In the heyday of Die Burger newspaper and the National Party (NP) — for which the publication served as both house journal and chief cheerleader — their influence was consequential and often baleful. Posterity attributes to long-time Die Burger editor the late Piet Cillie the quote: “We had to practise apartheid to prove it could not work.”

Little wonder that in his 2010 book The Rise and Fall of Apartheid David Welsh described Cillie  as “a professional cynic”, pointing to his waspish observation on the improbable reforms unleashed by the hitherto staunch conservative FW de Klerk, the last NP president: “We had a choice between certain downfall and probable downfall; De Klerk chose the latter.”

Cillie died in 1999, but two blockbuster announcements by the government last week suggest his spirit is flourishing in the inner sanctum of the presidency and the cabinet. Cynics suggest it was the spectre of enervating rolling blackouts, and possibly the collapse of the entire electricity grid, that forced President Cyril Ramaphosa’s hand to drag his recalcitrant minerals resources & energy minister into the brave new world of competitive and independent electricity supply and procurement. Just weeks after Gwede Mantashe had stalled at 10MW independent procurement, Ramaphosa upped the threshold by a factor of 10.

Next on the ideological chopping block was SAA. The figure is difficult to compute accurately, but perhaps R50bn has been squandered by the state over 25 years to keep SAA flying — or grounded, as it has been for the past months. The chief protagonist in the retention of that anachronism of a state-owned airline is the least corrupt but most statist of all ministers, Pravin Gordhan. Leaving aside such face-savers as a “golden shareholding” and name and domicile retaining clauses, the brute fact is that the state has ceded its control and a majority shareholding in SAA forever. This was despite previous staunch assurances by the minister that such loss of control would not be countenanced.

Years late and billions in taxpayer funds later, the government one step removed from De Klerk’s administration chose probable over certain downfall. It is not just that, despite vastly different moral imperatives, two ideological and racial nationalist governments are uncannily beginning to resemble each other, it is that when the ideological fig leaves clothing their policy nakedness begin to look threadbare that another pattern emerges.

Readers of a certain vintage who remember the first cracks in the apartheid wall will recall the bizarre world in the ’70s and ’80s of “international hotels”, even though these were in decidedly localised environments such as the Johannesburg CBD. This fig leaf was an attempt to square the most awkward of circles: allow multiracial mixing in restaurants and hostelries while maintaining the pretence that the system of legislated racial differentiation was intact.

These incremental reforms impressed no-one: the broad anti-apartheid and liberation opposition formations dismissed them as cosmetic and essentially meaningless. And they maintained this position as pressure hastened changes internally and externally, removing the bans on mixed marriages and interracial sex and even relaxing influx control, a central pillar of the apartheid edifice.

In fact, it was the NP’s far-right opponents who were closer to the mark. Parties such as the fringe Herstigte Nasionale Party and electorally more significant Conservative Party denounced the incrementalism as profoundly dangerous and essentially destructive of minority rule itself. Their reasoning, though often expressed in extremist terms, was that apartheid — the legalised differentiation of racial groups in all spheres of life and activity — was an indissoluble whole. Once certain bricks in the wall of separation were removed it was a matter of time before the entire edifice fell.

It did take time, about 20 years, and much sacrifice and violence, for this thesis to be proved correct. That happened when De Klerk stepped onto the podium of parliament on February  1990 and became the first (and last) NP leader to realise that not only was the writing on the crumbling wall, but that it was not addressed to someone else. He was out of power just four years later, one of the unintended consequences of his blockbuster announcements that day.

Will last week’s announcements be the harbinger of real change on the economic front, just as the crumbling of the apartheid wall proved on the political battlement? On June 15 this newspaper gave voice to two of its columnists who have decidedly different views on last week’s departure by the government from its state control catechism, in the realms of energy and aviation at least. Carol Paton wrote: “With a bang privatisation is here … it is a sparkling new moment that should send business and citizen confidence soaring.” More in the waspish mould of Cillie was the amusing Tom Eaton, who described the cheering for these moves as similar to “the way an adult applauds a toddler for staggering forward without falling on its face”.

For South Africans weary of rolling blackouts and taxpayers sickened and impoverished by the eye-watering R187bn the state has lavished on “financially distressed state-owned enterprises” (according to a reply by the finance minister to a question in parliament on August 26 2020), motive and meaning matter less than result. But whether we are entering a brave new world of real and further reforms or simply tinkering on the edges of the fiscal and energy cliff face, last week’s announcements made plain that at long last a degree of sanity prevails in elements of government. Even within two of the most change-resistant and statist ministries.

Whether this glasnost will penetrate other realms of the state that are less influenced by the urgent necessity of averting either total collapse or fiscal ruin, such as ministers who wish to localise TV streaming services or nix foreign takeovers of local companies, remains open to question. As does the spectre of national health insurance and other delights plucked from the command-and-control handbook.

Billions of rand and decades of decay and political and corrupt interventions at state companies, from the grounded SAA to collapsing Eskom, have been chronicled in unsparing detail in the media and millions of words of evidence before the Zondo commission. It was quite obvious that the toxic mix of high-level interference, the deployment of corrupt and incompetent cadres into senior positions, and wilful ideological blindness, was unsustainable. As was the governing idea that the state could operate in defiance of the discipline and logic of the market. But for decades now the obvious view was not recognised by the state deciders.

Eaton wrote of toddlers walking unaided as hardly meriting our grateful appreciation. There is a fairytale analogy in that the president and government have, finally, seen that their ideology is threadbare. Hans Christian Andersen told the story of the emperor’s new clothes. Con men fooled the king into believing they had made him a magnificent coat that the unworthy would be unable to see. His obsequious courtiers did not dare say that in fact, the regent was naked. It took a child to point out the obvious.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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