If the US constitution resembles a durable oak, ours is like a bonsai tree
With the horrific gun-killings in Las Vegas, it might seem trite to mention one of the great TV series of the past decade, The Sopranos.
But sometimes escapism beats deadly reality. And that mould-breaking psychodrama mixed the humdrum New Jersey suburban life of pitiless mobster Tony Soprano with his day job of crime and violence.
But what really gave the series its life and twist was that Soprano felt so vulnerable that he sought the counsel of a psychotherapist.
In one of his sessions with her, Soprano moans: “I’m f***ing King Midas in reverse here. Everything I touch turns to s**t.”
That famous line forms the basis for a far more serious inquiry in this month’s edition of the highbrow US magazine The Atlantic.
In an article headlined “Will Donald Trump destroy the Presidency?”, academic Jack Goldsmith offers an equivocal answer.
On the one hand, he states that never has the US and its 43 previous presidents displayed so many negative attributes: “So ill-informed about the nature of his office, so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, so brazen in his abusive attacks on the courts, on Congress, and even senior officials within his own administration.”
Goldsmith goes on to characterise the leader of the free world as “a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes”.
But he does note that “the constitution’s checks and balances have largely stopped Trump from breaking the law”.
I have previously compared Trump to Jacob Zuma – given their equal disdain for the rule of law and their trampling on vital institutions.
But, with more than 230 years of precedent and history behind it, if the US constitution resembles a durable oak, our own instrument, just two decades old, is more like a fragile bonsai tree.
However, on the “Midas in reverse” model of presidential behaviour, Zuma’s administration is almost in its own league of self- and country-destruction. And he is, by any measure, the worst president since democracy arrived here.
On Monday, for example, the SA Institute of Civil Engineers published a report on state-run infrastructure. It noted that with very few exceptions “every segment of the work of the state is bedevilled by poor planning, a lack of skill and capacity, corruption, neglect and poor maintenance”.
Eskom, once a world leader in efficient electricity supply, is now in a state of beggary and plunder. The latest report suggests that the state-owned company “ignored legal advice to charge senior officials in the scandal involved in suspect payments of billions to Gupta-linked Trillian and consultants McKinsey”.
SAA, the poster child for rotten mismanagement, has again gone and received another R4-billion from the nearly empty Treasury.
Meantime, in just three weeks, on October 25, Malusi Gigaba has to reveal his hand in the medium-term expenditure framework speech to parliament. He has promised there will be no “fiscal slippage”, he needs to miraculously head off a final credit downgrade and he has to somehow pay the hundreds of millions of rands of guarantees and contingent liabilities of the disastrously run state-owned companies.
Since he would rather be accused of child-kidnapping than privatising these cash-guzzling state dinosaurs, the key question is: Where is he going to find the revenue to plug the approximately R40-billion shortfall in the revenues needed to keep the ship of state afloat? Corporate taxes are already too high, top-end personal taxes were raised again in February. The only solution is a 2% increase in the VAT rate or a slash-and-burn approach to state expenditure. Either is likely to enrage the comrades.
Either he will do the courageous thing on VAT and expenditure, or he will go down in history as the first democratic finance minister to send SA back into the credit junkyard. Not a happy choice for our snappily dressed, politically ambitious man at the Treasury.
Still, to be fair, the ruling party has itself begun to display exactly the same signs of destruction and lack of planning which the civil engineers noted in their report on our creaking infrastructure.
Every provincial party conference seems to end in chair-throwing and legal action. The unhappy losers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape have lawyered up. Since the Zuma slate seems to be on the losing end here, it is beyond irony that Zuma, who moaned about his political opponents running to court with every complaint, seems to be instructing his party comrades to do just that.
Trump has never been accused of being a Republican loyalist. He is seen by many of his party as a hostile-takeover plutocrat. Zuma, in contrast, proclaims loyalty to his party unto death – and even beyond. Perhaps the greatest irony, then, will be his singular role in destroying the movement for which he proclaims eternal love.
- 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 Times