Sunday, May 31, 2009

Holding on to your crown even when you’ve lost*

Monday’s celebration of Africa day — the 45th commemoration of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity — caused me to ponder the link between President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and last month’s co-winner of Idols, Sasha-Lee Davids of Atlantis.
They have more in common than you might imagine. I now she looks sweet and youthful, and neighbouring Bob is neither, but read on.
In a world first, Davids held onto her Idols crown (or half of it, at least) even after it was revealed that, because of botched technology, she had received 200,000 fewer SMS votes than Jason Hartman of KwaZulu-Natal. Competition organiser M-Net decided to split the difference and enthrone them as joint winners: a neat solution, though it did some violence to the concept of popular participation.
Something similar, but seriously violent, happened in Zimbabwe last year. In the March first-round presidential poll, despite energetic electoral malpractices and his vast powers of incumbency, Mugabe actually lost to the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.
But Mugabe didn’t rely on faulty SMSes to achieve final victory. For the next round, he unleashed a wave of violence and intimidation. Amnesty International estimated that 180 people were killed and 9000 injured. Tsvangirai was forced out of the subsequent runoff and, voil€, Bob was installed for his sixth presidential term.
The ever-accommodating leadership of the African Union and the regional honchos in the Southern African Development Community faced a far more serious problem than M-Net did. But, essentially, they arrived at the same conclusion.
They declined to call a fresh contest and used the flawed result to broker an unwieldy power-sharing compromise. Like a Montessori school, everyone would get a gold star. Mugabe would continue as president and Tsvangirai would become prime minister. It was rather like placing a python and a gazelle together, and expecting them to co-exist peacefully. The stalled progress on implementation, more than a year later, points to the limitations of this approach.
Africa has made much democratic progress since the formation of the OAU in 1963. For its first 30 years of freedom, the spectre of one-party states, presidents for life and violent usurpations of power were a continental reality. Extraordinarily, Africa scholar Larry Diamond notes, only one African president was defeated at the polls between 1960 and 1990.The unfortunate incumbent, Aden Abdullah Osman of Somalia, was hardly an advertisement for regime change. His country today is the most failed of states.
A recent study by Daniel Posner and Daniel Young shows that, today, an incumbent president has a 14% chance of losing office — happy odds for him, but at least suggesting the prospect of occasional change.
If you want to know why the odds are so long for the challenger, Kenya in December 2007, like Zimbabwe a few months later, provided an instructive example.
Prior to the presidential vote there, challenger Raila Odinga led the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, in all opinion polls — some placed him 15 points ahead.
With half of the constituencies reporting, Odinga had a commanding lead. The electoral commission of Kenya, stacked with the president’s loyalists, abruptly stopped the count. When it resumed, Kibaki surged to a disputed lead. Within hours, he was installed as president. Predictable outrage and violence followed — 1000 people died and 600000 were displaced.
The solution? Ignore the flawed process and result, the subversion of democratic process and outcome, and give the probable winner, Odinga, the consolation post of prime minister.
The AU blessed the outcome; indeed, it had helped to arrange it. And the West, grateful for an end to violence, quickly resumed its aid payments to Kenya. It chose to ignore the report of chief European Union monitor Alexander Lambsdoff, who said the tallying process “lacked credibility”.
I suppose the same label could be applied to the infamous Florida recount in 2000, which swept George Bush to power, assisted by a craven US Supreme Court. But no one there suggested or entertained “power sharing” as a solution.
Our continent, notwithstanding multiple virtues, suffers from big blights of bad governance. These usually can be traced to the misuses and abuses of incumbent power. Reining in those powers is a key step to improving and deepening democracy.
Before we “do an Idols” when the next disputed election occurs, the AU, and the world, should move in the opposite direction.
Our common law does not allow a person to profit from his own crime. We should apply the same standard to stolen elections and cease building rickety compromises on the back of them.
True democracy goes way beyond credible elections. But they are the essential precondition for its existence. At the next major milepost celebrating African unity, let’s aspire to celebrating the power of real democracy, not the triumph and weary continuation of “incumbentocracy”.

*On the Contrary column, Published Sunday Times May 30, 2009

Lesson for SA textiles sector in the fate of an American icon*

TWO features of power and affluence stand out from my Durban boyhood. The one was textile mogul Philip Frame, and the other was the swanky American car, the Pontiac.
Frame’s Waverley brand literally blanketed the country — protected from competition by the high tariff walls and the policy of import substitution, which was the apartheid state’s quid for Frame’s quo of locating his factories in border areas designed to keep black labour far from the white heartland. In those times, there was little talk of trade liberalisation.
The Pontiac, a far more exotic sighting than a Frame blanket, fed schoolboy fantasies of American excess . The reality of SA was more accurately located in the satanic mills of the Frame Textile group, where in 1973 ultra-exploited black workers defied the law and organised a strike. Frame was unmoved. But the protest galvanised the formation, and ultimate legalisation, of modern trade unions in SA.
There are no end of ironies in the fact that today the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu) has, via its investment arm (nogal) a significant stake in Frame parent company Seardel , and thus in Frametex, as the fast-fading textile empire is today called. Philip Frame had access to the National Party government via his long-standing membership of the prime minister’s economic advisory council. Sactwu’s influence with today’s government is even more direct. Its outgoing secretary-general, Ebrahim Patel, is now the minister for economic development.
He and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies appear eager to use Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) funds to bail out Frame, which is bleeding R30m a month, and will be closed unless it receives government life-support.
This is where the Pontiac comes in. This uncompetitive icon will cease to exist. It’s part of the price the US government has extracted for its infinitely larger (perhaps ultimately R500bn) bail-out of the US car industries. At General Motors, CE Rick Wagoner was replaced; 13 factories will close by next year ; 21000 jobs will be lost, and the powerful United Auto Workers Union has had to accept restrictions on employee entitlements. This stringent package was described by Michigan governor Jennifer Grenholm as “tough love”.
Actually, “tough love” was the exact formula Trevor Manuel prescribed for the South African textile industry in 2004. He later told Parliament “the country cannot protect uncompetitive industries from destruction through global exposure”. Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni was even more hawkish. He opposed the three-year quota on cheap Chinese imports when it commenced in 2006. He told MPs there was not “a dog’s chance” that the industry would become more competitive in the period, having failed to modernise or globalise in the preceding 12 years. Protection through quotas would simply raise consumer prices and fuel inflation.
Well, despite our government obliging the Chinese on the Dalai Lama, their government was decidedly disobliging last December when it declined to renew the quota restrictions on textile imports. The jobs massacre that followed and Frame’s proposed closure proved the point made in a study on, of all things, a 3- pack of women’s panties. The Chinese version retails in SA for 10 times less than the South African equivalent. But now Davies, a softer touch than Manuel, says there is “a strategic importance” in preventing local clothing manufacturers from being dependent on imports.
He did not elaborate on this curious proposition, and fed the impression of a policy being made on the hoof, in response to insider pressure. Leaving aside the glaring conflict of interest between Patel and Sactwu, the government is sitting with the Harvard report. It warns against an industrial policy which seeks to pick and predetermine “ winners”. But if the government bails out Frame, despite the IDC finding no “economic merit” for doing so, it will be backing a loser. Of course, there are 1700 jobs to be considered and the retention of plant and capacity. But, as industry experts point out, there are 600 companies in the sector — all exhibiting the stress fractures and ailments consequent to the recession and the cheap imports. There has been a 46,7% rise in all corporate bankruptcies in the first quarter of this year, compared with last year. How will Davies and Patel determine which is “of strategic importance”, which are “too big to fail” and when does the government apply the laws of moral hazard? What about the most vexed issue of a bail-out: “privatising profit (for the company) and socialising losses (for the taxpayer)?”
A bail-out policy requires transparency, thought, and fairness. It needs to account for, and answer to, the whole of society — from workers, to consumers, to competitors and to our global commitments. It’s a tall and difficult order. And some Pontiacs will get ditched in the process.

* Column in Business Day, Friday 29 May 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Migrant Crisis, Suspect Passports, Corruption ... Welcome home to nasty affairs, Minister!

A forest’s worth of comment has been devoted to the new cabinet unveiled by President Jacob Zuma.
My eye caught one of the less politically sexy transfers announced last Sunday: the decision to move Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma from dealing with the affairs of the world to the smaller but, arguably, even more anarchic, universe of home affairs, where the long-serving former foreign minister will now preside. She will need less quiet diplomacy and more shouting and shoving, if she is to succeed.
The announcement coincided with my own transition from parliamentarian to private citizen. In between writing and speaking engagements, I find myself reflecting on gains and losses.
I will certainly not miss the often dreary non-debates about non-issues which, over the past decade, often passed as the staple of parliamentary engagement. Nor will I mourn, too deeply, the dark arts of political in-fighting and intrigue with which political leadership is associated.
But it will be a challenge and a welcome reality check to experience the daily tribulations of ordinary citizens.
Part of the compensation for listening to all those dreary speeches and enduring the rituals of endless protocols is that MPs are spared from the hassles of, for example, dealing with home affairs. An MP has to threaten neither homicide nor suicide to obtain an ID book or renew a passport. I had the advantage, along with the rest of parliament, of an ultra-efficient and courteous home affairs official who would visit either my office with the necessary forms, or arrange an appointment to process the required document speedily.
This is not the experience and expectation of the rest of South Africa, to put matters at their mildest.
I am not outing my former colleagues about some unearned advantage. But it goes to the point so brilliantly underlined by Professor Paul Collier, director of the Centre for African Economics at Oxford University and author of a recent and riveting work, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What can be Done About It.
South Africa’s position in the middle ranks of world economies does not qualify us for automatic inclusion in the author’s diagnosis. But Collier’s point on the difference between successful and failing departments of state could have been drawn directly from our experience.
He notes that many governments in the developing world, such as South Africa, have removed the revenue-raising function from the traditional civil service. His explanation is both accurate and uncomfortable: “Why did governments go for the radical option on revenue but not on service delivery? The answer is depressingly obvious. Governments benefit from the revenue, whereas ordinary people benefit from basic services. Governments were not prepared to let the traditional civil service continue to sabotage tax revenues because governments themselves were the victims. They were prepared to leave basic service delivery unreformed because the governing elite got its services elsewhere.”
The new minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, is much admired for his achievements as our chief tax collector. In 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the SA Revenue Service, it was recorded that the outfit had topped the half-a-trillion rand mark in revenue collection for the decade. That year alone, it had exceeded, by some 16%, the original printed estimate for taxes.
No doubt, Gordhan is a sharp manager. But the decision back in 1977 to create SARS as “an administratively autonomous revenue agency functioning independently from the public service administration”, to use the full glory of government-speak, was a decisive factor in improving, nay, radically transforming, the coffers of the state.
When Dlamini-Zuma studies her new in-tray, she will see that our local problems with home affairs have now been universalised. Hot on the heels of the British government’s decision to require South Africans to obtain visas for the UK is a new US Department of State Country Report on Terrorism. With just more than a year to go before our showpiece World Cup, it makes gloomy reading. It cites “poor administration”, “lack of institutional capacity” and “corruption” in home affairs as hampering our government’s ability to “pursue and intervene in counterterrorism initiatives”.
Today’s depiction of home affairs could have been, a decade or so ago, an accurate working description of the old Receiver of Revenue, as SARS was known pre-transformation.
The decision to yank revenue collection outside the stifling embrace of the public service was decisive. No quotas, no inappropriate wage and occupational bands, coupled with the importation of skills and technology and Gordhan’s management, turned a dysfunctional department into the brightest star in a fairly bleak universe of service delivery.
The former minister of finance, now enthroned as our planning czar, became famous for requesting tips for his budget. Perhaps the man who has now taken his place, and filled the coffers, could pass along some of his own. Home affairs would be a good place to start.

*Published Sunday Times 17 May 2009

New Government in SA: We will know soon if changes to Cabinet are improvements

LAST Saturday, at his inauguration, President Jacob Zuma put away his machine gun. Instead, he spoke, rather than sang, a hymn of reconciliation. Leaving aside the jarring applause which greeted the arrival of the superannuated tyrants Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi (the latter increasingly resembling an ageing Michael Jackson), the event was a symphony of inclusivity.
The new president reached out to the nation he now leads in the rainbow language of Nelson Mandela. He called for the rediscovery of the country’s founding partnership, “in which there is place for all South Africans, black and white”. He proclaimed that his version of national unity did not require “the wisdom of a single vision for SA,” as the now-vanquished Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi triumphalised after the 2004 elections. Instead, Zuma called for “a democratic debate that values diverse views and accommodates dissent”.
It is easy to dismiss these grace notes as the rhetoric of ritual. But, at a minimum, Zuma’s declaration, along with his pledge to purge “laziness and incompetence” from society and government, provides a useful yardstick for future accountability. It also hands a rod for the opposition to beat on the back of an underperforming government. But the apparent honeymoon between the government and opposition lasted all of three days, when a bilious war of words broke out between Helen Zille and the African National Congress Youth League, which I will address next week.
Anyway, the next day the president appeared to live up to his promise, when he unveiled his new executive. He has inspanned his own “team of rivals”, in terms of viewpoints and personality. With inflation targeting now apparently up for debate, there was something decidedly expansionary about Cabinet size. It has increased by over 20%.
The markets reacted well to the retention of Trevor Manuel in a new post, although his future role and powers remain unclear. Business was enthusiastic about the insertion of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, noting his success in broadening our tax base from 24% to 28% of gross domestic product since 1997.
Abroad, the influential Financial Times changed its tune on the perils of moving Manuel. The newspaper had previously warned Zuma, on April 24, that keeping Manuel at the Treasury would “be a good start” in easing market anxiety. But after the new line-up was announced, it editorialised on May 12 that the new Cabinet, specifically Gordhan’s new post, “seemed to have calmed business fears that (Zuma) might lurch to the left”.
However, the business sector, at home and abroad, will no doubt greet the arrival of arch-unionist and ultra-protectionist Ebrahim Patel, at the newly conceived Ministry of Economic Development, with “about as much enthusiasm as the Romans greeted the arrival of the Visigoths” — to quote Gideon Rachman’s description of journalists’ reaction to Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal.
The proclamation by Congress of South African Trade Unions heavyweight Tony Ehrenreich that Patel will “confront the old business ideologies ” will doubtless cause some boardroom anxiety. But Patel will soon confront the key fact that the private sector still contributes two-thirds of the country’s fixed investment. Spells in government sometimes convert poachers to gamekeepers.
If some of the personnel selected gave the appearance of a “Cabinet of curiosities”, then the complexity and location of the new decision-making process was the other stand-out feature.
One of the reasons for Manuel’s star turn at the Treasury was that economic policy and execution were tightly held. In form, although decidedly not in substance, the old ministry of finance closely imaged the governing ideology of centralisation. Now it has been truly federalised. In Hilary Joffe’s estimation, economic policy is now balkanised into the remit of seven or eight ministers and their deputies, several of them highly ideological. Whether this will lead to a joined-up government of improved service delivery, as promised, or to a bureaucratic traffic jam of stalled decision-making and populist concessions, should be soon apparent.
The National Planning Commission is at the heart of the new administration. It is more radical than anything previously unveiled. But it is worth remembering that the Mandela government commenced with the ministry of reconstruction and development at its centre. Jay Naidoo lasted but two years in that job before he was bowler-hatted to run the Post Office, and the ministry closed. Thabo Mbeki’s term began with a new “policy co-ordination and advisory services unit”, located in the Presidency. The end result was mixed.
Will the new president succeed where others have stalled or faltered on the delivery front? In a recent response as to whether Zuma had the makings of a good president, De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer deadpanned: “Ask me at the end of his term of office.’’

Wise words.

*Published: Busienss Day 15 May 2009

Polokwane’s aftershocks felt across political landscape: Opposition politics in SA

POLOKWANE in December 2007 — and the palace revolution that toppled Thabo Mbeki — registered a full-scale 10 on the Richter scale of political earthquakes. Its final tremor was felt on Saturday, when Jacob Zuma was inaugurated as SA’s fourth democratic president.
In the smaller universe of South African opposition politics, there have been some recent seismic events of a lesser magnitude, which could also indicate a shift in the tectonic plates of our politics.
Last Wednesday, when Parliament assembled for the first time since the election, it was the third party in the house, the Congress of the People (COPE), rather than the government’s traditional bĂȘte noire, the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which attracted the ire of the African National Congress (ANC).
COPE’s parliamentary debut — and specifically its decision to oppose Zuma’s presidential candidacy — was greeted with jeers and catcalls. And no doubt there is something either from the story of Don Quixote, or the annals of chutzpah, for a party with just over a million votes to oppose the leader of a governing party, which recently received a mandate from more than 11-million South Africans. Ironically, the DA, whose improved electoral performance was purchased, in part, on the back of a “Stop Zuma” campaign, chose not to do so when the crunch parliamentary vote was recorded. Its abstention drew appreciative applause from the governing party.
The DA reasoned, correctly in my view, that the parliamentary vote was simply a post-election ritual, and that the ANC’s victory was both emphatic and legitimate. However, in the world of perceptions and headlines, COPE’s gambit appeared to fulfil Winston Churchill’s judgment that “I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities he excites among his opponents”.
And, no doubt, by taking the fight to the ANC, and drawing in some 17 MPs from the minnows on the opposition benches, the leaders of COPE could stop, for a moment, fighting each other. When the DA was formed in July 2000, our success in the December municipal elections, where we drew 23% of the national vote, kept at bay, and out of the newspapers, the leadership tensions between my deputy, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, and me. It took about 15 months for these power plays to metastasise into full-blown civil war.
COPE’s infighting, fuelled no doubt by dashed electoral expectations — it recorded just over 7% of the national vote in last month’s poll — has commenced much earlier and in plain sight. Both on-the-record briefings and insidious media leaks around the role of party leader Mosiuoa Lekota and his unceremonious dumping out of Parliament into the bowels of party head office suggest a serious drift atop the fledgling party.
The voting public soon tires of leadership splits and schisms; the Pan Africanist Congress, now reduced to a one-man spectral presence in the new Parliament, its heroic liberation biography notwithstanding, should provide an instructive example.
COPE might be incoherent on the question of leadership, but last week it took a tactically decisive step on the vexed question of opposition realignment and future strategy. But the two issues are, in fact, closely related. Lekota, by all accounts, was an enthusiastic support of the invitation from DA leader and premier Helen Zille to join her coalition government in the Western Cape. Zille hoped to use the provincial government as a template for closer opposition realignment and coalition-building elsewhere. However, the COPE leadership again rebuffed Lekota, and now Zille, and declined. The fast-fading Independent Democrats (ID), which polled barely over half the COPE total in the province (4,65% and 7,74% respectively), joined the Western Cape government. While the ID participation in the province cements the coalition between the parties in Cape Town, it has no national significance.
COPE, by contrast, is the second party and official opposition in five provinces. It must have reasoned that a closer union with the DA could hinder its quest to make further inroads into the ANC vote across the country. That poses a challenge for the DA, and its realignment strategy, going forward. But, equally for COPE, the go-it-alone tactic, without the patronage of power or governance, could prove hard going. When Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert led the opposition, he once ruefully observed, “My gravytrein is so kort” (My gravy train is so short). With control of one provincial administration and most Western Cape municipalities, Zille does not suffer from the dilemma of having no gravy on her ladle.
But then Zille is not the leader of the opposition in Parliament. The result of the contest for this title last Thursday, when the newly elected DA parliamentary caucus assembled, detonated the biggest bang on the opposition terrain. Against expectation, and with the weight of the party establishment against him, freshman MP (although a veteran of Eastern Cape provincial politics) Athol Trollip knocked out meister strategist and leadership insider Ryan Coetzee.
I am friendly with both contestants and sad one had to lose. But as Coetzee once observed to me in another context, “no good deed in politics ever goes unpunished”. After designing and executing such a successful recent election campaign, Coetzee probably believes he’s now living proof of his own maxim. The very centralisation of power and decision-making, which Coetzee engineered, proved a winner in turning out the DA vote. But it did not endear him to all sections of the party, and helps explain his defeat.
Trollip won, in part, because of his obvious gifts — for example, trilingual fluency, a leadership record and streak of independence. With national leader Zille preoccupied with running a province, which is already under siege from the ANC, the DA parliamentary caucus perhaps signalled that it wanted to assert itself, and not be simply a national tide pulled along by a provincial moon.
In his first press conference, Trollip promised to improve the opposition’s relationship with government — echoing Zuma’s earlier undertaking to open a new chapter on the generally dreary and, at times, dreadful antagonisms between the two. A refreshed leadership on both sides should help. But the dilemma in this “soft power” approach was underscored just a few hours later. Trollip was dispatched by Zille to read out a speech on her behalf to delegates at the World Justice Project in Cape Town. In the address, Zille stated that the “legitimate” ANC poll win was tainted by the manner in “which it was prepared to undermine the spirit and letter of our constitution”. That very afternoon, in the National Council of Provinces, Zille was roundly heckled by ANC members when she reminded the house that its higher duty was to the constitution, not the party.
But if there appears to be a duality in the approach of COPE and the DA towards the governing party, and each other, evidence of an unlikely rapprochement elsewhere was also on display last week.
Siren calls between the ANC and its one-time provincial nemesis, the now considerably reduced Inkatha Freedom Party , were heard inside and outside Parliament. But there was no deal. Instead it was the minuscule Freedom Front Plus (which has four MPs) that accepted a deputy ministry in the Zuma administration.
The waves of change that washed over the governing party less than two years ago are far from spent. They are now lapping over the opposition as well.
* published 28 April 2009 Business Day

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Operatic Politics

LAST week’s election was the grand opera of our democracy. It was dramatic and sung through: outcast-turned-folk hero Jacob Zuma hit the high notes with Awulethu Mshini Wam. It was received with acclaim from most parts of the auditorium, especially the poorer seats.
Meanwhile, democratic diva Helen Zille’s aria, Koekie Loekie, delighted a growing minority in the gallery. Several reputations — such as that of fading prima donna Patricia de Lille, died a thousand deaths. Even the toppled regent, King Thabo, made a brief — and typically elusive — appearance in the grand finale: the breakaway jig of his camp following drew less audience support than expected.
On a 77% poll, it was a near sellout at the box office. But if the election was one of high drama and soaring scores, let’s hope that, when the action shifts next week to parliament, it doesn’t descend to the low farce and disappointing reviews the national assembly has generated since the end of the Mandela era in 1999.
Since then, parliament has, in many areas — from stifling the arms deal inquiry, to feather-bedding ethically-challenged MPs and drowning out opposing voices — “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, to borrow the famous phrase of Abba Eban.
When parliament convenes on Tuesday, it will be almost 13 years to the day since it enacted our new constitution which, in its majestic reach and detailed prose, promised accountable government and legislative oversight, and formalised the role of the opposition.
A North Korean-like veneration of the presidency, ritualised name-calling and defanging the bite of question time were not part of the package — but, in essence, under Thabo Mbeki’s baton this is a fair working description of the previous two parliaments.
His soaring and inclusive “I am an African” invocation of a humane tolerance as deputy president was never followed through as president. On the contrary, his sneering indifference to opponents — both external and internal — became in the end almost a parody. He brought to mind Linus, the Peanuts cartoon character, expostulating: “Humanity? I love humanity — it’s people I can’t stand.”
The relationship between government and opposition is crucial to our democratic health. But it’s not about love or mutual admiration — it’s about respect for institutions and choice. Under Mandela it was a little like Fatal Attraction. He enjoyed and revered parliament and its institutions, and would, countless times, phone me for a chat or, flatteringly, “to seek advice”. He even once, during a particularly brutal spat with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, asked me to forego my speaking turn in a debate so he could explain his position in private. When I declined the suggestion (as I did his offer of a cabinet seat), it didn’t affect the relationship one jot.
I also led the opposition for nine-tenths of the Mbeki presidency. Like the derivative assets of a bad bank, the relationship was — to put it mildly — fairly toxic.
However, after the 2004 election, which Mbeki won decisively I, literally, reached across the aisle, stepping down from the podium to shake Mbeki’s hand and pledging to behave as an “opponent, not an enemy”. My attempt at glasnost proved unsuccessful; he seemed warm enough, but a few days later his confidant, Sydney Mufamadi, repaid the compliment in a swaggering currency: “The contract between us and the masses cannot be supplanted by a handshake. Thank you very much, Mr Leon, your hand must not cross the floor,” he told parliament.
This parliament is likely to be very different.
For example, Jacob Zuma appears already to “have reached across the aisle”. His post-election remarks at the Independent Electoral Commission suggested respect for non-ANC voters and their choices. He also faces a somewhat larger opposition force, with 30 former comrades in the COPE ranks.
The front-running candidate to lead the DA, and the official opposition in parliament, Ryan Coetzee, has a quick brain and sharp elbows. He is impatient with the flummery of ritual, which has often substituted for real debate. Athol Trollip, the other major contender, speaks perfect Xhosa (when he assisted my housekeeper with a problem, telephonically, she refused to believe he was a “white man”).
Crucially, however, the tenor of government/opposition relations is set by the president. And as for the “Big Man” (as The Economist dubbed Zuma), he has a track record as a conciliator. But I also recall the words of a senior official in George W Bush’s administration, intimately involved with Zuma in his peace-broking efforts in Burundi. He told my study group at Harvard how he had witnessed first-hand the brutal (and in his view entirely necessary) manner in which Zuma threatened the recalcitrant parties there. “There’s nothing sweet and cuddly about him when the chips are down,” he said.
Perhaps, then, the spark of engaging debate — less of a danse macabre between the government and its opponents — and some lively drama will return to the stage. It’s past time for the long-suffering South African audience.

* Published 3 May in the Sunday Times.