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The déjà vu is washing over me like the phantom symptoms of a late winter bout of hypochondria.

I remember the lead-up to Polokwane.

The thuggish crowds outside Jacob Zuma’s court appearances.

The man we had known was in Shaik’s pockets since 1993, he who famously couldn’t keep it in his pants, the rape accused shower-after-baby-oil-sex to fend off HIV/AIDs who had only been doing his Zulu man duty by her, Umshini wami mshini wam …  it was entirely impossible that my ANC would ever allow this man to rise to the venerable chambers previously occupied by heroes of the stature of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela … and kept lukewarm by Mbeki’s occasional visits.

And my paying clients insisting I make a call: will he become president?

Well, say I, Mbeki only appointed him deputy because he needed to fend off the challenge from Winnie a-fate-too-awful-to-be-contemplated-by-the-financial-markets Madikizela-Mandela. He had a certain ethnic appeal, so to speak, in the Inkatha heartlands of Kwazulu-Natal but Mbeki knew no-one would ever seriously propose him as president!

And as I knew, you don’t bet against Thabo Mbeki, the master of palace politics …

… and now here we are again.

The weekend the charges against Malema were announced, SARS, the Public Protector and the Hawks were reportedly deep into investigations of their own.

How could Malema hope to sell himself as a victim just as his lifestyle and his predation on the public purse became the subject of such intense scrutiny?

Can the man whose clothes and accoutrement cost the annual income of any twenty of the youths he hopes to represent … represent them or gain their sympathy?

Yes! I need to shout in my own ear. Yes they can … they have … they will again.

Maybe not this time.

This situation has its own dynamics and there is no point in second guessing what the ANC Disciplinary Committee might decide after it finishes meetings this week – but we mustn’t pretend to ourselves or anyone else that we can tell the future.

Will Malema’s minions brute about the streets wearing 100% Juju t-shirts and threatening to fight to the death for their … leader?

Will this sway the process?

Where is the unswayed process going anyway?

There are only two things I know for sure.

The first is that I do not know what the future holds for Julius Malema. He could be banished from the ANC. His disciplining might  provoke a backlash that conceivably could lead to Zuma’s downfall and to Mangaung being an even more corroding rerun of Polokwane. He might disappear into obscurity in the wasteland that (until very recently) has been politics outside of the ANC. He might spend a few years in the wilderness and return chastened and wiser and work his way back to becoming the coming man.

The second thing I know for sure is that my desire for particular outcomes is a serious barrier to me thinking sensibly about which outcomes are most likely.

I know this is not a great and profound insight – nor am I here on the road to Damascus or any particular destination; intellectual, metaphorical or spiritual.

I do hear the breathless clamour of the prediction and analysis industry prophesying the best and the worst of all possible worlds – depending on the emotional predisposition of their target market.

Predicting the worst is often a mistaken attempt to warn against a particular course of action … it’s a political act and an act of propaganda.

Predicting the best is often a semi-religious act, a sort of shamanistic incantation, willing a particular future into the present.

For me, I admonish myself daily:

It is okay to hope the ANC will rediscover its soul and its leaders their long-lost spines. But hoping for a thing does not make it more probable. No-one knows what is going to happen with Malema. So sit on your hands and wait like the rest of us.

Two brief thoughts – on a rainy Cape Town Sunday:

Firstly – a by-product of Malema’s (possible) retreat

I have a feeling that debates ranging from mine nationalisation, land distribution and continued white economic dominance in the South African economy have just been saved from the gangsters in the ANC Youth League who have been using these as a cover for looting.

It has been difficult not to lump every statement about ongoing race based inequality with the smokescreen slogans used by the ANC Youth League leadership – and many equally corrupt politicians.

The latest Commission of Employment Equity Annual Report says whites still occupy 73.1 percent of top management positions – and blacks 12.7, Indians 6.8 and coloureds 4.6?  Yeah, well they would say that wouldn’t they – after all, that is (one of) Jimmy Manyi’s old outfits and he is the grandmaster of running racial interference for pillaging resources destined for development!

Willing-seller, willing buyer policy of land distribution responsible for only 5 percent of redistribution targets met? Yeah, well, guess who are trying to get themselves a portfolio of farms a la Zanu-PF?

Nationalise the mines? Yeah, so you can rescue your BEE backers and get a piece of the action yourself?

But that was last week.

Those issues are back on the agenda, but this time the discussion might be led by people genuinely looking to harness the country’s resources for development and transformation – not looters, corrupt tenderpreneurs and “demagogic populists” disguising their true intentions.

If anyone thought we could go on with the levels of unemployment, inequality, poverty and racially skewed distribution of ownership and control of this economy I suspect they will find they have been very much mistaken.

One of the consequences of the retreat of the Malema agenda is that we will all have to deal with the issues we have, up until now, been able to dismiss or deflect because they were ‘owned” and propagated by thugs.

Itumeleng Mahabane says it like it is

In a similar vein – and my favourite read of the week – was Itumeleng Mahabane’s column in Friday’s Business Day.

He deals with a variety of aspects of the country’s debates about development and transformation.

In tones that have been tightly stripped – of anger, I suspect – Mahabane appeals for the debate to lose the “prejudicial invectives” and that participants should “desist from creating cardboard villains”.

He makes 4 main points (actually he makes a whole lot more, and it is not impossible that I misinterpret him here – and he is certainly more subtle and nuanced than my summary below – so read the original column – the link again.)

Firstly he suggests (although in the form of a question, not the statement as I have it here) that we have to acknowledge the damage our Apartheid past has done our country, leaving “the inequity of our income distribution and the historic systematic destruction of black capability”.

Secondly he hints that the state cannot assume more economic responsibility before we have fixed accountability – and thereby arrested corruption.

Thirdly he appeals for a sophistication of our views on the labour market – I think by suggesting that a degree of duality is crucial.

But, he warns:

I do not subscribe to the simplistic and questionable idea that the inability to hire and fire people is the core cause of structural unemployment. The balanced high growth would create demand for labour, regardless of labour rigidity.

Fourthly he asked us analysts why:

we casually, without considering the social implications, vilify workers and the working class, making them useful villains for complex economic challenges? We almost never give view to the body of evidence that shows that market rigidity and anticompetitive behaviour is a significant factor in deterring investment and output and that, in fact, it contributes to SA’s excessive business and skilled-labour rents.

Those are important views – and an important corrective to aspects of our debate about development.

You might have picked up from warm and welcoming statements by the Democratic Alliance and a flood of beaming news stories that our Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan said something slightly more exciting about economic policy than the bland pap from the policy kitchen of the increasingly awkward compromise which is the Ruling Alliance.

But before anyone gets too excited we should look at exactly what he said.

First up, in the main body of his speech to the 14th annual conference of the Board of the Institute of Internal Auditors – a body I suspect has hitherto not been allowed to bask at the centre of an important breaking news story – he suggested as part of his list of things that need to be done to “energetically reposition, restructure and reform our economy” :

Lower the cost of young, inexperienced low-skilled workers for firms to stimulate the demand for labour

That is from the paper as published on the the Treasury’s website – catch that here – it is well worth a read.

Then press stories – this from the New Age – seem to imply that he took things a little further in discussion. I give you the full text below, especially as the journalist has left off quotation marks on the key sentence, making me wonder if this is more a case of hearing what you want to hear than it is an accurate reflection of exactly what the minister said:

The New Growth Path envisages the creation of five million jobs by 2020. Gordhan suggested that South Africa might have to relax its labour laws in certain cases to grow jobs. “We may have to change the way we see the labour dispensation in South Africa,” he said.

For example, a balance needed to be found to retain the jobs of the 10,000 people working at clothing factories in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, while still allowing them to earn a reasonable wage and keeping the factories open.

There is no doubt in my mind that the inflexibility of our labour market is partly responsible for the high levels of unemployment in this country.

I have tired of pointing out that as the representative of the ‘already employed’ Cosatu is not to be trusted to talk on behalf of the ‘unemployed’ – with whom its interests often conflict (see here, but a number of other places as well).

The Minister of Finance’s job is to find an economic policy that somehow reflects the national interest – and not the sectional interest of organised labour.

The most important government priority is to find ways to grow the economy in a manner that helps create the greatest number of jobs.

With a government gone soft in the middle, led by a compromised and beholden president, it is a relief to hear someone in power, however tentatively, at least name the nettle if not actually grasp it.

Wouldn’t you want to have a job for life as a public servant, with guaranteed medical and benefits in a parastatal company that government would push up borrowing and taxation to keep afloat no matter what?

Of course you would – any of us would … just like the Greeks did up until very recently.

When Cosatu economist Chris Malekane argued as he did yesterday, stating with imperious certainty that the discussion about mine nationalisation was over – that the ANC NEC was unanimous and that it was not a question of if, it was a question of how – we should not be too surprised.

Malekane was talking the book of a particular faction of Cosatu – and his views are in stark contrast to views that had been expressed by leading member of the National Union of Mines.

While Malekane said Cosatu had encouraged the Youth League to place the debate on the agenda, National Union of Mineworkers president Senzani Zokwana said in November last year that the Youth League was being reckless with the industry and that their call was inspired by rich Black Economic Empowerment recipients looking to get failing deals bailed out by the state. “I believe that there’s no threat to any investor …. I don’t think that view (nationalising the mines) will fly given the facts at our disposal”, he said.

Frans Baleni NUM Secretary General said just a month ago: “It is not only the private sector that has invested (in mines), but the workers with their pension and provident funds have also invested. We should have maturity and the debate should not have political undertones.”

NUM has to care about the the state of the mining sector – it has members who would undoubtedly lose jobs if the mines were nationalised.

Additionally NUM is lead by the ANC/SACP supporting faction of Cosatu – with Vavi and NUMSA increasingly seeking ways forward around and beyond the ANC.

The ANC incumbents have done everything they can to stop or limit this debate – and they have been supported in this by the South African Communist Party. The president, cabinet ministers and senior party officials have argued that it was never ANC policy to interpret the Freedom Charter clause on the nationalisation of mines and “the commanding heights of the economy” in the crude and mechanistic was the Youth League has done.

I am convinced that it is entirely impossible that the ANC will nationalise the mines along the lines proposed by the Youth League. It would cost in the region of $130bn (see excellent Reuters article here) and it would break a long list of formal and informal obligations South Africa has with trading partners – as well as explicit reassurances the ANC gave at the time of the leaked mining charter in 2003. Finally, owning the mines would oblige government to take on the accumulated risks associated with environmental damage those mines have built up over the years as well as the risk associated with volatile resource demand.

Government’s task is to get the best possible value out of the non-renewable resources with which the country is endowed. I don’t see any scenario in which that could be achieved through the nationalisation of mines in the form described by the Youth League or that supported by a faction of Cosatu yesterday.

I am back from my travels where I spent much time discussing the ANC Youth League’s “nationalisation of mines” call with investors.

The long and the short of my views are that I don’t think the ANC will decide to nationalise the mines at its December 2012 elective conference in Mangaung. I do, however, think the ANC will attempt to use the populist surge to beat a better deal out of the miners (in terms of the companies’  social obligations, obligations to contribute to infrastructure development as well as the likely imposition as a special tax on windfall profits.)

However I also think that markets will remain anxious about nationalisation and will tend to counter-track the rise and fall of Malema’s personal fortunes.

With this in mind I think the Youth League and its President are in a degree of trouble.

Monday morning  one time radio show host, sometime actor and columnist Eric Miyeni was published in the Sowetan saying of Ferial Haffejee, editor of City Press:

Who the devil is she anyway if not a black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks? In the 80s she’d probably have had a burning tyre around her neck.

That evening ANC Youth League spokesman Floyd Shivambu sent out a statement that read:

The ANC Youth League agrees with Eric Miyeni’s column … He should continue to be an honest, fearless activist who speaks his mind and not fall into the trap of those who blindly support interests of apartheid beneficiaries.

On Sunday Julius Malema accused President Ian Khama of Botswana of being “a foot stool of imperialism, a security threat to Africa and always under constant puppetry of the United States” and further that the “ANC Youth League will also establish a Botswana command team, which will work towards uniting all oppositional forces in Botswana to oppose the puppet regime”.

On Tuesday Jackson Mthembu, ANC spokesman, said:

The ANC would like to totally reject and publicly rebuke the ANCYL on its extremely thoughtless and embarrassing pronouncements on ‘regime change’ in Botswana … This insult and disrespect to the President (Honourable Ian Khama), the government and the people of Botswana and a threat to destabilize and effect regime change in Botswana is a clear demonstration that the ANCYL’s ill discipline has clearly crossed the political line.

Surely we are into injury time by now – even the jellyfish Zuma leadership must have reached the end of its tolerance?

Two weeks ago previous key backer Tokyo Sexwale described Malema as a “loud-mouth young man”. Even Malema’s long term defender Mathews Phosa appeared to agree that the nationalisation debate had been handled badly and that the ANC had “dropped the ball” with regard to reconciliation and nation building.

Does this not leave Julius defended by only his organisation and a few wannabe intellectuals of the Miyeni stripe ?

Malema does not head an army of disenfranchised, unemployed and angry black youth. He has courted this crucial fraction of our society – usually as a deployed voice of the ANC itself – but in reality he lives a life of the überflash, so far removed from the unemployed and disenfranchised that his claims to the contrary smack of the worst and most dangerous forms of manipulative populism.

The point?

Markets should interpret what is happening as serious headwinds for the “Malema agenda” and that means much of the sound and fury will be removed from the nationalisation debate … a good thing for our politics and our economy.

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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