Panned by his critics as a charlatan and a clown, or as “Donald Trump with a thesaurus”, new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved with a cabinet massacre, within hours of kissing hands with the Queen, to dispel a self-created myth about his style of government.
Among millions of words he gifted to commentators in his highly paid newspaper columns and interviews, two verbal hostages to future ill-fortune stand out.
First was Johnson’s own suggestion that he was an unprincipled opportunist: “My only conviction I can think of was an old one for speeding.”
Then, with reference to the tangled web of Brexit which ensnared his hapless predecessor, Theresa May, he conjured up a fantasy that Britain could exit the European Union and keep all of the advantages of the EU but none of the downside. He offered up this confection: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”
But in his first act as prime minister there was no balancing of options, no concord with his rivals and no half-measuring. He took an axe to all the unbelievers in his “hell or high water Brexit” within three months.
He has taken a mighty gamble, since he enjoys a parliamentary majority of just two MPs, at least 30 Conservative MPs oppose his no-deal deadline and he leads a country bitterly divided over the greatest constitutional crisis in 50 years. And then there are the united and implacable EU heads of state, whom he has to deal with.
But, as The Times (no supporter of Johnson) reasoned: “He could have chosen to be emollient, instead he has chosen to be bold. Like all gambles this comes with risk. But this is the gamble of a man who seems to know what he wants.”
Cyril Ramaphosa is also in a fight for his political life and in charge of an economy facing its greatest crisis, or a cascade of them not sighted since the nadir of apartheid economics.
Yet his response has not been to go for broke, or even confront directly the enemies of reform and the captured in his ranks. No mafia don with an axe, he is more the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a screen. He wants to “keep everyone in the kraal”.
This week the IMF forecasts a dismal growth rate of 0.7%, two-thirds lower than the rosy Treasury forecast and every indication that within five years our current unsustainable debt levels will reach stratospheric heights of around 70% in relation to our anaemic GDP.
In the face of all this carnage, there is to be no reform or revision. “A silver bullet”, in the health minister’s words, will be delivered by National Health Insurance (NHI). More likely it’s Russian roulette. As the interview in this newspaper last Sunday revealed, the minister’s department has no idea of the funding cost or where it will be sourced. The R4.9bn worth of pilot projects for NHI were so dismal, according to Business Day, that the department has no idea of “what worked and what didn’t”. But with a splendid disregard for the evidence, it will proceed because the ANC policy resolution requires it to.
Of course hair-shirt economics could intrude, especially as this week the Treasury was obliged to stump up a further R59bn in emergency funding for Eskom. And then there is the long line of SOEs in intensive care with begging bowls.
But no fundamentals of policy will be reviewed, reformed or discarded. BEE? “It will be intensified, not scrapped,” Cyril advised parliament. State-owned companies? Just the ticket, he told us recently. And so forth until the music ends.
And that is very soon, according to Johann Rupert. He told Pieter du Toit, author of The Stellenbosch Mafia, that SA will be at the IMF for a bailout, most likely in a year.
His advice to Ramaphosa to fix things? “He’s going to have to take the bit between the teeth.”
To channel the Boris approach, take a risk and don’t open the kraal to those whose knives are aimed at your heart and at the lifeblood of our sick economy.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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