Thursday, May 21, 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

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