Two versions of her speech at Gibs, in text and orally, show little regard for dire state of public accounts.

Presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s recent speech at a high citadel of capitalism — the Gordon Institute for Business Science — caused much controversy. In her actual remarks Dlamini-Zuma bemoaned the “dissonance” between the government and the private sector. But many noted the difference between her live comments and the dead hand of failed ideologies she resuscitated in the text handed out after her address.

Business Day editorialised that in “straying off script … we are none the wiser” as to which of the “two Zumas” will emerge should she win the contest in December. Will it be the white monopoly is evil and only radical economic transformation can cure the ills of inequality and poverty version? Or will it be an approach that stresses collaboration, pragmatism and nonracial solidarity?

Every political campaign, to some degree, practises “strategic ambivalence”. But taken to extremes, it leads to incoherence and, over time, to extinction. The United Party, which dominated the government here for the first half of the 20th century, was unable to deal with its loss of power in 1948. So, it decided to speak with two voices — one liberal, the other reactionary. By 1977, the incompatibility and absence of power had led to its demise.

Her toned-down off-script speech was for a business audience. So which one is the real Dlamini-Zuma?

While the ANC is hardly the UP and is still in power, though slipping, it too is facing other losses on all fronts. A near bankrupt Treasury is the main loss, as Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba now seeks to raid workers’ pension funds in a desperate bid to fund a fiscal hole of about R50bn. I am sure Dlamini-Zuma was entirely sincere in her (written) text in her abomination of “neoliberalism”. But she might pause to consider the observation of one of its chief architects, Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money to spend.”

Dlamini-Zuma’s remarks gave no indication that she has any regard for quite how dire the public accounts look, or how all the grandiose schemes embedded in radical economic transformation are to be funded. Although like Voldemort in Harry Potter, the name of Jacob Zuma is never mentioned by his former wife, who rides on his coattails, she is keen to quote all manner of prescriptions from his current playbook.

This includes “returning land to the people” and ensuring all private ownership reflects “our population demographics”. And then there is the role of the state in all this: according to her (in writing) it should be “stronger” and “far more interventionist”; and the private sector weaker.

Jacob Zuma is, in fact, unburdened by much ideological baggage. He treads lightly on the policy footpath, borrowing whatever will help him scrape out of his largely self-imposed predicaments. But weighed down by looming criminal charges, bereft of popularity and presiding over the captured state, he plucks an ideology of radical transformation to switch attention and divert demands from his one-time staunch allies — the communists and Cosatu and one fifth of his own MPs — that nothing will become his presidency as much as his departing it.

In contrast, Dlamini-Zuma is highly ideological. A combination of Moscow nights and Havana days has led her, in a long career, to embrace the policy red meat she now dishes out to her supporters. She imagines state-owned enterprises — many looted by corruption and woefully misgoverned, and whose current costs and contingent liabilities are catastrophic — as the employment agency for SA’s 9-million unemployed. To choose just a trio from many bad performers: in less than a decade, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), PetroSA and South African Airways (SAA) raked up combined operational losses of R24bn, said the Financial Mail in August. Grossly mismanaged SAA has by now received R23.8bn in state support since 2008 and still needs much more: only a combination of asset stripping, retrenchment of routes and sale of government shares can keep it flying.

Our novice finance minister’s solution is to sell — at a hefty discount — the government’s stake in Telkom. The irony is that Telkom is only minority state-owned, with less than a 40% stake, highly profitable and competently led by, among others, chairman Jabu Mabuza, who also heads Business Leadership SA, an avowed opponent of the sort of state capture embedded in SAA.

Telkom’s success is actually about less state involvement and more private-sector excellence. This idea gets nary a nod in Dlamini-Zuma’s off-and-on script remarks. Instead, her holy grail is the Freedom Charter, drawn up — ironically largely by white communists — 62 years ago. Whatever its merits as a rallying document, it is hardly fit for purpose for a presidency of the second decade of the 21st century.

She ignores, as well, that SA is governed by the 1996 Constitution and not the 1955 charter. But then, the Constitution guarantees Reserve Bank independence and is a roadblock to arbitrary property seizure. In contrast, she stands for the reverse propositions — a future based on extinction of property rights with lashes of hyperinflation.

Anyway, knowledge and know-how, not mining and land, will determine the winners and losers on the jobs front. And this is obviously deeply discomfiting for someone who has been a senior member of a government that, in percentage terms, has spent more on education for among the worst outcomes in the developing world.

It was also ironic that Dlamini-Zuma’s two-faced speech received attention just as her social media campaign platforms were launched. She might be using last century’s ideas, but her campaign toolkit is very much of our age. Political schizophrenia writ large.

A message on the true world was delivered, with statistical force, by Edward Luce in his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. He notes that Facebook (an essential campaign tool nowadays) has its data servers managed by Cyborg, a software program. “It requires one human technician for every 20,000 computers.” And, of course, Facebook itself in 2012 bought Instagram, which had 13 employees, for $1bn. “That came to $77m per employee.” Going forward, in the real world, not in some imagined socialist utopia, requires proper, transferable skills.

In July, Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuela economist of international repute with deep knowledge of SA, reminded readers of Business Day: “Know-how can be quickly hired, but it can’t be quickly transferred from one person to another. It certainly can’t be confiscated or extracted, like teeth, from the brains that possess it.”

And, as he warned, “SA risks following countries like Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Algeria where governments inherited a stock of know-how in the brains of people new leaders may not have liked.”

Just read Dlamini-Zuma’s speech and it’s clear she would join us to this list.

The politics of racial inflammation might win Dlamini-Zuma the ANC presidency, but if she does win, it is entirely possible the rhetoric that had her elected will destroy the country she hopes to govern.

  • 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 Business Day