Top duo represent ‘evil of two lessers’, which is not exactly a recipe for dynamic or even dynastic change
Is SA capable of making the deep and swift reforms needed to lift growth, restore business confidence, create jobs and dent poverty? And who might lead this process of urgent renewal? On the leadership question, the answer — reading the tea leaves of the finally open contest of contenders for the ANC presidency — is pretty dismal.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma offers stale and clichéd rhetoric and slogans from six decades ago. Her chief rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, has offered few ideas in the public space at all about where he would lead the country and what economic course he would set for it.
Both are likely to fall back on the myth of “collective decision-making”. In Dlamini-Zuma’s case, she will be in hock to the state looters and plunderers who have presided over the economic degeneracy of the country these past eight years. She might be more focused on better administration than her wayward former husband. But that’s hardly a big ask: in the opinion of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, Dlamini-Zuma provides no leadership to his cabinet of curiosities, or mediocrities, which resembles an anarchic ship crew, where it’s a case of every minister for him or herself.
Should Ramaphosa prevail in December, three large presuppositions loom. There’s a big question — if the tide continues to turn against the Zumas, as the current provincial swells suggest — whether the conference will convene at all on the due date.
Although Ramaphosa appears to be a moderniser and in tune with the needs of an increasingly depressed business community, he is at heart a compromiser. And whatever ideas he has to fix the state of the state and its severe ailments, his victory will be won for him by the arguably most change-resistant elements in the ramshackle coalition he has assembled: trade union confederation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. His current mantra that there is nothing wrong with current ANC policies except with their implementation, suggests far more question-begging than answers to SA’s current and multiplying crises.
Does he believe, for example, that the so-called national democratic revolution should enjoy primacy over the Constitution? What is his view on the property clause, essential for business and investor confidence? How should the escalating debt burden and biggest liability on the state’s books, the contingent liabilities of state-owned enterprises, be tackled? And what is his view on the conditions the government must create to bolster the country beyond the near-zero growth path on which it is now travelling? On these key questions, he either equivocates or remains silent.
It is possible that some or other third-way candidate such as party treasurer Zweli Mkhize will emerge to scoop the pool, on the basis that the top duo represent the “evil of two lessers”. Not exactly a recipe for dynamic or even dynastic change.
Perhaps the current leadership crop cannot advance the reform agenda needed to fire up growth and change lives
But as the confusing swirl of current world events reminds us, there are no certainties, and bewilderment is the best default position to occupy on matters of the future. Dlamini-Zuma has, for example, spectacularly reneged on his prepresidential commitment to follow the dictates of his party — nowhere in its policy documents or election manifestos are “state capture” or “radical economic transformation” offered as the elixirs to fix poverty and inequality.
Thus, it is entirely possible, or perhaps a case of hope trumping expectation, that the new party president could reset SA’s course in a more sensible and sustainable direction.
Historian Niall Ferguson pointed out recently that the top-of-mind book for the leadership of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party is Stefan Zweig’s 1927 largely forgotten Decisive Moments in History. Apparently, it is recommended reading for the Chinese standing committee of the politburo, which since it represents one-fifth of humanity is, in his words, “the world’s most influential book club”.
In his tome, Zweig notes that very occasionally “a critical moment occurs in the world that is decisive for decades and centuries … a single moment that determines and decides everything: a single yes, a single no, a too early or a too late makes that hour irrevocable for a hundred generations”.
According to Ferguson, of all the idiosyncratic moments Zweig cites, one of the most interesting was when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. One of the causes for its demise was a fatal breach in the city’s defences, the result of a humble gate left open. “A forgotten door decided world history.”
We hardly have a shortage of such hinge-of history moments right now: the nuclear standoff in North Korea, the uncertainty over the Brexit outcome and the EU, and the very future and shape of globalisation, are just a trifecta of the largest and most uncertain forces and outcomes.
Having spent some years in South America, I best remember the Viennese-born Zweig’s story for his exile years in Brazil. Shortly before his depression as a refugee from Nazi Europe drove him to suicide, he offered this observation of the hemispheric giant where he unhappily lived: “Brazil is the county of the future, and always will be.”
I was reminded of this gloomy description of a country of vast but unrealised potential when I was in London recently to participate in a panel discussion on emerging markets.
The most distinguished member of our group was the former chief economist of Goldman Sachs and former minister in the British government Lord Jim O’Neill.
He, of course, famously originated the acronym Bric, although he never believed even seven years ago that SA belonged in that grouping. He felt its economy was too small and the growth trajectory too low. And that was in the better years before the Zuma locusts ate, when SA was coasting along at 2.7% GDP growth, nearly three times higher than it is doing now.
Asked by an audience member to name countries to invest in for the future, he mentioned “China of course, Nigeria for the demographics and possibly Indonesia too”. SA went unmentioned except for O’Neill’s half-joking response that Brics started to go wrong shortly after the country joined it.
I thought on this panel that I might have better prospects of talking up SA’s future compared with Russia, after all a full-blown kleptocracy. But the Russian private-equity speaker shot back, “There might be problems in Russia, but our government does not tell its investors to dispose of part of their equity on racial grounds.”
Will December be a “decisive moment in our history”, to adapt Zweig’s title? Or like his description of Brazil, is SA to continue as the Greek mythological figure Tantalus, doomed to be midwaist in water but drowning of thirst?
Perhaps the current leadership crop cannot advance the reform agenda needed to fire up growth and change lives. It was largely thought that France was unreformable. But President Emmanuel Macron appears to have other ideas and is advancing them very boldly. But he could only commence when he busted the prevailing political and party system.
Perhaps that is precisely what beleaguered SA needs right now, or soon into the future, if it is to enjoy a sustainable one.
- Leon (@TonyLeonSA), 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