In 2014 Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens went to Moscow. He was in search of an answer to the question why Vladimir Putin was, in the teeth of his weak economy and restive populace, doing such apparently risky things as invading neighbouring Crimea and threatening the states in Russia’s “near abroad”.
The best response he received from a local pundit explaining this aggressive, arguably self-defeating behaviour was “When you don’t know what to do, you do what you know.” There is no end of evidence in SA’s current race-to-the-bottom election campaign that Moscow’s friends in Luthuli House have taken this lesson to heart.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba heckled out of Alexandra; civil marches carefully orchestrated and aimed at DA-controlled city governments, and the usual inflammation of racialised rhetoric from the mouths of such apostles of good governance and nonracialism as Ace Magashule.
On the policy front, removing SA’s ambassador to Israel, making common cause with international pariah Venezuela, approving a stolen election in the Democratic Republic of Congo and opposing the removal of the “butcher of Darfur” from his overdue stay as president-for-life of Sudan are all of a piece.
Of course, SA and its governing party hardly hold a monopoly on doubling down on electorally handy but governing unfriendly gestures. And occupation of office in democracies far more mature than our own is no inoculation from this short-term fix with long-term, deleterious consequences.
Israel witnessed the triumphant re-election last week of Benjamin Netanyahu, and while our futile gesture aimed at his government had less-than-zero effect on it, the pre-election promise of the “Israeli magician” (as dubbed by The Economist) to annex the contested West Bank settlements might have shored up his right-wing base. But it will be a very costly down-payment on preventing any long-term settlement with the Palestinians, which is the existential problem faced by the Jewish state.
And in the mother of democracies, the UK, there’s no end in sight to the Brexit promised for delivery on March 29. Like the refrain from the Eagles hit song Hotel California, parliamentarians now complain “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Leaving aside Theresa May’s embattled leadership and her deficits, the core problem there is the ultra Brexiteers in her own party. They would far rather be 100% correct and stuck than settle for a compromise (essentially May’s deal) that would allow the UK to leave with 70% of what was promised in the referendum campaign. A perfect and poisonous example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.
And across the pond in the US there is Donald Trump. He’s determined to paint his opponents as soft on security and lax on borders. So he turns a humanitarian tragedy on the US southern border into a vengeful tit-for-tat exercise against the Democrats by threatening to dump refugees in so-called “sanctuary cities” governed by his party’s opponents.
But in this Cook’s tour of troubled democracies there is one interesting and baleful disconnect between their political crises and our own. In November 2017, when campaigning for the ANC presidency, Cyril Ramaphosa launched his own plan for the economy. There is a detailed account of it, and why it was strangled at birth and has little prospect of success, in RW Johnson’s riveting and rollicking new book Fighting for the Dream.
But the then presidential candidate promised 3% growth in 2018, rising to 5% in 2023. Oh, and 1-million jobs would be created en route between these dates. The fact that we are falling to 1% and below and now have nearly 10-million unemployed is explicable, in Johnson’s view, because of a combination of failed policies, fractured governance and populist blind alleys in which Ramaphosa is ensnared.
But in Britain, for example, and despite the dire warnings of the Remain campaign on the consequences of Brexit, even the delayed departure of the UK has hardly throttled growth. The world’s fifth-biggest economy powers along at three times our growth rate — and from a much higher start — and now has the highest employment rate (94%) since the 1970s. UK growth even exceeds by a small margin that of continental powerhouse Germany. Of course this could reverse, but so far so-called “project fear” of an economic cataclysm has not been realised.
In Israel, despite the depressing continuity of hardline politics an economic renaissance on the Mediterranean is in full bloom: high-tech start-ups rivalling those of Silicon Valley, 4% unemployment, and Netanyahu has reformed and reduced the one-time bloated Israeli state.
SA is sadly stuck with the worst combination: toxic politics and bad economics, the latter in large measure explained by the former. The bedrock of ANC economic policymaking has been to insert the state into every nook and cranny of the economy while simultaneously incapacitating the state from delivering on even its most basic tasks. In Johnson’s unsparing view, this is not so much a government or governing class as a “parasitic elite”, highly dependent on state access for both its riches and survival. Somewhere at the end of the line come the immiserated people, despite their huge admiration for a party and movement that impoverishes them.
From a different age, 1989 (the year I was elected to parliament), emerges the political memoir of Denis Worrall, a co-leader of the Democratic Party. He reminds readers in The Independent Factor that in that last white poll with huge consequences, the governing National Party got its lowest voter haul in 30 years, namely 48%. But while this electoral shock was eased by a constituency system, which gave the NP 60% of the seats in parliament, it created a dilemma for the new president.
Despite campaigning hard against the Democratic Party, on entering office FW de Klerk simply added the NP and DP totals together and then announced “the general election placed our country irrevocably on the road to drastic change”. But De Klerk did that to green light the most monumental changes ever witnessed by the white parliament. If he was minded to go in the opposite direction, he could have simply added the NP total to the ultra-right wing Conservative Party number and moved the other way.
Johnson suggests Ramaphosa use his considerable popularity across all classes and races to escape the trap created by his own party. Here, a strong opposition showing could be the jolt he needs, provided it is from the right side. So the drift and direction of the much-needed change in SA after May 8 will as crucially be determined by the opposition vote totals as it will be by the ANC haul. And, even more fundamentally, how the president interprets the result and in which direction he decides to move.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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