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Various commentators, politicians and analysts have attempted to characterise Mangaung, to define the moment’s essential nature. Below are two takes I found interesting with some words from me on why I found them thus. After that I include a more general summary of what happened with the voting results for the Top Six and the National Executive Committee.

M&G:  will the scandal prone authoritarian traditionalist and the constitutionalist businessman lick the platter clean together?

Nic Dawes – editor of the doughty Mail & Guardian suggested (on December 21 2012) that Zuma has moved the ANC “dangerously away” from the urban and middle classes and is starting to overtly exhibit rural, patriarchal and authoritarian values inimical to the middle classes. He suggests that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election at Mangaung is (ultimately) an attempt to woo urban and middle class voters back to the ANC – with Zuma having secured traditional and rural support. But, asks Dawes, “can the constitutionalist businessperson avoid contamination by association with a scandal prone, authoritarian traditionalist?”

Good question … except that I am starting to realise that Zuma would never have appointed Ramaphosa if he posed a potential threat in any way at any stage no matter how far they (the Zuma camp) are looking into the future. Ramaphosa is in the house … the Nkandla house … it’s too late for decontamination.

Dawes also makes the useful formulation that Motlanthe’s challenge was a principled attempt to “confront the ANC with the enormity of its Jacob Zuma problem”. I think Dawes is right – or at least that the Motlanthe strategists he spoke to had this conception of what they were up to. However the whole Motlanthe endeavour feels much more like the foolish (but strangely attractive) arrogance of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, or, more tragically, this stupid and noble rush onto heavily defended enemy positions:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Read the brilliant, awful, manipulative (in my admittedly limited estimation) Tennyson poem and its glorification of cruel and stupid military and administrative incompetence here – ok, glorification of those acting as a result of such incompetence . (You will see from voting patterns at the end of this post that it was closer to 1000 than 600, but aside from that I thought the Tennyson metaphor held up rather well?)

The nationalists, anti-nonracial, populist versus the … who?

If I was on one of those TV or radio programmes that specialise in asking stupid questions right at the end, and I was asked: which South African political analyst do you rate highest? Then “Steven Friedman” is the answer that would most likely trip off my tongue.

With that disclaimer, I am forced to take issue with an aspect of his characterisation of what happened at Mangaung (published in the Business Day – 27/12/12 – here for that link).

Friedman characterises the Anyone But Zuma or Forces For Change (that is the defeated faction at Mangaung) as “the nationalist group, which wants a bigger black share of business … and whose members use radical-sounding language to pursue that goal.” No quibble from me there.

But then Friedman goes on to characterise the group that opposed ‘the nationalists’, that is the group that was victorious at Mangaung, as “a loose alliance stretching from the left to centrist business people who believe the nationalists threaten the ANC’s commitment to nonracialism and are corrupting the movement because they are too close to the wealthy.”

The implicit injunction, one I believe we should resist, is: choose a better devil.

Break it down (and I paraphrase what I imagine the argument would have to entail – and I am taking this much further than is implicit in Friedman’s article, but his argument leads inevitably to this point):

We support both Jacob Zuma (the patriarchal and authoritarian traditionalist with rigid and ruthless control of the security establishment and the ANC – and we support him despite his family and friends having become fabulously wealthy since his winning to high office) and Cyril Ramaphosa (the billionaire ex-unionist who has effectively used the black economic empowerment imperative to accumulate his wealth and will occupy his office with zero power and purely at the beck and call of the Nkandla Crew).

… because …

… they are a whole lot better than the nationalist, anti-nonracial Julius Malema, Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa, Fikile Mbalula and ANC Youth League?

I think not.

Extract from my summary as of last week

The expected

  1. The leadership and policy results of the African National Congress National Conference was a strongly status quo outcome and a victory for the incumbents (the Zuma camp) and their political and economic policies
  2. The leadership challenge to Zuma (with Kgalema Motlanthe the unwilling champion of that challenge) was routed, as was the policy platform most closely associated with the challengers (the nationalisation of mines). The extent of the victory is clearly and accurately revealed in the leadership election results detailed in Addendum 1.
  3. Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as deputy president has been heralded in much of the financial and popular press as a market-friendly outcome and, in some versions, a salvation of the ANC. It should be pointed out, however, that whatever qualities Ramaphosa possesses (and in my experience he possesses many excellent qualities) these will be exercised as the deputy to an extremely confident and powerful (in party and state terms) president, a president at whose behest Ramaphosa will serve and as a result of whose political influence Ramaphosa was elected. To further dampen any untoward enthusiasm it should be pointed out that Ramaphosa has no base in any constituency within the ANC or within the ruling alliance.
  4. Because the National Conference of the ANC is not the kind of forum in which decisive interventions or radical new directions can be formulated (it takes place over 5 days, has a long and complex agenda, entails many rounds of voting by 4000-plus branch delegates who are often unskilled in policy matters and who are generally organised into large voting blocks by contending factions for leadership) there were no such interventions and (no unexpectedly) new policy directions.
  5. However, the full policy platform of the incumbents, which does entail significant new state intervention in the economy (described and assessed by me in interminable detail elsewhere) was accepted in full (but in a very broad, vague, poorly attended and poorly discussed commission process at the conference.) The ANC is yet to publish the full policy resolution of the conference and I expect it to be a carefully phrased call for more state intervention, but in a language unlikely to alarm financial markets. The details here are important  but I will have to postpone further analysis until the ANC decides it has crafted the resolution carefully enough.

The less expected

  1. Mangaung did only confirm policy and political trends that were already extant – and widely known. However the extent of the dominance of the Zuma camp and the weakness of the challengers took some commentators by surprise – see Addendum 1 for the details of the election results.
  2. The total failure of the political factions aligned to the ANC Youth League to make any impact on the conference policy-making process did come as a surprise to me – I would have thought there would be a rear-guard action around the ‘nationalisation of mines’ call, but none appeared (to me, anyway).
  3. It would have been politic for the Zuma camp to allow some of those who challenged for the top six positions (and their allies) to be represented on the 80 person National Executive Committee. It seems that either the desire to demonstrate total dominance won the day, or the Zuma strategists lost control of the popular mobilisation against the challengers. Either way it leaves a huge internal constituency of the ANC (roughly 25%) without representation at any leadership level within the party – an obviously destabilising outcome. However the Zuma camp is likely to invite some of the excluded individuals back into leadership positions, on terms satisfactory to the victors.

(Post Scrip reminder:  outstanding is the ANC National Conference resolution on policy. The resolution that emerged out of the June Policy Conference took several months to formulate and be published. I do not expect the Mangaung Resolution to take things much further than the resolution from the policy conference. Much of the detail will be dealt with in the New Year and largely in Cabinet and government departments, rather than in party structures.)

Addendum 1

… the results below are culled from various news sources and people who attended the conference (I found the full NEC results at Politicsweb).

A – Voting and results for the top six

(Interesting things to note: Zuma got the least votes of all contested positions and Gwede Mantashe the most – an observation I borrowed from Steven Friedman’s previously discussed Business Day article.)

  • President – Jacob re-elected with 2983 votes to Kgalema Motlanthe’s 991 votes.
  • Deputy President – Cyril Ramaphosa elected with 3018 votes to Mathews Phosa’s 470 and Tokyo Sexwale’s 463.
  • Secretary General – Gwede Mantashe re-elected with 3058 votes to Fikile Mbalula’s 901.
  • Deputy Secretary General – Jessie Duarte elected unopposed.
  • Chairperson – Baleka Mbete re-elected with 3010 votes to Thandi Modise’s 939.
  • Treasurer General – Zweli Mkhize elected with 2988 votes to Paul M Mashatile’s 961.

B – Voting and results for the National Executive Committee

(Note that no challenger to the Zuma camp in the top six election was elected to the National Executive Committee. Note, as well, that the only prominent member of the anti-Zuma camp, Winnie Mandela, just scraped onto the list, having topped the poll for the NEC election at Polokwane in 2007.)

Rank Name Sex Votes
1 Dlamini-Zuma, Nkosazana Clarice F 2921
2 Gigaba, Malusi M 2669
3 Sisulu, Lindiwe F 2658
4 Chabane, Collins M 2585
5 Radebe, Jeff M 2570
6 Pandor, Naledi F 2517
7 Hanekom, Derek M 2497
8 Gordhan, Pravin M 2465
9 Mboweni, Tito M 2463
10 Mthethwa, Nathi M 2450
11 Sisulu, Max Vuyisile M 2442
12 Dlamini, Bathabile Olive F 2423
13 Jordan, Zweledinga Pallo M 2407
14 Nzimande, Blade M 2406
15 Mthembu, Jackson M 2387
16 Ndebele, Joel Sibusiso M 2379
17 Mapisa-Nqakula, Nosiviwe F 2353
18 Motsoaledi, Aaron M 2339
19 Godongwana, Enoch M 2334
20 Kodwa, Zizi M 2306
21 Ebrahim Ebrahim M 2303
22 Dlodlo, Ayanda F 2300
23 Brown, Lynne F 2293
24 Cwele, Siyabonga C M 2245
25 Mokonyane, Nomvula Paula F 2240
26 Mfeketo, Nomaindia F 2228
27 Dlamini, Sidumo Mbongeni M 2213
28 Nxesi, Thulas M 2202
29 Bhengu, Nozabelo Ruth F 2195
30 Nkoana-Mashabane, Maite M 2169
31 Bapela, Obed M 2167
32 Masetlha, Billy Lesedi M 2161
33 Ramatlhodi, Ngoako Abel M 2156
34 Davies, Rob M 2151
35 Motshekga, Angie F 2146
36 Zulu, Lindiwe F 2142
37 Netshitenze, Joel M 2138
38 Nkwinti, Gugile M 2100
39 Joemat-Petterson, Tina F 2076
40 Mabhudafhasi, Rejoice F 2042
41 Shabangu, Susan F 2036
42 Oliphant, Mildred N F 2019
43 van der Merwe, Sue F 1992
44 Capa-Langa, Zoleka Rosemary F 1984
45 Mthembi-Mahanyele, Sankie Dolly F 1930
46 Phaahla, Joe M 1916
47 Skwatsha, Mcebisi M 1888
48 Xasa, Fikile D M 1881
49 Majola, Fikile (Slovo) M 1872
50 Mashamba, Joyce F 1868
51 Tshwete, Pam F 1849
52 Mabe, Sisi F 1823
53 Sizani, Stone M 1803
54 Cele, Bhekokwakhe Hamilton (Bheki) M 1736
55 Magadzi, Dikeledi F 1732
56 Tolashe, Sisisi F 1715
57 Gcabashe, Lungi F 1695
58 Mmemezi, Humphrey M Z M 1679
59 Dlulane, Beauty N F 1674
60 Moloi, Pinky F 1664
61 Mokoto, Pinky F 1644
62 Mashinini, Sam M 1643
63 Zokwana, Senzeni M 1600
64 Mabe, Pule M 1586
65 Yengeni. Tony Sithembiso M 1570
66 Mafu, Nocawe F 1549
67 Mahlobo, David M 1495
68 Mapulane, Philly M 1462
69 Maphatsoe, Kebby M 1456
70 Ntwanambi Nosipho, Dorothy F 1450
71 Semenya, Machwene Rosinah F 1449
72 Segabutla, Miriam F 1403
73 Moloi- Moropa, Joyce C F 1396
74 Molewa, Ednah F 1361
75 Ntombela, Sefora Hixsonia (Sisi) F 1348
76 Manganye, Jane F 1276
77 Letsatsi-Duba, Dipuo F 1057
78 Mtintso, Thenjiwe F 875
79 Mandela, Nomzamo Winfred (Winnie) F 841
80 Didiza, Thoko F 817
Annus horribilis

This has undoubtedly been the worst year for South Africa – at too many levels to name – since 1994. There is much I have wanted to say here but couldn’t find the time.  So I am going to rapidly fire off a series of posts, as my professional duties tail off towards the end of the year.

That probably means potential readers will soon be on holiday and lounging on a beach somewhere.

So let me be cheery to start:

I am positive about South Africa in the medium to long-term … but it’s complicated

My first-case long-term view on South Africa is somewhere between hopeful and good. I don’t think societal outcomes are primarily about the choices made by politicians and their parties – if they (societal outcomes) were (dependent on the choices made by politicians), my view would be significantly more negative.

Instead I think societies change in response to shifts of deep structural features – in themselves and in the ‘global world’ within which the society and country exists. South  Africa – its institutions, politics and economy – is being buffeted by the flood emanating from the unwinding of the distortions of the past, interacting with the ‘flooding-in’ of elements of the global society and economy previously locked out … or previously just less ‘globalised’  as was the case in the world of the 80’s and before.

The most obvious domestic feature of this is the rapid growth of a class of South Africans who have ‘emerged’, settled and accumulated assets. They have done this because they can i.e. as a result of the removal of political and legislative obstacles created by Apartheid. Alternatively they have emerged because such settled and skilled groups are a requirement of newly globally integrated labour and consumer goods’ markets. It works both ways – one as a push the other as a pull. Either way the black middle class is growing and on the move to become the prime determinant of much of what lies ahead for South Africa.

The overwhelming numeric majority of this class is a normal middle-class (public and private sector workers, teachers, artisans, skilled workers and other professionals) previously denied by law and repression the chance of improving their lot (to accumulate assets and get ahead). But along with this classic middle-class has come a slurry of individuals and groups who have more specifically seized the opportunities to extract a rent, opportunities created by the legal and political imperative to transform patterns of ownership and control.  Again, most of these are rational individuals who have seized the legal opportunities that the imperatives for transition have presented them with. However, and this is the important bit, a very large (in terms of accumulated assets and power) part of this group includes those who have successfully harnessed political power with the specific intentions of diverting public resources and/or other resources available for redistribution (the assets of private companies, for example) into their own hands.

The point of all of this is that once through the door, once securely established, that elite, its children, its family networks will attempt to re-establish the basic economic rules that allow for the formal and ordered regulation of property, the appropriate separation between the public and the private and the establishment of the rule of law – an imperative that already characterises the ‘classic middle-class’ that has emerged alongside this elite. In short, once inside the enclosure, the new elite will attempt to lock the door and secure the perimeters. It’s part of normal capitalist development and we will get through it in about 10 – 20 years. Meanwhile we are going through what Karl Marx would have called a form of “primitive accumulation” – with all the attendant threat and chaos.

Once this class has formed, emerged and assumed its central place in South African society – and Census 2012 suggests this is in process – our politics, parties, structures of governance will be forced to adapt to the imperatives of the new underlying configuration. This is the kind of tectonic force that effortlessly shuffles and cuts and pastes our politics and our parties to suit itself.

In 12 years’ time we are going to look around and remark at how surprising it is that South Africa has settled down and become such a productive and cooking hub, that corruption and nepotism has retreated so far and so quickly, that the political certainties of the past have so quickly and radically changed for the better.

Or that’s the outcome I have bet my meager resources on …. and before you follow my lead, remember; there is a reason those resources are as meager as they are.

I am positive about South Africa (or at least about reduced volatility) in the immediate post-Mangaung period

Once the political contest for the presidency is resolved and once the platinum sector strikes settle, the deep uncertainties driven by these interacting cycles will recede.

But that is enough sunshine for now  … because what has driven the intensity of those cycles is still very much present and will feature prominently in the South African investment and operating environment in the next 5 – 10 years, revealing itself in crises at least as serious and awful as the Marikana Massacre and the Mangaung contest. (Much of this will be the subject of the next few “deep blue thoughts” posts.)

Motlanthe or Ramaphosa?

At Mangaung the presidency issue is settled and the only interesting bit (as far as the electoral process is concerned) is the election of the deputy presidency and in the general balance that is achieved within the NEC.

I will leave the NEC for a later discussion.

I think the Zuma camp is entirely in control of the president/deputy choice, so when we analyse what might happen we have to ask: what is the imperative of the Zuma camp?

Well, that’s an easy one: stay out of prison after you have left office and keep your loot forever. That’s the thing and the whole of the thing.

So which deputy choice could better ensure this outcome?

Would a President Ramaphosa eventually, following the logic of the Constitution and the law, and impelled by some hope for his own legacy, end up allowing Zuma to be sent to prison?

Would Motlanthe?

I think Ramaphosa might. I would have trusted the younger version to do the right thing a lot more than I do this older one. This man has done a lot of complex dealing with “the cold realities”, he has supped with with a Dark Lord or two along the way  … and I would not feel entirely confident that the Zuma camp could not construct a deal that keeps him (Ramaphosa) beholden until long after Nkandla Incorporated has broken free of the threat of justice and been laundered till it shines like a blue chip.

And Motlanthe?  I am grinding my way through “Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography” by Ebrahim Harvey (there’s more than one medicine measure of hagiography in there, but despite that I am starting to believe that KM might just be a seriously good person). However, I don’t think that means he would send Zuma to jail. He seems like a man who hates having to take decisions that “divide the house”. Taking down Nkandla is going to require something even more invasive and destructive than Polokwane. I cannot see Motlanthe as the author of such a story.

It would be a relatively easy matter for the Zuma camp to claim the imperative of unity, and decide to accept Motlanthe back into the fold – instead of Ramaphosa – and therefore as the successor president in 2017.

Enough for now.

I am not encouraged, in my professional life, to be too colourful in what I write or say.

This morning I reviewed the weeklies – as I do before 06h30 every Monday morning – and found myself having to strip more metaphor and vitriol than usual from what I had to say.

For example – still right here in my clipboard, recently cut from the document I sent to clients – is this little piece of over-the-top contemptuous bitterness: “it paints a picture of an engorged elite sitting atop piles of treasure they will defend at all and any cost.”

I remember vaguely from 04h00 this morning a picture lurking somewhere in my head: there are about fifty fat dragons uncomfortably sprawled over their separate piles of loot in a disgusting, dank cave somewhere far below the smoking and ravaged surface. These beasts are  dangerously fanged in a mean, cowardly way and entirely without the pretty iridescence of most dragons I have encountered – and they hate and fear each other and anyone else who might take their stuff …

… but obviously I never went down that route.

Last Friday’s Mail & Guardian had particularly excellent – and depressing – stories about the the Nkandla looting. See here for the memorable editorial that sums up the ugly story; here for the alleged Maharaj arms deal link, here for the Gupta’s further bankrolling of the Zumas’ excessive domestic costs … and here, from the Sunday Times, a clear view of how significant public funds were diverted to the Zuma coffers and asset base, but also that much of that money did not actually arrive because it was creamed off by cronies before it even got spent on the Zuma friends and family.

The point, I think, is that the African National Congress is fast resembling sets of competing patronage networks – and little else. This is revealed in the violence and vigour in its internal contests for position. There is zero evidence of ideological division; all claims to the contrary, to my mind, are, sadly, often revealed to be false fronts: sheep’s clothing for wolves trying to sneak up on their prey.

Anyway, if it is all too exhausting and depressing to read in the original here is an extract from my morning summary:

  • The ANC nomination process draws to a chaotic and sometimes violent close – with Jacob Zuma achieving something of a Pyrrhic victory
  • Out of this might come one result welcomed by financial markets: the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as Zuma’s deputy and, hence, his (almost) automatic rise to the presidency in 2017
  • The body of the news commentary was a painful forensic tracking of the corrosive flood of money pouring over the ruling family from some worrying sources
  • The Gold Fields’ unbundling was portrayed as a straightforward vote of no-confidence in the country and its leadership – despite the clear and coherent denials by the company itself
  • The death of two much loved and respected South Africans seemed to increase the anxiety about the present and the future

ANC nominations close

City Press counts 2,256 implied votes for Zuma (slightly more than 2,251 he needs to win at Mangaung) emerging out of the nomination process. Table 1 below is what we get as a running total,  including the Leagues. (Note: the votes are ‘implicit’ from the nominations;  where branches-nominated candidates at the provincial conferences we have made the fairly safe assumption that most of these branches would vote for that candidate at the National Conference in December.)

Table 1: Zuma has it – and the 986 outstanding from Limpopo, Western Cape and Northwest is not enough to make a difference

Province/League Zuma Motlanthe
Eastern Cape 392 211
Northern Cape 160 23
Limpopo Conference delayed – violence etc.
Western Cape Conference delayed – disputes etc.
Mpumalanga 427 17
Free State 249 0
Northwest Conference delayed – shots fired etc.
Gauteng 173 238
KwazuluNatal 856 0
Women’s League 45 0
Youth League 45
Veterans league 45 0
  2307 538

So what?

Nothing much. It is going as expected – ever since the Julius Malema campaign was defanged with him (Malema) facing gradually escalating criminal charges related to his alleged ‘tenderpreneurial’ activities it was all over for the Anything But Zumas (ABZs). The interesting dynamics are in the side-lines, with the Zuma camp having backed Cyril Ramaphosa for deputy – partly because their first choice, Kgalema Motlanthe, refused to say he wouldn’t stand against Zuma for president and refused to campaign as part of any slate. Motlanthe’s meticulously principled position may get its just rewards in the fullness of time, but for now he seems to have abandoned the field to those with no qualms  about the tactics they use to secure the ever richer prizes that come with controlling the ANC patronage network.

 

Nkandla, Gupta, Duduzane, arms deal, Maharaj, Mrs Bongi  Ngema-Zuma and Baroda Bank

If anyone was wondering why the ANC battle for power is so intense and bloody, at least one major set of explanations can be found in the incredibly complex (and rich) web of transactions between those at the centre of power and various groups and companies that flood money towards them – presumably because they are such a good investment.

Headlines like: “Zuma’s Home Economics 2 – Guptas ‘bankroll’ wife’s mansion”, “Did arms firm pay Mac’s bill?” ,  “Living in the lap of luxury”, “Bankrolling their way to the top” and “Private deals that demand scrutiny” (Mail and Guardian); “Nkandla: who will take the fall?”, “Joemat-Pettersson flew back for Zuma’s wedding (at R400 000 cost to taxpayer)” (City Press); “Millions stolen from ANC Elders’ (Sunday Independent)  … and just too many more to list here.

So What? The fact that weekly, the tone and intensity of the popular press is becoming more explicitly accusatory of those within the financial web around the Zuma family, and that there has been no significant attempt by those accused of very considerable impropriety to defend themselves has, to my mind, two possible explanations. The first is that the accusations are so overblown, inaccurate and sensationalist that the Zuma family, the presidency, the Gupta family and Mac Maharaj (among a host of implicated others) expect the accusers to choke on their own excess and overstatement. The other possibility is the Zuma camp learned during its effective defence against a myriad corruption, bribery and money laundering allegations that if they can hold out long enough the prosecuting authority will eventually be forced to back off – or be replaced by new prosecutors.

“Gold Fields: who is next?” (Business Times) versus “We will not follow split” (Business Report)

The weeklies were full of anxiety about Gold Fields’ unbundling of some of its local assets – and concern that this might be the start of a wave of similar unbundling and ring-fencing. More importantly, the press was unanimous in rejecting Gold Fields’ denial that this was a vote of no-confidence in South Africa: “…it is one of the strongest votes of no-confidence in domestic investment to date. Its share price jumped 7% after Thursday’s announcement …” (Business Times).

Peter Major (Cadiz Corporate Solutions) is quoted in Business Report as saying “Soon shareholders will tell companies like AngloGold, Ashanti and Harmony Gold that if they don’t unbundle they’ll sell their interests.”

So What? The Sunday Times ran its main editorial on this issue. Saying it is clear why Gold Fields has done what it has done. “The company’s output dropped by 11% in the third quarter as the strikes took their toll. Its managers have been buffeted by unrest, uncertainty and the ever-shifting sands of policy pronouncements. On the horizon is some form of nationalisation of ‘strategic’ resources and more labour unrest as the government fails to lead the country back to the sanity of proper collective bargaining.” We can’t really fault that, although Gold Fields may have had a host of others issues to consider when it made the decision it did.

Changing the guard

The deaths of two respected South Africans who played important roles in the transition away from apartheid and towards democracy continue to raise anxiety about other impending deaths of great South African leaders and about the quality of the incumbent crew. Professor Jakes Gerwel (18 Jan 1946- 28 Nov 2012), Nelson Mandela’s first Director General (among a myriad other achievements) and Arthur Chaskelson (24 Nov 1931-1 Dec 2012) former Chief Justice and architect of much of the South Africa’s judicial system were mourned in all of the weeklies.

So what? Nelson Mandela appointed both of these men to play the crucial roles they did in the young South African democracy in the mid-1990s. It is inevitable that the popular press will hold leaders like these up against the individuals and processes overwhelming the ANC and government as we write this. As Nelson Mandela’s death moves ever closer, the anxiety about the Nkandla improprieties and the violence in the ANC’s internal contests in the lead-up to Mangaung are held up to a (perhaps) mythical standard of the past. The comparisons, fair or not, sentimental or realistic, makes the tone of much of the news and commentary in the weeklies angry, fearful and condemnatory.

Remember kaleidoscopes?

Basically a tube that you held up towards a light and peered through as if it was a telescope?

But unlike kid’s telescopes –  which, like kid’s microscopes, were blurry and disappointing and stupid – the kaleidoscope was a device of astonishing power and beauty.

The point for my six-year-old self who received his first kaleidoscope for a birthday, probably, was the power that little tube put in my hands.

The simple expedient of  twisting one end caused visions of astonishing, luminous, grandeur to pour out the other.

I can still feel that tingling as if I was balanced on a precipice, reaching out to shape a whole universe; causing tectonic shifts in the intrinsic structure of reality … okay, maybe not that last bit … but you get the point.

Such power … and I had absolutely no idea how it worked.

My “device of power and beauty” was a semi-rigid cardboard tube with loose coloured translucent beads or pebbles in the end and two mirrors running lengthways up the inside, duplicating images of the transparent junk that tumbled as the tube was rotated.

My first kaleidoscope wilted in my sweaty, meglomeniacal hands a few hours after I had torn it from its pretty wrapping – and I cut myself on a broken piece of mirror as I desperately pounded it to make it continue producing those wondrous images.

Which brings me to my worries about ANC policy making.

I am slightly more worried today than I was when I wrote the piece below (July 2) just after the conference.

That is partly because I have thought further about some of the issues and partly because the consensus points within the ANC seems to be slippery – and therefore uncertainty is rising.

In short my worry is that the ANC is approaching more vigorous economic intervention with the enthusiasm and growing expectations of my six-year-old self after he first looked through his pretty new cardboard tube.

I think the likelihood of this all ending in tears in increasing exponentially – and the reasons are not very different from those that caused the ruin of my first kaleidoscope and my cut finger.

I will pursue this theme (the threats involved with increasingly desperate state interventions – especially those that worsen the problems they promise to fix) in future posts, but first my initial take on the conference; written just after having read the particularly awful English language Sunday newspapers of July 1:

Much ado – and confusion – about the ANC policy conference

The teams of journalists from the political desks at the Mail & Guardian, the City Press, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Independent could have been covering different conferences given the divergence of their understanding of what went down at Gallagher Estates in the Midrand from Tuesday to Friday last week.

This is my first attempt at a distillation of the main points – partly of the coverage, partly of what was supposedly being covered:

  • Debates about policy and the struggle over who will be elected to the top positions in the ANC at the National Conference in December became blurred, to the detriment of both.
  • The “Second Transition” concept became associated with Jacob Zuma (even though it was penned by his factional enemy, Tony Yengeni) and its rejection by most commissions at the conference was interpreted as a set-back to Zuma’s re-election campaign.
  • The power struggle obscured the fact that there was general consensus that transformation is “stuck” and radical and urgent action to hurry the process along needs to be taken if the ANC is to keep the trust and support of its majority poor and black constituency.
  • The report-back to plenary of the key breakaway commission on mining became the most blurred moment, when Enoch Godongwana presented a summary of the views on the state’s proposed involvement in the mining sector – with pro-Zuma provinces KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Free State tending to go with the SIMS compromise and the other six provinces tending to support the ANC Youth League in a strengthened nationalisation position.
  • When consensus is finally reached, it is likely to include an even stronger role for the state-owned mining company – perhaps giving it the right to take significant stakes in all future mining licenses issued. Absolute taxation levels might be an area of compromise between the state and the mining sector in negotiations about this matter in the final lead-up to Mangaung where policy will be formally decided.
  • There was broad consensus that the state could and should force the sale of farmland for redistribution purposes and that an ombudsman be appointed to determine ‘a fair price’ – to prevent the process being frozen by white farmers holding out for better terms. It is not clear whether this would require a constitutional amendment.
  • There was general consensus that the Media Appeals Tribunal is no longer necessary, that the number of provinces needs to be reduced, that the proposed Traditional Courts Bill is reactionary and against the constitutionally guaranteed rights of women and children in rural areas, and that the youth wage subsidy (as a tax break to employers) had to be sweetened, or replaced, with a grant directly to young job seekers.
  • The push for “organisational renewal” will require a number of changes: a probation period of 6 months for new members, a 10 year membership requirement before such members can be elected to the NEC, a reduction of the size of the NEC from 80 to 60 members and a downgrading of the status of the Leagues (women, veterans and youth) so they more directly serve the interests of the mother body.

So if this was a soccer tournament, what is the score?

The City Press led with “Tide Turns Against Zuma”, but frankly I think this is more about that newspaper’s preferences than anything else. The ideological disputes in the ANC are complicated but broadly follow an Africanist/nationalist group versus a SACP/Cosatu/anti-nationalist group. Neither Jacob Zuma nor Kgalema Motlanthe are clearly in either camp (but Zuma tends towards the former and Motlanthe towards the latter). Only one potential challenger, Tokyo Sexwale, is firmly in one group (the nationalists, which is the ideological home of the ANC Youth League) and he has more chance of passing through the eye of a needle than winning this competition.

Only Motlanthe could seriously challenge Zuma in a succession race and despite all the rumours and leaks it is by no means clear whether he has any intention of running – or, if he did, whether he would have a significantly different policy agenda than that being pursued by Zuma and his backers.

In a Woolworths queue in the Gardens Centre yesterday evening I idly picked up the Cape Argus.

It’s the only time I actually read anything in that newspaper.

I like to casually glance at its headlines during my journey from the beginning of the endless tunnel of sweats sweets (damn morning rush) and magazines. I then stash it amongst the heap of chocolate boats stuffed with Smarties right before the tills.

I commit two very mild acts of corporate activism when I do this.

I admonish The Argus for plastering Cape Town with interesting and clever billboards that inevitably refer to puerile and ridiculously provincial – and badly written – stories.

And I wrist-slap Woolworths for having made me carry my then small children through that tunnel after a long day of shopping – an experience that  still makes me shudder.

Okay, these are not very militant acts; more mild criticism of two old and venerable institutions that I feel great affection for but believe would benefit from the occasional slap.

Anyway, the cover story on The Argus shocked me rigid – such that I barely noticed the passing array of Magnum Ice-creams and left-over chocolate father Christmases calling out to me and the small squalling children being pushed by their exhausted mothers through Infanticide Row.

Government is proposing to fine South Africans who give unsanctioned weather and pollution warnings –  ten years in jail or a R10 million fine (catch the full text of the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill here.)

I got it immediately.

You can’t have amateur forecasters spreading panic and despair because they had seen fluctuations in their crystals and spirit catchers … or because choppy surf with a curling left-break at Glen Beach means Durbs is gonna be hit by cyclones, dude … or whatever.

But as I was passing the tubs of sour worms it dawned on me that all forecasting should be controlled. You can’t have every blogger and his parrot predicting the unfolding sovereign debt crises in Europe, the US presidential elections, the possibility of a US/Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, whether Germany and France will eventually let Greece sink without a trace, whether the Euro will be history this time next year …. the list is endless.

The pronouncements of economists and political analysts and talking heads of all kinds should come with health warnings. Who’s to say they know anything more than anyone else about anything?

But they get asked by television and radio stations and newspapers and they set up blogs …

Oops …

I dawned on me, but only after a surprisingly long time; somewhere between the sacks of chewy white milky cars and deep piles of You Magazines.

I am a forecaster. I have been quite specific about what I think will happen in the ANC’s debate about mine nationalisation. I have been fairly specific about succession issues in the ANC – both at Polokwane (where I was mostly wrong) and Mangaung (where I will be mostly right) ….

Excuse me? Did you really just say what I think you said?

No. No but seriously – the South African Weather Bureau has scientists with balloons and mysterious beeping machines in places like the Antarctic and Gough Island and a billion information feeds and huge computer models that attempt to get closer and closer to emulating the storm systems driving across from south of South America … and they still fail because they forgot about the butterfly flapping its mysterious wings in Peru.

By the time I punitively stashed The Argus amongst the chocolate tugs stuffed with brightly coloured beads just before the serene Woolworths teller lady I was having a minor existential crisis.

Admittedly not a completely new one – once you have been fairly sure that the ANC would not slip into the hands of the Nkandla Crew at Polokwane you are forever chastened and humbled by the knowledge that the future really is an ever unfolding mystery.

It’s tempting to focus on the ANC as if its history and prospects are a proxy for the history and prospects of the country as a whole.

The party’s centenary celebrations this week will strengthen the sense that this is indeed the case.

The last hundred years of South African history has been about the formal subjugation of the black inhabitants of the country by European colonial powers and settler groups; the fight for national liberation and self-determination; the victory and then seventeen years of the complex process of democratic rule.

Running like a spine through that body of history is the African National Congress –  which not without some legitimacy claims to be the organised expression of black people’s struggle to be free of colonial and then apartheid oppression and exclusion.

Then in the same way that the back bone’s connected to the … neck bone it follows naturally that post-1994, given the ANC’s overwhelming dominance at the polls, the party can legitimately be seen as the ongoing expression of black South African’s attempts to govern themselves and use the state to redress the inequalities and distortions caused by that apartheid and colonial past.

So this week the ANC celebrates its 100th anniversary, kicking off with a centenary golf day (for only the luckiest of revellers) and including gala dinners, interdenominational church services and culminating in a public rally in Bloemfontein (Mangaung) on Sunday January 8.

The sense that the ANC is a proxy for the country itself is strengthened by the fact that this year will culminate in and ANC national conference electing a leadership that will, almost automatically, become the leadership of government after the general elections in 2014 – again, given the ANC’s electoral dominance.

Additionally an ANC policy conference in July will pronounce upon a range of  matters concerning the role of the state in the economy and it promises to make policy on (amongst other matters) the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land – with or without compensation.

But hang on a moment …

One of the key tasks of political parties in their struggle to become or remain the party of government is to present their agenda as identical to the national agenda, their leadership as automatically the national leadership and their interests identical to the national interest.

The ANC can legitimately point to how central it is to South Africa’s political and cultural life, but as we wilter this week under the the searing overstatement of that message it is useful to bring a few proviso’s to the front of mind.

We are a country with a small, open economy nestled in the most depressed region of a world overwhelmingly interconnected and subject to monumental forces that grind their way irresistibly through the Ozymandian vanities of governments significantly more powerful than ours.

The more we learn about the world and the history of human societies the more apparent it is that we have been hopelessly overoptimistic about our ability to understand let alone predict how the complex systems of our economies, national entities, ecological systems and cities function, evolve, collapse and change.

I am sure that this week newspapers will be full of huffy assertions that the ANC does not represent “the nation” and therefore treating its centenary as if it was a sacred ritual akin to Fourth of July in the United States (which celebrates independence from Great Britain in 1776) is a travesty.

Quite right too. The ANC has diverted significant national resources to traditional US style pork belly politics  but has also made itself guilty of more overt Angolan style looting. All that combines to makes its claim to represent the “national interest” an insulting insinuation about “the nation”.

Also new political forces are emerging and growing – most obviously Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance – that will further erode such ANC claims in future – as will the shifting ethnic bases of parties and groups that contest in the political arena of South Africa.

However, these were not the points I wanted to make – and I am sure they are going to be done to death in the next few days.

My point is that sovereignty itself – and certainly who the ANC elects as leaders and what the party decides vis-a-vis nationalisation of mines and expropriation of land without compensation – will have much less force and effect in determining South Africa’s political and economic future that we might imagine.

Economic policy, laws governing ownership and general “good behaviour” around fiscal and monetary policy are rigidly constrained both by the discipline of global capital markets and by a myriad bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries and blocks of countries.

As I said to clients earlier this week (concerning the ANC centenary):

“Obviously we must continue to watch the ANC as carefully as always in 2012 – but this small open country and economy will continue to be tossed on the currents of the global economy and the various geopolitical, technological, cultural and environmental forces that shape the world. We might miss a trick or two if we lull ourselves into believing the myth that the ANC is a kind of metaphor for the country as a whole.

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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