Argentina’s opposition achieved the unimaginable. So too can South Africa’s

LAST Sunday, as I stood atop Mount Kent in the Falkland Islands, the icy wind knifed through my heavy-duty jacket with the proverbial ease of the hottest knife through melting butter. And this was still summer in the rocky, desolate island chain over which Great Britain and Argentina went to war for 74 days in May 1982.

That conflict occurred at the height of winter and cost both sides nearly 1000 lives. Now heavily garrisoned by over 2000 members of the British armed forces, it is improbable that Argentina will ever attempt to retake this UK overseas territory over 12 000 km away from Britain.

Standing there, it was hard to imagine the freezing, inclement conditions under which that war was fought, but easier to recall Argentina’s most distinguished writer’s description of the conflict.

Jorge Luis Borges called the place and the contestants over its sovereignty a case of “two bald men fighting over a comb”.

Our visiting group to the Falklands — or Islas Malvinas as Argentina calls it — had the incomparable advantage of being led by General Michael Rose, who went on to become one of Britain‘s and Nato’s finest military leaders. But back in the heat, or cold, of the war for the Falklands, he was a young forty-something commander of Britain’s special forces. He explained how pivotal it was to seize Mount Kent and so obtain the high ground for the retaking of Port Stanley below.

Rose was extremely complimentary about the bravery of both the Argentine airmen and foot soldiers, but in truth the latter were raw, under-equipped conscripts thrown into the war by a failing military junta in Buenos Aires. The Argentine generals invaded the islands to whip up Argentine nationalist sentiment as a last throw of the dice of a tottering regime.

Rose and the British routed the Argentine forces, exposing the military regime for the sham it was: in one area of its supposed competence, military matters, it was proven to be grossly incompetent. It soon fell and democracy was restored to Argentina, one of victorious British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s unintended legacies to South America.

The Falkland Islands are about 7000km from South Africa. But reading this week about the chaos, ministerial negligence and worse which has surrounded the ongoing payment of 17 million social grants, was a reminder that our government — like the Argentine junta to which it otherwise bears no resemblance — also has its presumed areas of competence and concerns.

Surveying the grants saga, which follows hot on the heels of the negligent deaths of over 90 mental health patients entrusted to the care of the Gauteng government, led local commentator Daniel Silke to a pithy, but startling conclusion.

Over the weekend he wrote, “Arguably, the ANC’s biggest success has been a social welfare net. Inability to manage it may be their biggest governance failure yet.”

“It’s easier to turn an aquarium into fish soup than to turn fish soup into an aquarium” – Walter Russell Mead

Actually, with fading memories of the ANC 1994 election poster which consisted of just three words, “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”, I would argue that its failure to create conditions for maximising employment opportunities by creating a business-friendly environment is its greatest failure. And the destruction of entire industries on its watch, is another. The fact that the number of grant recipients outstrips people at work tells its own sad story.

But I get the point of Silke’s tweet.

And just as the generals in Buenos Aires needed a diversion from the failures at home, and so chose the drastic route of an invasion of a clump of offshore islands, our local political leaders desperately need to change the subject from their crashing domestic missteps of governance.

So the president decides the constitutional settlement he helped cement in 1993 needs to be broken. Thus, channelling his inner Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma, who swore to uphold the constitution, calls for its breaking via expropriating land without compensation.

US historian Walter Russell Mead reminds us what the Russians said after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of changes there and across Eastern Europe in the 1990s: “It’s easier to turn an aquarium into fish soup than to turn fish soup into an aquarium.”

For about a decade after 1994, the ANC government went about building a new nation and doing some of the right things in the realm of economic policy choices, and certainly in the area of national reconciliation.

Now the same government, under decidedly different management, has hoisted the flag of ideological surrender and is going for broke. Whether the current assaults on both economic and constitutional sensibility will survive the battering remains an open question.

A few days after my Falklands visit, I paid a return visit to Buenos Aires. The years which followed the ousting of the military junta in Argentina were not kind to the country.

For most of the period since 1982, the country has been governed by factions of the Peronist movement, whose ideology is power and whose language in populism — or setting one side of the country against the other — and accumulating vast personal wealth while pillaging the taxpayers to buy off the poorest voters.

If all this has a local ring in its tone, the ending of this dismal story has a decidedly different ending to our own national story, so far at least.

Exhausted by their government‘s multiple failures , sky-high inflation and outlaw economics, in December 2015 Argentine voters finally rebelled. In place of the chosen Peronist candidate, they elected a business-friendly opposition leader and mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri as president.

But for all his attempts to rebuild a broken government, restore its institutions and return the country to economic sustainability, it has been a hard road.

Buenos Aires, with accumulated inflation of over 38% a year for a decade-plus, is hideously expensive. A small cup of coffee sets you back R50, for example. Unemployment remains high and poverty is on the increase. Militant unions aligned to the Peronists itch for confrontation. And the former government cannot get used to being in opposition.

But the hope of change remains strong and the outlook of many locals is resolute.

The new Argentine government, which for years had few hopes of ever achieving power, is learning how much easier it is, to quote the historian, to convert an aquarium into fish soup rather than the reverse.

As the ANC government fails on so many fronts, that’s something for South African opposition forces to contemplate.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA