Jerry Brown, enjoys many distinctions in political life. He is both the oldest (at 80) Governor of California and, 44 years ago, was also one of the youngest incumbents (aged then 36). The gap between his last stint which ended in 1983 and his current tenure which concludes at year end, allowed him to contemplate governance and its limits.

One recent piece of wisdom which he offered, might be of some practical application here at home, as our government contemplates its own array of challenges and crises.

Brown said in a recent interview, “Politicians are usually obliged to pretend that that they can command the sea to part when they can only really surf on the waves…The economy is the most important thing, and it’s the thing we can’t control.”

It might be that since Brown is term-limited from seeking re-election, he can speak truth to his own power, or rather the lack of it. But bear in mind that the mighty state of California, if it were to separate from the United States would constitute, as a stand-alone economy, 5th place in the entire world .If it were to secede its 2017 GDP of $2.7 Trillion means it would outrank Britain and India in its economic output and the State’s economy is around nine times larger than the whole of South Africa (which in 2016 had a total GDP of $294.8bn and ranked 30th in the world.

But instead of hubris from its exiting governor, still hugely popular in his state, you get the cold wash of reality.

Here at home we hear more wishful thinking than honest appraisals. Minister Rob Davies, for example, is now in Washington, desperately trying to save out motorcar exports from an unsympathetic and protectionist White House. Doubtless our routine votes against the US from our coveted perch on the UN Security Council won’t help advance the argument. Nor will the recent gazetting of the Protection of Investment Act of 2015 which Cyril Ramaphosa weaponised into law last Friday. Readers of a certain vintage might recall the laughingly named Extension of University Education Act of 1959, which the National Party used –despite its title – to perfect racial segregation at tertiary institutions. Far from extending education, it narrowed it down for the country’s majority. Likewise, on the very day Ramaphosa was abroad seeking foreign funds, he placed into operation, a reduction of protection for foreign investors.

When Nelson Mandela’s government held the ring, it signed up to a series of bilateral investment treaties with foreign countries which gave their companies enhanced protection in such realms as property rights.

In terms of the 2015 Act –now in effect for the past few days-  all the foreign investor will enjoy is the protection of the now weaponised section 25 (property clause) of the constitution. But of course since the passage of the act three years ago, there is now a bargain basement fight to erode or remove that very section under the mantra of ‘expropriation without compensation.’

Local politicians pretend they command the seas but equally surf the waves so incompetently.

Being the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela today, there is no shortage of local or international reflection on the great man’s legacy.

Of all the powers of example, for me (who simultaneously led  a party in opposition to his own but enjoyed a good rapport with the great man) was how he managed to combine being the fiercest of ANC loyalists, and also someone who put country before party on significant occasions. An obvious example is well recorded: he understood the size and vulnerability of the SA economy and how bare the economic larder was after apartheid. But when berated by foreign investors at Davos in 1992, he did not suggest that every investor could take South Africa or leave it; in his own words, “when I came back I told the ANC economic team ‘boys we have to change our policy.”

Not much sign of that happening right now in new dawn-facing-the-fiscal-edge South Africa. We simultaneously ask for investment and then do our best to chase it away.

But one are, in both Mandela and Ramaphosa’s South Africa where the governments they respectively led do in fact command the seas or rule the waves is in terms of the nation’s political unity.

Just imagine, for one moment, if the Premier of the Western Cape, read a recent poll (Dear South Africa) which suggested that 38 577 out of 47054 respondents in her province did not want the constitution amended. She decided as consequence to call a citizens’ indaba of local politicians, business leaders, civic groups and voters. At a mass gathering they advised Helen Zille that if government proceeded to place their individual properties on the chopping block, then she was duty bound to secede from South Africa.

Do not for one single moment imagine that Cyril Ramaphosa would go on bended knee before Zille; or that the minister for local government and traditional affairs would hastily announce that whatever final outcome parliament would arrive at, the citizens of the Western Cape would be exempt from its provisions.

But, more or less that was the outcome when the King of the Zulus threatened succession. The Ingonyama Trust was described by Barney Mthombothi as “a lucrative money making scheme for (King) Zwelithini…at worst it is a state within a state: (Zwelithini) controls the land people pay taxes to him.”

But after his imbizo threatened to pull out of the country, or declare war, he was given a free pass: whatever the outcome of the current debate on land reform and expropriation, King and Trust would be exempt from the new deal.

Do not expect such a happy outcome for Zille and the citizens who voted for her administration and who demonstrably –‘in their numbers’ as we say around here – do not want their properties confiscated or their title protections watered down. If Zille did a Zwelithini, she would likely be arrested for treason or sedition and her government would be placed under national administration.

It is perhaps idle to speculate how Mandela would deal with the current imbroglio, except the man who saved the Springbok emblem from the trash can had some regard for the views and sensibilities of the politically vanquished, economically important minorities in his population.

But he was also hardline when it came to Zulu-inspired threats to the national sovereignty of the country.  In a Mayday speech which Mandela delivered in Umlazi south of Durban in 1995, he threatened to ‘cut off funds to the province’. This was certainly unconstitutional but he claimed both in private and in more measured terms before parliament a few days later that this was in response to  ‘a certain leader in KZN’ had said he would organize people to revolt against the government.’

Of course the leader Mandela was blaming was IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but his beef was always about the king, his entitlements and lack of recognition in the constitution.

And here is what Mandela said on the succession threat: “Those who call on the Zulus to resist the authority of Pretoria don’t know what they have started. Those responsible for violence will be dealt with.”

Twenty three years later, and in the week of Mandela’s centenary, resisting Pretoria is apparently far easier these days.

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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