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Just when all hope flees, as the last good politician still within government leaves his/her post to join the feeding frenzy and as the last decent officials trying to do a public service throw up their hands in disgust; and as the striking workers blockade the last functional HIV/AIDS clinic and trash the streets again; and as the broken bits of the Ruling Alliance go  for the kill in their eye gouging, groin stamping gutter fight – just as all hope flees, whose silhouette is it that appears, backlit and heroic, flying in low over the horizon?

"Franco": General Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco y Bahamonde Salgado Pardo de Andrade - and yes, he did keep his armies up his sleevies

Is it a plane?

Is it a bird?

No, it’s … hmm, I’m not really sure.

When things are going as badly wrong as they are going for us, the person to look out for is the one who seems to have been sent by history itself as the solution to all of our problems.

I am not suggesting, as my old Granny used to say: don’t worry, cometh the moment, cometh the man or all’s well that ends well. I am suggesting the very opposite.

This is more of a warning to be careful about decisions we make when we are desperate than it is anything else.

Societies, political parties and whole nations are uniquely vulnerable at times like these. Our desperate need is for someone who can raise an anti-corruption army, is prepared to control the unions, able to fix service delivery and able to make the difficult decisions that will allow job rich economic growth.

The darker and more dire things become – and goodness knows they are as dark and dire as anyone can remember – the stronger our wish fulfilment drive becomes.

Where is the good-looking one, with the strong jaw and the easy, comforting manner, and the very firm but gentle eye and the plan and the promise and the words – and the record, or at least one you can, in your desperation, convince yourself of?

This is the moment in which nice Germans welcomed Adolf Hitler and Spaniards General Franco. King Constantine II of Greece inducted the awful “Regime of the Colonels” in 1967 saying he was “certain they had acted in order to save the country” and there was  a (brief) Argentinian sigh of relief when Brigadier-General Jorge Videla overthrew the execrable, incompetent and authoritarian regime of “Evita” – as popular culture has dubbed Isabel Martínez de Perón.

I am not suggesting that a fascist opportunist and criminal is about to present him or herself as the saviour from our woes – or that things are so bad that we risk losing our judgement and welcoming him/her into the stockade. Well, not yet.

But explicitly and implicitly various political factions and individuals have presented themselves as alternatives, and the solution to our current problems.

There’s Zwelinzima Vavi – and whatever kind of workerist paradise he represents – who heroically criticised the media appeals tribunal and has laid about himself with a stout cudgel at all the worst of the cabinet ministers and officials trying to stuff the last tasty bits of the family roast into their distended bellies. And he’s available next year.

Deputy Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula suggested (of criminals) we should “shoot the bastards!” and in so doing presents a kind of law-and-order (and anti-communist) alternative, clearly being supported by the ANC Youth League and tenderpreneurs everywhere.

Lindiwe Sisulu dresses nicely and would be excellent if we ever panicked enough to need a kind of Cleopatra/Boadicea empress to save us.

Tokyo Sexwale is getting the kind of press that suggests he is an effective anti-corruption campaigner and an excellent Minister of Human Settlements i.e. he’s clean and gives good service delivery – and he’s  bright, presentable, charming, good-looking and available – very available.

(This added as an afterthought: don’t discount Kgalema Motlanthe as a sort of leftish compromise that we have grown used to and, obviously, Mathews Phosa with his charming Afrikaans poetry and his friendly demeanour and his market friendly comments and his bitter struggle with ANC leader and communist Gwede Mantashe. Also consider a scenario, one I discuss elsewhere, where none of the contending factions achieves dominance and everyone agrees to stick with the burdensome incumbent … all is still possible.)

The National General Council of the African National Congress (to be held in Durban from 20 – 24 September) will reveal the main factions and their key representatives for leadership. The last NGC resulted in a rebellion against Mbeki and foretold his rout at Polokwane. This one is likely to be as instructive.

The point I wish to make here is a simple one. Those who appear to offer solutions must be judged in terms of who they are, what they have done and what they really represent. Just because we are in trouble does not mean we can afford to lose our critical faculties. My long gone Granny would have had two more things to say on the subject: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire.

* The title of this post comes from the glorious “Thunder Road” by the inimitable  Bruce Springsteen (it doesn’t really fit the story … but I really love the song:

You can hide `neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets
Well now Im no hero
That’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?

The news media is full of toyi-toying fat people in red T-shirts blockading hospital gates interspersed with pictures of dead and dying babies.

Alternatively the coverage is of other fat people in red T-shirts clutching sticks and whips trundling around, with their fat bottoms swaying, looking for pupils (bravely trying to uplift themselves by continuing their studies during the public sector wide strike) to beat and otherwise disrupt.

There is a degree of truth in the story… I mean, turn on your television, they’re everywhere, with their megaphones and coffee flasks (and clearly a lot of biscuits and sandwiches), belligerent and unattractive as it is possible to be.

But I suspect that we should treat the picture and the solutions that seem obvious (and are being offered by every newspaper and television station in the country – with unusual unanimity) with more than a degree of caution.

It’s impossible to realistically analyse the strike here – and anyway that is work I have to try to sell to a paying client – but there are some questions I would urge us all to bear in mind.

I lay some of them out here as bullet points:

  • Government has offered 7% with a R700 housing allowance (an offer that amounts, according to the employer, to between 9.4 percent and 8.5 percent, depending on grade) and unions are demanding 8.6 percent wage increase across the board and housing allowance of R1 000. This seems closer than it is – the difference between the offer and counter offer, when aggregated across the public sector, makes a huge difference to the fiscus and to the actual take home value of the workers’ pay packages. Both parties have something to fight for.
  • Workers strike at great cost to themselves – generally, by-and-large and when all the exceptions are smoothed out. Try for a moment and to imagine risking your job and deliberately deciding to take on being portrayed as greedy, callous and on a kind of stolen holiday. This is especially true in the public sector, where the customers you are involved in servicing are your neighbours, their children and the sick of your community.
  • We have the highest levels of inequality (measured by something called the Gini coefficient) of any country that keeps realistic figures in the world – and if not ‘in the world’ then we are in the company of only one or two others. In a public sector wage conflict the employer is government (with politicians representing the owners and the senior bureaucrats the managers). The differential between the earnings of public sector workers and their employers – both of whom take their pay package from the public purse – is a factor many times higher than in most countries in the world. When you add to this the public perception (and the strikers are part of that public) that the politicians are engaged in a nasty, sharp-toothed feeding frenzy at the aching teat of the public purse, ransacking the long built up assets of the public sector and using every mechanism possible to extort money from the private sector, is their any wonder that public sector workers see their lot as unfair?
  • Cosatu and its various member unions and the worker leadership “on the ground”, so to speak, is getting the kind of press it deserves. The behaviour of too many striking workers is so unacceptable that the unions are inviting a Maggie Thatcher to emerge from these battered streets to crush them and reformulate the South African economy to be a growth machine that will benefit merchant bankers and the rich … and no-one else. And the public will cheer that politician on, because the unions have not bothered to see the middle-ground as worth fighting for.
  • This strike -  as a culmination of other things but also in and of itself – is the death knell for the ruling alliance. It imposes upon the vague conflict between Nationalists and “Tenderpreneurs” on the one hand, and trade unions and communists on the other, a clear organisational character and a clear set of objectives and costs over which the contenders deeply disagree. Government might find more money. The unions might shift an inch to meet government’s next offer but I suspect this is the moment that South African politics has been circling ever since Mbeki slapped the unions and “the left” into a subservient position over ten years ago. I am not awaiting a formal announcement by Vavi that he is leading his cohorts into the wilderness. But I expect that in practice the unions and the communists will be out of government within the next few years (Perhaps even more than they were “out of government” under Mbeki … and I use “the next few years” to give myself a margin).

This week is going to be full of the strike and its consequences. It is, ultimately, not a hugely profound point,  but now, more than ever, we need to urge caution in seeing the world as a simple representation between good guys and bad. This impulse, to see things as if they were simple and easy to understand, is increasingly the direction of public discourse on radio, newspaper and television. We need a kind of private media tribunal in our heads.

I am going to have to keep a straight face as I do this.

I am not unaware that “sex sells” – and I come from a political tradition that is endlessly anxious about the depiction of women’s bodies and about whose cause is being served by that depiction – but here goes …

The latest issue of GQ Magazine carries – amongst many interesting and stimulating articles and photographs – my thoughts on the Fifa World Cup. What you might find interesting is that I wrote it before the event – but the magazine has only now hit the market. I think I got it right … but you decide for yourself.

(Thanks to that excellent editor and friend Craig Tyson for the various permissions to republish this here. So go and buy the magazine – it is an interesting read).

Click on the image of the cover to link to the article.

qererqet

The ArcelorMittal /Imperial Crown Trading deal (in all its complexity) is deeply threatening to the future of investment in South Africa.

If I ran a display indicating threat levels to the South African democracy the readings would be higher now than at any time since the successful establishment of majority rule in 1994.

Such a statement is obviously subjective. So here goes:

South Africa’s future depends on sustainable economic growth. This is the minimum condition that must be met if we are to roll back the current levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

The minimum condition for economic growth to occur is for domestic and international investors to continue to put their money and creativity to work in the country – preferably on an ever expanding scale.

Investors, domestic or international, are always primarily concerned with the safety of their asset and the predictability of returns.

“Political risk”, for investors is the risk that the actions or inactions of government could affect their ownership of their asset and what they can expect to earn from that asset.

Political risk in South Africa has always been about the macro insecurity caused by the levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality – and, crucially, the racial overlay of the same. Political risk has always been encapsulated in a simple question: can/will this government secure my asset – in a situation where ownership of such assets is so unequally spread?

This isn’t only a question for adrenaline stoned young  bond, equity and currency traders sitting in the global financial capitals with their cold little eyes glued to the screens.

If the answer is: ‘the government cannot secure the asset’, or even worse: ‘the government itself might be the thief in the night’, the people who are in the deepest kind of trouble are not sitting in London and New York.

When governments preside over the kind of slippery asset switching that has characterised the ArcelorMittal/Imperial Crown Trading deal, the people that suffer are the poorest and most vulnerable. The reason for this is not because this particular deal is  important, by itself,  to the future of employment and economic growth in South Africa. What’s important is that all the other money and creativity wandering around global markets looks in on this deal and acts in accordance with what it learns.

And what did this “capital and ingenuity looking for a home” learn from the ArcelorMittal/ Imperial Crown Trading deal about making a home here?

In the short term:

  • The issuing of mineral and prospecting rights by the South African government is a process so fraught with danger that it is impossible to trust the authority not to steal,  or be in league with those who wish to steal, your assets;
  • The only way to secure your asset – and effectively compete in this market -  is to hire individuals from the powerful political families and factions – at a huge expense – to act as your partner.

The money and ingenuity looking for a long term home – i.e. capital that is prepared to set up bricks and mortar and businesses with global reputations to uphold – is going to be particularly cautious about deals like this one because:

  • It exposes Black Economic Empowerment to be nothing more than a mechanism to bribe the political class – rather than what it was promised to be: a mechanism to spread the benefits of capitalism to the previously denied and disadvantaged;
  • It acts as a massive drain on the productive employment of capital i.e. it adds so much extra costs to the normal costs of conducting whatever business you are in that the benefits of being in South Africa, as opposed to anywhere else, disappear;
  • The kind of “money and ingenuity” that you get when your market presents such long term risks are short term specialists – the ones who make a living out of basket cases and are used to dealing with them – with their bribes and coups and political meddling.

So the ArcelorMittal / Imperial Crown Trading deal – with all of its ins-and-outs – pushes up political risk to levels last seen in the  mid-80′s at the time of PW’s Rubicon Speech.

And that is what I am telling anyone who asks my advice about political risk and investment in South Africa.

Jeremy Cronin’s light defence of the proposed media tribunal couldn’t have come at a worse moment – a few hours before the showy arrest of the Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

That’s a pity, because his comments were more sensible and readable than those of his comrades – although still misguided and, ultimately, dangerous, as I shall argue.

Jeremy Cronin - no longer a victim of the powerful

It’s difficult not to lump into one basket the various hostilities emanating from government and the ruling alliance towards the media.

Aside from the aforementioned arrest, and several high-profile verbal attacks on the press,  there is the Protection of Information Bill wending its way through parliament and the ANC’s own proposed ‘media tribunal’ up for discussion at that organisation’s National General Council in a few weeks time.

Here  for a link to the ANC’s extraordinarily badly written and poorly argued document (Media Diversity and Ownership) proposing the media tribunal. Here is Jeremy Gordon’s irritated criticism of the document on the happily trending rightward Politicsweb. Here, for those with time on their hands, is the tedious Protection of Information Bill.

I think the impression that the ANC and government are engaged in a concerted effort to make the media more compliant is indisputable. The fact that they are doing what governments, ruling parties and “the powerful” do in all places and at all times does not mean they should not be criticised and watched carefully and suspiciously. It just means that we should be less breathless and astonished when we do the criticising and watching.

So before Cronin’s piece gets drowned out by the sound of jackboots let us examine the points he makes.

Firstly he correctly points out that the major newspapers have had a nasty few weeks – he mentions Business Day apologising to General Nyanda for shoddy journalism in a story “alleging intended corruption in the suspension of his Director General”. He points out that The Times carried an apology for a story alleging that Blade Nzimande had called for the jailing of journalists (catch a cached version of the original stupid story here – frankly The Times deserves whatever punishment they it gets for that trashy headline!)

Cronin interestingly chooses not to mention the City Press being forced by the Ombudsman to apologise to ANC Treasurer General Mathews Phosa – see that here. It is possible that his deadline missed the release of the Ombudsman’s order, but he may not have mentioned it anyway because his point is that the self-regulatory mechanisms are inadequate – that what we need is a tribunal answerable to parliament.

Where Cronin deserves credit is he then lists the various problems he and his comrades have with the media that a media tribunal is not designed to address:

  • the  “narrowly anti-ANC oppositionist stance” of much of the “print media”;
  • failing to balance the “watch-dog” role with other roles like providing “ordinary citizens with accurate information”;
  • the centralised ownership of big newspaper “corporations” (a matter he thinks would be better addressed by the Competitions Commission);
  • The foreign ownership, especially of the “Independent” newspapers, which has resulted in working capital draining out of these organisations to support loss making operations in other countries;
  • the “trashy tabloid” character of much of the print media, that results from the profit imperative being imposed on the newsrooms.

For Cronin, the ‘media tribunal’ is somewhere that:

… members of the public, including (but not only) high-profile personalities, can take concerns around grievous misrepresentation and unethical reporting …

without having to go to the expense and difficulties of the courts.

Now if that was all there was to it we would all pat Jeremy (Cronin, not Gordin) warmly on the back and add our support to the tribunal. There are two linked issues, however, that I would like to take up with Cronin.

Firstly the tribunal is not argued in anything like the terms that Cronin argues in the gigabytes of documents and criticism that come from his comrades and their various organisations – just throw your eye (as certain South Africans are wont to say) over the aforementioned execrable Media Transformation, Ownership and Diversity document. In amongst all the bullying and bombast is every single argument that Cronin disavows.

So are we meant to accept the media tribunal for the sensible reason that Cronin advances or reject it for the outrageous and dangerous reasons his comrades advance?

The second issue I wish to take up with Jeremy Cronin is more subtle but actually gets my goat in a more profound way. In a thousand different ways Cronin presents himself and the ANC as the wronged victim of the powerful, centralised, foreign owned and corporate print media. This is big business imposing its arrogant will on the democratic movements of the people and the workers.

That is, quite frankly, rubbish. It is time that Cronin woke up to the reality that he is the powerful one and/or the representative of the powerful. I get that big business is going to be selling its line into the public consciousness every chance it gets, but it will take a lot more than Cronin’s innocent belief in his own good intentions and the good intentions of his comrades to convince me that they are, in fact, not the bigger of the problems that confront us and our media.

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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