Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Like Republicans, the ANC needs reinvention

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18 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

In the face of huge problems the ANC, like the Republicans in the US, clings to outmoded dogmas, writes Tony Leon

AUSTEN Chamberlain, who served as leader of the UK’s Conservative Party in the 1920s, reputedly once said that he would "rather take the advice of his valet" than take instructions from his party’s conference.

It is salutary that in the history of the Tory party, arguably the most successful political machine in the modern democratic world, he was one of only two of its leaders who never served as prime minister in the 20th century. Seventy-five years later, William Hague had the unhappy distinction of being the other one.

Whatever his other leadership lapses, African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma does not suffer from a tin ear when it comes to listening to his party.

In August 2007, before elected party leader, he told Time magazine: "I go with the overwhelming feeling of this country; if the majority says ‘Zuma do this’, I will do it."

Since I will be in the South Pacific when Zuma is — on the current reading of the tea leaves — re-elected as the president of the ANC, I cannot comment on the final outcomes of the elections at Mangaung. However, that the traditional approach of presenting a united leadership face to the country has been breached, and even the highest court in the land had to adjudicate the seating of a key province, suggests an infirmity of purpose in SA’s oldest political movement. Of course, it began five years ago: having committed regicide in Polokwane, the comrades developed a taste for blood, and the bloodletting has continued since then.

It is symbolic that the ANC has returned to Bloemfontein, the site of its founding, for its centenary conference. This was also where the National Party was born in 1915, and the clashes between the ideologies and tactics of two largest nationalist movements etched themselves across the bloody and turbulent canvas of the 20th century.

From its far narrower base, the Nats dominated South African politics for the second half of the 20th century until, powerless and shorn of purpose and leadership, it collapsed, in a delicious twist of history, into the folds of its mortal foe, the ANC, in 2004. Historian Hermann Giliomee described its end as "a prostitute’s funeral". The point about the NP’s collapse, despite its dominance for nearly half a century, was that, despite its success in uniting and empowering Afrikaans South Africans, and latterly the white group as a whole, it argued with the larger forces and currents of South African history and, once it had lost this existential argument in 1994, its end was assured.

Financial Times journalist Jurek Martin, one of the most astute observers on US politics, was in SA recently. He drew a fascinating parallel between the ANC and its ideological and overseas opposite, the Republican Party, another of history’s more successful democratic movements, licking its wounds after its recent failed bid to recapture the White House. Interestingly, both parties were born, 70 years apart, to struggle against oppression — slavery in the US and minority domination in SA. Martin notes that he did not expect to find a political similarity between them, "but it exists".

"Put crudely, both are corrupt and living in the past and each may be at a turning point in their respective histories, if they could only recognise it." Martin believes that, in the face of huge problems afflicting both countries — the looming "fiscal cliff" in the US and major socioeconomic problems in SA, both parties cling to outmoded dogmas, while the problems in each "cry out for nonideological approaches".

Strangely enough, and more than eight years ago, while witnessing George Bush’s come-from-behind re-election victory in 2004, I drew the same parallel, although for different reasons. I was trying to figure out why, to borrow the words of one commentator, "unemployed waitresses stood in line to vote for tax cuts for billionaires". This confirmation of Marx’s "false consciousness" rested, in my view, on the ability of the Republicans to construct a big-tent party and house within its hugely divergent interest groups. They mobilised their contradictory base along values — or "Gods, Guns and Gays", in the words of their key strategist. Back then, I commented that the ANC had constructed an equally large tarpaulin in SA, covering everyone in it from unemployed rural farm workers to billionaires, and mobilised them on the potent vote-winners of racial identity and liberation.

Nearly a decade later, the formula has ceased to work for the Republicans. The ANC, while still very much in power, is showing the stresses and strains that occur when "a vote for a better yesterday" loses its shine.

The path from Mangaung will provide the clues on whether this mighty party has the formula for its reinvention.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Required reading in the build-up to Mangaung

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11 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

The choices for books of the year that feature in the selections of The Economist and the New York Times make relevant reading for those heading to Mangaung, writes Tony Leon

AUSTRALIA provided us with the concept of "the cultural cringe" — or the internalised inferiority complex, which causes people in one country to dismiss their own country’s culture as inferior to that of other nations.

Without seeking external validation for my own literary choices this year, and as a contribution to filling the Christmas stocking and also providing some relevant reading for those heading later this week to Mangaung, I was quite struck by two of the choices for "books of the year" that feature in the selections of The Economist and the New York Times.

Robert Caro’s fourth-volume study on the years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, is not simply a minutely and fascinatingly detailed study of the assumption of the presidency by the rough-hewn Texan after the assassination of John F Kennedy, it is an instructive manual on the uses of presidential power for great purpose.

In his introduction, Caro — whose life work has been his study of the hugely consequential and flawed 36th president of the US — tellingly observes: "Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power also reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary…. But as a man obtains more power, concealment is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise."

Johnson was not shy to use his power for corrupt personal purpose — his wife held a swathe of radio and TV licences in Texas, for example. As his first order of presidential business he set about enacting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which enfranchised African Americans. When told by his aides that it was a hopeless task that went against the political grain of his fellow Southerners, he proclaimed: "Well, what’s the presidency for?"

He then proceeded to use his genius-like levels of persuasion and cajolement to ram it through the Senate. In the process, he observed, "we have lost the South for a generation". In fact, the Democrats "lost the South" forever, but the legislation stands as testament to Johnson’s achievement.

It would appear that President Jacob Zuma has Johnsonian levels of persuasion in his own party. One of his apparent attributes, in contrast to those of his predecessor, is the ability to empathise and listen to others. The contrast was well described a few years ago by the US journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, herself a veteran of the struggle for civil rights in the US. She wrote: "It is said that (Thabo) Mbeki decides and never consults, while Zuma consults and never decides."

With decision time upon him and the nation later this week, we know the outcome of the horse-race side of the African National Congress (ANC) conference: in an essentially one-horse field, Zuma is a racing certainty for re-election, while we don’t quite know if Cyril Ramaphosa — the proverbial prince-across-the-water — is a starter or a nonstarter for the number two slot. But on the politically less sexy, but arguably more consequential, side of things, determining the policy choices for the country, matters appear less settled.

According to analyst Steven Friedman, despite the sound and fury of various policy resolutions, it will be a case of smoke and mirrors: from property rights to nationalisation, the rhetoric will disguise the triumph of the status quo. Or, as leftwing scourge of the ANC, Patrick Bond, once termed it, a case of "talk left, walk right".

I don’t know if I share this certitude — and not because party conferences are always determinative of governing behaviour. The danger would appear to lie in the willingness of policy makers to ignore the weight of outside voices and views in charting the way ahead. This acute form of political autism, where the sounds of the party insiders are the only voices that matter, was given expression last week by ANC economic policy chief Enoch Godongwana. He blithely informed us, that notwithstanding warnings from mining executives, credit-rating downgrades and a looming investment strike, the party would proceed to increase mining taxes.

The second book is set nearly 500 years ago in the court of intrigue of Henry VIII’s Tudor England.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, Bring Up the Bodies, charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who rose on the basis of his acute intellect and expert reading of the tides of power to become the king’s chief minister and architect of the English reformation. But the body count in the book starts to rise when those in the royal circle begin to lose touch with the objective basis of their own preferment, and the basis of their wealth and power. Cromwell himself was to lose his head, although the book ends before he does.

SA is a sovereign nation and a complex one at that. But we have an acute dependence on foreign investment flows and are facing an increasingly vulnerable balance of payments position. Let’s hope that some outside voices ring through in Mangaung next week.

  Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Chaskalson transcended his bias and loyalties

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04 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

Many obituarists of Arthur Chaskalson have diminished his legacy by ignoring his ability to reconcile party loyalty and judicial independence, writes Tony Leon

Arthur Chaskalson

JAMES Baldwin once described the US as "the most desperately schizophrenic of republics". I wonder what he would have made of the presence of so many of the good and the great (and the not so great) of our political elite at yesterday’s funeral of former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson? Prominent among the mourners were those who have spent the past few years digging tunnels under the constitutional foundations of our own republic, whose creation stands as a monument to Chaskalson’s legal creativity and political fealty.

The fall of giants this past week (Chaskalson’s death came within days of Jakes Gerwel’s) has led to an outpouring of praise and nostalgic sentiment. With the rule of law under stress, it is comforting to look back at a seeming golden era of constitution-building and its architects, and lament the absence of such figures today.

But the many obituarists of Chaskalson, while correctly underlining his legal pre-eminence, his innate modesty and his abiding commitment to social justice, have diminished his legacy by ignoring his ability to reconcile two seeming irreconcilable things: party loyalty and judicial independence.

Only a statement by the South African Communist Party (SACP) drew attention to the fact that, in the 1960s and 1970s, Chaskalson was "an underground member of the SACP" and, according to it, also served as the party emissary at the constitutional negotiations in the 1990s. In fact, Chaskalson’s official role at the negotiations was as chairman of the "technical committee" rather than as a party negotiator, although his nomination was at the behest of the African National Congress and the SACP.

Indeed, at the multiparty negotiations in Kempton Park, I recall a rather tense moment when he presented a draft that said the draft bill of rights would be interpreted in a manner consistent with a democracy "governed by the principle of equality". When I pointed out that without further qualification, this would simply flatten out future individual claims based on liberty and could lead to many totalitarian temptations in future, Chaskalson was none too pleased. But, after some wrangling, the point was conceded and we managed to insert "freedom" alongside "equality" into the limitations’ clause.

But how was this formidable partisan able to rise to the challenge of interpreting the bill of rights, in his role as founding president of the Constitutional Court, in a way that "defended the constitution, protected human rights … gained the respect of all sections of the community", which was how Chaskalson described his task after his appointment in 1994? I suppose the answer lay not in denying bias and old loyalties but, to an extent, in transcending them.

Other fine legal minds have juggled these roles: US Chief Justice John Roberts, for example had loyally served in the White Houses of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. Despite this background and bias, this year he upheld the bulk of the most progressive Democratic health legislation in a generation, "Obamacare", as it is nicknamed.

During his tenure, Chaskalson displayed considerable deference toward the ruling party when some of its key political interests were at stake (green-lighting floor-crossing, disallowing old ID books for the 1999 general election and refusing to implement proportionality in the allocation of seats for the executive mayoral committee of Johannesburg are three examples). Yet, when it came to protecting citizens’ rights broadly, Chaskalson had no problem finding against the government, on issues as wide-ranging as the provision of emergency housing for the homeless to the hugely consequential Treatment Action Campaign case of 2002, which arrested the madness which then passed for state HIV-AIDS policy.

On the subject of conflict of constitutional roles, spare a thought for Helen Zille. As the national opposition leader, she is at the forefront of defending our constitution as a sort of mighty oak tree that needs to be nurtured on the rather stony soil in which it was planted nearly two decades ago.

Yet, in her other role, as premier of the Western Cape, she must find its protection about as useful as a modest bonsai tree.

With the Congress of the South African Trade Unions threatening to unleash mayhem on the province’s farms, she is reduced to writing letters to the national police commissioner and requesting the president to send in the army. Unlike even a small-town mayor in the US, our constitution provides no original policing powers to the provinces and their leadership.

Our constitution is flawed and reflects the sum, and strength, of the political forces present at its creation. But it certainly beats the alternatives — of not having one at all or hollowing out its rights and entitlements. But it needs constant nurturing by fine minds and independent intellects.

Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Stupendous Breaches of Constitutional Faith

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3 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication: Cape Argus

Friday, November 30, 2012

SA needs competitive politics - Leon

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SA needs competitive politics - Leon

30 Nov 2012 | SAPA | Original Publication: IOL News
(Please note:  This article was not written by Tony Leon)

South Africa's democratic and constitutional health relies on a more competitive political sphere, former Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon said.

“When that happens, as it surely will pretty soon, then our fine constitutional prospectus will start to live and breathe again and be rescued from the torpor of one-party domination,” he said in a speech prepared for delivery in Cape Town on Thursday.

The former South African ambassador to Argentina said when he led the DA between 1999 and 2007, the opposition was going up against staunch ANC history, as a party that held all the moral and political high ground.

At that time, he said the ANC presented a formidable, often frightening, unity in the face of any opposition, whether external or internal.

“Today, the opposite is true: The opposition has the wind behind its back and the ANC juggernaut is showing signs of decay and sclerosis - the symptoms of a house divided whose inevitable right to rule is now under both question and strain.”

Leon said a decade ago he had warned against certain “ANC-sponsored” concepts and practices such as the national democratic revolution, cadre deployment and black economic empowerment.

His pronouncements led to him being called anti-transformational, the voice of white privilege and the fight-back king.

“Now, an entire chorus, including some significant black intellectuals, media editors and trade unionists, are singing from the same hymn sheet, often in far more strident and less polite notes than any I had sounded from my perch as leader of the opposition.”

Leon reflected on his three-year stint in the embassy, saying he would scour the internet daily for news from his homeland.

He said that despite reading numerous doom-and-gloom stories, there were signs of advancement through the harshest of “political winters”.

An example was the continued tenacity of the judiciary to find against the government in significant judgments, despite being assaulted and questioned from various angles.

“I do not believe, incidentally, that South Africa is about to fall off the cliff and plunge into a failed state scenario,” Leon said.

There were too many institutions and feedback mechanisms for the country to follow the same path as Zimbabwe.

However, it was not enough for the country to muddle along in the hope it would get back on the path set out in 1994.

“Our task as citizens is to engage with the complexity and interdict our weaknesses. As simple, and as complicated, as that.” - Sapa

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA

Thursday, November 29, 2012

South Africa Today-Some Home Thoughts Developed Abroad

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29 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon | Speech to Cape Town Jewish Community

Thank you for this kind reception to welcome Michal and me back to Cape Town. We are enjoying our re-immersion in Cape Town and South Africa after more than three years abroad, representing South Africa in the southern cone of South America.
Tonight you have asked me to address a range of issues, captured by the title on the Board of Deputies’ poster advertising tonight’s event, “From Argentina to Zille”. That pretty much covers the table of both my past two jobs, formerly as leader of the opposition and the Democratic Alliance, and latterly as Ambassador to Argentina and surrounding countries.

Let me start locally and share with you some ‘home thoughts developed abroad’.

South Africa Today

You do not need to hear from me the litany of what is wrong or going awry in South Africa right now. You can read it in every newspaper or hear about it on every radio talk show. 

Following events back home from Buenos Aires was similar to watching a movie with the soundtrack switched off. We could read everything, without the background noise and context in which it was happening. Every morning, my embassy colleagues and I would scour the Internet and departmental media digests to track the news and developments in the homeland. It was easy enough to succumb to depression – given the mushroom clouds of venality and stupendous breaches of constitutional faith detonated by those in the highest reaches of government.

Yet even the worst events back home, and one became spoilt for choice in this category, seemed to suggest that some buds of a new spring were sprouting in even the harshest of political winters. The judiciary, for example, has been  under assault by the government and some very dubious characters were promoted to the bench while some excellent candidates, for reasons of race or intellectual independence, and usually for both factors, were passed over. Yet, the highest courts of the land still continues, in some very significant judgments, to find against the government. It had all been preordained before in the old South Africa. In the 1930s, the National Party minister of justice, Oswald Pirow, noted with disgust: ‘The problem with political appointments to the bench, is that six months after their appointment, they presume they were appointed on merit!’

I had told Michal as we set off on our foreign adventure, that there was unlikely to be – in the context of the uncontroversial diplomatic relationship with my countries of accreditation – any issues on which I would be obliged to advance a policy proposition that conflicted with my political principles. Fortunately, my optimism was justified by my real time experience. However, I added as an afterthought to her: ‘If the Protection of Information Bill [which had been introduced into parliament shortly before my departure] is enacted, I will have to reconsider my position here.’

This spectacular piece of legislative mischief as you know was  designed to inhibit severely, if not totally interdict, the media and prevent the exposure of corruption by giving ministers of state sweeping powers to classify information as secret and imposing sentences of up to 25 years in prison on those convicted of violating its muzzling provisions.

Yet, amazingly, the bill remained a work in progress even tonight, although the NCOP appears to have imposed its own version of it, despite opposition dissatisfaction with its processes. Actually, its slow passage and some significant amendments offered by government to ameliorate some, although not all, of its more extreme provisions, was not just due to executive lethargy. It was occasioned by an energetic pushback by a range of political and civil society actors, from across the racial and partisan divides. In fact, a decade or so before, I had strongly warned against the cronyism and constitutionally damaging acts embedded in ANC-sponsored concepts and practices such as the ‘national democratic revolution’, ‘cadre deployment’ and ‘black economic empowerment’. I was dismissed at the time (often, I noted with an amused irony, by the most stringent critics of ANC excesses today) as, variously, ‘anti-transformation’, ‘the voice of white privilege’ and ‘the fight-back king’. Now, an entire chorus, including some significant black intellectuals, media editors and trade unionists, was singing from the same hymn sheet, often in far more strident and less polite notes than any I had sounded from my perch as leader of the opposition.

Opposition stirrings

On the subject of the opposition leadership, I note with approval the strides made by my successors in title, to expand the reach and widen the diversity on the other side of South Africa’s political aisle, within the opposition, particularly in the party that I had devoted most of my life to serving, building and leading, now incarnated as the Democratic Alliance.

I do, however, get slightly irritated when I note anonymous ‘top leadership sources in the Democratic Alliance’ stating that the party’s new repositioning was a conscious effort to move away from the ‘conservative liberalism of former party leader Tony Leon with his fight b(l)ack campaign’, to quote from one media story I read while away. I do not intend to get into a bidding war as to my role in thirteen years as the party leader. I will simply say this:  I did what needed to be done in a very difficult set of circumstances, to create a viable and larger opposition; and, the very beneficiaries of the ‘fight-back’ era have entered the portals of power, in the Western Cape at least, through the platform that I, and at the time very few other colleagues, had built.

When I led the opposition in South Africa, nothing divided the parties comprising that side of the political aisle as much as questions of  unity. In the ANC we were going up against history, as that party held all the moral and political high ground and presented a formidable, often frightening, unity in the face of any opposition, external or internal. Today, the opposite is true: the opposition has the wind behind its back and the ANC juggernaut is showing signs of decay and sclerosis –the symptoms of a house divided whose inevitable right to rule is now under both question and strain.  You do not need to be an opposition partisan to appreciate that the constitutional and democratic health of this country depends on more competitive politics and less certain electoral outcomes in the future. When that happens, as it surely will pretty soon, then our fine constitutional prospectus will start to live and breathe again and be rescued from the torpor of one -party domination.

I do not believe, incidentally, that South Africa is about to fall off the cliff and plunge into a failed state scenario. There are simply too many countervailing forces, feedback mechanisms and significant institutions, corporate and civil, for us to follow the road to ruin of neighbouring Zimbabwe, for example. But equally “muddling along”, “hoping something will turn up” or ignoring the siren voices both at home and abroad will not get us onto the fast track we set out on, with brave determination, back in 1994. As The Economist editorialised in another context, “the ecosystem of a great country is a complex and fragile thing.” Our task as citizens is to engage with the complexity and interdict our weaknesses. As simple, and as complicated, as that.

South Africa and the Middle East.

One of my areas of profound disagreement with the department of International Relations, while serving in it, was over our policy in the Middle East. This is not because I am uncritical of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and the misery and oppression occasioned by that fact. Indeed I (and my Israeli-born wife) am. But I am also mindful of the context of it, and recently returned from Argentina, I can say, with more feeling than most that “it takes two to Tango”. South Africa’s one-eyed, one sided approach to the question of Israel and its opponents is both monotonous and futile. Our equal determination( something  I engaged both the Minister and Director General of  Dirco about) to turn a blind eye to the oppressive regimes of Libya(under Gadhafi) and Syria under Assad and being so behind the curve on the Arab Spring simply undermined our moral capital and squandered our international credibility.

I recently was very struck when I addressed a large gathering of this community in Johannesburg at quite how alienated the Jewish community feels in its own country as a result of this approach. When I had the opportunity to engage, subsequently, with the highest reaches of our government I made the following point: the estrangement is due to the SA government (as they see it) singling out Israel for exemplary treatment (through labeling products from the occupied territories and travel avoidance notices etc). Simply put, I would estimate that 90% of the South African Jewish community has a very strong and positive identification, for reasons of culture and history, with the State of Israel. Their current estrangement is due to the fact that, in their experience, their own government has singled out Israel for negative treatment and attention applied by the government to no other country, or disputed territory, in the world.

Since I have no mandate (and I certainly do not seek one) to speak on this community’s behalf, I believe that the government should engage the community leadership directly on this issue and listen to their concerns.

Direct and robust dialogue between citizens and government is in fact the best approach on all the great issues South Africa confronts as we head into our nineteenth year of freedom under democracy.



Tuesday, November 27, 2012

‘MEGO’ moments aplenty in troubled SA today

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27 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication: BDlive

In troubled South Africa, ‘My Eyes Glaze Over’ is a useful lens through which to view events, writes Tony Leon

WILLIAM Safire, the late great columnist of The New York Times, was fond of neologisms. One of his favourites was MEGO, short for "My Eyes Glaze Over". In today’s troubled South Africa, MEGO is a useful lens through which to view current events, referring to the point at which yet another "revelation", "exposé" or "crisis" induces a sense of yawning fatigue.

In classical terms, it’s similar to the last act of Macbeth, where there are so many corpses and such a trail of bloody destruction, wreaked by the weak king and his ambitious lady, that you lose count of those dead and those still standing.

South Africa is spoilt for choice when it comes to MEGO moments. Last week, Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi coined an acronym of his own: the ruling African National Congress (ANC), he said, stands for the "absolutely no consequences" party. Vavi is referring to the daily revelations of corruption and misgovernance dutifully reported and which generally produce few results in terms of prosecution and interdiction.

The sheer scale and torrent of these disclosures — crooked leases in the Northern Cape, dodgy tenders for toll roads and abuse of private jets for ministerial flights — are just the appetisers from a vast menu. Understandably, MEGO becomes the default option.

In 1995, a year or so after the democratic Parliament was first elected, a single departmental scandal — the misuse of European Union donor funds (by the minister of health) intended to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, but splurged instead on a play, Sarafina 2 — mesmerised the legislature and the press. Those were, in retrospect, halcyon days.

Seventeen years later, I noted a report of my old parliamentary colleague, Willie Hofmeyr, who then headed the anticorruption Special Investigation Unit. He told Parliament he believed that 20% of the entire state procurement budget, equivalent to a staggering R30bn, "was being lost to corruption, mismanagement and incompetence". For his troubles, Hofmeyr was sidelined, but not the problems he highlighted.

The biggest MEGO moment is the arms deal scandal. As the commission of inquiry appointed to uncover the welter of malfeasance at its root continues at its leisurely pace, it is worth recalling that to date only Schabir Shaik was briefly imprisoned for his role in it. South Africa’s battered legal system appears today, especially after the defanging of the Scorpions and the pliancy of the National Prosecuting Authority, to provide a modern update for Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century observation that "laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through".

The endless twists and turns in the road to the Mangaung national conference of the ANC will, before the entire country suffers from MEGO, happily end within a month. But before the body count reaches Macbeth-like levels, one fact stands out. I recall then parliamentary speaker Frene Ginwala memorably explaining why loyal struggle cadres made bad parliamentary democrats. "The liberation movements have brought military style authoritarianism, combined with a tendency to close ranks defensively when attacked or criticised." At the time, I had to deal with the fact that, in contrast, nothing divided the opposition so much as questions of its unity.

Now, the reverse seems to be the case. A united opposition approached the courts to settle the issue of a no-confidence motion, while, in Potchefstroom, a divided ANC allowed a Democratic Alliance mayor to get elected. The "victories" on these fronts point to a new direction. Even the most jaded tourist will not suffer from MEGO when viewing the Taj Mahal in northern India. When I entered its precincts in Agra a few years ago, I was mesmerised by the shimmering white mausoleum, which Mogul emperor Shah Jehan built to the memory of his third wife.

But I lacked the insight of ace economist John Kay. Last week in the Financial Times, he pointed out that Shah Jehan may have appropriated as much as 40% of gross domestic product to support a lifestyle of "exceptional ostentation and self-indulgence". His overthrow by his equally rapacious son did not stop the rot: "The Mogul empire was in irretrievable decline."

As our local moguls eye the "development state" as the road to riches, they might pause to consider the consequences of "rent-seeking" or the accumulation of wealth by appropriation after it has been created by other people. Kay brilliantly captures the difference between the two roads to enrichment: "Whenever the balance shifts too far in favour of appropriation over creation, we see entrepreneurial talent diverted to unproductive activity … until others become envious of the proceeds of appropriation, and the resentment of the oppressed undermines the legitimacy of the regime."

No MEGO moment here, I trust.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No end of lessons for SA from Latin America

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20 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication: BDlive

Brazil’s lashing together of sensible economics and pro-poor policies is worthy of local application, writes Tony Leon

THE past week offered our national trinity — trade unions, big business and the political class — some key lessons from the Latins.

At the weekend, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) enjoyed its "Lula Moment", when former Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva dropped by in Johannesburg to share some of his recipes for successful governance.

Undoubtedly our political elite would like to learn how, after two terms as president, he had an approval rating of more than 80% on leaving office.

Lula’s headline achievement was to disprove the sneering adage that Brazil was "the country of the future, and always will be". Lula’s presidency from 2002 to 2010 saw the slumbering economic giant rise to global pre-eminence; earlier this year it ousted the UK as the world’s sixth-biggest economy.

Its $2.5-trillion gross domestic product has also been used to good effect and now inspires global envy. As Nicholas Lemann noted: "Brazil has achieved a rare trifecta: high growth (unlike the US and Europe), political freedom (unlike China) and falling inequality (unlike practically everywhere)."

No doubt Cosatu and the government will draw inspiration from the rise of 28-million Brazilians, 15% of the population, from extreme poverty into the lower rungs of the middle class.

Our trade unions will emphasise that its achievement was largely owing to the Bolsa Familia welfare payments, credit access for small businesses and rising salaries.

But these impressive accomplishments had a back story and Lula had a predecessor who built the fiscal and monetary platform on which he stood. It is an open secret that Lula and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who beat Lula in the two presidential elections they contested against each other in the 1990s, have a healthy dislike for each other. Cardoso was shunned by Lula during the latter’s presidency, and Cardoso recently derided Lulanomics as "government by cash dispenser".

But it was the combination of them both, the sociologist-turned-politician Cardoso and the metal worker Lula, who overcame grinding poverty to reach the presidency, that created the modern and much-admired Brazil. Cardoso slew the inflationary dragon, which crested at a staggering 2,000% as recently as 1993. He did this through a prudent mix of currency reforms and tight monetary and fiscal policies. He became a hero of the country’s business and financial sectors.

Then, entering stage left, Lula won power only by pledging to maintain his predecessor’s economic course.

But he added to it his populist charm and extended the reach of government to the country’s poor, to whom his life story was heroic. In the process, he became, in the words of an admiring critic, "a purveyor of pragmatic politics that were at once pro-Wall Street and pro-Favella".

Of course, Brazil’s sheer size makes it an inexact fit for South Africa. But its lashing together of sensible economics and pro-poor policies and using presidential authority to popularise both of them, is worthy of local application.

Brazil’s neighbour, Argentina, has hewed a much less successful path. While Cardoso was making way for Lula in December 2001, Argentina entered national bankruptcy when it posted the world’s largest sovereign debt default to the tune of $160bn.

Argentina seemed an improbable place to buy a bank. But just four years after this financial meltdown, Standard Bank did precisely that and went on, under its blue and white brand, to create the seventh-largest retail bank in one of the more economically challenging markets. Last week, the Argentinian Central Bank confirmed the sale of Standard Bank Argentina to the Chinese ICBC Bank, the minority shareholder of the South African parent. For its sale of 80% of its share of the Argentinian operation, Standard Bank will receive $650m, a mouthwatering return on investment.

Standard Bank’s outsize success in South America was largely achieved through prudent lending, smart marketing and the individual skills of Johan Roets, its flamboyant and savvy head of private and business banking.

Finally from the far south last week, the BBC website featured the remarkable president of Uruguay, José "Pepe" Mujica.

Of the heads of state I have met, his background as a leading member of the armed insurgency against Uruguay’s authoritarian military rulers in the 1970s, including his imprisonment for 14 years, most closely resembled the biographies of former struggle activists now governing South Africa.

But there is a singular difference: as the BBC billed him, he is also "the poorest president in the world".

In contrast to the riches acquired and deference expected by leaders elsewhere, Mujica’s election in late 2009 has not led to any change to his admirably austere lifestyle. He continues to live with his wife on a very modest farm on the outskirts of Montevideo and records as his only asset an "elderly" Volkswagen Beetle. He also donates the bulk of his presidential salary to charity.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

JSC has introduced novel criterion for bench

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13 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

I can attest to remarkable jurists who profoundly lacked humility, this apparently now essential quality, writes Tony Leon

INVERTING Groucho Marx’s aphorism "I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member", Jeremy Gauntlett is about to launch a fifth application for membership of the South African bench, having been spurned by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) on four previous attempts.

Perseverance is a judicial quality. Likewise consistency; something possessed in spades by Gauntlett’s nominator for the looming Constitutional Court vacancy, Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, arguably the most distinguished living advocate in both the UK and South Africa. Back in September 1987, in a speech reflecting on decades of judicial gerrymandering by the National Party (NP) government, Kentridge stated "the fact is that when judges are selected on any grounds other than ability, judicial standards must fall".

Thus the more things change, the more they stay the same. On the subject of which, there is one crumb of comfort provided for those dismayed at some of the nominations approved by the JSC. Back in the 1930s, South Africa’s Nazi-admiring justice minister Oswald Pirow noted with disgust: "The problem with political appointees to the bench is that six months after their appointment, they assume they were appointed on merit!"

Still, we must thank the JSC for introducing a novel criterion for the bench. In advancing a reason for Gauntlett’s latest rejection, it cites his lack of "humility". Having grown up in a judicial household, I can attest to some remarkable jurists who profoundly lacked this apparently now essential quality. Two of the great judges of the Natal Provincial Division, John Didcott and Anton Mostert, whose judgments and actions did much to upend the apartheid legal order, were, to put it at its politest, possessed of volcanic tempers and degrees of irascibility. The same is certainly true, both in terms of his personality and legal ability, of the first chief justice selected by the JSC in 1996, Ismail Mahomed, whose mercurial personal constitution was matched only by his respect for the national one. Apparently back then, the JSC did not consider "modesty" an essential attribute for the highest judicial office.

When reviewing Hermann Giliomee’s riveting new work, The Last Afrikaner Leaders, I was reminded of my own role, in the dying hours of the 1993 constitutional negotiations at Kempton Park, in cobbling together a compromise we called the JSC. Early on in the negotiations, my party’s suggestion that judges be appointed by a JSC was accepted, except for the most powerful division, the Constitutional Court. This matter was left over for a "bosberaad", as we then called the "lekgotla", to be convened by the NP and the African National Congress (ANC). In the week before the final days of Kempton Park, I received a phone call from then justice minister Kobie Coetsee. He told me he had just signed an agreement with his ANC opposite number, Dullah Omar, which he was faxing to me. He thoughtfully suggested that "you might want to sound the alarm!" Extraordinary, but true: the man who had just agreed to an ANC proposal to assign the power to appoint Constitutional Court judges to the president and the Cabinet, now wanted an opposition politician to blow the whistle on his agreement. I duly obliged, and after a lot of inelegant elbow twisting, literally at five minutes to midnight on the final night of the negotiations, we agreed that all judges would be appointed by the JSC.

In the 19 years since then, the JSC, intended as a bulwark against political meddling in judicial appointments, for the very reason advanced by Kentridge in his 1987 speech, has seen an inflation of politicians as members and the strong suggestion that a majority party caucus operates informally within it. It has also made it plain that racial demographics is the highest premium in its appointments, although it was only one of several criteria the constitution envisaged.

Excluding and sideling talent, however temperamental and whatever its racial origin, is not what winning nations do. Last week in Johannesburg, I had an interesting encounter with Shaun Liebenberg, the man who once turned Denel around before he left South Africa to head a major multinational in Germany for four years. I congratulated him on his decision to return recently to head up the private equity arm of a Johannesburg consulting company. He then told me a riveting statistic: there are, by his estimation, "over 30,000 South African engineers, pilots, doctors, dentists and technicians currently living and working in the United Arab Emirates".

Doubtless, many of them enjoy earning tax-free dollars, or the shopping centres or even the desert air. But doubtless if we acted on the fact that South Africa has produced some of the finest home-grown talent in the world, some of them would return to help build our country anew.

The admirable diagnostic of the National Planning Commission points in this direction. It states that "successful countries have a future orientation". Amen to that.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA