard at all for experience. It has just appointed, as a gift, Nathi Mthethwa, a deadbeat former minister, ambassador to France. This after the giant flagpole and the utter idiocy of renaming Port Elizabeth Gqeberha.’

Success relies on skills, whatever the colour of the mentors. Or did the ANC know that skills would get in the way of corruption: the best way to ‘not be poor’?

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*Sara Gon rants professionally to rail against the illiberalism of everything. Broke out of 17 years in law to pursue a classical music passion by managing the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and more.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission