To adapt Tolstoy, “Every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way”. Recently, the parliaments of the UK and SA proved this anew.
On November 15, British Prime Minister Theresa May, a cricket fan, faced three hours of verbal bouncers in the House of Commons, where most members, especially from her own team, tried to bowl out her withdrawal agreement with the EU.
Just as the impossibly grand Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg drawled out his intention to send a letter of no confidence in her leadership, a Sun editorial offered a warning to May.
She had cited former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott as her Brexit inspiration – “He stuck to it and he got the runs in the end”. The Sun, noted, though, that “he was once run out on purpose by a young Ian Botham, the all-rounder frustrated that his captain was not scoring enough runs fast enough and under orders from the vice-captain to get him out”.
The constitutional review committee, with as much acrimony as May confronted, voted to recommend that the property clause of the constitution be amended to enable expropriation without compensation.
Never mind late-20th century cricketers. In both Brexit and our decision to dump the property clause, the mid-19th century Xhosa prophetess Nongqawuse seems a more apt inspiration for such glaring examples of national self-harm.
Nongqawuse told her followers to destroy their crops and kill their cattle, after which the ancestral spirits would sweep the British occupiers of Xhosa territories into the sea. The result was ruin.
Doubtless both Brexit and amending the South African constitution will result in less destruction, but we should not underestimate just how chilling both events will prove for investment and growth.
In Britain, the populist Brexiteers promised the UK would get its money back, that the deal would be “the easiest in history” and that a new Singapore would arise on the Thames. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Theresa May and Cyril Ramaphosa are tied by another common thread. Both are reluctant converts to the causes on which they have staked their political futures. And both are promising the impossible.
In the case of Brexit, May’s backbenchers are furious because she has crossed her own stated “red lines”. But she had no option. She promised to “take back control” and undertook to preserve the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and erect no hard border with the Irish Republic. She also promised to exit the customs union with the EU. But the deal she is now offering only allows the preservation of Irish peace and unity with Northern Ireland at the price of her entire country remaining in the EU customs union for an indefinite period. To deliver on two of her pledges, she had to ditch the third. And pay £40bn (R713bn) for the privilege.
Ramaphosa finds himself in a similar bind. His party shackled him with expropriation as a combination of a quick fix and revenge by the Zumas. He countered with his own “red lines”: it cannot affect economic growth, undermine food security or destabilise the agricultural sector.
Every voice of enlightened reason, such as this week’s International Monetary Fund report, and every dollar of deferred investment advises this is a fantasy combination.
If not Boycott or Nongqawuse, then Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen is the spirit of our age – she who believed six impossible things before breakfast.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
Featured in The Sunday Times