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

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