Last Thursday, as my column, “Do the ANC’s small disasters signal the large collapse?”, for our sister publication Business Day was in the works, I had no idea an event in parliament would provide another example of my thesis.

In the Business Day column, I catalogued the serial chapters of ineptitude and crass negligence, from unpaid staff and tax bills, late registration of municipal candidates and outright bankruptcy which possibly presaged a wider collapse for the ruling party. These smaller disasters could preface the collapse of an empire at some stage, perhaps sooner than expected.

At the same time there was an almost unreported event in parliament which provided another brick being removed from the once-impregnable wall of ANC dominance.

It is perfectly true that far from being the focus of national and media attention, parliament today is largely treated by public and press alike as an extremely expensive, but ultimately impotent, relic – a constitutional adornment which disguises that most decisions of consequence happen far from its precincts.

SA, after three decades of ANC “democratic centralism”, has provided a modern example of what political theorist Hannah Arendt terms “dual authority”. The difference between real and ostensible power lies, she suggested, in the conflict between the state and the party. In totalitarian regimes, the party always trumps the state.

In SA, while dual authority is a pretty good fit for the expansive needs of our ruling party, the presence of a constitution with some teeth means the final word on whether the party or other instruments of state prevail in a contest of wills is less predictable than under conditions of totalitarianism. Arendt drilled into the malignancy of Stalin’s Soviet Union, noting the “absurdity” of that country’s fine constitution and the grim realities of privation and suffering in everyday life.

A requirement of our constitutional order to enact legislation is a majority vote in parliament and a majority of members of the National Assembly being present before the vote is taken. Hence the need for a quorum – or 201 members out of 400 MPs – to enact the bill.

Since the ANC has 230 MPs in parliament, it need to muster only the bulk of them to be present to enact any bill of its design, regardless of how many opposition members oppose it.

Last Thursday proved the malaise in ANC party management has travelled more than 1,000km into the halls of parliament itself. (Though given the subject matter of the ANC’s latest “small disaster”, this might be no bad thing, even as a temporary reprieve.)

The centrepiece that day was the passage, or second reading debate, of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill.

When the principal act was first introduced in 1998, I was in parliament and led the opposition to what I then described as “a pernicious piece of social engineering, pious in intention, but destructive in effect”. This had nothing to do with the redress involved, but, in my view, had everything to do with affording a politician — the minister of labour -sweeping powers to demand compliance with racial percentages in the workforce.

It bypassed the needs of small businesses for which the compliance costs would be staggering and the use of sticks, instead of carrots, to enforce compliance was against the grain of effective buy-in for that scarce commodity: investors and job creators.

Back then, GDP growth was low (about 0.5%) and unemployment was high, affecting nearly 5-million people.

But compared with the jobs bloodbath today and the crashing of our economy since that seems a golden age indeed.

Today, more than 11-million people in the country are unemployed and the only basis for life for the bulk of our people is social grants, which now cover 18-million recipients, all funded, in the absence of economic growth, on the state borrowing money – at a cost of about R2bn every working day.

Last Thursday hardly seemed a propitious moment for the minister of labour to introduce even more sweeping legislative changes to the Employment Equity Act, which has been flagged by investors, local and especially foreign, as a huge deterrent.

Perhaps when Bloomberg, the international financial media company, headlined on August 24 that “SA unemployment rate rises to highest in the world”, the government might have paused to reconsider the correctness of its policies.

Even before that, The Economist, something of a bible for international investors, editorialised on July 24 that it was “The end of the road for ANCnomics”. It noted that it was “little wonder” unemployment had more than doubled in just 10 years, as the only group of people – beyond billionaires such as President Cyril Ramaphosa and his family – are “those working for the state”.

The minister of labour has been enjoying a new title since 2019 – that of minister of employment and labour. But having presided over the highest record of unemployment in the country’s history – and in the world, according to Bloomberg – slapping another adjective onto his ministry proved perhaps incautious.

Since then, millions more jobs have been lost. Yet Nxesi has not only remained in the upper echelons of government, he now also presides over the ministry of labour.

In introducing his latest amendment to the Employment Equity Act last week, Nxesi was in expansive form. Clause 4 of the amending bill will allow him to identify “national economic sectors” and then determine numerical employment targets based on race and gender (employment equity) for those sectors. In other words, beyond some vaguely defined consultation process, the minister will now determine the makeup of the whole economy or any section of it which catches his fancy. And it is also geographic: it allows the minister to gazette regions and even subregions where his racial abacus can be wielded to affect a result.

And there is plenty more in it: legalises intrusive inspections by the department to ensure compliance and allows the minister to outlaw the non-compliant “from doing business with the state”.  No bushel of carrots here – plenty of sticks.

Opposition MP Dr Michael Cardo, the DA’s labour spokesperson, led off the debate with a spirited attack on the bill. He described it as “a job-destroying jackhammer”. “Why should anyone want to invest in an economy, or create new jobs, when a politician gets to decide what the labour force looks like or how the labour market operates?” asked Cardo.

“The ANC has rammed this bill onto the order paper before we rise for the local government campaign so that it can lay claim to some conveniently timed victory for ‘our people’.”

But what Cardo had not counted on was the ANC’s inability with the ramming instrument: it failed to get enough of its MPs to be present for this showpiece event.

And when the DA and FF+ logged off the session, their absence and the larger absence of the ANC’s awol MPs meant the bill could not pass. It lapsed until its likely revival sometime next year.

Some interim relief, then, for hard-pressed businesses. But cue the outrage of ANC ally Cosatu, whose members, all in employment in relatively high-paying state jobs, stood to gain the most from the amended bill.

Its spokesperson, Matthew Parks, issued a shrill denouncement on the “pathetic failure” of the National Assembly to achieve a quorum.

His ire was primarily reserved for Cosatu’s national ally, the ANC. The failure of its MPs to vote, he said, “reflects weak leadership and ill-discipline among the ANC caucus in parliament”.

Ouch, or eina, on the eve of the all-important local election.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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