The genius dark television drama-comedy Succession, concerning the inner angst of super-rich media family the Roys, ended recently .
Dynastic founder of the family empire, the monstrous Logan Roy, offered this withering put-down to his four dysfunctional children: “You are not serious people.”
That’s a pretty good epitaph for the comedy of errors and worse which flew alongside President Cyril Ramaphosa on his lightning visit last week to Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
Of course, South Africans are wearily familiar with the dysfunctions thrown into sharp relief, before a world audience, at the Chopin International Airport in Warsaw, Poland, and the flight path there and home again: shoddy paperwork, undeclared arms and munitions, lack of precise planning, overstuffed security personnel — doubtless looking forward to a taxpayer-funded foreign jolly — and racial histrionics when called out.
The international view is less forgiving and has a higher bar of expectation for countries which claim leadership positions in the world.
Even advocates who blamed the fiasco at Warsaw airport on zealous, right-wing and even racist Polish authorities, felt obliged to preface their polemics with a disclaimer on the state of the state in South Africa today.
Indeed, no-one has any such trouble: an underperforming state, arrogant officials whose mendacity is tinged with incompetence (step forward Gen Wally Rhoode and presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya) and an expectation that the world must comport to South Africa and its much faded “exceptionalism” is baked into our share price.
During apartheid, South Africa’s foreign policy was deftly described by a critic as “the externalisation of the country’s internal policy”.
In other words, whatever the department of foreign affairs wished its external policy to address, the world had only one essential topic on its engagement with the pariahs of Pretoria: the policy of apartheid and what meaningful steps, if any, were being taken to dismantle it.
In a slightly different way, the postapartheid government wishes to address many topics on the world stage — a refigured global order, peace in the Ukraine and mitigating the might of the US dollar, to choose just the latest triad from the department of international relations & co-operation.
But the world will refract any such demands or interests through the single lens of what sort of heft South Africa offers to the international order.
Can a country which cannot keep the lights on, which uses the moniker of nonracialism to shove through ever more racist legislation and which has a broken national water infrastructure which, according to expert Prof Anthony Turton, will cost R1-trillion to repair, really mediate on crises in other countries?
There is, of course, always the example of Nelson Mandela, touted with very different emphasis when Ramaphosa and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky finally met last week.
But to compare the South African negotiated settlement brokered by Mandela and FW de Klerk with an active war zone caused by one sovereign country facing an invasion by its vast neighbour is on the borderline between the banal and the absurd.
The banality lies in the obvious truism that negotiations are always better than armed conflict.
But as Zelensky pointed out, it is impossible to negotiate when swathes of your country are under occupation by a foreign army, or at least talks cannot commence while the Russians remain within the borders of sovereign Ukraine.
This makes the South African model template frankly absurd in the context of Ukraine and Russia.
Since 20% of Ukraine is now under direct Russian or its proxy’s occupation, a better point of comparison would be to imagine a South Africa where two of its provinces comprising one-fifth of its land mass, say Limpopo and North West, were under hostile occupation by the Zimbabwean Army. And then a third party, say the president of the EU, arrives and tells you to negotiate with the occupier.
Absurd and farfetched? Perhaps. But it underlines the point of not using serious and comparable historical analogies.
Still, one issue which seemed to unite Kyiv and Moscow last week was a lack of enthusiasm for the African peace plan, however laudable its sponsors’ intentions might be, faulty history aside.
But Ramaphosa was in full Churchillian mode on his return here. This week he wrote: “We believe that our mission was successful in registering the willingness of African leaders to contribute to a negotiated peace …”
The great war leader once noted: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
The meaning of success locally is all of a piece with our international efforts. Parliament has just enacted National Health Insurance legislation plucked from the ANC’s favourite forest, the Magic Money Tree.
It will be funded from taxes, according to the health ministry. That will require, says Solidarity, a 20% increase in personal taxes, hiking corporate taxes from 27% to 42% and raising VAT to 20%. Just as the high-end taxpayers and medical professionals flee the country in advance of the latest offering by the “developmental state”.
Meantime, with mounting failures at home to confront, Ramaphosa this week took to the skies again to attend a conference in Paris, with apparently less drama and fewer histrionics and presidential bodyguards than the discordant notes and images from Chopin International Airport last week.
When he can turn his attention homeward, the president would do well to ponder just how serious he is about his much-promised, barely visible reform and investment agenda, and how it squares with the myriad contradictions offered up by his party. And the answer won’t be found in Paris, Kyiv or Moscow.