“Never make predictions, least of all about the future,” was the wise advice of Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn.
The same might be said of political slogans and phrases, some of which barely survive contact with the real world.
As Theresa May limps through her last days as prime minister of Great Britain, and the fight for her succession begins in earnest this week, posterity will remember with scorn and derision two of her verbal hostages to fortune.
First of her Brexit red-lines (all of which she crossed during her ill-starred three-year premiership) was: “Better no deal, than a bad deal.”
Well, after three failed attempts to get her Brexit deal with the European Union (EU) through the House of Commons, she landed up with no deal and disdain for the “bad deal” she offered to parliament.
Second was the reversible rhetoric she and her party fed to the British voters in the June 2017 election, a poll she did not need to call and which she went on to botch.
The Tory manifesto proclaimed “Brexit means Brexit”, coupled with an iron-clad assurance that Britain would exit the EU on March 29 2019. Two months and counting since, and the UK remains in the Union, and the precise date and terms of its extrication remains a matter of unfathomable and unresolved complexity. No one actually knows what precisely Brexit means, and on what terms and at what cost Britain will achieve it.
But one maxim which actually has stood the test of time and which reality proved entirely correct was gifted to the world by American political journalist Salena Zito.
Two months before Donald Trump was elected, against every expectation, including apparently his own, as 45th president of the United States, and just three months after the shock result of the Brexit referendum in the UK, Zito penned a long article on the voter discontent into which the Republican nominee had tapped.
Writing in The Atlantic on September 23 2016, she noted on candidate Trump: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously not literally.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa is more, on evidence to date, Theresa May than Donald Trump, in the rhetoric versus reality stakes.
Remember the February 15 2018 hope and enthusiasm – and the mighty gush of optimism from the business community and a host of commentators – when, at his first inauguration, Ramaphosa promised “a new dawn”?
That rhetorical flourish, and the expectations it unleashed, delivered a respectable election result and confidence that “C.R.” could deliver a change in the dire economic weather and lift the political storm clouds blackening the horizon.
Just one month after the polls closed and one week since Ace Magashule declared war on his own president and his economic prospectus, the view has never looked bleaker.
In Business Day on Monday, Intellidex head of market research Peter Attard Montalto painted the investor sentiment since the attack on the Reserve Bank in the starkest terms: “This is why Ramaphoria has been killed off quite so decisively. I have been shocked by how negative sentiment onshore and offshore has come so quickly in the past week.”
Slow footed in his response and now jetted off to an obscure and lengthy conference in Geneva, Ramaphosa is literally missing in action this week.
But, while Jacob Zuma has likely never heard of Salena Zito and her distillation on the difference between literalism and seriousness, he absolutely nailed the issue at the heart of the conflict between Ramaphosa and his runaway secretary-general, Magashule.
In a tweet from Nkandla last week, on June 6, the dethroned president reminded the country that the Magashule attack on the central bank and the demand for a changed mandate was the opposite of “policy uncertainty”. Rather it was confirmation of ANC policy. He then thoughtfully appended to his message the four-part policy statement on the Reserve Bank which the elective conference of the ANC in December 2017 approved. That policy, if not the election of his successor, Zuma enthusiastically backs.
And while commentators correctly fix their gaze on the current crisis which crashed the rand and imperilled an economy already on its knees, it is worth recalling what other delights “the policy purists” will unleash soon enough.
Trade union veteran Neil Coleman reminded us at the weekend: “The looters have no ideology – they swing around to support anyone who may advance their looting objectives.”
So true. But there are rich pickings to be had in the war of all against all in the ANC from both its Nasrec conference resolutions and embedded in its 2019 election manifesto. Utterly unaffordable, totally uncosted, economically ruinous each of them: prescribed assets, a national health insurance, a state bank and many more delights dreamed up for a socialist utopia which will break the back of our on-its-knees economy.
I have high regard, some among them personal friends, for a number of people who in the May election willingly suspended their disbelief and even objective reality, and decided to support Ramaphosa by voting for his party in the hope that he could bend it to his will.
But a cold dose of water and reality was offered again by Montalto: “The core lesson is that compromise and playing the long game cannot work when faced with short-term existential trigger points like this. You cannot compromise, you cannot balance forces.”
Let’s hope someone forwards these thoughts on the essence of leadership to Ramaphosa as he views Lake Geneva.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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