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Here are some bits and pieces I highlighted for investors over the last few weeks. Thanks as always to BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities for allowing me to republish these snippets here … it is also just a touch more information that most people require, and therefore

I write these under considerable time pressure  – deadline 06h30 0n Monday mornings. They can sometimes be a bit scrappy, but mostly (although with exceptions) still relevant a few weeks later. Where I say ‘yesterday’ or ‘today’ (or whatever) I mean: relative to the date in the highlighted headline above each section. The newest is on the top – stretching all the way back to the ancient history of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the US-Africa summit in Washington.

 

01/09/2014

(I have a worrying feeling that because I read the latest Lee Childs Jack Reacher thriller “Personal” over the preceding weekend there might be a little too much

spy vs spy

 

in this note. But it’s too late to worry about that now.)

 

Lesotho, South Africa … and the Guptas

Lesotho Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane, was assisted by South African special forces soldiers to flee to South Africa in the face of a military backed ‘coup’ on early Saturday morning. The ‘coup’ (or ‘coup attempt’ – both terms are used extensively in the coverage) was allegedly orchestrated by Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing.

The key features of the event were the co-ordinated encircling of police barracks by the military, the disarming of the police and the seizing of the national broadcaster in the country’s capital Maseru on Saturday. (Sunday Times, Voice of America, City Press, Sunday Independent – 31/08/2014).

The Sunday Times story suggests the ‘coup’ was sparked by Friday’s firing of army chief Lieutenant-General Kennedy Kamoli by Lesotho’s King Letsie. The City Press reports that South African troops are on standby for further interventions.

Lesotho army spokesman Major Ntele Ntoi has denied there was a coup and says the army’s actions were purely to disarm police “who had been preparing to provide weapons to political parties” – Sunday Times.

Thabane, in a phone interview with Voice of America, said he was not going back until his safety was secured, that there was a situation of “total indiscipline” in the army and that soldiers were “running around the streets, threatening people” and “quite openly stating that they want my neck” – see here for VOA coverage.

So what?

This is almost too bizarre to type out, but here goes: a significant portion of the coverage of the event refers to the recent controversy surrounding the issuing by Thabane of diplomatic passports to the Gupta brothers (who we know better as key Zuma and ANC backers and funders, see Mail and Guardian coverage “The Grim Tales of the Brothers Gupta” for background).

At the time of the appointment Thobane said “(t)hese people (the Guptas) are good friends of the ANC and we have good relations with the ANC … I was introduced to them by ANC president [Jacob Zuma] and other ANC officials… I then appointed them to help scout for investment in my country. They have influence in a number of countries that can help Lesotho” – see here for that story.

In highly interpenetrated and interdependent systems of patronage and corruption, unsuccessful attempts to defend one part of the system can unravel the whole system and cause destabilisation throughout the linked networks.

 

Jacob Zuma’s Russian rest

Jacob Zuma visited Russia this week for six days. He had a light schedule and was, unusually, only accompanied by State Security Minister David Mahlabo and Deputy International Relations Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo. There has been widespread but largely fruitless speculation about what the President was doing in Russia. (See City Press’s “Jacob Zuma’s mysterious mission to Russia” and former leader of the opposition DA Tony Leon in the Sunday Times in an opinion piece titled “How much more abuse can the constitution take from Zuma?” … unfortunately can’t find a link to that.)

So what?

The crisis faced by Russian President Putin is, by all accounts serious and urgent – and it might seem unlikely that he would have made time for a casual tête-à-tête with Jacob Zuma. Thus we can assume that Putin was in part motivated by wanting to demonstrate he still has friends in an increasingly chilly world. Also there is the sourcinig of agricultural products to fill the gaps left by European and US sanctions against Russia over Ukraine – a job South Africa could be well placed to do.

However Jacob Zuma appeared less to be representing South Africa and more on a personal visit – with several reports, including from government, that he would use the opportunity to rest.

It is difficult to escape the perception of two embattled leaders involved in a perhaps complicated exchange and attempting to secure their present and future:

  • there is the upcoming ZAR850bn nuclear build programme that probably depends on Jacob Zuma staying at the helm in South Africa – Russia reportedly hopes to be central to that programme.
  • Jacob Zuma’s key spy chiefs all reportedly resigned when he (Zuma) refused to allow them to investigate the Gupta brothers as a serious threat to national security (see back story on that here).
  • Jacob Zuma faces unprecedented blowback at home, including the possibility of a public discussion around the original fraud, corruption and racketeering charges against him (see here) now that the famous Spy Tapes are to be handed to the Democratic Alliance in the official opposition’s attempts to have the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision not to charge Zuma reviewed.
  • Also in yesterday’s Sunday Times was an important ‘leaked’ story that South Africa had sent a large group of intelligence officers to be trained in Russia and that “the Russians have recruited at least four of our people, which means we are sitting with double agents” – according to an unnamed source “with inside knowledge of the programme” – Sunday Times 31/08/2014.
Twinkle Toes (Pic from GCIS)

Jacob’s Ladder (geddit?) and check out the body languege (Pic from GCIS)

It is not inconceivable or unreasonable to consider the possibility that Jacob Zuma is asking for intelligence and security coverage and offering in return nuclear contracts and public expressions of support. It’s not a perfect theory, but some kind of explanation is required.

 

Ruling alliance divides itself neatly on defending or attacking the public protector – is Jacob Zuma becoming a cost the ANC cannot bear much longer?

Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu general secretary, broke ranks with the ANC on Saturday arguing that the Public Protector’s recommendations on resolving the Nkandla dispute (in which over ZAR200 million of public money was spent irregularly on Jacob Zuma’s private house) should be implemented immediately … “all of them, without exception.” Vavi went on to say that criticism of Madonsela (see here for our coverage of that) were “absolutely disgusting, to say the least”– Vavi in the Sunday Times 31/08/2014.

So what?

While the main structures of the ANC and its government attempt to close ranks around Jacob Zuma as the multiple scandals unfold and the threats against him grow, the hegemony is crumbling and the edges.

The ANC still has a comfortable electoral majority although as we have pointed out on many occasions, at least part of the electoral declines the ruling party experienced in the May, especially in the sophisticated metropolitan areas of the economic heartland of Gauteng, have to do with perception of corruption and mismanagement at the top. It is difficult not to concur with the implicit meaning of the headline of Barney Mthombothi’s column in the Sunday Times yesterday which reads: “ANC courts its own destruction”.

We must consider that the cost of defending Zuma’s multiple infractions is starting to tell on the ANC (as it is telling on the party’s alliance with Cosatu).

I would reason that the ANC’s brand value is being seriously impacted by Jacob Zuma’s presidency and that, almost as a natural law, such a threat to value will call into being an attempt to defend the value by those who have the most to lose (other leaders and members of the ANC)

It’s the future, so I am guessing, but I think it is an even chance that Jacob Zuma will be moved into retirement within the next two years and that the official reasons will be related to his health.

(This added as I post these comments here: the above several paragraphs might be wishful thinking. If you want to see a well reasoned opinion that takes the opposite view, see the excellent Ranjeni Munusami at Daily Maverick arguing that Zuma will see out his second term. I suspect that I just can’t live in a world where the thugs get away with it for ever, so I ‘predict’ better outcomes, when in what I am actually doing is hoping, not predicting. Unprofessional, I know … but I appear to be unable to help myself.)

 

Ebola spreads to Senegal – World Health Organisation warns of ‘rapid hike’ in infections

The Ebola (haemorrhagic fever) epidemic ‘sweeping’ West Africa has killed approximately 1500 people and the first cases have been confirmed in Senegal, having up until now being confined in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.

So what?

Ebola was first identified in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976 and outbreaks have been common in Central and Western Africa since that time. The disease is isolated and confined to countries with weak public health systems and high levels of poverty. In all the news coverage, the headlines tend to be more alarming than the content of the stories. There are various experimental drugs in trial (including one made jointly by GlaxoSmithKline and the US government which has achieved high levels of success) – Sunday Independent – 31/08/2014.

 

25/08/2014

Pay Back the Money … or we’ll huff and we’ll puff

Julius Malema and his cohorts in the National Assembly didn’t quite blow the House down on Thursday last week during President’s Question Time.

JULIUS

They disrupted parliament by demanding that Jacob Zuma pay back a portion of the costs of upgrades to his Nkandla home, as specified by the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Their chanted refusal to accept the stock brushoff from Zuma and the poor management of the showdown by Baleka Mbete, Parliamentary Speaker (and ANC National Chairperson), is the leading edge of yet another storm that concerns Jacob Zuma’s integrity – and the ability of the constitutional mechanisms to hold him to account. (Here for a useful and interesting take on festivities.)

 

But political theatre becomes something more serious as the Public Protector and the ANC and its allies go head-to-head on the issue

Several Sunday papers reported yesterday ( 24/08/2014) that the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has sent a letter to Jacob Zuma criticising several aspects of his response to her Secure in Comfort report and specifically arguing that he (Zuma)  did not have the constitutional right to set aside or review her findings or to allow Police Minister Thathi Nhleko to do so (in essence Zuma has asked Nhleko to determine what his – Zuma’s – financial obligations are with regard to the Nkandla security upgrades).

According to constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos Madonsela is well within her rights. “This is not legally controversial,” he says, quoted in today’s Business Day (25/08/2014). “The president is either receiving appallingly bad legal advice or he is wilfully abusing his power and thwarting the law to protect himself in order to unlawfully benefit financially from the state.”

Both the ANC and the SACP came out late yesterday afternoon strongly critical of Madonsela, arguing that she had overreached herself, especially as a parliamentary committee was currently dealing with the matter.

So what?

The clash in parliament on Thursday made a significant media impact and it seemed for a moment that the damage being done the ANC by the party endlessly having to defend its wayward leader could conceivably lead to some profound political realignment.

But that feeling was brief.

The EFF has 25 MPs in the National Assembly, to the ANC’s 249 and the DA’s 89.  The chances are, the ANC in parliament will work out a set of rules that essentially disciplines the EFF (already MPs may be suspended for not more than 30 days and have their salary docked for the same period).

Jacob Zuma is a master at diverting crises like this into long (perhaps endless) processes that have a degree (or at least a semblance) of legitimacy and constitutionality. And there is a parliamentary process dealing with Nkandla underway and whether this process is an attempt to ‘set aside or review’ the Public Protector’s findings could be the subject of years’ of constitutional debate, such that many of the players will be long gone by the time it is resolved.

There is considerable stability in a system so tightly bound within itself through links of patronage and shared loyalties – although I suspect that when such a system eventually unwinds, it unwinds quickly and perhaps catastrophically.

Jacob Zuma is off for a week in Russia – to work and to rest – and the game will go on. “The visit will further strengthen the excellent bilateral relations with a view to consolidating and opening new avenues towards job creation, skills development, exchange and transfer of technology and trade and investment,” said the Department of International Relations yesterday.

There may be some future moment when the ANC could face electoral losses because of public perceptions about corruption of its leaders, but that day is still far enough ahead to not impact (in any meaningful way) upon behaviour in the present.

 

Julius Malema … how did he ‘Pay Back the Money’?

Julius Malema appears in court today to face questions about where he got the money to pay his R18 million tax bill. According to Rapport newspaper (24/08/2014) the South African Revenue Service (Sars), would ask for a two-month extension of Malema’s provisional sequestration to determine where he got the money to repay his tax debt each month. The newspaper reports that “impeccable sources” allege that “cigarette smuggler Andriano Mazzotti was helping to pay his tax debt” – as re-reported at the Independent Online 25/08/2014 – see here. (I don’t know the Afrikaans language Rapport newspaper well – it is part of Naspers’s Media24 stable – treat the claim with maximum caution).

So what?

While Julius Malema’s insistence that Jacob Zuma account to parliament is welcome, we should be careful to not lose our sense of discernment. Julius Malema himself has faced a long list of accusations similar to those he is making against the ANC and Jacob Zuma.

 

Land and wage reform – unintended consequences

Two interesting articles in the Sunday papers hint at some of the negative unintended consequences of attempts to protect the interests of the marginalised and vulnerable workers on South African farms.

Firstly, the Sunday Times (24/08/2014) has a colour piece titled “Good intentions pave the road to rural hell” in which the 1997 Extension of Security of Tenure Act is assessed as having “led to as many as a million farmworkers being evicted countrywide”.

Secondly, the Sunday Independent (24/08/2014) records an interesting discussion about the impact of ‘minimum wage’ determinations on employment. The article shares different views on the matter, but concludes that in SA agriculture “the impact was devastating: Employment fell from 819 048 jobs in 2002, just before the law came into effect, to 623 750 jobs in 2003 and continued to decline to 555 549 jobs in 2007 – a net loss of almost a third in five years.”

So what?

The ANC has signalled an urgent desire to ‘get serious’ about land reform.  As we have mentioned previously ‘the land question’ seems to suggest to the ANC an answer to a host of social needs: employment, housing, food security, and black economic empowerment, to name only the most obvious. Racially unequal land ownership patterns (it is generally quoted that SA had 87% of land in white hands at the 1994 transition and that less than 8% has been redistributed since – see here) are also a driver of political dissatisfaction, perhaps helping feed the growth of the EFF and other ‘radical’ forces emerging in the society.

For now government is preparing a host of new legislation and regulation all the while signalling to commercial agriculture that it wants to be met half-way. There will probably be unintended consequences of government’s land reform and rural development programme (including negative impacts) but the lessons from the banking sector (for example with regard to the formulation of the National Credit Act) is that it is always a better idea for the private sector to go out and engage with government and attempt to shape legislation than it is to wait and deal with the future when it is a fait accompli.

 

21/08/2014

Mining, oil and gas sectors: legislative and regulatory drift and a scary audit

Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi didn’t calm nerves last week during his address to the third annual Mining Lekgotla. The minister is overseeing two significant regulatory processes causing anxiety in these sectors, namely a major audit of mining companies’ compliance with the 10 year targets of the Mining Charter and the signing into law of a bill amending the Mineral and Petroleum Development Act of 2002 (which the private sector thought it had essentially cautiously agreed to in exchange for it – the private sector – being consulted in detail about the regulations that would arise from the legislation).

With regard to the audit, Minister Ramathlodi said: “(w)hile the review process on the implementation of the Mining Charter is still under way, initial results suggest that whatever compliance we may have achieved, much more work still needs to be done” – Business Day -14/08/2014

With regard to the legislation the Minister said he had not been informed by the Presidency whether or when the bill would be signed into law. “There are legal teams that look at any legislation coming before the president and they advise him. When they do so we’ll act on that advice” – Business Day ibid.  Download Minister Ramatlhodi’s full address at the DMR website here.

So what?

Firstly, the audit obliges the mining companies to meet various ‘transformation’ obligations and targets by 2014 e.g., 26% of the company must be owned, through “full shareholder rights”,  by HDSA (Historically Disadvantaged South Africans) by the end of this year – as a precondition for the retention of the mining right. Go to www.dmr.gov.za to see the “Mining Charter” and the “Scorecard for the Broad-Based Socio-economic Empowerment Charter for the South African Mining Industry” to get a full view.

2014 is the year in which several definite obligations must be met by the mining companies and there is a degree of nervousness by investors and management as to how strict the audit will be, how much leeway the ministry will give and how severe the consequences of failure will be.

Purely the administrative aspects of the reporting process are enough to be a serious burden for smaller mining companies, according to Nic Dinham, Head of Resources at BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities

The apparent prevarication in signing the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act Amendment Bill, after months of careful negotiations between the department and the mining companies, has caused the industry to worry that deals struck and compromises made might be up for renegotiation. There was a general expectation that the constitutionality of the amendments would need to be tested and examined (especially government’s 20% proposed free-carry interest in all new exploration and production rights in the oil and gas sector).  It appears to us that the delays are adding to a more generalised sense of uncertainty about the growing regulatory burden and costs associated with continuing to mine in South Africa.

 

Amcu set to go on the offensive at Num’s last toeholds in the Platinum sector – non-cyclical risk factors in the SA labour environment escalate

Nic Dinham (BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities Head of Resources referred to in a previous section) said yesterday that in the platinum operations where Amcu is not (yet) the major union (at several mines, but including those operations at Aquarius Platinum and Northam Platinum) there were significant indications that Amcu was close to recognition thresholds (specific to each company) and that it was reasonable to expect increased labour unrest at the particular operations and companies where Num was clinging to a majority.

“During the recent result presentations, several companies reported that operations previously dominated by Num are showing signs of losing ground to Amcu, especially in the Rustenburg areas”, said Dinham.

“This is the case at Aquarius Platinum as well as at Northam where Amcu membership has risen to 30% and 15% respectively, just short of both companies’ recognition levels. Clearly, this could be the harbinger of more labour storms to come. At the same time, only small numbers of workers in the existing Amcu fortresses switched to NUM after the end of the strike. So, despite all the rational arguments about the financial impact of the strike on labour, Amcu appear to have won the propaganda war with the mining industry” – Nic Dinham, 20/08/2014.

So what?

There are a number of important implications, not least of which is the confirmation (and deepening) of the implicit defection of mineworkers in the Platinum sector from a key ANC aligned union (Num) and the continued disintegration of previously powerful trade union federation and ANC ally, Cosatu.

In some ways this frees the ANC (and government) to decide on economic policy without having to kowtow to Cosatu, but it will also raise anxieties in the ruling party about the narrowing of its base – and a diminishment of its hegemony and moral authority.

None of that is necessarily a bad thing. It is our opinion that our legislative and regulatory environment has tended to suffer from a lack of clarity and focus as a result of the ANC attempting to keep a number of different legacy constituencies (and sectional interests) happy and on-board.

However, it is also worth noting that our general expectation of a deteriorating labour environment is strengthened by Dinham’s concerns about labour unrest driven by further contestation between Amcu and Num. This, together with a coming trial of strength in all (or most) Cosatu unions that will accompany the impending Numsa split out of Cosatu will be a strong, non-cyclical, driver of labour unrest for the next 18 months. Jeff Schultz (BNP Paribas Cadiz Economist) and I recently suggested that these strands driving labour unrest, along with what we expect will be a major confrontation that will accompany the expiry of the current 3-year public sector wage agreement in March 2015, will keep labour risks at elevated levels in the South African investment environment for at least another 18 months.

 

Cyril Ramaphosa – a hard week down at the Commission

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa last week faced an avalanche of criticism and heckling at the Farlam Commission (which is investigating the killing of 44 people at Marikana on and before August 16 2012 in the context of the protracted strike at Lonmin mines in the Rustenburg area at that time).

Cyril Ramaphosa was called to the commission to explain his actions in the lead-up to the Marikana killings. Ramaphosa was on the Lonmin board at the time and in an email to Lonmin managers he said: “(t)he terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. In line with this characterisation there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.” In another email he urged then police minister Nathi Mthethwa to “take appropriate steps”. In both these cases I have added the emphasis.

At the Farlam Commission hecklers shouted “Blood on your hands” (City Press 11/08/2014) during Ramaphosa’s cross-examination. Hecklers wore T-shirts with several different slogans criticising Ramaphosa’s wealth, for example one showed a buffalo in reference to the fact that Ramaphosa bid – unsuccessfully as it turned out – R19.5 million for a buffalo cow and her calf at a wildlife auction a month after the Marikana killings in 2012.

So what?

There is a high level of speculation as to whether Cyril Ramaphosa will succeed Jacob Zuma as president (when the current presidential term expires in 2019 or at some earlier date due to Jacob Zuma’s purported ill health.) There appears to me to be a widespread assumption in the financial markets that Cyril Ramaphosa, as an experienced businessman and an experienced negotiator and conciliator who was central to easing the transition at Codesa 1 and 2 in the early 90s, would be more sensitive to the needs of the private sector, more compliant with global capital markets and, generally, run a cleaner and more efficient ship.

Implicit in that list of attributes is the person who Ramaphosa would be cleaner than, more conciliatory than, more understanding of private sector needs than, is Jacob Zuma. It is impossible to know either that Ramaphosa really has such attributes relative to Zuma or that it is really or primarily those attributes that make Ramaphosa a more attractive choice than Zuma for the financial markets … or, in fact, whether the ‘financial markets’ really makes these kinds of distinctions.

It is our impression that Jacob Zuma’s rise to power and performance as president has been accompanied (and in several cases directly caused) increased political risks associated with investing in the country. Almost any successor would probably be welcomed by the markets. However we would be cautious about seeing Ramaphosa as the knight in shining armour. He is badly damaged by his link to the Marikana killings (unfair as that may be) and he has not yet established a significant constituency within the ANC. The fact that he is a rich man can play both ways; it gives him resources to build his case but it makes him vulnerable to accusations of conspicuous consumption and being out of touch with common people. It is also inescapably true that his wealth has been accumulated more as a result of ‘empowerment deals’, the accumulation of large slices of equity, rather than the involvement in any of the underlying activities (mining, banking, health care etc). t

More than anything we must keep front of mind that much ANC policy and politics is determined in the forums of the party – long in advance of such policies and politics becoming law and regulation. The particular character of leaders makes a difference, but in the South African case, not as big a difference as it might elsewhere.

 

The noise around land reform is (partly) bluster designed to get commercial agriculture to act voluntarily

Urging Commercial farmers to take voluntary steps ‘advancing the transformation project in the agriculture sector’, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said “change that is imposed is more painful” – Business Day 14/08/2014.  Mantashe told attendees at a conference on land reform and food production that land reform was necessary if South Africa was to deal with the “ugly past of racial land dispossession of black people” and that farmers must never allow themselves “to be victims of change” – Business Day ibid.

So what?

We previously described in some detail some of the legislative initiatives around land reform and one of the points we made about assessing the risks associated with the land reform initiative is reinforced by Gwede Mantashe’s choice of words.

The ANC feels keenly its failure to successfully complete a significant process of land reform and redress – and is, in part, being punished for that failure by the (still slight) electoral traction achieved by the ostensibly more radical Economic Freedom Fighters on their debut in the general election on May 7 2014.

However, the ANC feels, at least as keenly, the threats to investment that would result if property rights were ever threatened by an unruly and uncertain ‘land reform’ process à la Zimbabwe.

Commercial farming does not have the handy (from the ANC’s point of view) equivalent to the mining sector’s mineral rights to attach to a number of ‘transformation’ objectives. The ANC would be extremely cautious about bluntly attaching a ‘licence to farm’ (or in fact a ‘licence to operate any business’) directly to ‘transformation objectives’. There is a line beyond which such rights and obligations could constitute a nationalisation in fact and might be both unconstitutional and, certainly, a serious barrier to future investment.

Thus the ANC, in the form of its secretary general, is snapping at the heels of domestic commercial agriculture, attempting to herd it towards the ‘transformation’ objective, putting the argument that this is the national good, but hinting that a bite on the ankle could be the laggard’s reward. It is an open question as to whether farmers would respond to such incentives with greater compliance or with resistance, both covert and overt. However, for now, we think the ANC’s (and therefore government’s) land reform bark is worse than its bite.

 

Bits and pieces

  • Jacob Zuma put out a report last week which he and his spokespeople claim is a satisfactory response to the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s, “Secure in Comfort” report into the upgrades to the President’s private Nkandla residence in which she finds several faults with the President’s actions and inactions. The delay, over many months, of a response from Jacob Zuma to Thuli Madonsela was ostensibly as a result of him (Zuma) awaiting a report from the Special Investigating Unit. However, on Friday a spokesperson for the Public Protector said Zuma’s report was not a response, adequate or otherwise, to Secure in Comfort. ““That means a document that comments on the public protector’s report or indicates action taken or to be taken to implement remedial action in compliance with section 3(5) of the Executive Members Ethics Act must still be submitted to Parliament by the president” – my emphasis added.
  • Jacob Zuma’s team is preparing to hang expense overruns and incorrect categorisation of some items as ‘security related’ on Jacob Zuma’s architect, Minenhle Makhanya. The Mail and Guardian reports that the “special Investigating Unit has lodged a R155-million claim against Makhanya” – 15/08/2014.
  • And in other news Bruce Koloane, the former chief of state protocol who was shouldered with the blame for the landing of a large private wedding party at a secure military base by the close Zuma allies and business partners the Gupta brothers and family last year, was nominated by Jacob Zuma as Ambassador to The Hague. In August last year, Koloane pleaded guilty to all charges relating to his involvement in authorising the controversial landing of the jet.
  • It’s not (just) idle mischief putting these bullets together. If the President’s own actions around his accumulation of personal assets and special favours to his friends can impact on the formal judicial, disciplinary and constitutional oversight functions, if his party can go to extreme lengths to protect him from the consequences of his actions in accumulating personal wealth and influence, it is unlikely that private companies will be trustful of, or willingly and enthusiastically compliant with, the ‘transformation’ agenda emerging from the state, government and party he leads. Ultimately the private sector needs to believe that the value of its various social obligations ends up benefiting those who need the assistance the most. This is the price the private sector seems prepared to pay for stability and growth. Any sense that the public purse is hijacked or that equity transfers and affirmative action obligations have become a kind of asset that can be hoarded and dispensed as patronage by the politically powerful will cause the ‘transformation’ objective – and much else – to fail.

 

11/08/2014

‘Cabinet leaning to break-up Eskom’ – Business Day 05/08/2014 … I would be extremely surprised

Business Day reported that the idea of breaking up Eskom and privatising some of its power stations “is starting to gain traction in government circles, as a team of cabinet ministers and government officials seeks ways to alleviate the company’s financial crisis and restructure its business” – Business Day 05/08/2014.

The governing ANC’s alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) vowed the next day to fight any such privatisation “to the bitter end” arguing that electricity price inflation, driven by the ‘commercialisation’ of the utility in the first place, was “one of the key constraints” on economic growth and an important reason South Africa “is not creating decent jobs the country so desperately needs” (catch the full August 6 Cosatu statement here.)

On the same day Lynne Brown, the Minister of Public Enterprises, said “I want to indicate that there is a portfolio of options for the interministerial task team to consider. To my knowledge Cabinet has not discussed the matter of privatisation and there is no need to unnecessarily raise temperatures around this matter” – City Press Online, 06/08/2014. The ‘task team’ to which she refers was described (in the same story) as “representing energy, public enterprises and the treasury” and further, that the findings of the team had not yet been made public.

So what?

This is, supposedly, a defining issue for the ruling faction of the ANC and its allies in Cosatu and the SACP. Much of the motivation for backing Jacob Zuma (and ousting Thabo Mbeki) was – apparently – that Mbeki’s policies were a species of Thatcherism (especially the plan to privatise the major state utilities). The alliance backing Jacob Zuma defined its historical mission as the combating of this “1996 class project”, a catch-all phrase for neoliberalism, fiscal rectitude and the ‘Washington Consensus’.

It might well be true that the breaking up and privatisation of Eskom is an urgent necessity – or even a precondition for recovery from our dire economic state – but it is a political nonstarter, requiring the complete breakup of the alliance of groups that hold power, and is therefore vanishingly unlikely to happen, even symbolically.

 

National Prosecuting Authority in free fall and intelligence services are extensively deployed on behalf of senior politicians and criminals – and the storm is beginning to batter against the South African Revenue Service – this is as serious and urgent as it is confusing and complicated

There is an on-going meltdown at the heart of the criminal justice system which is increasing risks in doing business with, or in, the areas administered by the South African state.

Here are only a few of the most recent visible features of the (complex and confusing) disintegration:

  • Jacob Zuma has asked the National Director of Public Prosecutions Mxolisi Nxasana to give reasons why he should not be suspended. The apparent motivation is that Nxasana has problems associated with his security clearance (owing to his brushes with the law, including a murder charge, when he was a younger man). However, almost all the coverage and analysis suggests that the ‘real reason’ is Nxasana has pursued investigations of key Zuma allies in the NPA and Crime Intelligence Division of the South African Police Service and his (Nxasana’s) actions threaten to lead, eventually, to fraud and corruption charges being reinstated against Jacob Zuma.
  • Award winning journalist Mzilikazi wa Africa published his memoir last week which includes a detailed account of how Jacob Zuma and his allies vigorously undermined the credibility of the first National Director of Public Persecutions Bulelani Ngcuka by spreading the false information that he (Ngcuka) was an apartheid spy.(See an interesting examination of this thread from Business Day 07/08/2014 here.) In here is the source code of much of the chaos in the prosecuting authority and intelligence service: Bulelani Ngcuka led the original investigation into the allegations of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering against the then Deputy President Zuma, concluding that there was “prima facie” evidence that Zuma was guilty, but not enough to win in court – a statement to which Zuma, not unreasonably, strongly objected.
  •  “Sex, SARS and rogue spies” announced the front page headline in City Press yesterday (10/08/2014). The accompanying stories allege that senior SARS official, Johan van Loggenberg, has been the subject of a ‘honey trap’ operation by the State Security Agency “Special Operations Unit”. The story is byzantine, but the important bit is the detailed allegation that the secret spy unit operating against van Loggenberg has also been used to discredit and smear a ‘anti-Zuma’ camp in the NPA and in Crime Intelligence. Bizarrely, the Special Operations Unit supposedly includes drug dealer Glen Agliotti.  (Read some of this story here and here … if you have the time or the patience.)

So what?

This level of political and criminal infiltration into key state institutions and functions, especially of the security services, the prosecuting authority and the South African Revenue Service raises real questions about judicial, regulatory and legislative certainty in the operating and investment environment. Uncertainty about the application of law, the integrity of the criminal justice system and the functioning of the revenue service must all be considered by anyone wanting to invest in South Africa or in assets regulated by South African institutions of state and law. Frankly, given the deep connections between the instability in these key sectors of the South Africa state and the rise to power of Jacob Zuma I am pessimistic that we have the capacity to fix this problem while the current administration is still in power.

The National Prosecuting Authority has appointed highly respected retired Constitutional Court judge Zak Yacoob to head an inquiry, or ‘fact finding mission’ into its dysfunctional state. Unfortunately Yacoob almost immediately (on Thursday last week while speaking at a workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand) happened to mention that he would have “set aside” the judgement that found Jacob Zuma not guilty of rape in 2006, because he would have put less emphasis on the alleged victim’s sexual history – see here. An outraged African National Congress said it learned of Yacoob’s comments “with shock and dismay” saying they “opened old wounds” and were “an attack on  principles of our jurisprudence and the judiciary.” Yacoob attempted to clarify his comments here but either way he is no longer likely to be the instrument that cleans up the National Prosecuting Authority.

 

 

Cyril Ramaphosa at the Marikana Commission today as succession debate begins

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will have to explain today at the Marikana Commission what he meant when emailed other senior Lonmin managers just before the August 12 2012 killing of 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana and said: “(t)he terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. In line with this characterisation there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.” In another email he urged then police minister Nathi Mthethwa to “take appropriate steps”.

So what?

It is unlikely that the Commission will find anything untoward in Rampahosa’s messages. He was, after all, doing nothing other than responding to the growing violence of the strikers and Lonmin’s increasing anxiety about the strike. We are of the view that there is some political harm done Ramaphosa by his identification with mine management and government – and the police killing of the 34 mineworkers. There is a considerable degree of unease within the broad structures of the ANC and the electorate about the Marikana killings. The ANC is obliged to stand with its Deputy President on this matter, but it can’t be comfortable. This will play against Ramaphosa (although perhaps not decisively) in the coming succession contest in the ANC.

 

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Chairwoman of the African Union, fresh from pride of place at the US-Africa summit in Washington announced yesterday that she was undecided as to whether to stand for a second term in the AU (her current term expires in 2014 2016) This is inevitably raising questions about whether she will compete with Ramaphosa to succeed Jacob Zuma as president of the country.

So what?

She is in the running – and is clean and capable. She is perhaps more of an insider in the ANC’s power elite than Cyril Ramaphosa and her winning this race might mean (unwelcome) continuities with the current administration. It’s too early to call it one way or another, but the ANC Women’s League has indicated that it could back Dlamini-Zuma (or Baleka Mbete) while the Gauteng ANC has indicated it could back Ramaphosa.  Officially succession would only take place after elections in 2019, but there are constant rumours that Jacob Zuma might want to retire early (or be forced to do so due to failing health). An early retirement of Jacob Zuma would probably be a significant positive for perceptions about South African political risk, but the specific circumstances of such a move would determine whether it would, in fact, be positive, negative or natural.

Listening to the EFF be the rock against which Zuma’s blithe refusal to account finally dashed itself yesterday I felt briefly elated.

Gangsters! Bashi-bazouks! Yes, PAY BACK THE MONEY! PAY BACK THE MONEY! Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles!

But after a moment’s reflection I pulled myself, by the ear, back into the vehicle.

“You irresponsible old twit!” I said, my mind drifting back to this blog post from August 24 2010:

Waiting for a saviour to rise from these streets*

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?

A couple of asides as I tinker away at a framework for assessing Sunday’s Cabinet announcement.

EFF

The media noise surrounding Helen Zille’s putative attitude towards Lindiwe Mazibuko is interesting, but largely because it is so loud.

In the last hour I have been asked twice (by journalists) for an opinion on Mmusi Maimane‘s acceptance of nomination to the position of DA Parliamentary Leader.

Not long ago I would have (privately) filed news of DA power-struggles and leadership changes under ‘white mischief’ and forgotten about it – confident that no client or journalist would ask for an opinion.

Real politics, the stuff that actually made a difference to legislative or regulatory outcomes, happened within the Tripartite Alliance or in the interactions between the ANC and business.

I think that was a useful shorthand that saved me time in the past, but clearly I will have to break the habit.

The Alliance no longer contains its own opposition – and is therefore no longer the primary site of politics.

The EFF, Amcu, whatever Numsa finally initiates and the DA all (healthily in my view) strip out a sort of multi-polar disorder from the ANC.

Politics will now (tend to) happen where it is meant to: on the streets and in parliament … and not where it previously tended to happen: in back room deals and as a result of other shenanigans in the ANC-led alliance.

There is an obvious trade-off between clarity of government policy/structure and the broadness of the ANC’s alliances. As those alliances break or simplify or are otherwise transformed I expect some kind of dividend for governance and economic policy.

If I might add …

Another habit of thought I might soon have to break is my instinctive intellectual pessimism about politics.

By ‘pessimism’ I do not mean an automatic assumption that politician are corrupt or incompetent.

What I mean is that I tend to think that politics changes little in the world, but that the world changes the politics.

I think this might make me some kind of market fundamentalist. I am certain that to grow, the DA will have to become more like the ANC – in its policy and in the class and racial character of its leadership.

The assumption (and maybe error) I make is believing that  the electorate purely aggregates the interests of broad groups of people and the political parties are compelled to reflect the character and interests of those groups.

So my ‘habit of thought” is that I assume that for a party to grow it will necessarily become more generic and bland.

Why this is ‘pessimistic’ (and I hope incorrect) is I tend to assume that our politics increasingly changes nothing (except to the negative) and parties endlessly drift towards a sort bland and generic centre in response to the ‘market’ of the bland and generic voters.

No wonder I was a secret reader of P J O’Rourke. He once observed in his normal right-wing, smug but hilarious way:

Now majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But like other precious, sacred things …. it’s not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza.

P. J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, 1991

Why this is a bad habit

I worry that my instinctive attitude is a potentially serious error. I can see how this ‘political pessimism’ might be a useful short cut in relatively homogeneous and stable first-world countries.

The main parties in those countries blur into each other.

But recession and unemployment, even in those countries,  is inevitably accompanied by a growing divergence in the political arena – a shrinking of the centre and growth of radical nationalists and/or populists.

Surely this is a better permanent model for understanding South Africa?

I suspect our calm transition and the stable predictability of the ANC and it’s comfortable electoral majority might have lulled me into a false sense of security.

Who could not smile at the jaunty red boiler-suits, gumboots and maid’s outfits adorning the mostly young EFF members being sworn in to parliament yesterday?

I am delighted the EFF are there and I think it is healthy for our politics that the ANC will have to contest with the EFF in the minds of voters and in the national and provincial assemblies.

Rather that than the nodding and winking and/or furious factional splits that have gone on up until now in the closed shop of the ANC.

But it should be front of mind that the ANC has to answer the challenge of the DA and of the EFF.

The ANC still has a safety margin and room for manoeuvre, but party leaders will have heard the howls in the night and are unlikely to just sit back staring into the fire hoping  for the best.

I have been agonising over whether to keep this website going –  or to consign it to the wastelands of the interwebs there to wander mournfully, accumulating lurid advertisements for secret ways of getting rid of belly fat and invitations from young, beautiful and lonely people, in your area, waiting by their phones for a call from you.

After weighing matters too arcane to bore you with here I decided to gird my sagging loins (that’s long and loose clothing, not that other thing you were thinking – Ed) and once more into the breach … and all of that.

So … I have written various 2014 previews. One you may have seen was for the Mail & Guardian and titled ‘What I will be telling investors in 2014′. I would have liked to give it a better edit – and I think I don’t adequately deal with the issue of the corroding effects of the original arms scandal – but you may be interested in reading it anyway. Catch it here.

I also published in early January, as part of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities’ 2014 Outlook, the overview below. (Thanks, as always, to my main contract holder for generously allowing me to republish a few weeks later here.)

(Remember, no-one has been to the future and returned with any useful information as far as I am aware … so treat the following with a healthy degree of scepticism – Ed)

Political outlook 2014: No safe haven in the storm

Introduction

At least part of our sanguine view of South African politics has rested on the belief that the ANC had several more decades of 60%-plus support at the polls. We were of the view that while this could lead to corruption, complaisance and cronyism, it would also allow the party to keep the country, government and constitution steady while SA undertook a wrenching transformation from its apartheid past to whatever the future held.

However, several important fissures have appeared in the ANC’s support base that suggest this assumption of indefinite ruling party dominance may not be correct and, therefore, that the essentially benign shepherding of that transition is under strain.

Amcu: bridgehead in previously safe African working-class constituency

Firstly, the success of the Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) in the mining (particularly platinum) sector has led to the virtual collapse of a key ANC labour ally, the National Union of Mineworkers (Num). Amcu is important for a number of reasons, but in this section, the issue is that it has created a bridgehead in the ANC’s core constituency that has every possibility of linking up with new left-wing (or in other ways radical) political formations that will challenge the ANC politically in the next few years.

Julius Malema and the formation of the EFF

Secondly, the expulsion of Julius Malema from the ANC and his formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party damages the ANC in two important ways. It draws disaffected young black South Africans, who are experiencing unemployment rates of about 60%, out of the ANC. And it captures ideological terrain that the ANC was previously able to control and finesse, namely, the question of the nationalisation of mines and land.

A strong and confident ANC has, since 1994, essentially been able to tell its electoral constituency that patience is required for transformation and that constituency has, with mutterings, accepted the ANC’s moral authority on the matter. However, that consensus is collapsing. Mr Malema’s ‘red berets’ are attacking the president at every opportunity and arguing that the ANC has sold out the birth-right of Africans and has been bought off by the opportunity to loot the state and by juicy empowerment deals. The message has a natural resonance among poor urban and unemployed youth – but up until Mr Malema’s expulsion, the ANC was able to articulate both sides of this debate within itself.

NUMSA split: The unravelling of the ruling alliance

Thirdly, it appears that the long-standing split within Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) over its relationship with the ANC has been forced to a head by the suspension of Cosatu Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi. A ‘left’ faction had, with a degree of discomfort, existed within Cosatu since the formation of the union federation in 1985. This faction has its roots in non-ANC liberation traditions and was concentrated mostly in Cosatu manufacturing unions, especially Numsa. The moves to get rid of Mr Vavi and close down Numsa’s criticism of the president and of ANC economic policy probably emanate from the hegemonic faction within the ANC itself, in other words, Jacob Zuma and his closest allies. Not unsurprisingly, Numsa has now formally called on Cosatu to leave the alliance with the ANC, has said it will not be supporting the ANC in the election in 2014 and has called for the immediate resignation of President Zuma.

Over time, this will impact ANC electoral support, though not necessarily profoundly in 2014. How Numsa members and their dependants vote in next year’s election was probably a ‘done deal’ prior to Numsa’s defection decision at its special congress in late December 2013. Numsa may link up with ‘left’ or ‘workers’ parties (and may actually form a ‘socialist party’ that could challenge the ANC for support in the ANC’s key black working-class constituency), but this will likely impact more profoundly on electoral outcomes in the 2019 election.

ANC swelling in rural conservative areas and shrinking amongst urban sophisticates

Fourthly, the patronage and diversion of state resources as depicted by the Nkandla saga, combined with the vigorous pursuit of the rural vote in Kwazulu-Natal, has meant that the ANC is gradually appealing less to urban Africans (although this is by no means a majority trend) and more to rural and traditional poor black South Africans. This appears to mean that parties like the Democratic Alliance, AgangSA and the EFF are picking up a degree of unexpected traction in such constituencies.

Labour environment

After a catastrophic 2012 as far as the labour environment was concerned – especially the repeated waves of illegal and violent strikes in the platinum sector – 2013 saw stabilisation, albeit at still unacceptably high levels of unrest and strike activity.

In the platinum sector, the Amcu is ‘bedding down’, but likely to continue contesting with the Num in the gold sector. The next public-sector wage round is scheduled for 2015, so we have a breather before that storm hits (and we expected it to be a big storm when it does).

The formalisation of the Numsa split from the alliance probably means that this union will begin to actively contest with the Cosatu unions and in several other sectors of the economy. We are looking for the formation of new and smaller unions in sectors where the incumbent unions have grown too cumbersome or complacent to deal with the demands of specialist groups of workers. Unionism is a growth industry in South Africa, with annuity income for those who set them up. As Cosatu shudders, there are many opportunities emerging.

Labour unrest, poor labour productivity and inflexible labour markets (price, size, skills) are among the biggest negative domestic drivers of economic growth and we expect the figures to show a slight improvement in 2013 over 2012 and a significant deterioration in 2014 and 2015 – which may have significant negative implications along the lines of the BMW ‘disinvestment’ decision.

National Development Plan: The political rise of the Treasury and fall of Cosatu

The ruling party and the ruling alliance’s approach to the National Development Plan (NDP) has appeared highly conflicted since the adoption of the plan at the 2012 Mangaung national conference of the ANC.

While our view is that the NDP is little more than a shopping list (and not the miracle cure some ratings and multilateral agencies hope it is) in the areas of large infrastructure roll-out and a disciplining/training/focusing of the public service, we may be in for upside surprises. The important political leaders to watch here are ministers Lindiwe Sisulu (public service and administration) and Malusi Gigaba (state-owned enterprises).

In several different ways, the Zuma leadership of the ANC has, over the last few months, appeared to back with a degree of fortitude previously orphaned policy thrusts from the NDP that are generally ‘financial-market positive’.

The first of these is the foregrounding of the NDP itself – both at Mangaung, but also in the medium-term budget statement in October 2013. Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan stated that that this budget statement and all future budget statements would be ‘the accounts’ of the National Development Plan, putting the plan at the centre of government policy.

The trade-union movement – especially the now defecting faction rooted in Numsa, but actually common to the whole federation – was outraged by this, as it sees the NDP as a capitulation by the ANC to (variously) ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘business interests’.

In conjunction with this foregrounding of the NDP, Jacob Zuma has recently signed into law two major policy thrusts that are bitterly opposed by the ANC’s labour ally.

The first of these is the Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Act, which allows for the implementation of ‘e-tolling’ on Gauteng highways and has been bitterly opposed by COSATU and other community groups in that province. Bond-market investors and ratings agencies have repeatedly said it is crucial that the ANC implement ‘e-tolling’ if the government is to maintain credibility on the global capital markets. It is significant that the Zuma administration has grasped this nettle, despite facing (by all accounts) a significant electoral challenge in Gauteng in 2014.

The second surprising nettle-grasping activity has been the promulgation of the employment tax incentive bill in the face of united Coatu fury. This is the ‘youth wage subsidy’ of yore, and the ANC under Jacob Zuma has obviously decided to accept thunderous criticism from its ally in the hope that longer-term employment growth benefits will weigh in its favour at the polls, in both 2014 and 2019.

Together, these initiatives are surprising positives and have probably come about because the Treasury has managed to persuade Mr Zuma and his cabinet that failure to take a stand on these various measures could lead to downgrades by the ratings agencies.

Policy and regulatory risks predominate

Thus, our view is that the Presidency, bereft of any real policy direction itself (because it is busy purely with rent seeking and hanging onto power) has been persuaded by Pravin Gordhan that the country is in trouble, that the deficit is looking genuinely threatening, that downgrades are a real possibility and that if this goes south, President Zuma might go with it. The National Treasury briefly has the reins, and this gives us a moment of respite.

However, hostile mining regulations, a fiddly and interventionist Department of Trade and Industry, an overly ambitious Department of Economic Development, a hostile Department of Labour, liquor legislation, more and tighter empowerment legislation and deepening regulations on all fronts, but especially in the credit markets, mean that, on the whole, government in 2014 will be an unreliable financial-market ally.

State finances: The deeper risks are fiscal

The country’s increasing dependence for stability on social grants and other forms of social spending is a real and deepening political risk. While the social grant system has lifted millions of South Africans out of poverty and the public sector has employed hundreds of thousands of others, it has also created a culture of dependency and paternalism and is an unsustainable expense that the government will at some stage be forced to reduce. This is definitely going to be accompanied by severe social turmoil, although as mentioned previously, the real ‘fiscal cliff’ is still some way ahead of the forecast period dealt with in this report.

Election 2014

The election results will be important, but in ways that are difficult to predict.

If the ANC’s share of the national vote plummets to the low 50% range, will this force the party into a process of renewal, or will it be panicked into populist measures? It probably depends on which parties take up the slack.

If the ANC gets 65% of the vote, will it be ‘Nkandla business’ as usual – an unhealthy rural populism à la the Traditional Courts Bill, combined with activities like the significant public resources (ZAR208m) spent on building the president’s Nkandla compound and accusations of corruption?
If Mr Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters get 10% of the vote, will that mean ANC policymaking is paralysed until 2019 as the party attempts to appease the angry and disenfranchised youth? Will it mean legislation relating to mining and land ownership swerves into uncertain and dangerous territory?

If the Democratic Alliance wins 27% of the national vote (which we think unlikely) and if it is able to form a provincial government in alliance with other parties in Gauteng (which we also think unlikely), how might that cause the ANC to behave? Better? To continue to allow the Treasury to set the tone of probity and effectiveness, concentrate on fixing education and focus on economic growth as the only guarantor of electoral success in 2019? Will this kind of threat cause the ruling party to attempt to make opposition strongholds ungovernable? We suspect different impulses are already at war within the ANC and investors should watch how that battle plays out.

Below, purely as a way of presenting our latest ‘guesstimates’, are our ‘most likely’ electoral outcomes for 2014 (these may change as campaigning performance changes before the election and as various crises emerge, eg, the booing of Jacob Zuma at the FNB Stadium commemoration for Nelson Mandela in December 2013).

votingresultsinpreview

BRICs and the uncertain rise of the SACP

A relatively new and difficult-to-unpick issue is the growing confidence the South African Communist Party (SACP) has in shaping the national agenda. The inappropriate focus on BRICS speakers at the FNB Mandela memorial (over Africans and European Union speakers, with Obama the inevitable exception) is probably evidence of the Communists having very significant influence.

We think this could have fed through into the announced Zuma/Putin ZAR 100bn nuclear deal.

This is a matter of growing tension within the ANC, with a previously dominant (under Mandela and Mbeki) group of ‘progressive Africanists’ having lost power to the Communists, who are now in an alliance with a patronage-seeking, provincial elite with strong links to state-security apparatuses and rent-seeking business interests (‘the Nkandla crew’.)

This struggle could play into succession issues and might be a driver of attempts to impeach Jacob Zuma (a strategy unlikely to succeed, in our view) over the next few years.

Succession and a ‘rescue mission’ in the ANC?

While this matter probably lies beyond the 2014 scope of this report, within the ANC, the possibility of a rescue mission is taking shape (driven, in part, by growing commentary about how many public resources are ending up on and around Jacob Zuma’s person and his tight control of security agencies). A group now on the outskirts of the party, and in very general terms representing the ‘old guard’, appears set to begin working on securing a succession process that reverses the decline (moral and in popularity) over which Jacob Zuma appears to be presiding.

This move has not yet taken shape, nor is it properly manifest, but in our view the important people to watch are previous President Thabo Mbeki, Lindiwe Sisulu, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize.

Preface 

I wrote what follows in July 1990 immediately after returning from a two week trip to Moscow. I was part of a group with the now sadly departed Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa). The original was published in Democracy In Action, the institute’s monthly newsletter. I had looked for a copy for years and Paul Graham the last executive director of  Idasa, and a man for whom I have the highest regard, went to considerable trouble to find the article for me as he was closing up shop. I am republishing it here exactly as it originally appeared, although I have to sit on my hands to stop myself stripping out much of the sentiment and youthful taking-of-oneself-too-seriously – and thereby cutting two thirds of the length. (I would also quite like not to admit to some of the things I once believed which I admit to in the article … and I would love to add a bit of irony … but it is all too late for that now.)

Why am I bothering – I am not unaware that this was not exactly seminal?  No special reason, except my desire that it form ‘part of the record’. I wanted it “out there” in the electronic universe to remind myself of the precise moment I stopped being a confused socialist and carried on with being just confused, an altogether less satisfying state than I had experienced previously. It was  bitter-sweet for me, this moment, and I have never entirely resolved the conflicted feelings that it evokes in me. I don’t promise that what follows will be madly interesting to anyone but myself and perhaps some others directly involved in the events I describe. So, if for no other reasons than the much vaunted record, complete and unexpurgated, here is:

Ten days that shook my world

Standing on the Leningradsky Prospect – the “straight way” to Leningrad – just outside Moscow I was filled with an unhappy mixture of dismay and despair.

I had reached an unbearably poignant shrine. In heroic proportions and cut deep into huge blocks of concrete was the visage of the Soviet version of the Unknown Soldier. The young interpreter translated the script alongside that  haunting face in hushed tones. “It says that, ‘the defenders of Moscow defend here forever’. Here they fought an important battle in the Great Patriotic War. Many people died. But for us this is very sad.”

Twenty million Soviet citizens died in that war. more than all the other deaths put together. The German army failed to take Moscow or Leningrad and eventually broke its back on a bitterly defended Stalingrad and the even more bitter Soviet winter.

Standing at that memorial I felt dismay at the enormity of suffering the people of this country had experienced in the last 100 years. I felt despair because by that stage of the trip I already sensed than another tragedy was befalling this oft punished country.

How do  you record a credible impression of a country with 290  million inhabitant and more mutually unintelligible languages than anywhere else in the world after a brief two weeks spent in one city – albeit Moscow?

The answer is you probably can’t.

It was sunny mid-June and I was part of an Idasa delegation of “young researchers” on a fact-finding mission hosted by a group called the Committee of Youth Organisations. For me personally the visit was of particular importance.

The Soviet Union was the land of milk and honey for many of us who grew up politically in the student movement in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the flagship of a growing fleet that would rid our world of the uncaring and greedy imperative of profiteering capitalism and the misery it had brought our country.

We could quote chapter and verse of statistics that demonstrated the availability of basic goods and services to all Soviet people. We could parade the achievements of Eastern bloc socialism – in the production of iron and steel, in the eradication of illiteracy, in culture, the arts and in sports.

In response to perestroika and glasnost we had all reformulated our ideas and I wanted to discover two things: the soul of the Soviet people and  whether the red flag was still flying. We were not able to answer any of these questions conclusively and were left with a series of often unconnected impressions.

I was quite unprepared for what I found in Moscow.

We sat in a meeting with the editor of the Moscow Communist Youth Organisation (Komsomol) daily newspaper. The paper has a subscriber list of one and a half million and is delivered daily. This man was a political appointee yet he harangued us for over an hour about the evils and absolute unworkability of socialism.

We didn’t understand. Here was a powerful and influential communist, picking up a glass on the table and asking, “Who does this belong to? To the state, or the people, or some vague body? I don’t care about this glass,” and he made as if to throw it out of the window.

In an intense and growing fury he took a Parker pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This is my pen! If this man (pointing at his second in command) breaks this pen, I will beat him,” he said, shaking his fist angrily.

Reaching some kind of climax, the editor rose to his feet and shouted pointing out of the window at the inevitable queue at a shop across the road: “Those people are queuing for children’s slippers. This is not how people should live! This is not even how animals should live!”

The sentiments behind these ragings were expressed by everyone we met – more cautiously only by the most senior members of the Communist Party.

The economy has clearly failed to meet the requirements of the population and the list of reasons they give reads like a tirade from the New Right.

Here is a selection of rough quotes as I jotted them down in my notebook or remember them now:

“The authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative command system has created impossibly skewed production priorities.”

“Why work hard, or with any care and attention to detail if you are going to get your 300 roubles a month no matter what and anyway, you are not going to be able to buy anything with it? We have created workers who don’t know how to work.”

“Goods are expensive and if they are made here they are of inferior quality. It is very difficult to get imported goods and usually these are impossibly expensive.”

“I have lived here all my life. Now it is worse than anyone can remember. There are just no goods in the shops and for the first time we are really worried about hunger.”

Almost without exception the people we spoke to blamed socialism for their ills. When those of us with deep philosophical and political roots in the South African socialist movement protested that it wasn’t socialism per se that was the problem, but rather the errors committed in the building of the society and economy of the Soviet Union specifically, we were laughed out of court.

“It is the ideas themselves. 1917 was a disaster for us. We need the market economy,” was the refrain we heard time and again.

There seems no doubt that there is a developing  consensus amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow at any rate, that the “free market” is the panacea to many of their ills. It would have been impossible, and extremely presumptuous of us to lecture them on the evils of rampant capitalism. They want it and they want it now.

When Germany and Japan start buying up state enterprises for a pittance and fill the shops with goods that only a few can afford; when unemployment and lack of housing becomes a problem for the previously protected underclass and when access to a whole lot of goods ans services becomes determined by income, they may change their minds, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

The citizens of Moscow (a relatively wealthy city) are struggling, increasingly despairingly, to survive. At first I was tempted to argue that they are better off than the unemployed in the First World, but it just doesn’t appear to be true, especially as far as countries with social welfare systems are concerned.

The problem, of course, is that the capitalism that will be built in the Soviet Union will be a mean and half-starved animal.

The Soviet people look at the highly developed capitalist economies of the West for a vision of their own future. The truth is that they can expect only the vicious and exploitative versions of the system that exist on the periphery in the Third World.  The creation of that system is going to be extremely painful.

The other element of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the political entity itself.

The republics are finally starting to be flung off the edges of the vortex of rapid political change. Long repressed nationalism, often highly chauvinistic, is emerging everywhere and Gorbachev is finding it almost impossible to hold the show on the road.

The dark spectre of the Soviet Union’s collapse into 15 disgruntled, warring, potentially economically unviable Third World states with terrifying military resources at their disposal is starting to haunt the wold.

And what about the Russian people?

We were all astounded at the depth of education and cultural and philosophical literacy in the wide cross-section of people we met. A deep abhorrence of war and commitment to peaceful change was the characteristic feature. In response to the question “what do you want, or see as an alternative?”, the most common phrase was, “respect for universal human values.”.

We asked many young people if they were proud of any of their national achievements – the beautiful, cheap and efficient Moscow underground, the low price and ready availability of books and records and the level of literacy and education.

We were told (variously): “The Soviet Union is not a country, we have no national achievements”; “how can we be proud if it takes all our effort and time just to buy a loaf of bread in a shop”.

Almost every young person we met had a burning desire to leave the country. The most popular movie on the circuit is a “documentary” comparison of life in the Soviet Union versus life in the West.

Apparently this films looks at the worst of Soviet life compared to the best in the West. It sounds like the worst kind of anti-communist, American ultra-right chauvinism –  except it was made by a Soviet film producer. What is more, the public swallow every last detail in an orgy of masochistic self-hatred.

Media freedom

One thing we found interesting and encouraging was freedom and vibrancy of the media.

Organised political opposition to the Communist Party is weak (outside of the national movements in the republics) and many of the new parties have no real experience at mobilising the population. However, the press and television are filled with debate and exploration of new ideas and harsh examinations of social problems ranging from alcoholism through to child abuse.

By the end of the 10 days, the six of us were punch-drunk and exhausted. We spoke together for hours trying, unsuccessfully, to draw out the essence of the experience. We all had the sense of being in an important place at an important time. This was the exact point where a grand enterprise had come off the rails.

The resounding shock waves of that catastrophe have changed the whole world, not least of all our own country. We struggled with the enormity of it and the sense of hopelessness we were left with.

As the last day of the visit dawned, I spoke to a wise and gentle man about my confusion and disappointment. He said: “Yes, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but you are wrong to say our people are hopeless or despairing. They have spirit and humanity. We will win through in some way.”

(I was accompanied on that trip by Ian Liebenberg, Hermien Kotze, Zorah Ebrahim, Khehla Shubane and Mark Swilling – and I wish them well wherever they may be.)

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

Think of the various interests of classes and groups in our society as constituting an ecology in which political parties and organisations find niches to graze, hunt and be sustained.

The system can change and niches shift, narrow or broaden –  and in response the denizens that live in each niche must adapt or become extinct.

Alternatively, major fauna can begin to change for other systemic (or extra-systemic?) reasons and new spaces and niches close or open in response.

And a shockwave goes through the ecosystem and a number of species appear and/or rabidly (oops) rapidly evolve, while others disappear.

Like all metaphors this one is going to break down the closer it gets to the real world, but I think something like this is happening to our political ecosystem – as the ANC’s DNA drifts towards the lumbering, complacent and patronage-networked side of the spectrum.

The gaps that are opening are in the middle classes, in the cities and amongst urban professionals – niches which (that?) are being vacated by the ANC as it settles its rump into the comfort of a sort of conservative, patriarchal, kleptocratic, bureaucratic and ethnic politico-ecological pouf-cushion.

I make  this observation as I watch (on eNews channel) the DA marching on Cosatu’s head-office in Johannesburg in a historical reversal of roles that I am struggling to get my head around.

I saw a Twitter post from Ranjeni Munusamy last night in which she said: “After the #DAmarch tomorrow, maybe nuclear powers will march to Greenpeace offices. Will make just as much sense”.

I get her dismay completely, but I suspect that is just my old assumptions about the shape of our political ecology dominating my brain.

Why shouldn’t the DA be going up directly against Cosatu?

They are, increasingly, competing for exactly the same constituency – the constituency recently, in effect, vacated by the ANC.

That is what all this business about Zille attempting to recruit Vavi into the DA has been about.

They have been flirting – because they feel how close they are to each other – and now they are fighting, for exactly the same reasons.

On Sunday Ferial Haffajee wrote an extremely interesting piece in her City Press, pointing out that Cosatu is increasingly dominated by public sector unions  – and therefore increasingly represents “a middle”, rather than “a working” class.

The story uses this graphic:

… which I think comes from a Uasa Federation study by economist Mike Schussler that points out that the employed in south Africa enjoy relatively good living conditions with an average salary of R13 200 and further that public sector workers are significantly better off than their private sector counterparts.

Haffajee writes:

Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there. What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.

So what is happening right now?

There is an inevitable frisson in the relationship between Cosatu and the DA.

Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance border the niches vacated by the ANC, namely the unemployed and the middle classes. (The unemployed and the middle classes, perhaps more than any other groups, have  the most to lose from the ANC’s, at best squandering, at worst looting, of societal resources available for growth and relief.)

As the opposing crowds gather in the streets of Johannesburg, the blue DA marchers versus the red Cosatu defenders – those for the youth wage subsidy and those against it – we might be expected to conclude that these are bitter class enemies.

I still think not – to my eyes I cannot distinguish them ethnically or class-wise … (but I accept that I might just not have cracked those codes).

The ANC – as well as agents of the state, I think – will strive mightily to prevent Cosatu from finding the DA – and vice versa.

As romantic literature suggests, love and hate lie alongside each other like geological strata – always in the process of metamorphosing, one into the other.

(Note – I think my various metaphors here don’t adequately take account of the differences in Cosatu – and ultimately break down on that point. I do think the public sector side of the federation is more middle-class and the private sector side more radical and competitive. However it is easier for the ANC to keep the public sector unions – the DA’s natural allies in class terms – on side because, ultimately, those unions are dependent on the state budget over which the ANC has control. Obviously there is a cost involved in the ANC buying off those middle class unions, and it is a cost ultimately borne by the unemployed … but that is an argument for another post. I am not sure if the DA will be able to capitalise on this contradiction, but it is not impossible that is precisely what the party is trying to do in Johannesburg as I write this.)

Once a week I take my mother to an audio book library.

My car radio only picks up SAFM and because the dreary worthiness of our national broadcaster occasionally tempts me into driving my car off a cliff, I sometimes pick something out for myself.

I have recently finished listening to (over and over again – at least eight times in a row) “About the Size Of It – the Common Sense Approach to Measuring Things” by Warwick Cairns.

Aside from being a charming, old-school, discourse on how our bodies and what we do with them have determined the various measuring systems humans have adopted, the book hints, to my mind, at deeper philosophical insights into the nature of society and history … and, ultimately, our evolving humanity.

The flow of “About The Size Of It” traces the use of feet, hands and thumbs in determining the measures that humans have used throughout Europe and Asia – right back to the builders of Stonehenge who appear to have used a “megalithic foot” as the basic unit of construction – i.e. one about as long as a man’s foot wrapped in a leather slipper, as opposed to the later “foot” of European and US measurement which is about as long as a workman’s boot.

Warwick Cairns sounds like an amiable old duffer – which is not entirely due to the fact that my consumption of the text was via the reading by clearly ‘amiable old duffer’ Christian Rodska. But you will see below that if anything Cairns looks like a young and clever Hobbit.

The charm of the book lies in its gentle admonishment of endless attempts to impose measuring systems (especially the metric system) on humans who inevitably revert back to methods and units that suit them and that are practically based on hands, feet, thumbs, how far we – and our horse or ox –  can plough in one day, the amount of liquid we can comfortably drink (or hold in our bladders) and the weight of small rocks we can easily hold in each hand and compare.

The “deeper” implications of the book are revealed in a quaint cascading explanation that I had actually come across before in one of those awful “Isn’t this Amazing – PASS IT ON!!!” emails.

It goes something like this: the size of the rocket boosters on the space-shuttle are ultimately determined by the width of two horses’ backsides. The sweet – but I suspect not entirely accurate – explanation consists of describing the link between the rail system that carries the boosters, the carriage axle-makers who made the first axles for locomotives, the fact that their machinery was set up for horse carriages and that carriage tracks throughout Europe and the USA were precisely the width of two horses side-by-side … because that is the optimal configuration for drawing a carriage.

I am less interested in the accuracy of this illustrative example than I am in the idea that the structure and technology of our society – the momentum and trajectory of the complex system of human history – might be shaped by basic and natural limitations and potentials.

Jared Diamond’s 1997 “Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13000 years” explores this matter more directly, although in a more difficult and in-depth way.

Diamond’s book deserves a full review of it’s own – it is a complex and extremely wide ranging explanation of why societies throughout the world had differential success – particularly competitively. He explores how climate and geography – down to the detail of which plants and animals where available for domestication – and how, for example, advantages get locked in through early urbanisation leading to the spread, and therefore growing immunity, to certain diseases – which in turn has led to the domination of some societies over others.

Both these books explore how our society and history is rooted in our nature and the nature of the physical world – and also how the momentum of our society and history resists change.

For me what is interesting is how our technologies are pushing at the boundary of the limitations imposed by our physical and natural being and by the complex ordering of our societies’ development – holding out the promise and threat that these might no longer determine what we could become.

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.

I think both the DA and the ANC might be on the verge of an evolutionary spurt that will change what they are and thus see them shifting into new ecological  niches in our political landscape.

I also think that the landscape itself changes much slower than we think or hope.

Voluntarism is a term for a species of political error – and I dredge this up from the gleaming days of my youthful involvement in the ‘mass democratic movement’ in South Africa. The taxonomic system we developed for naming and defining ‘mistaken beliefs’ was tiresomely thorough and self-righteous, but I have to confess that I still dip into that frame of reference and find there useful analogies and ways of understanding the world.

Voluntarism  means believing that through pure force of will, cleverness of organisation, brilliance of strategy, accuracy of tactics and shear hope, anything could be achieved no matter what the inherent conditions.

I am convinced that the Democratic Alliance foray into the townships and squatter camps is either a form of voluntarism or it will result in the DA becoming something else entirely – and ultimately something very similar to what the ANC has become.

This somewhat pessimistic view of politics is based on the assumption that politicians and political parties do not have a free hand to sell what they like to whoever (whomever?) they like.

The racial divide in South Africa and the racial solidarity of the groups which face each other across that divide is a deep structural phenomenon and not a casual consumer preference.

When Julius Malema talks about “the Madam and her tea girl” referring to DA chief Helen Zille and the DA MP and national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko he finds a resonance.

This ‘resonance’ is not something created by clever marketing and it is also not something that can be got rid of like Vodacom changing its colours from blue to red.

Groups of people, their ideology, culture and attitudes can be changed – particularly in the powerfully denaturing environment of modern industrial cities. This is how an African peasantry became  the urban proletariat of South Africa’s modern capitalism. And it was this process that created the possibility of an ANC that represented all black Africans in the country and not just specific tribal groups.

But do not overestimate the power and speed of this process. Think of the ethnic boroughs in New York; think of the Xhosa/Zulu tussle in the ANC and think of the unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience in South Africa.

South Africa’s history, including colonialism and Apartheid, has a powerful momentum in our lives today. I think this means that the hope that the DA with more black faces and branches (but essentially the same ideology , structure and principles) could make a serious electoral challenge will remain just that – a hope.

A party still called the Democratic Alliance could displace the ANC, but only by becoming something very similar to its foe i.e. led by black people with a history of opposition to Apartheid and primarily about redressing the past,  directing state resources to benefit black people and  channelling wealth towards the emerging black elite.

The “rump” of the DA are good old white liberals (in the best sense of the word) who have their ideological roots in the closing years of Apartheid.

A party with such a “rump” will never (in any time frame that could be relevant to us) represent a majority of black South Africans – even urban professionals, even a significant minority. To represent those people the DA would have to be of those people, run by those people and be an instrument to further the interests of those people.

I do think urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC.

But I will be looking for a Movement for Democratic Change lookalike (to the ANC’s ZANU-PF) to emerge from the South African political dynamic.

That ultimately means I am still looking for an organised defection by the industrial working class and their middle class allies that will emerge from a split in the Ruling Alliance – that would probably put Cosatu on one side and the ANC on another.

On this basis the ANC could lose control of the cities to a political formation like the MDC –  although not one that could be portrayed, as the MDC has been by ZANU-PF and by the ANC (which can already sense the threat), as having been funded and set up by white farmers and other ‘enemies of national liberation’.

There is a part of me that hopes I am wrong … that we have it within ourselves to escape the awful gravity of our history; that we really are free to choose our future.

My view, however, is that the choices we do have are all within a narrow band of possibilities confined by the deep structural features of our past and present.

Thus the ecology of our society and our politics remains the same – or at least changes extremely slowly – but the creatures that inhabit the landscape are modified by natural selection and drift and displace each other in the niches that are available to them.

(My next post will deal with the question of what the ANC is becoming as it changes its niche as the party narrows and shifts – geographically, ideologically and socially.)

This added after publication:

The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.

The word is voluntarism (not volunterism, as I originally had it … I got it wrong because I mistakenly thought ‘we’  had made it up and I could therefore spell it as I pleased) and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology”  – from Dictionary.com.

This way:

  • The business of government becomes the business of enriching the governors … rather than the business of governing and thereby serving the electorate’s overarching interests?
  • The extremely rich rewards to be gained from holding political office cause the party list process – especially in the ANC – to become one of mayhem and murder, endlessly chaotic and contested?
  • All classes of South Africans whose interests are inimical to the looting of the state, political patronage, ransacking the parastatals, incompetent government and tenderpreneurial activity of all kinds (the black and white middle classes, the industrial working class and the urban poor who are dependent on service delivery as well as big and small business, which both need a functional state, stable rules and the rule of law)  begin to shift their support to opposition parties, social movements and trade unions?
  • In turn this puts pressure on the Ruling Alliance as Cosatu and ANC democrats start pushing against the tide.
  • The ANC withdraws into governing through systems of patronage and razzmatazz populism as its class base shifts to the rural poor, unemployed urban youth, the state sector and the political/economic  elite and fast-and- loose forms of international capital and organised criminals (the last two categories are experts in dealing with this kind of politics)?

I think this is the way the cookie crumbles. With the proviso that no-one knows the future – and it is always more unexpected than not –  and I think the cookie crumbling in the way that I have described means:

  • The Democratic Alliance continues to transform its racial profile (in electoral support as well as leadership) and strengthens its support in urban constituencies throughout the country in the May18 national municipal election.
  • There is a significant showing in that election by other opposition parties and independents.
  • Cosatu begins to plan for the inevitability of either ‘a coup’ within the ANC or a withdrawal from the Ruling Alliance and the establishment of a viable alternative political home.
  • The backlash within the ANC after the election will be severe leading to very high levels of contestation before and during the 2012 elective centenary conference.

That’s the way I see it, although I might be wrong.

If I am right, the next few months is the last chance for the ANC to be saved from the future its current leaders are securing for it.

A rescue job will have to reject the Nkandla style patronage networks as well as the ANC YL style technocratic tenderpreneurialism and those who back it. That doesn’t leave much political room for a challenge or much of an internal constituency in which to nestle it – other than on the left.

Just thought I would mention that in passing … I am now so busy with paid work (hurrah!) that “in passing” is the only time I will have for a while.

We are the ape with the pattern recognition dial cranked up high and this has served us well over our evolutionary history.

But when we assess risk in systems as complex as the global economy our instinctive wariness at the sudden silence in the Palaeolithic forest is not necessarily useful – and might be part of a warning system directly implicated in us getting things wrong in the complex and networked world in which we live and act.

The billions of tons of grinding debris in the violent waters surging over Japan’s eastern coast seem part of a flood of dangerous chaos and instability stretching from the sovereign debt markets through the shifting front lines in Libya to the meltdown at the Fukushima  nuclear power facility.

Two months ago the theatre of the world seemed to be playing to a comforting old script we all knew.

Today it feels like anything might happen – and it probably will.

Let me not pretend to expertise on plate tectonics, but the clearest and most current metaphor that best explains how we should think about the world and the global economy is the state of the earth’s crust east of Japan just before Friday’s quake.

The Japanese main island of Honshu is unique in the world in that it is at the meeting point of four of the Earth’s fourteen major tectonic plates.

Plates driven by convection in the plastic rock below (in the asthenosphere) meet each other with a gradual build up of complex pressure and stresses, which are, in truth, continent smashing in their power and potential.

After sometimes extended periods of apparent stability the stresses reach a point at which they are suddenly released and one or more plate(s) move(s) violently – in this case the Pacific Plate jerks in the direction it has been pushing all along: deep underneath Honshu.

And then follows a sequence that might, with the benefit of hind site, look like tumbling dominoes in one of those endlessly complicated but strangely compelling set piece knock downs (only click here if you have the patience and bandwidth for watching endlessly toppling supermarket products – the Balkan juice  boxes are the most mysterious.)

First the quake: 8.9 on the Richter Scale, making it the 5th most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Then the seabed buckles over hundreds of square kilometres displacing a huge volume of water that sends a whole series of giant waves travelling at over 600 km/h in every direction, giving the Japanese authorities less than 15 minutes to react.

Then consider if you will the extended shuddering cascade of triggers and causality that will travel into the future – think of it as a wave that unlocks energy, destructive or otherwise, inherent in the situations and objects it encounters, rather than the cause of what happens.

Beyond the immediate human tragedies of loss, displacement, suffering and death there is long-term infrastructure damage, economic catastrophe in the already stretched insurance industry, political turmoil from a populous that will accuse the politicians of not having prepared adequately, an unfolding nuclear crisis and sundry other effects and consequences that we can all speculate about, but will likely be a surprise anyway.

The point is that while we can attempt to model such systems, beyond a certain level of complexity there is almost nothing we can say with certainty about how things will unfold.

While you consider these waves spreading out from the disaster that has struck Japan,  bursting other bubbles, causing other wound up instabilities to suddenly unwind, consider the ripples of this earthquake meeting the ripples of the oil supply shock rooted in the political turmoil in North Africa and the gathering force of the the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and elsewhere.

“Why” is not the question

When tragedy strikes us, particularly the personal, catastrophic and traumatic kind – a fatal car accident, a murder or the unexpected suicide of a family member – our first self-protective act is to grasp for an explanation.

Our initial need is for something simple, some prime cause that can give us the limited comfort of being able to say to ourselves: “This is why it happened”.

Fredrick Nietzsche {here quoted from”Ubiquity: The Science of History – or Why the World is Simpler Than We Think” by Mark Buchanan (Crown 2000) – it’s heavy going but well worth the effort} said:

To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none…The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear….

In the world in which we live, no explanation is almost always better than an incorrect one. At least then you know you don’t know – which is a slight protection in itself.

There is no new tide of chaos sweeping the world. This is the world as it has always been: interconnected in dizzyingly complex ways and apparently both deeply unstable and unpredictable.

But we have never lived the world at this level before. When twitter and Facebook and Al Jazeera TV and immediate images of the terrifying dark swirling waters engulfing the Japanese coast are brought together in our sensory universe in the same moment our evolved risk assessment tools are inadequate.

We are seeing the world not at the human scale of the hunter in the suddenly quieted forest. This is the world from a perspective that humans previously imagined was only available to their gods.

As individuals we are still essentially the same animal as that palaeolithic hunter in the primal forest.

But collectively we have recently gained the technology to see – if not fully understand – what is happening way beyond the forest, way beyond the world.

It will be a collective endeavour (through states and various other forms of human organisation) to make that information useful to us – as such forms of organisations have imperfectly striven to do in the past.*

Already Tsunami Warning Systems have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives over the last few days and Twitter and Facebook have kept millions of Japanese families in touch with the world and each other.

But we are only at the very beginning of the journey towards the kingdom where our collective ability to generate and harness vast streams of data will become meaningful and intelligible to us as individuals.

For now it is enough to say: when dealing with the world in all its complexity, don’t trust your instincts.

Luckily for us “pattern recognition” is not the only reason we have survived as we have.

“Adaptability” is this primate’s main strength and with the finger pressed firmly on the fast forward button of technological advancement we are going to need every edge we can get.

*The struggle between ourselves as individuals and the collective elites, governments and national secret agencies that previously attempted to monopolise this information and act on it to further their own interests – as often as not incompetently and mistakenly – is the subject of another discussion, although an important and linked one.

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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