When the economy is spluttering at 1% growth it is time to put on the hair shirt, not to go on a drinking binge

Visionary leadership is much commented on these days precisely because of its absence. It has almost disappeared from public life and politics, here and everywhere.

When you think of Winston Churchill or even Margaret Thatcher, you do not place in the same bracket their current party and prime ministerial successor, Theresa May.

Readers might recall that in June  2017 she summonsed her voters to the polls under the rallying cry of “strong and stable leadership”; her electorate found her wanting and swept away her majority, converting her to “weak and wobbly”. And in the past 14 months the Brexit nightmare continues with every outcome unknown and none of them, at present reading, good for her party, country or economy. More a navigator of treacherous tides than a political weather maker, May’s hold on power can be reduced to the old political acronym “Tina” – there is no alternative, or at least any of them who can keep her party together and win an election.

But another increasingly global phenomenon, perhaps with a local echo, is that May remains in power only because the  opposition, led by Jeremy Corbyn, is even weaker. Extraordinarily, at a moment of maximum opportunity against a weak government, the British Labour Party is in turmoil over accusations of anti-Semitism.

At home, Nelson Mandela is deified in his centenary year. And this is not just a consequence of his exemplary leadership. It is also the profound absence of his lead-from-the-front approach to national issues. Or indeed his Invictus moments of reconciliation when he was heard to say about minorities in general and the Springbok rugby team in particular: “We must surprise them with our generosity.”

In the extremity of Britain alone against the Nazi machine of death and destruction in 1940, Churchill’s promise of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” was hardly a crowd pleaser. But it probably saved the world from the darkness of the Nazi Reich.

Last week the first newspaper of the day read by serious investors and financial analysts, The Wall Street Journal, offered this view on our current president: “South Africa needs another enlightened leader like Nelson Mandela, but it keeps electing imitations of Robert Mugabe. President Cyril Rampahosa confirmed recently that his government plans to expropriate property without compensation, following examples of Zimbabwe and Venezuela.”

The comparisons might be both alarmist and overstretched, but for the investor world, the people and funds who buy our bonds and equities which in turn fund our current account and ballooning budget deficit, it might ring true.

Actually, in many ways Ramaphosa is an amalgam of May and Corbyn rather than Mugabe and Hugo Chavez. Ray Hartley, writing in the Financial Mail in late May on the president’s first 100 days, noted that “he is fighting a war on four fronts”: he must consolidate his position in the party where he is encircled by enemies; he must rejuvenate a state machine weakened  by cadre deployment and corruption; he must “persuade a jaded electorate to back his party”; and, not least, he needs “to win over investors to turn a moribund economy around”.

This is precisely the May dilemma with, as the Chinese say, “different characteristics”. She has to deliver on Brexit before March 29 2019 when the UK leaves the EU. But in so doing she must sell the deal to her party, negotiate it with the EU, find terms which do not damage the UK economy or harm its investors, and (no small matter given she has no overall majority) get the final package approved by parliament.

In both the May and Ramaphosa cases, these four respective fronts cannot all be won and certainly not at the same time. And another point of similarity, though they are vastly different people with dissimilar backgrounds, is that both leaders prefer to move with chameleonic caution rather than with the bold upfront Mandela moves that stamped his leadership.

Mandela, whether commencing negotiations with his captors without a mandate from his party, or announcing a u-turn on economic policy ahead of ANC consultations, made the political weather without waiting to be trapped in a perfect storm. Yet at the same time he was an intense party loyalist.

There is also a touch of Corbyn in Rampahosa since, despite the latter’s real-time exposure to the rough and tumble of the business world and its fierce disciplines, both have  a touching, almost naïve – though perhaps ruthlessly cynical –belief in “the magic money tree”.

It is more than passing strange that at the precise moment when there is a run on the rand and a flight out of emerging market currencies, that our president proposes to inflate the economy by throwing another R43bn at our problems. This is in the form of a “stimulus package”. That is in addition to R53bn for free higher education. Then there is the R38bn for unbudgeted  additional public service salary increases, way above inflation and in a country where the post is not delivered and the electricity supply is erratic and the water contaminated. Nearly 40% of all taxpayer money is now spent on paying civil servants who on most measures of basic delivery are not performing their key or even basic functions.

Of course when the economy is spluttering along at just over 1% growth it is time to put on the hair shirt, not to go on a drinking binge. Because the funding crunch will mean that either the treasury will be forced to borrow more at ever higher rates of interest (and our current borrowings have doubled in a decade and now amount to more than 50% of the whole economic size of the country). Or we go cap in hand for an IMF bailout. Perhaps the first step, raiding an empty treasury, will lead to the second, getting a highly conditional international loan. In any event, the lack of growth coupled with the reckless Zuma fiscal profligacy means the SA money tree has no leaves left to be shaken. And its roots are in danger of being dug up – or perhaps in the phrase of the president, expropriated sans compensation.

The third alternative, leading from the front and telling some hard truths to the voters and showing the door to all the claimants for ever more nonexistent state funds, from overpaid civil servants to underperforming state-owned companies, seems to be off the table. Especially in a pre- election year.

Another trimmer and compromiser who prefers political power in the short term to securing national salvation for the ages is the prime minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu. Apparently his chief goal is for the span of his rule to exceed the longest serving prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion. Perhaps that explains why his right-wing coalition rammed through the Jewish Nationality Bill in the Knesset recently. It downgrades Arabic and non-Jewish minorities in that country, the very antithesis of Ben Gurion’s founding vision of the state and its promise of equal treatment for all. Netanyahu, like Ramaphosa and May, eyes the polls very closely. All of them have deep regard to their reelection prospects and  an instinct for political survival.

Ben Gurion in contrast, like Mandela and Churchill, had less regard for tacking into electoral cycles and a higher regard for navigating  the tides of history. They did not trim their sails to the mood of the week or to meet the latest and loudest claimant for state aid or a bailout. They confronted the grim realities boldly and led from the front.

Ben Gurion nearly tore his country apart in 1952 when he decided that a bankrupt Israel needed to accept financial reparations from Germany, the same country that had eviscerated the Jewish people in the Holocaust. Much later, just after the triumph of the 1967 Six-Day War, though out of office by then, this founding father of Israel warned his country that for an enduring peace they should now abandon all the occupied territories, bar Jerusalem.

When warned that his views, at various times, threatened to damage his Labour Party at the polls, he apparently responded: “My first constituency is the facts; my second constituency is the people.”

In one sentence that’s visionary leadership. More is the pity that it is in such scarce supply right now.

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

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