Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Like Whitman, Mandela contains multitudes

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10 Dec 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

It is difficult to pay tribute to Mandela without resorting to cliché and overworked superlatives, writes Tony Leon

PARLIAMENT was recalled on Monday to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, who in death achieved what he managed in his later life to do as none before him had done. He united our fractious local polity and the wider disunited world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

English Premier League football players, platoons of leaders from the good and the great to the venal and corrupt, the religious and the secular, the famous and the obscure, bow their heads to acknowledge the passage of greatness.

Born among peasants and chiefs in Mveso in rural Transkei, he died in Lower Houghton, Johannesburg, the historic lair of our mining Randlords.

It is very difficult to pay tribute to such a rare phenomenon as Mandela without resorting to cliché and overworked superlatives.

When, on March 26 1999, the same Parliament, gathered to pay tribute to a very live and alert Mandela, on his departure from what his biographer Anthony Sampson called "the golden perch" of his presidency, the cliché-machine was also in overdrive. This was necessitated because words sometimes seem unequal to capturing heroic deeds.

In Parliament more than years 13 ago, I wondered how a political opponent pays tribute to this singular president.

He was both a staunch and wily partisan politician, and yet flew solo in the rarefied stratosphere while the rest of the political class never reached higher than the cumulus clouds far below.

I thought then and now that the essence of Mandela’s leadership was his special kind of grace, which raised the sights of our politics. Were there other such leaders? In my tribute back then, I suggested there were, but very few of them: "There are three categories of great political leaders.

"The first is the great and the bad: this includes Hitler and Stalin.

"The second is the great and the good: this includes Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. And then there is the third category, also of good, but of a leader born with a special kind of grace, who seems to transcend the politics of his age. This is a very small category, and in fact I can think of only two such men in this century: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela."

Years later, I came across an essay by arguably the greatest political writer of the same century, George Orwell, an avowed enemy of cant and cliché. It was a reflection on Gandhi, published in January 1949, a year after the great Indian’s assassination. He wrote: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case there is strong evidence in his favour…. For his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant."

In Mandela’s case, one of the posthumous facts to have been confirmed, but much contested by his own flame-keepers while alive, was his membership of the Communist Party and its central command.

Between his final illness in July and his death last week, an energetic correspondence on this topic was published in the New York Review of Books. In the one corner was our acerbic local literary hero, Rian Malan, who had proffered evidence that Mandela was indeed a communist. This had been supported by the research of Stephen Ellis and former South African Communist Party (SACP) member Paul Trewhela. This in turn had been denounced by Bill Keller, who at the time of Mandela’s release had been New York Times bureau chief in Johannesburg.

Statements in recent days prove that, on this fact, Keller was wrong and his opponents were correct. Yet, on the larger question of what, if anything, this signifies, I think Keller called it right. On acknowledging that he "should not have been so categorical in saying that Mandela was not a communist", he noted: "Nelson Mandela was, at various times, a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle, and a practitioner of armed struggle, a close partner of the SACP and in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists…. But he was not a communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practised, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he held."

Another ace journalist, John Carlin, popularised the fact that Mandela’s favourite poem was Invictus by William Ernest Henley. But perhaps in terms of how he straddled the paradoxes he so singularly embodied and grafted them to causes greater than himself, we should reflect on the words of another poet, Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."

Mandela might not have resolved every contradiction his life and work embodied, and he never claimed to be a saint. In his essay on Gandhi, Orwell concluded: "But regarded simply as a politician, and compared to the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he left behind."

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

‘Stupid enough’ Eglin saw dangers of inequality

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03 Dec 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Colin Eglin joins the pantheon of political leaders of the modern, much contested, liberal tradition in South Africa, writes Tony Leon

COLIN Eglin, who died on Friday in Cape Town, joins the pantheon of political leaders of the modern, much contested, liberal tradition in South Africa. Jan Steytler, Zach de Beer, Harry Oppenheimer, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman had all gone before him, and each of them held high political office on the opposition side of the fence, but none of them ever attained political power. Oppenheimer certainly exercised vast economic influence, and for critical years also funded the liberal opposition, but in political terms he was never in power.

Strangely enough, Eglin titled his memoir Crossing the Borders of Power, although they are a plainly written testament to the prodigious pursuit of principles and ideas in a mostly unforgiving political climate. It is not clear at which point, if ever, this highly intelligent, palpably decent public servant crossed the boundary separating the power of ideals from the ideals of power. Perhaps his short stint on the transitional executive council at Kempton Park, which briefly exercised authority in tandem with the departing National Party government between December 1993 and April 1994, provides a clue.

I always thought that Eglin’s political and personal friend, De Beer, who also succeeded him as party leader, came closest to nailing the liberal purpose in the body politic, when he dusted off the old and bleak aphorism of Prince William the Silent, "One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere." In an appropriately more unvarnished style, Eglin provided his party, during the two terms when he led it, with the caution that they were involved in "the politics of the long haul".

Eglin, a quantity surveyor by training and constitutional lawyer by inclination, held fast to the idea that the only bridge across the chasm of 350 years of racial division and conflict would be constructed of durable material forged in the furnace of direct political negotiations between hitherto warring parties: a nonracial, democratic constitution built by consensus and underpinned by strong checks against an overcentralising political authority. He once self-deprecatingly remarked at a Liberal International conference at Oxford in 1997, shortly after helping to midwife more or less just such an instrument, "if we were ‘stupid enough’ to share political power, we’d better be ‘stupid enough’ to make sure we share the economic wealth of the country as well."

He saw, earlier than many others, that the lurking danger for the new South Africa was a separation, again racial, between the holders of political authority and the possessors of the country’s economic patrimony. But he was not blind to the limitations and contradictions of present transformation, which he perceived to be a top-down reshuffling of elite wealth, not an inclusive and sustainable construction of a shared economy.

The roll call of white liberal leaders past indicates they were more successful, ironically, in glimpsing, and in some measure shaping, the future of the new South Africa than they were in constructing a political vehicle to enter it. This had much to do with their political provenance. With the exception of Van Zyl Slabbert, each of them had risen up the political ladder of the old United Party (UP), which they kicked away, first in 1959.

In fact, before 1994 every liberal political iteration was essentially involved in the rearrangement of political furniture from the disintegrating UP. It is quite striking, from today’s vastly changed vantage point, how very few voters were attracted from the majority ranks of the National Party to the Progressive Federal Party and its successors.

The grafting of an Afrikaans leader, variously Steytler, Van Zyl Slabbert and De Beer at the top of the party did not move Afrikaans votes any more than the bilingual, but English-speaking, Eglin could, or could not. Perhaps, with adaptation, there is a cautionary lesson here for the present opposition as it considers its future leadership. It was only the separation of Afrikaans voters from the levers of political power after 1994 that led to their migration, en masse, from the ranks of the National Party, which, shorn of power, was soon enough bereft of political purpose and existence.

Eglin lived a long and purposeful life. But he did not live long enough to see whether the political history he helped to shape on the white opposition side of the fence, might, as history so often does, repeat itself in the broad ranks of the black liberation movement — the African National Congress — an organisation he in some ways admired, but opposed.

Certainly some familiar stress fractures are in plain sight: the circular firing squad between warring alliance leaders, the looting of state assets and the confusion between personal and party interests on the one hand, and the national and constitutional interests on the other. But even a veteran like Eglin never hazarded a guess as to how long the disintegration would take, or whether some act of renewal would arrest the process.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Resource curse breaks bond of accountability

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26 Nov 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive
There are few, if any, developing democracies, which rely on oil and gas for the bulk of their exports, that have been certified as ‘free democracies’, writes Tony Leon

UNTIL fairly recently, residents of high-end Malibu in California and Clifton in Cape Town had something in common, in addition to occupying some of the most expensive property in their countries: both these beach-facing bolt holes for the super-rich provided grand shelters for Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son and heir apparent of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979.

The Malibu estate, priced at about $30m, was on a lavish scale in comparison to the Clifton "bungalow", which was purchased for R23.5m in 2004. The Californian dwelling comprised a 6.5ha property, with a palm-lined driveway leading to a mansion surrounded by swimming pools, tennis court and a four-hole golf course. Its garage housed more than two dozen cars including a $2m Ferrari and eight other Ferraris.

Obiang’s international property empire has another common provenance, well described by Larry Diamond, director of the Centre on Democracy Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University: "What made these extravagant possessions all the more remarkable was that they belonged to a government worker from a small African country who was making an official salary of about $80,000 a year."

This was in October 2011, when the US department of justice obtained a court order to seize the Malibu property on the grounds that Obiang’s property riches were the result of corrupt practices such as "personal taxes" he levied against timber companies operating in his country, to wit a $28.80 tax for every log exported when he was minister of forestry. Earlier last year, French authorities seized his Parisian mansion worth about €100m.

Although his estates in California and France have diminished, his political career back home has flourished — he is now Equatorial Guinea’s second vice-president.

South Africa’s government lacks either the instruments or the appetite to attach Obiang’s local assets. Thus the residents of Clifton are, via the "Bungalow Owners Association", using municipal bylaws to have the rat-infested property declared "derelict".

Aside from providing a potential episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the Obiang family provides a poster for the so-called resource curse, as even more than its abundant forests, the country is one of the most oil-rich in the world, having exported 400,000 barrels of oil a day for the past 18 years. Diamond and Jack Mosbacher, in a recently co-authored article in the journal Foreign Affairs, point to the cruel paradox of this bonanza. "The country is wealthier, in terms of GDP per capita, than France, Japan and the UK. Little of this wealth, however, has helped the vast majority of Equatorial Guinea’s 700,000 people: today three out of four Equatorial Guineans live on less than $2 a day, and infant mortality rates have barely budged since oil was first discovered there."

Depressingly, the authors make a wider point: although, in general, Africa has made impressive strides in improving governance over the past 20 years, according to the World Bank, the continent’s oil exporters rank in the bottom quintile globally in their ability to control corruption, formulate and implement effective policies, regulate private sector development and enforce the rule of law. And there are few, if any, developing democracies anywhere, which rely on oil and gas for the bulk of their exports, that have been certified as "free democracies". South Africa, for which minerals are its export mainstay, is something of a democratic outlier here, but oil and gas seem more problematic.

The economic distortions the "resource curse" inflicts on countries — from inflated exchange rates, to undermining manufacturing competitiveness — are well known.

Less explored but now of some moment in view of the slew of East and West African countries soon to emerge as new players on the oil and gas scene is the democratic deficit it creates. Oil revenues, in simple terms, are "rents", or unearned income in the hands of governing elites. Taxes, in contrast, from citizen to government create a democratic and accountable bond between government and people. The sale of natural resources "reduces government’s reliance on revenue from its people and thus weakens the incentive to serve them". When resource rents replace taxation as the primary revenue generator for the state, this incentivises the political elite to focus on the "private accumulation of wealth" and not on delivering public goods, such as roads and schools. Hence Malibu mansions and high infant mortality both come from the same source.

The key is to ensure that the people themselves receive the direct benefit of the resource revenue stream, as cash transfers into bank accounts and the government then taxes back a portion of it. This ingenuous scheme is elaborated by the authors. It’s a lot more "transformative", even revolutionary, than the recycling of stale ideas that often informs the debate on empowerment.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why debate when you can just slap on a label?

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19 Nov 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Recent debates are reminders that we prefer our politics to be binary and eschew complexity and nuance by slapping labels on views we most dislike, writes Tony Leon

JEANE Kirkpatrick, the US liberal democrat, became a political apostate, when, in 1980, her fierce detestation of communism led her to embrace Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, in whose cabinet she would later serve.

Kirkpatrick was not overfussed about being labelled. Despite migrating from a youthful embrace of the Socialist Party of America to a middle-age conversion to the conservative cause, she shrugged off attempts to pigeonhole her ideologically: "Labels in politics are like parsley on a dinner plate — decorative but not nourishing."

She would, however, have had a hard swim in our waters had she been born in, say, Deneysville, Free State, rather than in Duncan, Oklahoma. Recent debates here are reminders that we prefer our politics to be binary and eschew complexity and nuance by slapping labels on the views and voices we most dislike. It’s not simply a matter of prejudice; it also has the convenience of closing down a debate before it has properly begun by suggesting bad faith or irrevocable bias on the part of certain participants.

Ironically, this week we celebrate the attainment of the constitutional settlement at Kempton Park 20 years ago. The chief architect of the bridge constructed there was Cyril Ramaphosa. Yet, just last week, the avatar of the nonracial and equal democracy with which his name and contribution will be associated forever, struck a very different and discordant chord.

Campaigning in Limpopo, Ramaphosa warned: "If you don’t vote, the Boers will come back to control us." This all-purpose swipe against all opponents of his African National Congress, without nuance, presumably embraces everyone from Julius Malema to Pieter Mulder. He later clarified this remark, explaining he meant it as a reference to "former apartheid oppressors", not to whites or Afrikaners as a group.

Just as the wells of nonracial co-operation built at Kempton Park were being spiked, the government announced that Robert McBride was the best qualified person in South Africa to be head of the Independent Police Investigation Directorate. The opposition spokeswoman on police, Dianne Kohler Barnard, noted that she had voted in favour of the previous incumbent, nominated by the same government, "as his legal qualifications were impeccable, added to which he had an uncontroversial and upstanding reputation". She then pointed out that in order to panel-beat the qualifications for the post to meet McBride’s lack of qualifications, "the crucial legal qualification necessary for (this) post had been excised from the job advertisement". Instead of explaining this striking omission or dealing with the serial controversies that have attached to McBride since 1994, his defenders followed the less nuanced or complex route. Two public servants "writing in their personal capacities", Busani Ngcaweni and Vusi Mona, did not bother with rebutting such bothersome technicalities. They simply averred that opponents of the ill-starred McBride "want to hold onto white privilege".

I then reread Kohler Barnard’s critique and could not find a single direct or implied reference to McBride’s race in it. No matter, her critics will cry, it is her racial origins that count, and condemn her views to the bin.

Correctly, we measure the mountains of progress achieved since the dramatic final days at Kempton Park 20 years ago. But far less visible there than Ramaphosa and other designers of our new order was the quietly spoken and intellectually towering legal academic, Etienne Mureinik. Many of the clauses in our bill of rights owe their provenance to him. Sadly, he committed suicide in August 1996, so he never witnessed the signing of the final constitution by Nelson Mandela.

But months before he died, at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mureinik was embroiled in a row over the fitness for office of William Makgoba, at the time a deputy vice-chancellor. The details are perhaps less important than the terms of engagement in that now largely forgotten debate. However, with his pioneering writing and brave advocacy during apartheid, Mureinik could not be defined, on Ramaphosa’s version at least, as a "Boer". He did far more to rebut the oppressive old order than many others. But he was white. Makgoba dismissed Mureinik and his fellow critics "as a typical group of racists". Mureinik’s response was both instructive and eerily predictive of the whirlwind to come. He called it "stigma labelling". He wrote: "A white person who dares to question a black person’s credentials will automatically be called ‘a racist’, a label which makes one a moral criminal, and consigns one to the nonworld of those who can safely be ignored."

But while it might silence the debate, what does this do to the constitutional order? Once again, Mureinik suggested, it removed the essential pillar on which the entire construction rested: "It destroys any hope of equal accountability." Perhaps in the war of words, we sometimes destroy better than we know.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The many faces of ‘Government Sachs’ reports

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12 Nov 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive
When the Goldman Sachs report on South Africa moves from data on the past to challenges of the future, it enters less solid territory, writes Tony Leon

IN 2009, US journalist Matt Taibbi entered the lists of immortal phrase makers when he wrote about global investment banking giant Goldman Sachs. In his coruscating article for Rolling Stone magazine, he described it as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells of money".

In the same year as the Rolling Stone piece, Goldman CE Lloyd Blankfein got into a lot of trouble when he described his banking career as "doing God’s work". He obviously had never heard of the expulsion of the moneylenders from the temple. But while the banking czar retracted this heresy, Goldman’s activities in the US subprime crisis, from which it emerged enhanced, proved it to be nothing if not agnostic. At the time, it was racking up losses north of $1.2bn in residential mortgage-backed securities. But it made even more money for itself by betting against, or shorting, the same market.

The public release last week in South Africa of the Goldman Sachs report, titled Two Decades of Freedom — What SA is Doing with It, and What Now Needs to be Done, at first blush seems suggestive of another moniker slapped on the banker — "Government Sachs". Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was on hand at the launch and African National Congress (ANC) treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize was quoted as describing the report as "positive for the ANC". Undoubtedly the fact that Goldman’s advisers include party heavyweight Tito Mboweni could fortify this impression.

But I thought that Goldman country head Colin Coleman’s introduction of the report as "empirical and data-rich" provided some disclaimer against bias.

Some of the metrics it reveals, in more than 60 pages of detailed analysis, could be gainsaid only by the wilfully blind. It shows a vast improvement in living standards, the growth of a significant black middle class, and major repairs in the sovereign balance sheet and its growth rate, and a quadrupling of the overall size of the economy.

These achievements have also been achieved without too much recourse to the printing press, as, in the same period, inflation was tamped down from an average high of more than 14% at the tail-end of the apartheid years to just more than 6% today.

As former US president Bill Clinton is fond of saying: "Everything is compared to what?" And benchmarking our achievements under two decades of democracy with South Africa’s global isolation and its internal strife, indicated by a siege economy, replete with sanctions and disinvestment, swingeing exchange controls and protracted violence is to compare parallel universes. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the story about when the most unpopular man in the community of an old village, or shtetl, in Russia was being buried and the presiding rabbi could find nothing good to say about the deceased. Finally, a village elder announced: "Well, his brother was worse."

Indeed, when the Goldman Sachs report moves from data on the past to challenges of the future, it enters less solid territory. It veritably tiptoes around some of the hard choices that need to be made to conquer the low growth and high unemployment and the failed labour market scenario it rightly identifies as being the most pressing future issues. It talks very vaguely of ending "endless policy debates" and makes hortatory claims for a "Team SA approach" and an end to "finger-pointing". Though we are going into an election, the opposition does not get a look-in.

But Goldman’s tentacles do indeed stretch across the world. In the week its report was launched here, a Goldman report in India was causing no end of trouble to the banker in New Delhi. India, like South Africa, faces a national election in the first quarter of next year.

But, in studied contrast to the South African report, which features Nelson Mandela on its cover, its Indian report was headlined, "Modifying our view: Raise India to Marketweight", this being a reference to the leader of the opposition in India, Narendra Modi, whom the banking giant cites as the possible next prime minister. It notes that "optimism for political change" under a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government "could be beneficial for investment demand pick-up in our view".

The fact that this ultranationalist Hindu politician is banned from visiting the US at present, due to his suspected complicity in the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in 2002 in his home state of Gujurat, is not mentioned in the report. Naturally, in studied contrast to over here, the government of India seethed at the report and dismissed it as "inappropriate and objectionable".

Is Goldman Sachs simply being two-faced, or just agnostic?

Perhaps its different approach in India and South Africa confirms another missing, and unmentioned, aspect of our report card: the presence of competitive politics to drive transcending change in the one place, and its absence in the other.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

DA at sixes and sevens over racist employment bill

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05 Nov 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

In seeking to offer itself as an agent for redress and to attract a new base, the Democratic Alliance is far too scared of having the antitransformation label stuck on it, writes Tony Leon

GEN Colin Powell achieved some notable firsts in a star-spangled career. He was both the first African-American chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff and later secretary of state. He also offered some singular advice for business and political leaders: "Be prepared to be lonely."

I remember feeling quite lonely in Parliament in August 1998, when the Democratic Party and I went against the African National Congress juggernaut and led the opposition to the Employment Equity Bill. That legislation was the first, and by far the most powerful, signal that the nonracial prospectus of the new South Africa would be undercut by the compulsory race classification by "designated employers" of their workforces on pain of criminal sanction for noncompliance. Other than labour minister Tito Mboweni, who did not use racial invective, most of his caucus dismissed our stance as "antitransformation" and worse.

Shortly after the bill’s approval in Parliament, I received a call from the doyenne of the movement which I then led. It was Helen Suzman, never shy about expressing her approval or disapproval — both privately and publicly — for the party that she supported, often critically. This time she was in staunch support of our position and told me that, in her capacity as a member of the South African Human Rights Commission, she had submitted a minority report opposing the bill on exactly the same grounds as I had articulated in Parliament. The legislation was antiinvestment, racially coercive and fundamentally illiberal. She also advised that she intended to go public in her opposition.

As good as her word, a few days later, on September 6 1998, she was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. One of the questions she was asked, with reference to her close relationship with Nelson Mandela, was why she did not join the African National Congress (ANC). After offering some kind words about the Democratic Party, her answer was very instructive. "I didn’t join the ANC because of its alliance with the Communist Party and because it introduces bills like the Employment Equity Bill. You don’t sacrifice efficiency, competence and merit."

Last Saturday, at a rally, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) premier candidate in Gauteng, Mmusi Maimane, invoked the name of Suzman, alone among a pantheon of former ANC and Pan Africanist Congress leaders he cited with approval. Yet, just a few days before, the DA parliamentary caucus voted in favour of a bill that strengthens and increases the original penalties of the Employment Equity Act. The amending bill widens ministerial discretion, ramps up criminal sanctions for noncompliance and leaves unaltered the compulsory racial classification basis of the legislation.

The crisp question is: why has the party of Suzman embraced the very policies that she in her lifetime so resolutely opposed?

It should be added that a far less consistent (in terms of partisan support rather than any slide away on liberal principles) former leader of the party, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, was even more vehement. In June 2006, he was the keynote speaker at a conference held on "The Revival of Race Classification in Post-Apartheid SA". He offered both a warning and a prescription. On the one hand, he called for South Africa to move away from its "stubborn obsession" with race, and he predicted that "if you make yourself hostage to a racist past, you can bank on a racist future". The intervening years have proven those words eerily prophetic. The solution to the issue of redress, he suggested, was to use the socioeconomic backgrounds of people rather than the blunt instrument of race as the best means of transforming the country. The DA’s flip-flop on employment equity suggests that whatever its other lapses, the ANC now comprehensively dominates the intellectual space and defines terms of the debate within it. This brings to mind an observation of Argentinian strongman Juan Domingo Peron. He said, "Argentinians might belong to different political parties, but at the end of the day we are all Peronists." A weekend DA statement cited no fewer than 10 problems with the legislation which the caucus had just voted in favour of, but added that the party remained committed to the cornerstone of the legislation.

Apparently it will now seek to amend some of its provisions in the National Council of Provinces. This confusing position brings to mind US Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s convulsions in 2004, when he tried to explain how his initial vote in favour of the invasion of Iraq was replaced later by his opposition to the war. "He was in favour of the war before he was against it," his Republican opponents pilloried him. The lesson here is: if you make a mistake, own it.

In seeking to offer itself as an agent for redress and to attract a new base, the DA is far too scared of having the race and antitransformation labels stuck on it. Van Zyl Slabbert offered another warning: "You can never out-Mau Mau the Mau Mau.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Worry that SA is not a republic fit for bananas

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29 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Pundits putting percentages on the risk of South Africa’s descent into the league of 'failed states' makes for good headlines but it is probably not time to head for the hills, writes Tony Leon

NEVER make predictions," US movie tycoon Samuel Goldwyn cautioned, "least of all about the future". I recently read a piece on the perils, or otherwise, of population growth by US journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. She recalled that, in 1978, Paul Ehrlich published a bestselling work, The Population Bomb, which predicted an imminent apocalypse. According to this Stanford University biology professor, nothing could be done to avert losing the final battle to feed humanity. He predicted the 1970s would see the world "undergoing famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death".

Back then, the population of the world was 3-billion, and today it has more than doubled to 7.2-billion.

I recall Steve Mulholland once saying something similar along these lines: "Ever since I was five years old, I was always told that SA had five years to go; well, I am now 75 and we are both still here."

So when pundits put percentages on the risk of South Africa’s descent into the league of "failed states", it makes for good headlines but it is probably not time to head to the hills. This is not because of the likelihood or otherwise of the prophecy being realised but for a far more prosaic reason: as the investment industry always footnotes its rosy scenarios of how your retirement nest egg will wondrously multiply, "future performance cannot be determined from past results". Indeed.

Last week, I was involved in a conference on the much contested and seldom read National Development Plan (NDP).

One reassuring fact presented to the audience by a senior officer of AgriSA was the news that, officially, South Africa is not a banana republic and nor is it likely ever to become one.

He did not quite put it in those terms. Rather, he noted that due to the facts that fuel, electricity and labour prices are about 50% cheaper in Mozambique than here, most South African banana growers had relocated across the border.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered a masterful medium-term budget policy statement last week. By highlighting the pushback against government bling and excess after more than a dozen years of frenzied feedings at the taxpayer-funded trough, he switched off some of the supply: small measures, a big signal and excellent headlines. But in the small print were indications of the very tight fiscal spot in which Gordhan and South Africa find themselves.

One of these macrotrends is also central to the NDP. Capital investment spending in the 1980s was about 30% of gross domestic product and today has fallen to about half that figure. As the NDP notes, the country has "missed" a generation of spending on "road, rail, port, electricity and sanitation", etc.

There is, it notes, no prospect of growing the economy in an inclusive fashion until we, economically at least, go back to the 1985 benchmark, presumably before the Rubicon speech. Quite how this will be done with consumption spending on 16-million monthly cash grants and salaries for 1.25-million public servants is not addressed, except for saying we must make some "tough choices".

But, as a business leader told our NDP conference: "We need to become again a savings-based investment economy and no investment can be funded without savings."

This mantra might be so obvious as to be banal. But there is no sign of the fact that our only historic source for extra long-term investment, foreign direct investment (FDI), gets anything but proverbial lip service from our economic overlords.

Growth and investment seem to be "nice to haves" and "optional extras" in the priority stakes, way behind the queue of black economic empowerment and tighter state control, as though the prioritisation of these policies has no, or at best a neutral, effect on the quest for growth and savings. The reversal of FDI flows tells its own story. So does the exit of our banana growers.

On the subject of predictions, last week Politcsweb decided to republish a speech I made in Parliament in August 1998, opposing the Employment Equity Bill, due to its race-based provisions and coercive codes.

Both the debate and the party concerned have since moved on.

I did think back then that the prescriptiveness of the legislation would deter FDI and prove to be a job-crusher, except for the middle and upper classes. In the debate, I used a quote from then finance minister Trevor Manuel as a warning. It seems even more relevant 15 years on: "We have to attract foreign savings … the benchmarks used to assess SA as an investment centre are the same across all countries."

What has also changed since then is Manuel’s position at the Cabinet table. Now he is in charge of the NDP. Perhaps while he remains in the government, he can remind his colleagues of his now old, but still relevant, warning. And maybe others, in the business-class cabin where all must now fly, can join up the dots.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Warriors for race and the socialism of fools

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22 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

PW Botha has a latter-day provincial and tactical successor in the form of Marius Fransman, Western Cape leader of the ANC and a ‘warrior for race’, writes Tony Leon

IN NOVEMBER 2004, I was in New York City the day after President George Bush had won re-election against the odds. Until the day before, the liberal New York Times had been reporting on the multiplicity of factors that favoured his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. They were spoilt for choice between the invasion of Iraq on a false prospectus, a cratering economy and a ballooning budget deficit.

However, the day after Bush won, its columnist, Nicholas Kristof, posed the question: "How was it," he asked, that "unemployed waitresses in Ohio stood in line to vote for tax breaks for billionaires?" For the essence of the Republican economic offering back then — in contrast to its even more hara-kiri tactics today — was a version of "trickle-down economics". Bush had presided over the largest modern tax cut for the seriously rich which, his party suggested, would spur economic activity down the income chain. The increasing number of unemployed and underemployed Americans, including Kristof’s waitresses, suggested otherwise. But many of them, apparently, voted for the architect of their immiseration.

Kristof answered the question by suggesting that the Republicans had borrowed a stratagem first defined, ironically, by the father of false consciousness, Karl Marx: ignore class interests and mobilise people along the lines of values. In that election, by concentrating attention on "God, Gays and Guns", Bush had mobilised support from sections of the population most adversely affected by his economic prescriptions, but whose social views he best articulated.

Locally, the indifferent performance of the African Christian Democratic Party suggests there is no electoral profit in values. But South Africa provides generous returns for race mobilisation. It was ever thus, as countless white elections have proved. And when the war between the then two largest white parties in the 1970s — the National Party (NP) and the United Party (UP) — reached saturation point, the NP Cape leader of the day, PW Botha, found another variant on the theme in a 1972 by-election in Oudtshoorn. He accused the UP of the additional sin of being "Boere-haters". His party’s results improved.

Botha has a latter-day provincial and tactical successor in the form of Marius Fransman, Western Cape leader of the African National Congress. Last week, he claimed that 98% of land and property owners in Cape Town were not only "white" but, in particular, "Jewish". Doubtless Fransman has never heard of the 19th-century German Marxist thinker, August Bebel, who warned that left-wing anti-Semitism was "the socialism of fools". And as to the facts, Fransman could not explain how he knew the racial or religious origins of local landowners, as the former have been expunged from the deeds registry since 1994, and even the benighted apartheid regime did not require the religious identity of property owners to be declared. Anyway, the fires of prejudice and the embers of resentment are always better stoked by anecdote than by fact.

Few middle-class homeowners in Cape Town will recognise any of the favourable treatment that Fransman suggests the Democratic Alliance bestows on its core supporters. The local rates bill has gone through the roof and a mayoral insider advised me recently that only Durban parallels Cape Town in its aggressive redistributionist levies. "Squeezing the rich (and the not so rich) until the pips squeak" might have originated in the British Labour Party in the 1970s, but the idea has now settled below Table Mountain.

And, doubtless, too, in his part-time capacity as deputy international relations and co-operation minister, Fransman will soon enough send out cables to all South African embassies abroad instructing them to celebrate and propagate the 20th anniversary of South African democracy, and in particular the "miracle" of its nonracial era.

Despite the violence this all does to the legacy of Nelson Mandela and 1994, I suppose it makes rough sense: deflect from the facts of sky-high unemployment, double and rising deficits on the current account, the budget and the trade balance, and scarce and increasingly scared foreign investors. Leave that to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in his medium-term budget to conjure something up. Anyway, without using race as the whip, how on earth do you keep everyone, from black-empowerment billionaires to unemployed farm workers, in the tent?

Fransman might be a crude race warrior but the launch sounds emanating last weekend from Julius Malema suggest he will soon be outbid on his preferred terrain. Much of the future of South Africa is about its contested past. Somewhere in Simon Schama’s sprawling study on the French Revolution, Citizens, is a useful reminder of what happened to the Jacobins: their revolutionary rhetoric made their future governance all but impossible. There is something very fresh in the old saying that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

‘Hinterland’ just the ticket in a leaderless world

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15 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

Very few of the leaders on the global stage today have had much hinterland other than politics, writes Tony Leon

A LOCAL cynic noted the other day that while South Africa’s government functions for only about half the day, in recent weeks that is immeasurably better than watching the US government closed down for the whole day.

The capture of the US Republican Party by its take-no-prisoners Tea Party wing of true believers, who don’t believe as much in election results as they do in stripping President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms of funding, has provided an extraordinary spectacle. The old phrase, "crippled giant", has been given new meaning.

Not that the minority outliers in the House of Representatives should shoulder all blame. It has been a curious sight to watch the rhetorically impressive US president prove so feeble at what should be at the core of his job — doing the political business and forging the compromises to further his agenda.

The beetle-browed, 96-year-old British statesman Denis Healey had it right when he said every leader needed what he termed "hinterland". By this he meant being genuinely curious about the world around you and having a range of interests and a reach of ideas that draw on life outside your profession. This opens you to a world of inspiration to call on, which, far from crowding out your laser-like focus on your work, enhances it and inspires the decision-making process needed to enhance it.

Famously and balefully, Nelson Mandela fashioned much of his later political leadership from his prison experiences, enforced on him over 27 years. But it was also quite striking how often he referenced decision-making to experiences he gleaned in the unusual (in the sense it was the only black firm of its time) circumstances of the legal practice he established with Oliver Tambo in the 1950s. He certainly had hinterland.

Ronald Reagan built a hugely effective presidency because of his Hollywood background. This didn’t only allow him to become the "great communicator", but his clashes, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, with the powerful trade unions there gave him an essential idea about free markets to communicate as well.

Two of South Africa’s corporate leaders who grew family enterprises into global corporations were Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert. They both had hinterlands in spades. Oppenheimer had spent a decade in opposition parliamentary politics and had a lifelong love of Africana. Rupert’s fascination with South African art and his love of his Karoo hinterland were not examples of corporate social responsibility — the concept had yet to be conceived and codified in his lifetime — but the consequence of real passion.

The contrast between those times and today’s leaders is quite striking. Very few of those on the global stage have had much hinterland other than politics. Obama was essentially a community organiser and a state legislator before serving two years in the Senate and running for the presidency. British Prime Minister David Cameron, born into affluence, aside from a brief spell in financial public relations, has spent his whole life in government and politics.

Locally, practically the entire Cabinet and the president have either spent a lifetime in politics or trade union work and have experienced little of the challenges of professional, nonpolitical activity. Of course the extraordinary circumstances of our history accounts for some of this — but not entirely. For example, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is admired across the cacophonous divisions of our polity. But aside from a lifetime in "the struggle", he had also practised as a pharmacist. And before his appointment to the Cabinet, his leadership of the South African Revenue Service provided him with knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of business and the corporate world, which went beyond the theoretical.

The emerging new leadership on the opposition side is cut from a similar, politics-only cloth and few of them could claim too much hinterland either.

But hinterland alone is not enough for successful and consequential leadership, which can change country destiny or corporate fortune. I was reminded of this when I participated in a debate the other night with AgangSA leader Mamphela Ramphele. She is charming, erudite and certainly has a greater hinterland of experience than any other recent leader in this or most other countries. The policy positions she elaborated were sensible. But I am not sure that she moved much of the capacity audience in Cape Town that night.

The additional missing ingredient is to explain the "why" and not just the "what" and the "how": a belief in something that inspires followers to believe in it themselves. There’s a brilliant TED lecture on the subject by Simon Sinek. It lasts about 10 minutes and is free to download on YouTube. It provides more insights than most I have heard from an army of expensive management consultants and political strategists. Take a view.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA