“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”. Recent events here have, however, turned this old caution on its head.
Who would have thought, for example, that South Africa’s top capitalists would mourn the firing in March of finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas –two top line Communists? The SA Communist Party saluted the pair’s ‘revolutionary morality’ in attempting to interdict state capture. Stripped of the adjective, perhaps, the entire business community –indeed the whole society –would agree.
The first impression you get on meeting Simon Susman chairman of top end retail giant Woolworths is that he is no verbal bomb-thrower. But on the back of a 7.6% decline in profits headlined its annual results announced last month, he certainly ended his quiet ways.
Susman cranked up the volume on the predations of our dear President Jacob Zuma and placed him squarely in the cross-hairs of the record plummet in business confidence which, earlier this month, fell to a record 32 year low. That’s right -the last time confidence was this low was in 1985 the year of PW Botha’s Rubicon speech.
Then, as now, the country was led by an economic ignoramus – each utterly heedless of the damage their very different brands of bad politics inflict on their country.
The Woolies boss was no doubt speaking for many when he noted “The president’s apparent concern for his personal interests above those of the country have put incredible strain on the economy.”
Zuma himself did not do anything in his last parliamentary question session to put this to rights. Or indeed to dispel the first and forever impression that the country interests are right at the bottom of his agenda.
But when he told parliament that South Africa’s economic woes were as ever the result of external factors and not of his making he also confirmed the first impression that he is highly economic with the truth as well.
Zuma advised ‘the economic situation is what it is because global circumstances.’ Really? Perhaps he could explain why, for example, our 12% gain in the main stocks gauge is less than half the 26% advance of our emerging market peers.
But then again, the week before Zuma fired Gordhan the Financial Times listed the South African Rand as the best of 22 emerging market currencies. But then Zuma dimissed Gordhan ‘to boost efficiency and effectiveness’ would you believe! Anyway, the fact that the Rand has not collapsed since then is as all analysts agree everything to do with externalities and very little to do with our economic policies. Or the lack thereof.
As grant recipients now outstrip people in work and the revenue base shrinks and a likely black hole of perhaps R50bn will be revealed in next month’s mini budget, the essential issue is whether SA will get a second chance at resetting current impressions of decay and decline.
Everyone awaits December and the choices of the ruling party . Once again, business places its faith in Cyril Ramaphosa, joined again ,here, in an awkward embrace with both the Communists and the Trade unionists.
Ramaphosa is not talking about growth, in fact he’s not saying much at all except to react with fury against corruption and the dirty tricks deployed against him. Many commentators have noted how he can hardly complain having seen on his deputy presidential watch, without apparent murmur, the erection of what is in some measure a criminal state at the heart of government.
It was said of hugely popular US President Dwight D Eisenhower that ‘his smile was his philosophy’. But he was, by all accounts, far more ruthless in politics and far more cautious in the use of military force than both his breezy expression and war hero status would suggest at first glance.
Back here in today’s South Africa Zuma giggles and Ramaphosa smiles. But we know what lurks behind the Zuma laugh. Not a joking matter. But what lurks behind the Cyril smile? Does he have the essential ruthlessness to win, and if he does, to drain the fetid, corrupt swamp he will inherit.
RW Johnson wrote “He’s more likely to lose cautiously than win boldly.” In three months or so we will know if that first impression gets second guessed. And who will be giggling or smiling then.
- 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 Sunday Times