So much wealth and wellbeing was squandered by bad governance and even worse economic policies

THIS month three years ago I had an interesting encounter with one of the most senior members of our government.
I had just returned from my stint as SA ambassador to Argentina, and I was asked for my views on that country. Somewhat undiplomatically, I told him: “Well Argentina is worse governed and more corrupt than South Africa.”
He laughed heartily and did not suggest a further diplomatic assignment, but the statement was then essentially true.

Since then, with Nkandla metastasising across our body politic, the further looting of public resources and the president proclaiming the party comes before all else, the distance has narrowed. But in this race to the bottom, the land of tango, Evita and Maradona still noses ahead of us. You can‘t help but to have home thoughts when you live abroad. And, other than the essential whiteness of Argentina, created in part by one of its 19th-century presidents deciding to decimate its indigenous Indian population, the parallels of decline and fall in both countries have followed an eerily similar and scary trajectory. And for the same reasons.

Until its remarkable presidential election on Sunday, Argentina has, since the restoration of its democracy in 1982, been mostly governed by various strong men and women from the ruling Peronist party, founded by Juan Domingo Peron and his strong-willed second wife Evita. The two non-Peronist presidents elected never completed their terms of office.

And in similar shades to the struggle for succession over here, the outgoing president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took over from her husband Nestor back in 2008. Doubtless this husband-and-wife succession appeals — with the exception of an amiable divorce here — to those in ruling circles who envisage a Jacob Zuma presidency continuing with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Then, of course, there is the economy. Argentina, like South Africa, is blessed with some of the richest natural resources in the world, except theirs are even more essential than ours.
At a speech, for which friends in Buenos Aires paid him the modest amount of $250000, I listened to a former US president tell the locals that the key to Argentina‘s place in the world was the fact that it produced so many soy beans.

As China and other huge economies increased their wealth people increased their meat consumption and since soy is the basis of most animal feed, Argentina sat in the pound or peso seats. As Bill Clinton drily noted: “We can‘t say what the future of the oil or the gold price will be, but everyone has to eat.”

But, in another striking similarity, so much wealth and wellbeing was squandered by bad governance and even worse economic policies.

The most notable economic lesson Argentina has given the world is that in 1930 it had the seventh-largest economy on earth. Today, its economy is smaller than ours. Despite its bright people, its bounteous natural resources, which include gold reserves of note and the third-largest shale gas potential in the world, it has fallen off the fiscal cliff.

After posting the world‘s largest sovereign debt default in history in 2001, Argentina then progressed due to its resource windfalls — only to fall backwards and default again this year. It thumbed its nose at its creditors, badmouthed the International Monetary Fund and cooked the national statistics to present a far rosier picture of its financial affairs than was the case in reality. But Kirchner and her party kept being elected for three reasons, which again will be very familiar to South Africans.

First, for a long time it was on the right side of history.

When strongman Peron came to power in 1946, most Argentine workers had no rights and were treated as scum by the 300 or so enormously rich families who basically controlled its economy. He changed all that but then bankrupted his treasury in the process. Peron was ousted by the military nine years later. They banned his party and sent him into exile for the next 19 years.

On his return, the country was in chaos and he died a year after his return in 1974. In 1976 the military took over again and then put in place a regime of such brutality that in just six years it murdered anywhere between 9000 people (the official figure) and 30000 (unofficial statistic).

The return of his party to power a few years after democracy was restored was, in part, because the Peronists were the sworn enemy of the military. “Don‘t bring back the Boers” Cyril Rampahosa proclaimed two years ago. In Argentina, the ruling party railed against “letting the military junta back in”.

Second, in another intimation we can identify with, the outgoing Argentine government essentially bribed its voters with endless subsidies and welfare payments and a vastly inflated public-sector payroll. This won it votes but drove inflation through the roof, foreign investment out of the door and its currency through the floor.

Third, it often seemed that however much division Kirchner and her government sowed between people and classes, a lot of people voted for her party on the basis that it was the only party “strong enough” to govern and keep the country from descending into chaos.

These facts seemed to bode ill for the opposition campaign of my acquaintance, the Buenos Aires mayor and former president of the famed Boca Junior Football Club, Mauricio Macri.

When we first met in 2009 he told me that the fact that I had led the South African opposition made us “amigos”.

He flattered since his opposition project on Sunday upended decades of history by narrowly winning the presidency against Kirchner‘s hand-picked successor, Governor Daniel Scioli.

Now Argentina perhaps provides a more reassuring lesson to those here and everywhere else who tire of one-party domination, or despair of prospects for change (Macri‘s coalition was called “let‘s change”). Change can and does happen, even in the unlikeliest places. And even against the most powerful opponents.

This article first appeared in The Times