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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Can Obama Hear South Africa's Cheers?

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07 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: HuffingtonPost

I guess, judging by the social media chatter, radio call-ins and other background noise in Johannesburg today, that most South Africans awoke (we are six hours behind EST) with pleasure to the news of Barack Obama's sweeping, if hard-fought, re-election last night.

There are a number of sentiments behind this acclamation: simply as the most expensive (by a huge margin) electoral contest in the planet and the saturation coverage it received on the satellite tv stations broadcast here, this presidential election was always going to attract a big local following.

Next, there is the issue of identity: although Obama only paid one fleeting visit to South Africa, as a junior U.S. Senator, the stand out fact is, of course that he is half East African and occupies a White House (on which his lease has just been extended for four more years) built, as David Remnick noted in his influential work The Bridge, by ''West African slaves who had no last names or carried the names of their masters." Identity, especially racial identity and shared struggle and oppression, matters in this corner of the world and on this continent. And even if Africa barely featured in the campaign, if at all, there is an affirmation of pride and solidarity in the result, a reaffirmation of the history-breaking election of four years ago.

Then, there is the fact that, despite some thin accomplishments on the foreign policy front at least in Africa, as with the rest of the world there were few local votes for Mitt Romney, whose projection as a predatory private equity super-capitalist, however distorted, hardly matched the mould from which Obama was cast . The 1%-ers have not too many followers in this country, which has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world.

Of course all this viewing of the American election through the local lens can be distorting and misleading. To transpose Al Gore, there is at least one big ''inconvenient truth." And it actually concerns the man who beat Gore in the even more dramatic and disputed election of 2000, George W. Bush. Undoubtedly history and American voters and the world will remember "43" for the several big things he got wrong. But actually, unheralded and often unremembered, he was probably and ironically (given the provincialism in which he shrouded himself and his forays into the Middle East) the most consequential president for Africa: His Prepfar AIDS initiatives put huge resources (more than $15bn) behind the provision and roll out of antiretrovirals, and saved millions of lives. His unflinching support for Congress's AGOA pro-Africa unilateral trade access has been a game changer for African employment creation and sustainability. In tiny neighbouring Lesotho, some 40,000 textile workers have sustainable jobs due to this policy.

So much for the past. Although I cannot forget that four years ago last night I was actually living in Washington, D.C. and working as a visiting fellow at a think tank. On election night in 2008, we celebrated with a party in the attic of our brownstone rental, for a group of visiting South Africans and a few locals.

Watching the drama unfold on the TV screen, it seemed less like political spectator sport, and rather more like a shimmering event of historical redemption. Fortified with the obligatory take-away pizzas and beers, we were all glued to the TV at that around-midnight moment when Obama passed the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency and the networks proclaimed him the winner.

I turned away, almost choking on the historic significance of the fact that the next occupant of the White House had an African provenance. I noticed that there were few dry eyes in our TV den as we observed the conjoining of a moment of American exceptionalism with a reminder of its more shameful past.

Last night's result was a little closer and more grinding in its achievement, and with racial voting patterns which would not be unknown in South Africa, except for the reversal of the ratio of black and white and the absence of Latinos here. Still, the hope might be a little faded and frayed in America and the world this time round. But the expectation that a new mandate will lead to its fulfilment still burns pretty bight in this part of the globe.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA



Tuesday, November 6, 2012

US outspokenness is a virtue worth importing

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06 Nov 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive

The US might be in gradual decline on several fronts, but its political contests remain in the financial stratosphere, writes Tony Leon

DURING the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama frequently invoked the observation of 40 years earlier by Martin Luther King, on whose shoulders his campaign stood, that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice".

Four years ago today, I was resident in Washington DC, where we celebrated election night with a party in the attic of our brownstone rental for a group of visiting South Africans and a few locals.

Watching the drama unfold on TV, it seemed less like political spectator sport and rather more like a shimmering event of historical redemption. Fortified by the obligatory takeaway pizzas and beers, we were all glued to the TV at that around-midnight moment when Obama passed the magic number of 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency and the networks proclaimed him the winner.

I turned away, almost choking on the significance of the fact that the next occupant of the White House was part East African and that he would soon inhabit a residence built two centuries before by slaves of West African origin who, in the words of David Remnick, "had no last names or carried the names of their masters". I noticed that there were few dry eyes in our TV den as we observed the conjoining of a moment of American exceptionalism with a reminder of its more shameful past.

Tonight’s result is likely to be much closer and certainly less historic than 2008, assuming that Obama, as polls suggest, does indeed nose ahead of his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. The Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released last week shows that, barring a last-minute surge, Obama is going to fall well shy of the 52.9% he won in the 2008 election. It might still be good enough to win, but it won’t be resounding.

The key defection among previous Obama supporters has been across the board among white voters. But although whites still constitute three quarters of the electorate, Obama has maintained his narrow lead by his high retention rate of black and Latino voters, the latter being the fastest growing group in the country.

But the standout feature of today’s US election is that it is the most expensive in the history of the planet. The US might be in gradual decline on several fronts, but its political contests remain in the financial stratosphere, and today’s exercise cost about $2bn for the rival presidential candidates and an overall $5bn for the entire cycle, including the primaries and congressional races.

Race-holding or reversion among voters was perhaps to be expected, especially in hard financial times, although even the most jaded South African would have been offended by the T-shirt worn at a Romney rally in the all-important state of Ohio, which proclaimed: "Put the White Back in the White House."

But the deep animosity, often verging on hatred, Obama inspires in the far less crude and doubtless less racist enclave of the US, big business, is one of the more surprising features of this contest.

Chrystia Freeland noted in a recent New Yorker article that Obama has served the rich "quite well".

His administration supported a $700bn bail-out of Wall Street and resisted the siren calls from the left (such as Nobel prize winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz) to nationalise the banks. At the end of September, the stock exchange rebounded to just a few percentages below its prefinancial-crisis high. And Obama is hardly the first Democrat to inflict slightly higher taxes and more oversight of the group we now dub "the 1%". Franklin Roosevelt, the patrician and immensely wealthy president during and after the Great Depression, was dubbed a "traitor to his class".

But the invective and dollars that have been hurled by the super-elite against Obama have been astounding. One of the US’s richest men, hedge fund founder Leon Cooperman, drew a parallel between Obama’s election and the rise of the Third Reich. Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman compared Obama’s effort to eliminate tax preferences for private equity firms to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In the pantheon of the mega rich, Warren Buffett stands virtually alone in holding that no millionaire should pay less than 30% of his income in taxes.

Of course all this sounds very quaint, if not somewhat amazing, to the hard-pressed business sector here at home.

They would love to pay the high-end taxes Obama proposes and doubtless wished they could sound off, in doubtless more decorous terms, like their US counterparts have railed against their president. For every boardroom exile such as Russell Loubser who speaks out, dozens retain their seats at the table, nod in silent agreement and keep their heads down and hope for the best. For all its costs and imperfections, the confidence to speak out remains an American virtue we should consider importing.

• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA