Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan arrives to deliver his 2016 budget address at Parliament in Cape Town. Picture:  REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan arrives to deliver his 2016 budget address at Parliament in Cape Town on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

THE big story of the week was Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pull two rabbits — fiscal consolidation and economic growth — out of the same budgetary hat. He was unable to set out a compelling growth strategy, advance labour market reform, or remedy debilitating policy uncertainty that continues to deter investment.

Despite his commitment to a review of state-owned enterprises, he lacks the political power to unravel these complex African National Congress (ANC) patronage systems.

The boundaries of change were set by cronyism, the power of public sector unions, antipathy towards the private sector and public discontent about the economy. Such discontent matters more than ever, because of the electoral threat posed by the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Gordhan received little support from his president, Jacob Zuma, who continues to be the lynchpin of parastatal patronage. But it is not just the leader who has shrugged off responsibility: it seems that the ANC leadership refuses to look reality in the face.

Tripartite alliance leaders mutter about the ratings agencies rather than proposing courses of action that might avert a downgrade. Sub-investment status will raise the cost of borrowing and oblige some large institutional investors to leave. But a downgrade is primarily a signal rather than a driver: sluggish economic growth, unsustainable public finances, policy inconsistency and the capture of bloated state-owned enterprises, provide good reasons for institutional investors to go elsewhere.

The ANC seems to be preparing itself for a blame-shifting exercise. If (when?) the downgrades come, neo-imperialist machinations are likely to be unveiled as the malevolent causes. Secretary-general Gwede Mantashe told an antiracism rally that the US government is mobilising support for "regime change" in SA. The alleged instrument of this malign intent is the Mandela Washington Fellowship programme, hitherto viewed as an innocuous jaunt that exposes young leaders to ideas that are currently unfashionable in higher education institutions (such as that liberal democracy is quite a good thing).

Outlandish international conspiracy theories find fertile ground in the ANC. The Source Reports document, used to discredit then Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in 2013, purported to be written by a mole within the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-funded nongovernmental organisation promoting liberal democracy. The organisation, we were told, instigated the Marikana massacre, triggered xenophobic attacks and fomented service delivery protests.

A few years earlier, former ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe claimed imperialist western powers were seeking regime-change in Zimbabwe: "If it can be done in Zimbabwe, it will be done to us tomorrow." A party of government can be voted out of office, but when a liberation movement loses power, it is a "regime change".

The idea of regime-change is intended to disparage the electoral choices citizens make. Because the movement represents the interests of the masses — and understands those interests better than the masses themselves ever could — a legitimate electoral defeat is by definition impossible. Motlanthe once described the Democratic Alliance as "not truly South African", noting it "targets" poor people. "If you can get … the poor on your side, you can be in government."

State Security Minister David Mahlobo is the latest heavyweight to inveigh against the imperialist peril. He told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that SA is not immune to the threat of regime-change, and identified the news media as one of the imperialists’ principal stooges.

Mantashe and Mahlobo are offering us an early foretaste of the political fantasy world towards which we may soon be hurtling.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town