Last week’s landing at Air Force Base Waterkloof by a planeload of Indian grandees was altogether a more welcome occasion than the last time arrivals there made the headlines.
Readers will recall that state- or Gupta-capture was first heralded in April 2013, when the infamous family flew in a chartered jet for a wedding and, in the process, breached a multitude of laws by using an airforce facility for a group of private junketeers.
In keeping with the letters ANC designating – in reality – “absolutely no consequences”, the one public figure named and shamed for this flagrant breach was soon bowler-hatted off as ambassador to the Netherlands. Not a bad demotion, if you can get it.
But, for whatever stain the Guptas have left, and continue to weave on the corroded face of local politics, last week’s Indian arrivals at Waterkloof were cut from a very different cloth.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for his no-nonsense, pro-business agenda. He was the leader of a delegation from his country that met President Jacob Zuma.
Modi’s election to lead the world’s largest democracy in May 2014 ended the virtual political dominance of the Indian Congress Party, to which Zuma’s ANC has often been compared.
Both parties benefited from the so-called “liberation dividend”, receiving votes for emancipation from imperialism and apartheid respectively. The template fits further when a comparison is drawn between Nelson Mandela and India’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who not only dominated that subcontinent but was father of one prime minister and grandfather of another.
But, finally, the darker side of this party’s misrule – endemic corruption, low growth and the dead hand of the stifling state – caught up with Congress, and it was thrown out of power, fairly unceremoniously but decisively. Indians decided their pocket books were more important than faded pages from history.
Modi has already, two years in power, been heralded as a harbinger of change. Alone among South Africa’s Brics partners (India, Brazil, China and Russia), he presides over a huge country that is posting real and fairly rapid rates of economic growth.
In 2012, an Indian businessman and economist, Gurcharan Das, wrote an account of the sclerotic rates of growth under his predecessors, with the wonderful title India Grows at Night. By this title, as he elaborates in the book, he meant India was a country of “private success and public failure”. Indeed, this could be a working title for South Africa today: just witness our failing public schools and the huge success, with a 700% share price increase and a 99% matric pass rate, of Curro Schools, a private, for-profit enterprise which addresses, at modest cost, quality education.
Modi, in contrast, now presides over the fastest growing economy in the world (7% GDP forecast for this year). He has in the process cut back inflation – helped by the oil price plunge – and slashed India’s budget deficit to below 4%.
While some lament the fact that he has not achieved even more on the reform menu, unlike Zuma’s ANC his BJP party does not control the upper house of parliament and many of the changes needed, especially in the labour market, are the remit of the state governments, where a bewildering array of regional parties rule.
Still, we would give our back teeth for some of the economic vigour of India, a country once derided by its own economists as in thrall to the “Hindu rate of growth”.
One of the many recent reforms which holds up India as a bellwether of pragmatic innovation is the ease with which tourists and visitors can get visas to enter the country. These are now available online from abroad. Little wonder India attracts increasing numbers of tourists every year to witness its many splendours, from the Taj Mahal to the Raj architecture and the Moghul palaces. India makes it relatively easy to arrive.
Back home, these past few years, and other than the magic carpet ride provided by the state for the Gupta wedding guests, there has been a pitched battle between the tourism sector and the ministry of Home Affairs over the onerous visa regulations which caused an alarming drop in tourism arrivals. Of course, the minister of defence recently did some child-smuggling of her own in defiance of all known laws and also got the ANC response: “absolutely no consequences”.
After numerous false starts to change this official idiocy, including a high-level intervention from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, we were led to believe that the one sector of growth for our stuttering economy had been released from this spectacular own goal.
Not so, according to the CEO of a leading inbound tour operator, who sent out an alarming e-mail this past weekend about a Saturday flight from Johannesburg to Paris.
It read: “Despite many assurances, nothing has changed. A family from San Francisco was denied boarding ahead of us, a Canadian family behind us, an unaccompanied minor from Singapore with a US passport ahead of us. Endless tears, no resolve, no solution … just unloaded. More than 30 people won’t fly tonight. I am hugely embarrassed to be a South African tonight. Why has the noise about visas died down when the problem has not?”
He might have added that this strangulating red tape offended three countries in one planeload.
Meanwhile, on the day that Modi arrived here with lessons on economic reforms, the International Monetary Fund published its review of South Africa’s economy. It suggested that our growth rate would be an alarming 0.1% and posited the solution to our economic ills was a “strong push on structural reforms” as an “absolute urgent priority”.
Perhaps Zuma could take a tip or two from India, but rather from Modi than from the Guptas.