Three discrete encounters in Johannesburg recently reinforced the singular, stark economic darkness that now clouds the hype and hope of the Cyril Ramaphosa “new dawn”.

First off, I listened to an acute analysis on the essential problem with our economy and its misdiagnosis by the governing ANC. Moeletsi Mbeki — an analyst of our political economy and the author, among other works, of the aptly named Architects of Poverty, a sweeping indictment of the paraphernalia of elite-centred redistribution — does not pull his punches.

His aim is the essential unity between the past decades of Afrikaner nationalism and the current epoch of African nationalism. “You can make a meal of the similarities,” he noted. Both, in his view, are grounded in the politics of resentment or, in his words, have “reparations”, not growth or the restructuring of the economy, as their essence.

So much then for the smiling photographs of Ramaphosa on the ANC billboards festooned across the country during the recent election campaign. Contrary to the slogan beneath his visage: “Let’s grow SA together” the real and unchanged narrative and the connectivity between the two nationalisms are all about payback for the past, hence the demand for ever more aggressive redistributions despite the pathetically low growth rate of the economy.

Economic growth — the essential condition for sustainable public finances, investment and business confidence and therefore job creation — is nowhere near the top of this agenda. “Both nationalisms,” Mbeki notes, “are driven by grievance for past exclusion.” Neither has any interest in changing the essential structure of the British colonial economic model and simply want to change the beneficiaries at the top of the system.

Africa Confidential might well be correct that the current conflict in the ANC is between a “good ANC” and a “bad ANC”. But while both factions fight it out with splendid disregard for the national interest, there is a total unity between them on preserving the current spoils system, and indeed doubling down on a raft of failing current policies.

The real peril of BEE, which Ramaphosa recently vowed to “intensify” and of which he is, perhaps, the most conspicuous beneficiary, is the random and rich benefits it delivers to the new aristocracy by those chosen by the former elite in order to hold on to their wealth.

Presciently, in a 2011 article headlined “Only a matter of time before the bomb explodes”, Mbeki suggested that in 2020 or so, “the masses will rise against the powers that be … when the government will have to cut back on social grants, which it uses to placate the black poor and to get their votes”. Mbeki did not then factor in the doom-laden Eskom debt trap that now imperils national finances. But he did posit that “ANC leaders are like a group of children playing with a hand grenade. One day one of them will figure out how to pull out the pin and everyone will be killed.”

Piercingly intelligent

My second encounter was passive rather active, written not spoken. On the night of my Mbeki encounter I delved into a new book on a very consequential US diplomat, Our Man — Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer.

In 2000 I met the piercingly intelligent Holbrooke in New York when he served as US ambassador to the UN and was an early international promoter of Thabo Mbeki’s “African renaissance”. He was fantastically well briefed and endlessly curious. However, his third attribute articulated in the book, rapacious and unconcealed ambition, was absent from our encounter. But while this “defect” prevented him from reaching the summit of his ambition as US secretary of state, it did him no harm at all in ending the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia and the conflict in Bosnia.

The thread between the violence in the Balkans that the Dayton accords brokered by Holbrooke in 1995 drew to a close and the dangers alluded to by Mbeki are brilliantly captured by Packer in a key passage on Serbian nationalism: “It had the irresistible taste of bitterness flavoured with the sediment of ancient grievances distilled to a dangerous potency that induced hallucinations of purification and revenge.”

And then, with a nod towards our own home brew of ANC nationalism, he cautions “it was the drink of political losers. Maybe that’s true of nationalisms everywhere.”

But as SA’s governing party factions devour each other here and scrap over the carcass of our decimated economy, the account of Holbrooke’s varied diplomatic lives offers another reminder. He cut his foreign service teeth as a young diplomat in Vietnam in the early stages of its enervating war. He ruefully noted on the Vietcong’s endless ability to inflict pain on the world’s largest military force, the US: “The insurgents win in a guerrilla war if they don’t lose.”

Flight of investors

Since Jacob Zuma fancies himself as a military and intelligence strategist, that doubtless is the calculus on his faction’s insurgency against his own president, Ramaphosa. He does not have to win the war to survive, he simply has to ensure they remain in the game, on the party’s national executive committee and with the public protector’s office on side. Then the other, ostensibly far more powerful, side loses.

Meanwhile, as SA is caught in this conflict and faces an ebbing tide of global interest, the flight of investors into safe havens, the emigration of the skilled and the reduction of the revenue base, there is no course reversal by the government. Rather, in the Ramaphosa view “intensification”, or doubling down on error.

To the extent that there is a menu of reform it is strictly a halfway house of small measures. In the estimation of Holbrooke, on his last assignment in war-torn Afghanistan before his premature death in 2010, such timid incrementalism is “a dangerous course, it’s the one with the greatest chance of failure”.

The third event happened between listening to Mbeki and reading about Holbrooke. Colleagues and I were hosted in a five-star hotel in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. In the evening the not-so-fancy whiskey requested was out of stock; the next morning the plain yoghurt on the menu was not available and the sole vegetarian item was not to be had. An ace business maven in my company noted: “This happens when your suppliers are uncertain about being paid, and that occurs when there is so little growth and demand across the whole economy.”

Time then to heed the warnings and change the menu. Or else batten down the hatches for the coming storm.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

Featured in The Business Day