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There is something that seems to have been missed in the public discourse about Marikina.

Without wanting to be over dramatic, I think Marikana is a clear warning that we are under immediate and serious threat; in ways that I will discuss below.

What happened – both before and after the police shooting – has been exhaustively examined and there have been excellent discussions about the untransformed migrant labour system, the collective bargaining system, the gradual implosion of Num, the awfulness of the conditions in Nkaneng, the micro-lenders explosion, the sadness and despair of families of victims in the labour sending areas  … one might have thought that every conceivable angle has been exhaustively pursued.

But we can be swamped by the details and the anger and grief.

I think something has been missed, perhaps in emphasis, rather than facts – and  because, rather than despite, the sheer attention to detail in the media coverage.

So take one step back and look carefully.

Ask: what is most essential about what happened here?

  • The police shot and killed 35 striking mine workers.
  • At least 10 other people had been killed beforehand – including 2 police officers – mostly by the strikers.

Now take another step back and let a slightly, only very slightly, broader picture come into focus:

  • It happened now, not in the apartheid era – and there is nothing with which to compare it in our 18 years of democracy.
  • The closest proximate cause was the implosion of the National Union of Mineworkers.

One more step:

… and one last step:

  • Num is Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, is the mainstay of ANC support in Cosatu and is one of 3 key pillars of support within the ruling alliance backing the re-election of Zuma (with the SACP and Kzn);
  • Amcu, Julius Malema and the wildcat strikers and their committees found each other from the beginning of the cascade (of which Marikana was a part) after the Implats strike in January.

As I focussed backwards and forwards through those perspectives I suddenly, with a surge of adrenalin, realised the danger we are in.

This is the essence of that realisation:

We have had 18 years of a comfortable ANC majority. Whatever the problems with the ANC’s performance I have mostly believed the party would continue to enjoy the overwhelming support of the majority – of so-called African black South Africans – well into the future, beyond any point worth worrying about.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary I have come to rely on the inherent stability that comes from the ANC sitting like a collapsed star at the centre of our political solar system; with that dense cinder, in turn, held together by the ANC’s own leadership sitting at the core of the party, heavy and stultifying, but essentially stable.

Marikana (in the violence, in the institutional collapse, in the momentum given political  evangelists of the Malema stripe) is about Jacob Zuma’s ANC spinning off pieces of itself, of its members and supporters, of its voters and potential voters.

The most obvious metaphors are from physics.

The centripetal force decreases as the set of interest at the centre narrow (please check my science here). The Nkandla patronage networks are in an ever tighter and more mutually dependent relationship with the SACP and a faction of Cosatu (a faction most closely identified with the Num). The narrower the centre, the less able it is to hold in place the system orbiting around itself. Ultimately, the bits are flung out of the orbit.

Forgive the scattering of a few lines from YeatsThe Second Coming, but they are so apposite here as to be inevitable:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

And the narrowing centre’s response? Well, that would be the massacre of the 34 mineworkers.

The blood-dimmed tide

The other metaphor is the vacuum, and as we know nature abhors a vacuum so it sends the first things that come to hand to fill it.

There seems to be a universe of hopeful voices out there that the first thing that will ‘come to hand’ is either a more democratic version of the ANC or a DA somehow more rooted in the nation (especially that three-quarters of the nation that is poor and black).

But what were the first things to rush into the vacuum, the vacuum left by the rapidly narrowing set of interests at the centre and by its precipitous loss of moral and political authority?

The communists had it right in 2009 already.

If the communists are good for nothing else, they are excellent at spotting fascists (I always think it is because, like alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery, communists feel the call of the beast within … but that is an argument I will need to explore elsewhere).

Already in late 2009 the SACP warned about the emerging tendency within the ANC (the tendency that coalesced around Malema, but has its roots deeper in elements of the emerging elite and their allies in the private sector):

Because of its rhetorical militancy the media often portrays it as “radical” and “left-wing” – but it is fundamentally right-wing, even proto-fascist. While it is easy to dismiss the buffoonery of some of the leading lieutenants, we should not underestimate the resources made available to them, and the huge challenge we all have when it comes to millions of increasingly alienated, often unemployed youth who are potentially available for all kinds of demagogic mobilization.

See what I mean? The communists are almost prescient as far as fascism is concerned. I covered those issues in more detail here.

Amcu and Julius Malema are part of the same phenomenon in the sense that they are both drawn into existence by the collapse of the centre and in addition share a number of features in ideology and style.

The extreme levels of violence, especially the violence of the state (deployed to defend the weakening centre) is also an essential and predictable element of what must flood in to fill the emptiness at the centre.

This is not some threatening future. Marikana threw aside a veil and revealed that this is where we are already, this is what is filling the vacated centre.

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun

  And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(Note: I know it is such a cliché to use The Second Coming, but it is almost irresistible given the points I want to make here. Read the whole poem at the link I provide earlier … it is not really meant to be dipped into in the way that I have here. Consider its post-First World War context. )

*It was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who famously said the Party “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up” – and he would have known a thing or two about that. For the most sturdy readers you can find a discussion of that here.

Lenin knew how easy it was to pick up power when it was lying around

I am sometimes tempted to think of myself as a company analyst, with South Africa as my company,  government as management and the currency and bonds as the share price

Company analysts make sell, hold or buy recommendations. Obviously a buy means the analyst believes the shares are cheap – in some difficult to determine absolute terms, but more likely in relation to appropriate peer or category comparisons.

If I was a company analyst, then what I might have been doing over the last while would have been writing a report changing my recommendation on South Africa from a hold to a sell.

Here is a bare-bones summary and ordering of that argument:

  • There are two major cycles driving negative sentiment which are coinciding now (which they do every five years):  the “strike season” and the lead up to the  ANC’s National Conference ;
  • Both these cycles are deeper and more traumatic that usual;
  • The reasons the strikes are worse than usual is excellently addressed by Gavin Hartford of Esop Shop –  here for a link to his paper at polity.org;
  • Mangaung is “deeper” and more traumatic than Polokwane because there is more at stake (some ANC members realise that another seven years of Zuma could hurt the ANC and the country; and Zuma and his backers cannot afford to lose office, because their dealing is not yet wrapped up and because their man remains legally vulnerable to the original corruption allegations against him);

But the main reason these cycles are deeper than previously is they are meeting a structural or secular trend, which consists of (and this is very stripped down):

  • Uncertain political stewardship from the top;
  • Institutional weaknesses in political (and labour) organisation characterised by systemic cronyism, corruption and nepotism (which leads to violent competition for control), managerial incoherence, narrowing support base and falsely inflated membership figures;
  • A significantly negative economic policy environment which might lower investment levels – e.g. fiscal uncertainty (because there is no way the ANC cannot keep increasing social grants and the public sector wage bill, which together are already more than half annual non-interest government spending) and a highly interventionist industrial policy (best exemplified in the SIMS document) which is one step away from ‘nationalisation by stealth” i.e. the effective deployment of private assets for public – or more narrowly governmental or even party – ends.
  • Incompetent infrastructure build, disruptive labour relations and failed educations systems are constant, apparently irresolvable and narrowing bottlenecks in the economy;
  • Institutional and administrative failures of government (in specific geographies and at specific levels of government) – with similar features to the second bullet referring to parties and labour unions;
  • Failures of the collective bargaining system – and other institutions designed to manage and mediate conflicting interests in society;
  • Growing social stresses around levels of inequality, unemployment, indebtedness and poverty – and unresolved racial overlays of the same.

Just listing that is faintly distressing … and you can imagine writing about it for weeks is not very uplifting.

But, I have, mid-stream, decided that I am not at all certain it is appropriate to take this relentlessly negative view.

Let’s go back to the political analyst/company analyst metaphor. Company analysts often suggest investors sell a share in a top quality, well  managed and highly profitable company if it is too expensive.

They might also recommend a buy on a company in all kinds of trouble – but one that is cheap and has upside that the herd of sellers hasn’t spotted.

I cannot remember an SA political shock or flood of negative sentiment that did not represent a buying opportunity in our financial markets. Remember the sell-off of  R54bn of SA resources companies after the leaking of a draft mining charter in 2002? It proposed forcing mining companies to immediately sell half their equity to black South Africans and spooked the market. The next few months was the chance of a life-time to buy excellent value company shares on the cheap.

Whether financial analysis adds real value to the investment process (or is just another bleed-off) is a matter of endless dispute. But here is why I would hesitate to call a sell on SA:

  • I cannot honestly say we have more political risk than Russia and Turkey, for example;
  • Where are the safe havens for investors, given the complex risks and problems in the global economy?
  • I cannot be sure that the negative news flow is not already in the price – it would be a very financial-market-analyst-type error to rush around shouting sell, sell, sell just after the last savvy investor had finished selling and begun buying;
  • My ‘negative secular trend’ is described as if it is inevitable – whereas there is much that can be decided and turned around by citizens, government and the ANC (despite my bleak outlook as to the likelihood of that happening, it must be in the mix as a possibility);
  • The country has a number of inherent advantages: its natural resources, its growing domestic market, its proximity to the last great frontier market (Africa), its sophisticated financial system and complex infrastructure, its constitutional framework, judicial independence and stable democracy – to name just a few.

Now obviously that does not counter the negative “secular” or structural trend I describe above. But there is something of a “baking a cake” strategy about how I have motivated for the big underlying negative trend. What I mean by that is I have marshaled all (or as many as I can come up with) of  the negative arguments in one place to bolster a particular conclusion: sell!

To make a cake one follows certain steps – mix ingredients, add energy and voilà: a nasty, stodgy, too sweet lump.

And that is a relatively simple object, with only a few requisite variables for its construction.

When we think about the future – especially when we write about it and propose to people how they should position themselves – the very first thing we should be is extremely tentative.

So I can’t, in good conscience, say sell South Africa.

I am unmistakably bleak about our politics and governance, but don’t take that as a signal to sell. I am quite likely being tossed on the waves of sentiment  – following financial market indicators, rather than leading them.

My very negativity could as easily be the indicator to start buying; that all the bad news is already in the price.

The among the reasons I have failed to publish here for almost six weeks is I have been on a seemingly endless roadshow (series of presentations to fund managers domestically and in Europe and the UK) that started with Marikana, morphed into Telkom and is on its way back to its origins by focusing more on the strikes cascading through our economy. Combined with this is my contractual obligations to write political commentary for my clients – with a degree of exclusivity as part of the reasons why I get paid for it. Thus I have had almost no time to write anything here.

Another, more difficult to explain  reason for my coming to a virtual publishing standltill on my  blog is that my views about the state of the nation have darkened considerably since Markina and I have been gestating the idea that the National Union of Mineworkers’ loss of support and the Marikana shooting might be an almost perfect metaphor – or even predictive model – for the state of the ANC and its relation to society more generally.

I will try to put some flesh on those bones during the course of the week. But meanwhile here is a short opinion piece I wrote last week for clients of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities concerning the putative relationship between the strike wave and Julius Malema.

Will the wildcat strikes in the mining sector and Julius Malema’s populist campaign link up in a way that drives them both further, harder and deeper than they would have been driven separately and apart?

The South African news flow is confusing and jarring at the moment – and might well be driving sentiment against resource counters.  What follows is not a definitive answer to the question, but my first case expectation is that the strikes will be resolved through wage offers and that Malema will continue to get some traction with the strikers but that his ‘fight back’ campaign against Zuma and against his (Malema’s) expulsion has not got an endless potential to unravel South Africa.

We would be remiss if we did not keep the possibility of a generalised revolt and economic paralysis in mind but if I was forced to bet on an outcome – which I would not do unless forced, because the future is impossible to know before it arrives – I would guess we are approaching the apex of the threat in this specific confluence of events.

Here’s why:

Strikes

Strike action sometimes cascades through an economy and to some degree this is what is happening in the mining sector. However, in my opinion the press is too simply portraying the myriad strike actions in different parts of the economy as belonging to the same trend, when in fact some of the strikes are normal and predictable events is our collective bargaining system.

The ‘wild cat strikes’ (i.e. unprotected in law and outside of the collective bargaining system) starting in the platinum sector (with the Marikana incident at Lonmin giving the most impetus) are now spreading through the gold sector. In coal and in transport ‘protected’ (i.e. part of the collective bargaining process and stemming from a failure to agree upon a wage settlement) strikes are underway.

It is clear from union (Cosatu’s Satawu – the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union) statements concerning the truck drivers’ strike that at least some of the momentum and energy of the settlement at Marikana is being used to give the strikers hope and encouragement, but it is likely that this strike would have happened even if there was no “Marikana’ to help spur it on. This strike came about as a result of a deadlock in wage negotiations and began on Monday morning.

The platinum and gold strikes are a different matter entirely. Workers can be legally dismissed for partaking in these ‘unprotected’ strikes – for example Amplats CEO Chris Griffith indicated yesterday that the company would consider dismissals if workers did not return to work from today. Press reports indicate that 35 000 workers at AngloGold’s Kopanang mine have joined the action. Business Report suggests that there are approximately 75 000 workers (15 % of the workforce) on strike (or prevented from going to work because of intimidation) across South Africa’s mining sector. These numbers are significant, but not overwhelming.

Nic Dinham, head of resources at BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities in South Africa has pointed out that most workers, even the supposedly especially militant Rock Drill Operators, returned to work at Marikana for an increase of just over R2000 – and this despite the violence and anger that followed the police shootings. “This hardly seems revolutionary to me”, he said in a comment yesterday.

A wildcard variable here is if there were high levels of dismissals this might lead to the strikes being more protracted and serious than I expect; alternatively the closure of certain shaft and operations might break the transmission mechanism for the spread of the strike more quickly.

Julius Malema

Julius Malema’s on-going push to insert himself into the mining strike is going to cause worries today. He said outside his money laundering hearing yesterday: “These charges which they brought against me, they do not affect me at all. I am unshaken, I am not intimidated. I am going to continue the struggle against economic freedom (sic), they are wasting time. Tomorrow I am going to Impala mine in Rustenburg; we are going to encourage the workers to demand R12 500.”

There is no evidence that Malema caused  – directly or indirectly – the strike at Impala in January or the strike at Lonmin that culminated in the Marikana incident on August 16. It is true that he was welcomed by strikers both at Impala and at Marikana – and is likely to be welcomed at Lonmin again today (although the police might stop him as they did at his second attempt to address the Marikana strikers.) But if the strikers will, ultimately, go back to work as soon as they have achieved a satisfactory (to them) wage settlement, why would we imagine that the mine workers are a potential revolutionary base for Julius Malema?

Julius Malema is on trial for money laundering – in a case that implicates him and his close allies in serious criminal activity (money laundering carries an up to 15 year jail term). Malema argues (with  some justification, at least with regard to timing) that the case is politically motivated. This raises the compelling comparison between what is happening to Malema in the lead-up to Mangaung and what happened to Zuma in the lead up to Polokwane in 2007.

Zuma and his allies managed to turn corruption allegations into a successful campaign for the presidency of the ANC and the country – largely by portraying Zuma as a victim of Thabo Mbeki’s manipulations of the criminal justice system. It is important to note that this campaign was ultimately focussed on a vote at the ANC’s national conference and it never had a significant element of mass-mobilisation (except symbolically) and it certainly never looked like it might spill-over into some form of generalised unrest.

At this stage in the lead-up to Polokwane Zuma was already being backed by several regions of the ANC and by the ANC Youth League, the SACP, Cosatu and the ANCY Women’s League. Within the ruling alliance Malema has no official or formal support from any structure, except for a split vote in the Youth League – and, ultimately, succession will be determined by a vote at the ANC’s national conference in December and not by popular opinion. It is my view that what happened at Marikana indicates that the “formal structures” of the Ruling Alliance are not the determinant of history that they once were, but the Mangaung vote is purely an ANC affair and not necessary responsive to popular sentiment.

Unlike Zuma in 2007, Malema has been expelled from the ANC and is now free to take his campaign to the streets – but is also denied the ability to fight within ANC structures for reinstatement and/or for Kgalema Motlanthe to replace Zuma as president in December. Nominations formally open in ANC structures next week Monday (1st of October).

A Wildcard variable here would be if Zuma and the state security apparatus gave in to the temptation to detain Malema on charges similar to sedition – this could give the crisis significant legs; alternatively it would take out of play a key element of the conflict and might lead to an early resolution of this particular contest.

Conclusion

None of this speaks directly to possible impacts on the market. The price of a number of financial instruments might be affected – perhaps quite seriously – through lost production and through negative sentiment more generally about the South African story.

My own view is that the medium term political risk environment is significantly elevated through a combination of these factors (wild cat strikes and Malema) –  along with the growing interdependency of the incumbent faction of the ANC and Cosatu (leading to greater state intervention in the economy and a more onerous labour market regime) growing violence in ANC internal election processes (largely because of intensity of competition to control patronage networks), the growing collapse of the boundaries between the public and private sector (corruption and tender-abuse) and an inability to resolve the social malaise engendered by unacceptably high levels of unemployment, inequality and poverty (leading to social instability and opportunities for populist politics).

Thus my answer to the opening question is:

I think the confluence of events makes the crisis larger than the sum of its parts, but it does not have an unlimited potential to become a more generalised and sustained revolt – thus no Arab Spring situation. However, as a backdrop to increased political risk it will have significant financial market impacts.

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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