Gloom around Springboks chimes with business and worker despondency about SA

Gloom around Springboks chimes with business and worker despondency about SA

The ‘left-wing critics’ of both Mandela and Mbeki are now in charge of this country’s economic direction under Zuma

When top-seeded Boris Becker lost at Wimbledon in 1987 to 43rd-ranked Australian Peter Doohan, he provided a thoughtful addition to the philosophy of shock defeats. The German tennis ace shrugged it off: “I didn’t lose a war. Nobody died. I lost a tennis match.”

I doubt whether such nonchalance was on display in the Brighton changing rooms on Saturday night when coach Heyneke Meyer met the twice world champion Springboks after their amazing, gut-wrenching defeat to lowly ranked Japan in their opening game in the Rugby World Cup. I irreverently tweeted that Meyer might wish to follow an ancient, appropriately Japanese, custom of honour that used to follow a moment of national and personal disgrace. There was no shortage of bids to offer to purchase the beleaguered Springbok coach a samurai sword either.

Unlike his two predecessors in the presidential office, Jacob Zuma has displayed little interest in the fortunes and aspirations of his national rugby team.

John Carlin immortalised Nelson Mandela’s Invictus moments in the come-from-behind epic win of the Springboks in their first outing in the 1995 World Cup. Thabo Mbeki gamely kitted himself out in the rugby green-and-gold after attending the Boks final victory in Paris in 2007, when the national team bested England to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time.

On current form, it is unlikely that Zuma will be needed when this year’s final is played on October 31 at Twickenham.

It was said that Napoleon chose his generals, in part, because of their luck.

National gloom around the Springboks seems to chime with business and worker-despondency about the state of the country as our luck seems to have deserted us.

Ryan Coetzee helped fashion a lot of the opposition DA’s success here as its political strategist. But he found that his luck deserted him when he crossed to England and presided over the epic defeat of the Liberal Democrats in this year’s general election.

He offered a thought on the national implications of our sporting disaster on Saturday night: “It would be (marginally) less depressing if it didn’t seem so emblematic of wider decline. Cry the beloved country.”

Of course, in politics and economics, luck and timing have a lot to do with national success. Mandela and Mbeki were fortunate that their presidencies coincided with very favourable tailwinds, which pushed the country forward. These included the long boom years of the commodity super-cycle, the beneficent decades of global growth and some of the trillions of dollars of cheap money relentlessly following the hunt for yield washed up on these southern shores.

It is equally true, however, that both of those presidents made some of their own luck as well. Mandela was no economist but he understood the big ideas of what constituted successful, pro-business policies. And while he would not, or politically could not, confront the powerful trade unions and their demands for an inflexible labour market policy, elsewhere he made many of the correct calls to make the country attractive for both domestic and foreign investors.

He executed policy shifts ordered when he peered into the bare economic larder bequeathed to him by his apartheid predecessors. His official biographer, Anthony Sampson, notes that while Mandela’s “left-wing critics” thought that he was “too cosy with businessmen … and too uncritical of their politics”, Mandela was convinced that “the African National Congress had to remain on friendly terms with big business if it were to create a thriving economy”.

When, by 1999, the South African economy had been spared the worst disasters that afflicted Asian countries in the first emerging market reversal of fortune, Mandela could claim some of the credit, which he duly did: “SA did not experience what others did because we have credible and sustainable fiscal and monetary policies.”

Mbeki, a trained economist, followed suit, and arguably had been architect and executioner of much of the economic policy making during Mandela’s term. He made up for his deficiencies in the star attractiveness of his predecessor by appointing some of the world’s top businessmen to his council of economic advisers.

The “left-wing critics” of both Mandela and Mbeki are now in charge of this country’s economic direction under Zuma. And they could hardly have been less lucky in their timing.

Zuma shrugs off criticism of his policies by blaming global economic conditions. His term of office started just as the global financial crisis metastasised across world markets. The commodity tailwinds sharply turned into headwinds and the world has again fallen out of love with emerging markets. But, somewhat like Meyer’s playbook, Zuma simply doubles down on discredited practices and, in sharp distinction to his predecessors, simply cuts off any voices that are uncongenial to the essentially statist South African Communist Party view proffered by his politically nearest and dearest. Like Meyer, his key players might lack form and match fitness but they are retained.

There is one criticism of Zuma that is, in my view, inaccurate. In the wake of the Omar al-Bashir own-goal that he scored against the rule of law, the Daily Telegraph’s David Blair wrote: “What sets Zuma apart is the sense that he is not only wayward, but directionless. It is not so much that he is a president with the wrong ideas, but that he has no ideas.”

Zuma, in his defence, does have some economic ideas the best of which, in theory at least, is that the country’s economic and social futures should be piloted by a national plan. His key idea here is that disparate policies and impulses should be joined together by a firm national consensus, informed by the views of the local good and the great.

The success of our private sector and their achievements near the top of the global tables that benchmark them against world competition provides a shaft of light in gloomy local economic times.

Refreshing the membership of the National Planning Commission (NPC) seemed an ideal moment to round up the creative talents of some of the business greats who have done so much to project the country’s prowess amid intense global competition. It also seemed an apt moment to reassure the world that we are determined to arrest our economic drift.

The publication last week of the Economic Freedom of the World report, in which SA has plunged 54 places in the past 15 years, eerily mirrored our decline in international rugby. You might therefore have hoped some of the best and most acclaimed business brains would have been sprinkled into the new team to head the NPC unveiled by Zuma last Thursday. No such luck. There is not a Motsepe, Rupert, Joffe or Wiese among their number.

Doug Band, a director of Bidvest, a truly great SA-originating international company wrote an e-mail, after the list was announced, that pointed to an essential and uncomfortable truth.

“This is the final straw, not even a black businessman in sight, just a willy-nilly collation of all sorts of odd interests, none of whom can generate anything but talk…. There is no intent to find a way forward with the challenges our country faces.”

To echo the words of Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, Zuma, like Meyer, “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

This article first appeared in Business Day

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