Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nkandla proves abnormality of SA democracy

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25 Mar 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The public protector — her grandstanding notwithstanding — has proven to be far more robust in standing up to the executive than her predecessors, writes Tony Leon

THE publication and consequences of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on Nkandla prove, yet again, that South Africa is an abnormal democracy. Let’s start with the adjective: in a normal democracy it is improbable that the leader of the governing party against whom the constitutional official charged with investigating misuse of public funds and office found that together with his family had "improperly benefited" from lavish upgrades to his private residence would be on course to win re-election as president. Or even still be a candidate for the nation’s highest office. So that’s pretty unusual in the democratic world where accountability is practised and the misuse of public office is punished at the polls.

Now on to the noun: the fact that the public protector can, even though the government placed some significant obstacles in her path, publish in a blaze of publicity such a damning report on the eve of an election points to the robustness of elements of our constitution. So too does the fact that the original arose from intrepid journalism.

But all things considered, you would rather be a journalist or even a citizen of South Africa than, say, Turkey. Its embattled and ethically hobbled, but once widely admired Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds the dubious double distinction of being the world’s top jailer of journalists and the man who last week threatened to "wipe out" Twitter, the microblogging site where details of the corruption engulfing his administration first appeared. No talk now of Turkey being the democratic bridge between moderate Islam and Europe, the East and the West, etc. It has become just another at-risk democracy.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) — in between laying criminal charges against President Jacob Zuma, doing the stuff oppositions do to embarrass governments and feeding the narrative that the public protector is "in the DA’s pocket" — has also changed its script to meet its electoral needs and expectations. No doubt the numbers tell it that in order to lure dissidents from the ruling party, it must soft-pedal its ideological and institutional opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) and personalise the contest around Zuma’s failures. As with its 2009 "Stop Zuma" campaign, the president and his missteps in office are seen as the gift that keeps on giving. So the opposition script now reads: "(Nelson) Mandela best, (Thabo) Mbeki good, Zuma bad".

This repositioning is no doubt inspired in part by Stanley Greenberg, whom it has hired for this election. He has the interesting distinction of having been in charge of the ANC’s polling in the 1994 election, when Mandela led the party, and the 1999 one, when Mbeki did. Thus, the DA’s current tactics mirror the shift in alignment of its imported pollster and some of its emerging leaders, who were staunchly ANC an election or two ago.

However, it is worth noting that the public protector — her grandstanding notwithstanding — has proven to be far more robust in standing up to the executive than her predecessors. And here Zuma can take a bow, as he appointed her, although he must now be bitterly regretting doing so. It is extraordinary to think back to the fact that on Mbeki’s watch the same office was occupied with predictably dire results by a senior ANC politician, Lawrence Mushwana.

In fact, it came to light just after Mbeki won an overwhelming victory in the 2004 election that the taxpayer had thoughtfully and unknowingly stumped up an initial R11m (later revealed to be R18m) contribution to the ANC campaign. This was done when state-owned oil company PetroSA, also then chaired by a senior ANC politician, paid in advance for oil concentrate (which it ultimately had to pay for again) to an ANC middleman, Sandi Majali, who promptly transferred the entire amount into the party’s coffers. As blatant as that.

Needless to say, despite the intrepid reporting of the Mail & Guardian at the time and the opposition reporting the matter to the public protector, no adverse findings were made, no funds were repaid and the public protector could not even extend himself to rule that there had been any gross impropriety.

And when the Mandela administration faced its first ministerial scandal relating to both the misuse of public funds and misleading Parliament, ironically at the hands of Zuma’s then other half, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then public protector Selby Baqwa in his investigation into the Sarafina 2 scandal managed to place the blame on a mid-level official in the Department of Health and shield the minister from any consequence.

Ironically, the public protector’s finding back then is the exact posture the ANC has adopted today on Nkandla: shield the politician and throw the officials under the bus. But it has a provenance that can be traced right back to our democratic beginnings, at a time when the public protectors were, perhaps, made of less stern stuff than today.

• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

South Africa joins Indonesia among former favourites

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18 Mar 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Indonesia, like South Africa, has recently fallen out of favour with investors, writes Tony Leon

ABOUT two years ago, the consensus was that vibrant emerging market economies were "enjoying" a better financial crisis than the declining old economies in Europe and the US.

And then there was China, the world’s second-largest economy, the tide that lifted all boats in the resource-exporting world, including our own. It’s a classic "meme", or a concept or intellectual fad promoted to prominence by economists, pundits and phrase-makers. And, as with other examples of conventional wisdom, they usually require revision before long. Happily or not, we still have some believers in the fading meme, such as Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies. Only this past week, he again drew attention to the rising figures in our trade account with China, Asia’s dragon economy.

But writing this column on a ship cruising Southeast Asia provides a different perspective. The front page in last Wednesday’s Asian Wall Street Journal, for example, sounded a wake-up call on what Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets and global macro at Morgan Stanley, calls the "fundamentally impermanent state of global competition", and the shifts in the world economy as well.

The article, titled "Stocks drop on anxiety about China", provides a laundry list of gloomy data softening the dragon’s roar: the Shanghai composite index recorded its biggest drop since last June, making it the second-worst performing market in Asia after Japan. This in turn reflected the price of copper, the commodity most closely tied to the fortunes of the Chinese economy, falling to an eight-month low. As the Journal put it: "Global investors are taking a dim view of the recent data about the world’s second-biggest economy." This includes dramatically slowing exports, a weakening manufacturing sector and alarm in the country’s financial sector after a Chinese company recorded the country’s first default on a corporate bond last week. Even China’s famed export sector recorded a big hit when last month’s exports fell 18.1% from a year earlier, leaving the country with a rare trade deficit.

Of course, China has a lot of residual firepower, not least its megareserves. But the jury is still very much out on how successful it will be, in such difficult economic circumstances, in retilting its economy from an export-led growth model to a more consumption-driven internal market one.

My trip between Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia, was less than 1,000km, and yet the difference between these two Southeast Asian nations is as vast as their difference in size. In the first city, you have consumer temples of first world order, bling and opulence, and in the other, the chaos of traffic-choked streets, crumbling infrastructure and a human tidal wave of about 10-million.

Indonesia, like South Africa, has recently fallen out of favour with investors. It has a vast population (250-million) and abundant natural resources. Economic growth of more than 5% a year on average for more than a decade, and burgeoning exports, caused it to be hailed as an emerging economic superstar.

But the narrative changed because the economic script did.

From 2011, it followed a course we know only too well at home: its current account went into deficit, followed by the trade balance and then the currency: the Indonesian rupiah became the worst-performing currency in Asia in 2012, raising the cost of imports and inflation in a country whose economy is largely consumption-driven.

Little wonder, then, that South Africa and Indonesia found themselves in the same bad company in January, when Morgan Stanley bracketed us both in the "Fragile Five" — nations overdependent on foreign currency inflows to prop up their accounts and consequently vulnerable to their outflow. Neither is helped by domestic populist pressures this year, which is an election year for both.

But Indonesia’s finance minister put his finger on the problem of political management. Muhammad Chatib Basri explained that "bad times make for good policies and good times make for bad policies". Productive reforms usually happen when the economic going is tough. If you think back to the introduction of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, for example, it was a run on the rand that precipitated it.

The insight provided by Sharma, who wrote the book Breakout Nations, is profound. The trick to escaping the trap of flavour-of-the-month economies, he notes, is to maintain good policies even when times are good. In other words, be long-term in your approach and always consistent.

But, he says, only about a dozen countries since the Second World War have moved from underdeveloped to developed, proving just how difficult a leap it is. He also notes that the star economies share another trait: "A charismatic political leader who understands economic reform and has the popular mandate to get it enacted." Are there any candidates in South Africa who fit this bill?

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

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Apartheid is not yet past, it is always there

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11 Mar 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

For Israeli Jews, the holocaust was always ‘there’, but for non-Jews this terrible act is something in the past, writes Tony Leon

BRITAIN’s Queen Elizabeth once noted that "distance lends enchantment". During visits abroad, I usually come to the less-elevated conclusion that distance lends, well, just distance. But during a recent week in London, I realised the monarch was on to something.

And even if the view of home from abroad is not always alluring, sometimes a domestic analogy is suggested in even the most foreign situations. One occurred during a scintillating conversation at London’s Jewish Book Week. Two towering and properly so-called public intellectuals, the famed British novelist Ian McEwan and the illustrious Israeli writer David Grossman, conducted a dialogue.

McEwan observed to Grossman that many of his writings emphasise the word "there", as opposed to the word "then".

I thought the question was extraordinarily obscure, until Grossman responded.

He described the difference of emphasis and between the words with reference to the Nazi holocaust, which resulted in the murder of 6-million European Jews and which led directly to the much-contested establishment of the state of Israel.

Grossman explained that, for Israeli Jews, the holocaust was always about "there" or "over there" — that is, it happened in Europe but it "is always with us … it is ever-present". But for non-Jews, in his view, this terrible act of history is something that happened "then", at a fixed point of time. However empathetic outsiders might be to this act of racial and religious genocide, it is generally viewed by them as something in the past.

I am always wary of conflating two utterly different historical events, and only the wilfully ignorant or the politically mischievous would draw a parallel between the unique scale and intent of the Nazi holocaust and other acts and eras of very harsh racial discrimination.

However, on Grossman’s point on the difference between "there" and "then", I realised that, inadvertently, he had touched on a real difference of both perception and reality of the apartheid era back home, even on the eve of the 20th anniversary of its formal ending and South Africa’s embrace of nonracial democracy. And the difference, in my view, goes to the heart of the debate of the meaning of apartheid and how to overcome its legacy — something that continually trips up our ability to get some consensus on the way ahead in the third decade of freedom.

I suspect, and discounting the professional rent-seekers and exploitative ethnic politicians of whom we have no shortage, for most black South Africans, apartheid is always about "there" and not "then". It remains with the subjects or the direct victims of the system long after its formal ending and even long past the point when the same group has attained full civil rights and even, for some, high levels of material prosperity.

On the other side of the divide, I think most members of the white minority here, even those of us who in the words of journalist Rowan Philp enjoyed "the unasked for and unearned apartheid dividend", that system is more about "then". The reasoning here, and excluding the fringe that hankers for a return of apartheid, goes something like this: it ended in 1994 and we can honour the past, even make reparation for it, but we cannot live in it. If the country is to get ahead, it needs to get beyond the confines of its own history, terrible though it might be.

This difference in experience and perception may be back story for the lack of buy-in on how to build a just and inclusive society. Of course, as Parliament has witnessed in recent days, with some bizarre and economically ruinous bills — from mandated gender quotas on pain of criminal sanction, to choking off the nascent oil and gas industry (disclosure: I consult in this sector) — the majority can prevail by legislative steamroller. But how do we square this circle between different perceptions and lived realities?

No easy answers, but a thoughtful remark was recorded by another participant at the same London event. The historian Simon Schama offered this view of Ari Shavit, who has just published, in my view, the best recent work on the Holy Land, My Promised Land — The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Schama credits Shavit with having that rarest of insights, something he calls "dual empathy". Shavit manages to recognise both the suffering and the achievements of Palestinian and Jew alike, and also shows how one of the most disfiguring features in that "promised land" was the inevitable conclusion, on both sides, of seeing only one side of a contested human equation.

That much contested, seldom read, document of ours, the National Development Plan, also contains traces of "dual empathy", particularly in marrying political and social justice with economic sensibility. Perhaps for a start, the relevant sections should be required reading for every MP before voting on bills. Or else we can continue with the one-eyed approach. But the results will continue to be deeply disfiguring.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA



Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cold War tension in land of my grandmother

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04 Mar 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Russia’s excuse is the defence of minority rights. The Crimea, demographically, is a sort of Western Cape of the Ukraine, writes Tony Leon
Pro-Russian protesters with Russian flags take part in a rally in central Donetsk on Saturday

IN SEPTEMBER 2006, long before the Russian president had broken his own country’s new democracy or thought of invading his near neighbours, Vladimir Putin paid a visit to our Parliament. Perhaps to make a point about the genuine multiparty outfit she presided over, then speaker Baleka Mbete included some opposition figures along with the African National Congress (ANC) heavyweights in a parliamentary tea party she hosted for Putin.

The enigmatic Russian president nodded politely and mostly without comment as the ANC members expressed great appreciation for the "significant role" the USSR had played in the "struggle for the liberation of SA".

As I awaited my turn to exchange conversational niceties with the president in our midst, I dismissed my first thought as somewhat undiplomatic: that, in fact, it was the fall of communism in Eastern Europe that emboldened the reform process in South Africa, initially at the hand of FW de Klerk, and that those seated around Putin were the beneficiaries of that singular moment in history back in 1989.

So when my turn came, I sought the safer topic of my family’s geography and their arrival on these shores back in the late 19th century. I advised the president, with some certainty, that I could claim to be the only South African present who could lay claim to a Russian grandmother!

Putin responded with apparent interest via his interpreter, and asked where in Russia my grandmother’s family originated. I answered: "From Sevastopol in the Crimea." The intense and ultra-polite Putin then put me to rights when he deadpanned: "Crimea is no longer part of Mother Russia, but is now part of the Ukraine."

The cascading crisis in Ukraine, and in particular in the Crimean peninsula, this past week suggests that it is possible that the borders of one of the most contested countries in Europe, if not the world, perched as it is between the eastern borders of Russia and the democratic nations of the European Union (EU), could be redrawn again. And military force has already been deployed by Russia in the largest of the former Soviet republics outside Russia.

Whether this will lead to a reigniting of the Cold War or to a new chapter in the storybook of 1989’s more or less peaceful democratic revolution in the satellites of the old Soviet Union remains deeply uncertain.

Events in faraway Ukraine should resonate deeply over here, even as we preoccupy ourselves with such matters as the Oscar Pistorius trial, which, to be fair, will engross most of the watching world.

By ideological inclination, and joined as we are through Brics and apparent nuclear power deals and the very history my parliamentary colleagues related to Putin eight years ago, South Africa tilts toward Moscow. Then again, the EU is our largest trading partner and the struggle for democracy here in many ways mirrors the demands of the protesters in Kiev who toppled their corrupt and increasingly despotic president, Viktor Yanukovych, last week. Putin’s geostrategic interest lies in securing the Black Sea naval bases Russia leases in Crimea from Ukraine and in preventing the country’s drift from Moscow’s orbit into the West, where the heart of Kiev’s new leadership apparently lies. But, in an ironic twist (for South Africa’s majoritarian government), the excuse Moscow has provided for its actions is the defence of minority rights. The Crimea, demographically, is a sort of Western Cape of the Ukraine. Its population is 60% ethnic Russian but this group forms only one-sixth of the population of Ukraine.

But it is in the universal realm of so-called democratic deepening that the relevant analogy between South Africa and Ukraine and other startup democracies is located. Back in 1991, when South Africa was negotiating its democratic constitution, Ukraine peacefully separated from the Soviet Union and, like us, gave up its nuclear capability. Its first democratic elections went well, then badly, and a people-inspired "Orange Revolution" in 2004 appeared to reset it on a democratic course. But since then — in the words of the Financial Times — "the country has been led by a cynical, corrupt leadership that has taken Ukraine today to the brink of economic meltdown".

There’s a growing and depressingly lengthening list of countries where the democratic wave was accompanied by a deep authoritarian undertow. Think of Egypt recently and Russia itself over the past decade, to mention two stand-out examples. South Africa, despite more than 3,000 protests in the past three months, maintains its democratic stance. But even we, in the words of this week’s Economist survey, have joined the ranks of "some recent recruits to the democratic camp (that) have lost their lustre".

Our next election will be only a part of regaining our democratic sheen. It’s what comes afterwards in reinvigorating our independent institutions and reanimating the checks and balances on an overreaching state that will sustain us for the long haul.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA