There is merriment on social media, writes Tony Leon, but Zuma is in a deadly serious battle for the economy as he shrugs off election losses and takes SOEs under his control.
Memes – those social media images that go viral on the internet – were in overdrive this week to herald the improbable trifecta of major cities captured by the opposition DA.
Impressive sightings of Jesus Christ – bathed in a halo – were posted against the backdrops of Nelson Mandela Bay in Port Elizabeth, the Union Buildings in Pretoria and, finally on Monday night, walking across the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg.
Jacob Zuma was, of course, the president who fatuously proclaimed that his party would rule until “Jesus returned”. Hence these viral sightings.
‘Downward spiral’ for SA if Gordhan is axed
Last month in this space I suggested that if Mmusi Maimane and his party did not win one metro beyond the party’s Western Cape confines, then both his leadership and the prospects of democratic change in the country would be open to question, or several of them.
By posting a hat-trick of metro victories, with the energetic if not eccentric support of the EFF, on the basis that the DA was the “better devil”, Maimane and the country’s democracy stand tall this weekend.
His party, as it surveys the challenges and contests ahead, will be mindful of the late New York governor Mario Cuomo’s maxim that “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose”.
But the eddies unleashed by this electoral tidal wave and the capsizing of the hitherto unbeaten ANC are far from spent. Just how elemental this force of political nature proves to be will be the defining feature of our politics for a long time.
Of course, as the voluble Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general, told a press conference the day after Johannesburg had fallen, the ANC had actually won the elections overall. But it must be scant consolation for him and the comrades.
It was Mantashe no less who, after the party’s June national executive committee meeting, concluded that the party was on course to win “an overwhelming victory in the election”. Speak in haste; repent at leisure.
The underwhelming performance of the party at the polls led Mantashe to further bouts of political aphasia, or incoherence of speech. Just after the results were known, he claimed the party would shield Jacob Zuma from blame by taking ”collective responsibility”.
A few days later, he conceded on radio that dealing with problems around Zuma was a “work in progress”. Finally, on Tuesday, he acknowledged, in a strangulated manner, that perceptions around Zuma were a factor in the ANC’s dismal results.
Of course, were some invisible political hands to remove Zuma from his presidency, the opposition might find itself in a similar position to the British Conservatives in 1947. When the Labour chancellor of the exchequer Hugh Dalton unexpectedly announced his resignation, one said: “My God! They’ve shot our fox.”
He [Zuma] has apparently ordered Gordhan to find R2-billion to fund a 0% university fee increase
The opposition had a happy hunting ground and Zuma, with his multiple missteps in office and cascading scandals, was a vote-rich quarry for them. Absent Zuma, the anti-ANC tide might well recede.
But on Monday, as Johannesburg slipped from ANC hands, notice was served that the president was going nowhere soon.
He is perfecting what Trevor Manuel decried a decade ago, when he was finance minister, as “macro-populism”. Heedless of the zero growth path or the 3.9% budget deficit, Zuma has apparently ordered Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to find an odd R2-billion to fund a further 0% fee increase for university students.
Then, in a further snub to the embattled Gordhan, came Monday’s cabinet announcement that Zuma himself would take charge of overseeing all state-owned enterprises. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Every ratings agency, on whose mercy our precarious sovereign credit rating depends, has demanded action to restore basic good governance in the state-owned enterprise sector, many of whose companies are simply looting grounds for the friends of the president.
Gordhan himself, to meet this challenge and since he has no cronies to enrich, made specific pledges of reform and promised equity sales to private investors in his February budget. These featured nowhere in Monday’s announcement.
No doubt the idea here is to provide political cover for the president’s friend, Dudu Myeni. She is the chairwoman of beleaguered and bankrupt SAA and has not a single business or aviation credential to her name. No matter, she is a friend of JZ and must be protected.
What is fascinating in this economic larceny is the role of the private sector – or lack of it, to be precise. Business seems to perform the function, from a government viewpoint, of fire brigade of last resort.
After Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene in December last year and wiped R95-billion off the country’s bond market there was a call for a business-government dialogue and the joint rightsizing of the ship of state.
I’m prepared to die to save SA from the thieves
It was not Myeni, nor indeed Zuma, who went in to bat to restore global investor confidence with overseas road shows. It was Gordhan, with the likes of Christo Wiese, Colin Coleman and Cas Coovadia, who stepped up.
On their return here in March, the three businessmen wrote in the Sunday Times that one of the immediate reforms required was the turnaround of state-owned companies, including the provision that 40% to 50% of all board appointees be from the private sector.
Similar warnings pepper the National Development Plan. Nothing of the sort featured in the cabinet announcement on Monday.
Just the promise that Zuma, not Gordhan, would take charge and there would be further and ever more stringent BEE procurement requirements. This, too, is contrary to Treasury warnings on affordability.
In addition to Gordhan’s threatened arrest earlier this year, the charges were reprised this week and the rand tumbled. The political rumour mill also swirls with speculation that his deputy, the staunchly anti-Gupta Mcebisi Jonas, is soon for the chopping block.
Zuma’s announcement on the ANC’s electoral eternity led to the spasms of creative hilarity on social media this week.
Gordhan, who has the nous and credibility to stop the rot, is starting to resemble a pre-social media creation. He reminds one of the Black Knight from the 1975 classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Readers of a certain vintage will recall that as the knight’s limbs were cut off one by one, he just kept on battling. Despite the horrific odds. But that movie was for laughs. The reckless politicians atop our economy are deadly serious.
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA