Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mandela’s audience more forgiving than Gordhan’s

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25 Feb 2014 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has to reassure a much wider audience in his budget speech, writes Tony Leon

MORE than 30 years ago, then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger asked a famous question about whom he should speak to if the world caught fire: "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?"

Economically speaking, at the democratic dawn of South Africa in June 1994, then president Nelson Mandela knew exactly who to call when he needed to obtain the buy-in of the local business community.

Mandela surprised guests at the first banquet he hosted for a visiting head of state, France’s Fran├žois Mitterrand, by retiring after the first course. It became known only the next day that his early departure was occasioned by the need to make four or so telephone calls. He wished to inform Anglo American’s Harry Oppenheimer, Sanlam’s Marinus Daling, Rembrandt’s Anton Rupert and Liberty’s Donald Gordon that his finance minister, Derek Keys, would announce his retirement the next morning and that the government intended to appoint Nedbank’s Chris Liebenberg in his place.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, delivers his budget speech on behalf of the Treasury in May last year.

That vignette tells us a lot about the South Africa of 20 years ago: the economic power was overwhelmingly and tightly held by four or so megacorporations, all led by white men, and that the first black head of government, so serenely self-confident with his sure touches and grand gestures, still needed the stamp of approval from outside the government in an economic realm quite outside its control back then. Undoubtedly the government thought that replacing one business titan from outside politics — although, very notionally, Keys was a National Party member appointed by FW de Klerk — with another respected leader from the private sector in the form of banker Liebenberg, would quieten the markets, which indeed it did.

There was good reason for the first African National Congress (ANC) government’s deference to business and the market-makers. Its election manifesto consisted of large promises embedded in its Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), but the reality on entering office spoke of a different universe. One of Mandela’s biographers, Martin Meredith, provided a sombre snapshot of the situation: "Mandela discovered that South Africa’s economy was in dire straits. The ANC expected to inherit an economic cornucopia; its ambitious development plans were based on that notion. But the coffers … were nearly empty."

The RDP might have been inspired by the red glow of socialist thinking but it was the country’s balance sheets that were truly red: the previous government had run up a record budget deficit of 8.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) and gross foreign reserves had fallen to less than the equivalent of three weeks’ worth of imports.

Proving that even the most ideologically inspired administration could be pragmatic and adaptive, then transport minister Mac Maharaj, a communist, explained the limits of the new reality: "There was simply no money to do what we had planned…. We had to dump our plans and start from the beginning."

Longer in the tooth, Maharaj today presides over President Jacob Zuma’s spin operation and is much involved in drafting his major speeches. Strange, then, that in his response to the state of the nation debate last week, Zuma said the number of black people in senior management, at more than 40%, was "not enough". In terms of simple quantitative ethnic transformation, it’s a remarkable turnaround. But, as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan might reveal in the subtext of his budget speech on Wednesday, there are real limits in pumping up the demand side, while the supply side issues are not addressed.

But as Investec Group chief economist Annabel Bishop noted in her budget preview, the lower than estimated fiscal deficit, expected to come in at about 4% of GDP, could be the standout item of good news, and this, more than cosy phone calls, could quieten the restive and increasingly alienated investor community.

Because while the makeup and control of our economy has undergone a dramatic change, an iron law, which dates back more than 100 years or more in South Africa — remains true: with low rates of domestic saving (at just 16% of GDP, half the figure set by the National Planning Commission and last attained here more than 30 years ago), we remain reliant, ever more so these days, on foreign investment, crucially short-term flows to fund the deficit. And then there are those pesky rating agencies, which are unsentimental or uninterested in racial bean-counting when determining the sovereign’s creditworthiness, and thus its borrowing costs.

Gordhan has had his work cut out for him — to fund an expensive public sector wage bill, an expanding welfare state funded by a relatively tiny tax base of just more than 6-million personal income taxpayers.

So while Zuma had the luxury last week of addressing a domestic constituency, Gordhan has to reassure a much wider and less forgiving audience on Wednesday.

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


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Vote for a better yesterday by litigating the past

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18 Feb 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Tony Leon: It’s a stretch to proclaim the ‘brutality of apartheid’ explains the spike in service delivery protests. Why now?

SHAUN Johnson called his 1993 book of newspaper columns Strange Days Indeed. We have been experiencing no shortage of those recently.

As I sat in gridlocked traffic in Cape Town last Thursday, I noticed an air force helicopter hovering somewhere above the president’s residence at Groote Schuur. The city centre was in lock-down. The state of the nation speech was imminent!

Passing strange, I thought, this flummery of pomp, power and some execrable design disasters on the red carpet amid economic misery. But the Romans had bread and circuses. Strange as well that our state of the nation borrows in equal measure from the US president’s state of the union address and the Grammy Awards.

But that was not the only imported feature of the evening’s address.
President Jacob Zuma delivers his state of the nation speech in Parliament last week

President Jacob Zuma gave a South African version of what in US politics is called "litigating the past", or in the UK is known as "a vote for a better yesterday".

By casting his "South Africa has a good story to tell" narrative in terms of better quantitative delivery since apartheid, Zuma seeks to inoculate his administration from any of the missteps or missed targets since he assumed office in 2009. And, of course, the onset of the global financial crisis and this country’s first serious recession in 17 years, of which Zuma also reminded his audience, allow the government to cast itself as the victim of economic headwinds over which it has little control.

I don’t recall either presidents Nelson Mandela or Thabo Mbeki ever expressing, from the same podium, thanks for the opposite point: that, for most of their respective presidencies, South Africa was the fortunate recipient of the best set of global financial circumstances of the modern age. The repair of our national balance sheets was mightily assisted by those tailwinds.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) accused the president of "piggybacking on the achievements of Mandela and Mbeki". And in these two frames you have the predictable script for the next three months: for the ruling party, "You’re better off than you were under apartheid." From the opposition, "Bring back the Mandela and Mbeki years."

Eliding the past five years makes sense for the government, however easy it is to pick holes in its narrative. It’s a stretch, for example, to proclaim that the "brutality of apartheid" explains the sudden escalation and violent spike in service delivery protests. Why now? Why not in 2000 or even in 1997, when we were much closer to the racist past than we are today?

The DA script is undoubtedly informed by research suggesting that the African National Congress (ANC) ball should not be played because this might scare off new voters. So, attack the present captain, Zuma, and then those voters can square their unhappiness with him with their loyalty to his team and perhaps vote against him.

So the ANC has every incentive to cast its leadership in the mould of the past; while the DA suggests that you can somehow remain loyal to ANC ideals and mythology even while voting against its present iteration.

Strangely enough, Zuma’s speech, for all its omissions and selectivity of recall, underlined one incontestable achievement of his presidency. The introduction, about 15 years after it should have happened, of an HIV/AIDS policy and roll-out that is anchored in the realities and science of immunology, not based on the fringe lunacies of denialism. Judge Edwin Cameron’s recently published, compelling memoir, Justice, makes this point with clarity. He describes Mbeki’s infamous address in October 1999 to Parliament, when he attacked the "core scientific propositions providing the basis for antiretroviral treatment" as a speech of "menace".

And for the next crucial years, this "menace" became the basis of state policy and practice. It also provided the fiercest and most unpleasant clashes between Mbeki and his parliamentary opponents and civil society, especially the DA.

Strangely again, embedded even in the more benign and inclusive years under Mandela, were some of the origins of today’s crisis points: cadre deployment, the arms deal, the "transformation of the state" and the rollback of independent institutions. They all announced their arrival on his watch.

In short, reducing politics and the choices on offer to a question of the "good czar" versus the "bad czar", rather than framing a real contest around different world views and their consequences, doesn’t explain why you should cast this government out and replace it, rather than just remove its leader.

This approach might produce, well, a strange result.

• I would like to pay tribute to David Gleason, whose sudden death on Friday has shocked his friends, admirers and adversaries and his flock of "wandering albatrosses". His vital voice and acid pen will be much missed from these pages and from the public debate. May he rest in peace.

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lack of self-confidence hobbles the opposition

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11 Feb 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Opposition showed lack of self-confidence when it tried to parachute in a new leader on eve of election-date announcement, writes Tony Leon

IN 1948 at Carnegie Hall, New York, Arthur Koestler, the most famous communist apostate in western intellectual circles, made an influential speech. He noted: "You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons ... The fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of lack of self-confidence."

Koestler was referring to the liberal critics of communism, who were often afraid to voice their opinions in public for fear of being "tarred with the brush of reaction", as the social democratic historian Tony Judt says in Postwar, his history of Europe since 1945.

Thus it was that as the first major show trials in Eastern Europe were being held and as Joseph Stalin’s tyrannous and murderous fist expanded beyond the Soviet Union, the cheerleading for the Soviet Union and the mute silence of most European intellectuals against its atrocities was a standout feature from those times.

Judt gives a compelling explanation for this lack of backbone: "The Left had the wind in its sails and history on its side…. At the core of the antifascist rhetoric of the official Left was a simple binary view of history. They (the fascists, Nazis, Franco-ists, nationalists) are Right, we are Left. They are reactionary, we are Progressive. They stand for War, we stand for Peace. They are the forces of Evil, we are on the side of Good."

Since no one wanted to be seen, even inadvertently, in the bad company of fascism, now defeated in the Second World War, this "tidy symmetry" worked to the communists’ polemical advantage: "Philo-communism, or at least anti-anti-Communism, was the logical essence of anti-fascism."

The official opposition here showed its own lack of self-confidence when it tried to parachute in a new leader, from a rival party, on the eve of the election-date announcement. Botched as that attempt might have been in its execution, it does demonstrate just how comprehensively the African National Congress (ANC) dominates the rhetorical space. Rebutting the fear of the "return of the Boers", to borrow the phantasm conjured up last November by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, was apparently front and centre of the strategic thinking on this move.

And that uncontested domination extends into the ideological space as well: do not expect this election to provide a serious debate on rolling back the welfare state (now set to reach 17-million recipients of social grants this year, on the back of just 6-million personal-tax payers) or a push for the privatisation of useless, mismanaged state-owned assets. Interrogating racial and gender quotas and the distance we have strayed from the protection for minorities embedded in the constitutional settlement of 1993 will also be off limits for fear of being accused of nostalgia for apartheid. Rather, there will be a bidding war to see which side can offer more entitlements and expand the reach of government at the precise moment when the machinery of state has seized up.

Unbowed by such state failures, it might be said that some of our political masters and mistresses suffer from the political equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome, or involuntary outbursts of inappropriate speech. In a crowded field of competitors, the prize for inhabiting a parallel universe utterly detached from reality must be jointly awarded.

First, there was Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu. Her "Little Miss Sunshine" appearance at the Mining Indaba was something to behold. After violent strikes in the platinum belt, and huge industry concern with the latest amendments to mining legislation and its incoherent regulatory framework, she offered another set of meaningless promises on top of what Songezo Zibi called "a terrible record of poor performance". Noteworthy was the silence from the panjandrums of the mining industry, fearful, no doubt, of the cost of speaking out.

Then there was Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa lauding the public-order policing units as "among the best in the world". Perhaps, in comparison to North Korea or Ukraine. But, should it ever finish its work, the Farlam commission on Marikana might just disagree.

Finally, flogging a dead horse, with yet another taxpayer-funded injection into state-owned South African Airways, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba drew an Alice in Wonderland distinction between a "bail-out" and an "equity injection". But fear not, the difference this time, he told Chris Barron in the Sunday Times, is that there will be more government intervention in its operations. That’s reassuring.

In an interview last week, US President Barack Obama said: "It’s definitely a good thing that the president of the US cannot remake our society." Our local political overlords and ladies are seized of much greater ambitions than the leader of the most powerful country on Earth.

But who will point out that the emperor’s clothes are threadbare?
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The merger that fell victim to vanity and naivety

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04 Feb 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Even before the shortest-lived union in SA’s political history was over, commentators were already suggesting that Mamphela Ramphele is the political equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor, writes Tony Leon

LAST WEDNESDAY evening, Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel was the venue for the launch of a homage to the grand dame of South Africa’s old opposition, Helen Suzman.

Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele
And the past, present and future leaders of that project were gathered for the event: former president FW de Klerk, Inkatha boss Mangosuthu Buthelezi, this columnist, and the youngest leader of the parliamentary opposition, Lindiwe Mazibuko. But all eyes that night were on two of the speakers, Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele, whose political betrothal had been announced just the day before. Within days, they would breathe new life into the cliche, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."

Robin Renwick’s concise and affectionately penned book, Helen Suzman — Bright Star in a Dark Chamber, relies more on anecdote and research than on critical analysis. The book and the launch speeches dwelt on one part of the Suzman story: the immense reserves of character and conspicuous displays of courage and wit of a parliamentary David, who went up against the Goliath of the apartheid order.

But it leaves unexamined the paradoxical simplicity of that difficult task. Suzman had principle and a righteous cause on her side. She was in opposition to a system that, while popular with white South Africans, was universally opposed by the black majority, much of civil society and most of the world.

In electoral terms, to continue her work, Suzman needed the support of just one constituency out of 166 in white South Africa — Houghton. As I discussed with her daughter, Frances Jowell, after the event, despite the fact that she was certainly the most famous member of her party, she never sought, and in fact resisted, the idea of ever becoming its leader.

As a conviction politician, Suzman’s work was relatively uncontaminated by the messy compromises of party management and the need to expand the base of her movement.

With South Africa’s attention riveted by the off-on-off parachute jump by Ramphele into the top slot of the Democratic Alliance, it is easy to forget quite how unenthusiastic Suzman was every time her beloved Progressive Party felt the need to merge and reinvent itself to meet the expectations of opposition voters, who, then as now, craved the unification of a fractured opposition and the injection of some political glamour to refresh the project.

Renwick’s book does not mention the hostility between Suzman and Harry Schwarz, leader of the Reform Party breakaway from the United Party, which resulted in the Progressive Reform Party, later the Progressive Federal Party. And when that formation had reached its electoral sell-by date, the Democratic Party (DP) was formed in 1989.

Renwick writes, appropriately for a diplomat of long and distinguished standing: "She did not take kindly to suggestions that, to try to widen its appeal, the new entity should try to shed the Progressive Party image of which she was understandably proud."

Actually, when the DP was formed with its ill-conceived troika leadership, she had a much earthier response: "This is the biggest hijack since Entebbe and there are no Jews around to rescue it." When the decision was taken in 2000 to merge the Democratic Party with the New National Party to create the Democratic Alliance, I was the recipient of Suzman’s incandescent fury. She reluctantly accepted the electoral logic of the arrangement, but told me, and then repeated in public, that it should have been a pact, not a full-scale merger. One can only speculate on her reaction to the events of last week.

On hearing the news of Ramphele’s accession into the DA, I thought it tactically smart but strategically questionable. It seemed to breathe excitement and enthusiasm into the opposition ranks.

In the long or even medium term, I thought it bequeathed the opposition with more problems than solutions to the quest for refreshed leadership and policy coherence. And then, even before the shortest-lived political union in South Africa’s political history was over, the controversies erupted. Across the board, commentators and insiders suggested that Ramphele was the political equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor. The latter was "famous for being famous", the former for high offices she had achieved rather than any significant achievement in them.

Then came Ramphele’s calamitous weekend interviews, in the Sunday Times and Rapport. In both, she presented herself as a narcissist on steroids. But Zille and the DA leadership had been led to and dropped at the altar by Ramphele once before.

It brings to mind the aphorism: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Surely the key issue was to tie down Ramphele in explicit terms to signing a DA membership form before the announcement? Without that, it’s like selling your home without confirming the price. On the one hand, a fatal combination of vanity and naivety. But, on the other, it is better to cut your losses than to double down on a huge mistake.

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