COUNTRIES supposedly get the governments they deserve, but I’m not sure that old maxim is true of South Africa at the moment.
Yes, I’m pleased that the Mangaung conference brought Cyril Ramaphosa back into politics in a role I believe he is capable of performing successfully. But I’m doubtful about the way President Jacob Zuma achieved such a landslide victory after such a tainted first term, the stain of which may blot what could otherwise be a great recovery phase.
The economic signs as we enter the new year are hopeful, both globally and locally. Barrack Obama’s remarkable election victory, achieved from the lowest national economic level at which any sitting American president has ever succeeded, has halted the US’s long rightward political drift with its attendant risks of more Middle East wars and the spread of an infectious ideology conducive to the widening of wealth gaps. Obama’s balanced handling of the recession in the US, compared with Europe’s harsh austerity, has brought the world’s biggest economy to the point where it is likely to start recovering later this year.
China, too, could be nearing the start of a revival from its economic slowdown. The interaction of those two, the great consumer society and the great production society, could see 2013 begin to pull the global economy out of its worst recession in a century. And at the back of the train are the resource countries that feed those Chinese factories with the raw materials they need to supply the great consumer society — the Brics countries prominent among them.
This is our chance. We fell behind our competitors during the last commodities boom, thanks to political uncertainty, wild talk about nationalisation, social instability, growing concern about corruption and Zuma’s inability to respond to protests and wildcat strikes. We dare not miss the recovery if indeed it begins to gain traction this year. If we do this country will face serious socioeconomic upheaval.
Ramaphosa is our hope. As readers of this column will know, I have long held him in high regard. He is a shrewd strategist, a master negotiator and an experienced labour leader, businessman and politician. If, as ANC secretary-general Gwede Matashe says, he is to be given the role of "a de facto prime minister," as Thabo Mbeki was during the Nelson Mandela presidency, he could well pull this country out of the mess into which it has fallen.
He has the additional advantage of having ready to hand the widely acclaimed National Development Commission’s plan for developing the South African economy over the next two or three decades, a commission Trevor Manuel chaired as Minister of Planning in the Presidency and of which Ramaphosa himself was deputy chairman. It has been gathering dust in the presidential offices because of the ANC’s ideological paralysis but Mangaung appeared to give it the go-ahead, together with the youth wage subsidy, originally a Democratic Alliance (DA) idea approved by Zuma, which was also blocked by the trade unions.
All Ramaphosa needs to get started is to implement those two ideologically frozen programmes; the rest should follow. But will he have the authority as a "de facto prime minister" to face down the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on such issues to the point where they might quit the tripartite alliance? Would Zuma allow that much independence?
Actually I have sufficient faith in Ramaphosa’s negotiating skills to foresee him being able to cut a deal with Cosatu. Such as, for example, agreeing to the establishment of a state-owned mining company, long a pet project of the Cosatu leftists, as compensation for what is going to be a general pro-business economic shift.
But what really worries me is that Ramaphosa will face a huge liability in an altogether different sphere — in the moral turpitude of his boss, the President.
It is fifteen years since I first warned a group of ANC leaders that the stain of the arms deal — what Judge Chris Nicholson later called "the cloud of suspicion" in his judgment dismissing the charges against Zuma, which was later overturned on appeal — would never go away until the scandal was cleared up in all its sordid detail. I said it would grow worse with time, and it has.
It sticks to the honourable president of the proud new Republic of South Africa like a piece of rotten fish. The head, where rot starts. And it won’t go away because he won’t clean it up.
OK, so he has been pressured into appointing a commission of inquiry into the scandal. But I’m not holding my breath. At the pace that commission is going, expect its report sometime in the 2030s.
In the meantime we have had the dropping of those charges on the most spurious of grounds; we have seen Zuma introduce spies as his personal protectors from the law; we have seen his refusal to obey a court order to hand over the so-called "spy tapes" which his questionably appointed acting director of prosecutions said were the grounds for dropping the corruption charges; we have seen him spend a staggering quarter of a billion rand of public money on a vast new luxury private housing complex for himself and his ever-expansive family while he has three official residences around the country; we have seen him brazenly refuse to give any accounting of this outrageous expenditure, all the more obscene because its ostentation is in the midst of one of the poorest regions of the country; we have seen him stand by impotently as the education of our children has collapsed because useless teachers stay in their jobs and it takes a year to deliver textbooks to schools in Limpopo, and while more than half our young people are permanently unemployed partly because of this crass piece of elementary inefficiency.
And we have seen him re-elected in a landslide victory at Mangaung.
I don’t believe South Africa deserves this man as its president. In recent months we have sensed the rising wrath of an outraged society. We have watched his public opinion ratings fall while those of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe rose. I don’t believe the result of that election by 4,500 branch members of the ANC at Mangaung represents the wishes of the 51-million people of this country, or even the 1.2-million members of the ANC. The party hierarchy’s control of who controls branches is too easy for that small convocation to be a representative sample.
I don’t believe Zuma is going to be able to shake off the stigma that clings to him. Nkandla will not go away, just as the arms deal hasn’t. It will linger and it will suppurate and it will keep coming back like acid reflux. That is why, while I’m encouraged to see Ramaphosa return to politics, I’m surprised he has done so in these circumstances. For there is a risk he, too, will become tainted and ultimately rendered ineffective by this lengthening train of scandals that won’t go away.
And so it is that we enter the new year in a bipolar condition of economic hope and moral despair. As I ponder that prospect perhaps it is time to take my dog for a walk.
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