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  • Important defection from the ANC to the EFF, and the DA launches robust campaign in Soweto – but it is probably not yet enough to scare the ANC
  • Appropriate concern grows at the Promotion of Investment and Protection Bill
  • Stunning victory in eastern DRC is becoming a feather in Zuma’s cap … 
  • … while the chaos in the SAPS and crime intelligence is a serious indictment of South Africa’s political leaders – and is threatening the investment environment

Herewith my latest news summary and analysis.

As I have mentioned previously, I write these updates very early on Monday mornings for the paying clients of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities. So thanks to those good people for allowing me to republish a few days later here (and thanks to them for giving me a fairly loose rein as to the style I am allowed to use).

Dali Mpofu announces defection from ANC to EFF
Dali Mpofu, advocate of the miners who were killed by the police in Marikana and a former CEO of the SABC, announced over the weekend that he was leaving the ANC and joining the Economic Freedom Fighters. While this is not completely unexpected (he represented Julius Malema in the ANC disciplinary hearings against the former ANCYL chairperson) Mpofu is perhaps the most mainstream figure to formally defect from the ANC and declare for the EFF.

So what?

This is my ‘shifting target’ predictions for the 2014 national election as of Friday November 1 (click on the graphic to see the details … and note the cute child sucking her thumb which is a graphic metaphor indicating I am making this up as I go along):

elecjpg

Some of you who saw those estimates in September might notice that I have massaged the EFF upwards and AgangSA downwards.

My Democratic Alliance results are probably too generous, although the pictures published in Afrikaans weekly Rapport on Sunday (11/03/2013) of the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane’s launch of his campaign in the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto on Saturday indicate a surprisingly robust start.

Mmusi

My caution about the upside for the DA is based on the history of outcomes in the four national elections since the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994 (again click on the graphic for a version large enough to read … note DA at 16.66% in 2009 and ANC at 65.9% … hmm):

Elec history

One would have to suggest that the DA has set itself too difficult a task in declaring that it hopes to achieve 30% of the national vote and be in a position to form a provincial government in Gauteng in an alliance with other opposition parties after elections in 2014. The EFF and AgangSA are likely to eat into ANC support but the challengers have a mountain to climb and the incumbent has to fall a long way before the climbers even catch sight of their objective.

Concern grows at the Promotion of Investment and Protection Bill

Legislation designed to replace a number of bilateral investment treaties that South Africa has maintained with over a hundred trade and investment partners was published in the government gazette on Friday and is starting to raise concerns among investors. Already Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan has angrily blamed “lawyers serving the private sector” for increasing uncertainty in South Africa’s investment environment with regard to this legislation (in a deeply unhelpful statement he made on the side-lines of the African Economic Conference at Montecasino in Johannesburg last Monday – Business Day 28/03/2013).

So what?

At the height of the campaign for the nationalisation of mines during 2012 (by Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League) it was South Africa’s myriad bilateral investment protection treaties that were the strongest argument of reassurance for foreign investors. The problem is less the new legislation, and more that fact that existing treaties will not be renewed. Business Day in its front page lead story this morning says the decision not to renew the treaties has been criticised “by a range of groups, from foreign business to credit agencies for causing uncertainty over the security of future foreign investment”.  An informed legal opinion would be a requirement for the proper assessment of the risk here, but it is appropriate to approach this policy and legislative shift with caution.

Jacob Zuma attempts to fill the Great Lakes power vacuum

In the light of a stunning and quick Congolese army (FARDC) victory over the occupying M23 rebels last week, Jacob Zuma has moved quickly to reinforce South Africa’s apparent sovereign advances in the region. Today he will host a joint summit of southern African and Great Lakes leaders in Pretoria to seek ways of consolidating this week’s victory by the FARDC and its Southern African allies … and on Tuesday he will chair another summit designed to kick-start an African Union plan for volunteer governments to form “coalitions of the willing” to tackle continental conflicts – Sunday Independent 03/11/2013.

So what?

The contending interests in and around the Eastern Congo are extraordinarily complex, but from a South African perspective the apparent defeat of the M23 is a success for the SADC Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) to which South Africa has contributed more than 1 300 troops alongside 1700 from Tanzania and Malawi. The M23 is backed by Rwanda which in turn is an ally of the US and the UK in the region. Crucially, those Western powers have warned Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to back off supporting the M23 – which is probably what left the rebels vulnerable last week (Sunday Independent and other several other sources).

There are significant mineral resources in the region and the Inga hydroelectric projects might become decisive to economic development in several southern African countries. Stability in the eastern DRC impacts on Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Sudan and even Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Jacob Zuma has managed to shift significant obstacles out of the way of reformatting alliances in the region – an objective that eluded Thabo Mbeki. The situation is delicate and tentative but Jacob Zuma’s decisive follow-up indicates he is seizing the historical moment and the initiative in a manner that we would have thought unlikely a year ago.

The DRC is a Zuma plus but Crime Intelligence and the SAPS is deepening minus

The main domestic weekly newspapers (Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and City Press) all attempted (unsuccessfully) to make sense of the damaging disarray and conflict in various aspects of the South African security services, most importantly in Crime Intelligence, the Hawks and the top echelons of the South African Police Services itself.

Last Monday the national police commissioner Riah Phiyega issued a suspension letter to the acting Crime Intelligence head, Chris Ngcobo (on the basis that there is some unspecified problem with Ngcobo’s qualifications).  Almost immediately afterwards a spy tape emerged and was leaked to the press that indicated Riah Phiyega was guilty of a crime by having “tipped off Western Cape police boss Arno Lamoer about a crime intelligence investigation linked to him” – Mail & Guardian.

So what?

You have to go to the source code for what is happening here because the details of each claim and counter-claim are impossible to follow. Essentially the police, and particularly Crime Intelligence, have been profoundly damaged by having been drawn into high-level political contests, particularly those between former president Thabo Mbeki and then challenger Jacob Zuma. Significant parts of these apparatuses have become semi-criminal and out-of-control, pursuing sometimes arcane political (and worse) agendas. The top echelons of our political establishment are directly implicated in and linked to this chaos – having deployed these institutions in their internecine battles. No individual institutional failing in South Africa is more serious and more threatening for those seeking stability and certainty in the regulatory and institutional environment.

Niccolo MachiavelliJacob Zuma has forced me to reread Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s The Prince, published 500 years ago this year.

He (Jacob Zuma) didn’t threaten me with the red lightsaber or catch me in a honey trap. My natterings, fortunately, are not impactful enough to draw the attentions of the Dark Lord (Darth Vader, dah! – ed) or his stormtroopers.

The compulsion comes from watching, slack-jawed, as Jacob Zuma skips happily across the backs of starving crocodiles - on his way, off towards the welcoming horizon.

Surely the world was an intrinsically hostile place for a black baby boy, born to a single-parent mother (who was also a domestic worker) in the South Africa of 1942? Surely when he received no formal education any chance of success in life would have become vanishingly small – in the estimation of a wandering actuarial statistician, perhaps?

When Jacob Zuma went to prison and then later was repeatedly caught with his hands in all sorts of cookie jars I imagine the hypothetical actuary would have confidently predicted a life of ignominy and poverty.

But instead Jacob Zuma is picking up an honorary Doctorate of Leadership from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technolog(who writes the script of the world? … no ordinary mortal would dare make this shit up – ed) and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and undoubtedly stashing bits of his loot in safe houses in Malaysia.

My second post on this website in mid-2009 titled The Accidental President (catch that here) argued that Zuma’s rise was pure chance and contingency. But when the same random set of things happens over-and-over (Jacob Zuma escapes danger with a sack full of cash) you have to start questioning whether this is purely the shambolic interactions of events, people, history and the world.

Politics is about power (yes, I know, we have heard that somewhere before). Power is agency, the ability to make stuff happen, to make people do your bidding and to make situations turn out in a particular way. Political analysis is the analysis of how (and why) power is exercised.

Which brings me back to Machiavelli.

I read The Prince when I was about 17 and, clearly, I didn’t understand a bleeding word.

I vaguely remember being outraged and confused by the book.  Bertrand Russell is widely quoted as having said The Prince is a handbook for gangsters (which is a great line but there is much debate as to whether the great logician himself actually said it).

However, I am now kicking myself that I haven’t been reading and rereading The Prince every year – and in the flush of my transient enthusiasm, I promise myself I will do so from now on until I die … or perhaps I will stop a little before.

(As an aside: I was halfway through the book when the Syrian nerve gas story broke. I was glad to have Machiavelli as a companion to think about how those with agency might cause, or allow, such things to happen and why they might do so.)

So, anyway … Jacob Zuma is the Prince and I doubt he ever needed a Machiavelli to tell him how to be what he is and how to do what he does.

Here is the opening dedication. It’s quite compellingly mysterious to those among us who are a little thin on our Florence-during- the-Renaissance, but it is also a good explanation of the work that follows:

Dedication: To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici

It is customary for such as seek a Prince’s favour, to present themselves before him with those things of theirs which they themselves most value, or in which they perceive him chiefly to delight. Accordingly, we often see horses, armour, cloth of gold, precious stones, and the like costly gifts, offered to Princes as worthy of their greatness. Desiring in like manner to approach your Magnificence with some token of my devotion, I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired in the course of a long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity. Which knowledge most carefully and patiently pondered over and sifted by me, and now reduced into this little book, I send to your Magnificence. And though I deem the work unworthy of your greatness, yet am I bold enough to hope that your courtesy will dispose you to accept it, considering that I can offer you no better gift than the means of mastering in a very brief time, all that in the course of so many years, and at the cost of so many hardships and dangers, I have learned, and know.

This work I have not adorned or amplified with rounded periods, swelling and high-flown language, or any other of those extrinsic attractions and allurements wherewith many authors are wont to set off and grace their writings; since it is my desire that it should either pass wholly unhonoured, or that the truth of its matter and the importance of its subject should alone recommend it.

Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.

Let your Magnificence, then, accept this little gift in the spirit in which I offer it; wherein, if you diligently read and study it, you will recognize my extreme desire that you should attain to that eminence which Fortune and your own merits promise you. Should you from the height of your greatness some time turn your eyes to these humble regions, you will become aware how undeservedly I have to endure the keen and unremitting malignity of Fortune.
Niccolò Machiavelli

……………………………………………………………..

I know how Niccolò feels. Sometimes these humble regions are just that little too humble. However, I would have been more cautious about calling for the Prince’s attention if I was Machiavelli. If the Prince read the little book, then the Prince would know that Machiavelli had the Prince’s number and that Machiavelli had rewritten the handbook. Which I can’t imagine would have charmed the Prince.

I will attempt a ‘highlights package’ of The Prince and possibly some learned comments (which are unlikely to be as good as you will find in this interesting article and interview). For the keenest among you, there are several places on the internet where The Prince is downloadable for no charge – I am sure the copyright has long expired … or rather I hope so. My copy, which is in electronic form on my laptop, originates at: http://www.feedbooks.com.

Finally, Jacob Zuma still has a few crocodiles to hop on before he reaches safety. I still think that the odds are against him, but I am not an actuarial statistician, wandering or otherwise . I draw comfort purely from the certainty that no-one, ultimately, gets out of this alive.

Here are some bits and pieces of my latest commentary:

Vavi and Numsa – the underlying risks

Zwelinzima Vavi faces a special central executive committee of Cosatu meeting today to decide his fate following his admission that he had sex with a junior Cosatu employee in her office in the Cosatu headquarters. Numsa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (perhaps Cosatu’s largest union after the collapse of Num in the face of Amcu competition) characterises the attempt to discipline, and possibly shaft, Vavi as  “a  real rupture in the Alliance, and therefore in Cosatu, the ANC and the SACP between the forces of socialism and the forces of neoliberal capitalism”. There is widespread speculation that Numsa might exit Cosatu if Vavi is axed.

So what?

It would be a mistake  to dismiss Numsa’s position as just so much socialist babble and dissembling (although I did I see a  recent Numsa paper defending Vavi with this quote from the Communist Manifesto: “The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations … law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices” – tee hee ).

Numsa reads the pressure being placed on Vavi as rooted in Vavi’s criticism of the ANC leadership with regard to corruption and with regard to the ANC’s adoption of the National Development Plan. For Numsa and ‘the left’ in Cosatu/ANC/SACP,  Vavi’s sexual practices are irrelevant, the ‘real’ issue is that the Zuma-led ANC and its allies in Cosatu and the SACP are attempting to rid themselves of a strident critic before the 2014 election. The left is, implicitly, saying: ‘you are trying to get rid of Vavi so that you can continue stealing from state coffers and selling us to the global corporations in whose pockets you now reside.’

The strategic planners around Zuma probably did want to get rid of Vavi and saw the sexual misconduct as an opportunity to do so with the least cost to Alliance strength and unity. However a result that leads to Numsa splitting from Cosatu might end up being catastrophic for Zuma and his allies. Numsa is the best organised and most militant union in Cosatu. It already effectively competes with Num (at Medupi for example) and if it were to set itself up in competition to other Cosatu unions the platinum sector circa-2012 could, conceivably, end up looking like a labour-relations picnic. Such a split could also cause unforeseeable disruptions in the ANC’s electoral support, conceivably leading to a political realignment and possibly to the formation of a ‘left’ or ‘workers’ party.

However, the Zuma administration and the central ANC leadership is desperately trying to unite the constituent elements of the Alliance behind the National Development Plan – partly in an attempt to prove to global capital markets and other investors that the ANC is serious about creating a settled environment for investment, and partly because it appears to believe that plan is the right path to ensure increased levels of economic growth and employment. Numsa sees the NDP as a direct extension of the ‘neoliberal’ Growth, Employment and Redistribution macroeconomic policy.

To understand more fully what is at stake here it is interesting to examine how Numsa, in its own words, understands the NDP and GEAR and how it interprets the ‘real’ reasons the Zuma leadership is attempting to get rid of Vavi:

“The capitalist neoliberal trajectory which the ANC leadership had  adopted”, designed to “ deepened and entrenched South African capitalism” and “ it also laid the grounds for deepening imperialist domination in South Africa” … “allowed monopoly capitalism to evade expropriation“  … “thus in fact GEAR negated one of the fundamental objectives of any liberation struggle – the elimination of imperialism”.  Finally: “Inevitably, the rupture in Cosatu is between those who want to see a thoroughgoing implementation of the Freedom Charter …  and those who are consciously or unconsciously defending South African capitalism and imperialism by defending the NDP and not openly supporting the implementation of the Freedom Charter, especially its nationalisation demands.”

The stakes are high. The Zuma administration needs to prove to investors that these political positions are not represented in ANC policy making AND it has to keep the Ruling Alliance intact. The disciplining of Vavi today brings this to a head. The Zuma aligned faction probably wants to achieve a disciplining of Vavi with regard to his public utterances but to a degree that keeps Numsa in the tent. It’s a delicate balance and fraught with risk.

 

The Democratic Alliance – much talk of the possibility of taking Gauteng

The DA Electoral College decided late last week that Mmusi Maimane will head its campaign to take Gauteng from the ANC is 2014. Maimane stood against Jack Bloom for the position of ‘premier candidate’ for the DA in Gauteng. The election comes amidst increased media speculation that the Official Opposition could realistically pursue victory against the ANC in the economic heartland of the country.

So what?

The peculiarly South African ‘coded’ relevance of this story, is that Maimane is black and Bloom is white – and therefore the DA electoral college’s choice of Maimane over the more experienced Bloom is seen as indicative of the DA’s decision to ‘go all out’ to win a greater share of the black vote, especially in the region where it is assumed that ‘urban African professionals’ are both most abundant and most likely to be disaffected with corruption and ANC failures of governance.

At this distance out from a national election any definite prediction about results should be taken with a mountain of salt. Parties are either trying to talk up their chances or are predicting dire results to scare their members and supporters into campaigning mode. In the 2009 election the Democratic Alliance won 16.6% of the vote in Gauteng and it is vanishingly unlikely that the party will win a majority in the province in 2014. It is conceivable that the DA could find itself in a position to lead an alliance of parties to victory over the ANC in the province next year. However the parties themselves and their expensive private polling consultants possess the only real ‘scientific‘ (probably ‘empirical’ is better) – ed) data. Any hints that emerge into the public domain that come from those party contracted polling agencies are probably designed to serve specific party objectives, rather than the truth – and should be treated with maximum scepticism.

 

Zuma expected to tell SADC ‘our work in Zimbabwe is done’

It is unlikely that the 15 member SADC Heads of State meeting scheduled to take place on August 17 will call for a coalition government in Zimbabwe – as the body did after the disputed 2008 elections. City Press reported on Sunday that a source close to the South African mediation effort has said: “As far as South Africa is concerned, we have ended mediation in Zimbabwe”. It is likely that the regional body will vote to accept the election result (although not unequivocally and not without polite reservations) and further, that the body will call for the UK and the US to drop sanctions against Zimbabwe as part of an economic recovery plan.

So what?

The SADC is likely to err on the side of order if the trade-off is between political/economic stability and electoral fairness in the region. In 2008 the body assessed that the election was so unfair that accepting Mugabe’s refusal to acknowledge an MDC victory would be an unstable result. Thus the body forced Mugabe and his party into a coalition government. The estimation appears, this time around, to be that accepting a Zanu-PF victory is the more stable of the possible outcomes – and that stability is rooted in Zanu-PF having performed better and the MDC having performed worse this time around.

There is an interesting account in the Mail & Guardian of how Zanu-PF won Harare from the MDC that bears testimony to a real shift in voter sympathies in Zimbabwe – as opposed to purely cheating and skullduggery on Zanu-PF’s part (catch that story here). It is impossible to make a serious estimation of how much Zanu-PF’s victory was legitimate and how much a result of the aforementioned skullduggery. However, it is my opinion that the SADC will conclude that enough of the victory is ‘legitimate’ to declare it so, and thereby help make it so.

The outstanding questions, it seems to me, are:

• Will the party implement the indigenisation programme in a way that further drives foreign investment out of the economy?
• Will the party implement catastrophic monetary and fiscal policy?

It is probably a correct response to be ‘optimally cautious’ rather than ‘cautiously optimistic, given Zanu-PF’s serious mismanagement of the economy post-1999. However, it is also important to think of Zanu-PF and Mugabe as conscious and politically aware players in their game. Zanu-PF is likely to be cautious about policy – it is no longer necessary to implement ‘panic’ measures and any incumbent administration is likely to want to seek a degree of economic stability. This does not mean Zanu-PF will back-off ‘indigenisation’ – it appears to have worked for the party up to a point. But it does mean that Mugabe and his party are unlikely to implement indigenisation that further (i.e. any worse than it already has) breaks international norms and standards about property or in a manner that causes a stampede out of the economy. (Important qualification: One of my colleagues who specialises in analysing platinum companies has suggested that the indigenisation ‘deals’ that were struck prior to the election are actually coming ‘unstuck’ because Zanu-PF appears to believe it can get more favourable terms now that it has won such a divisive victory in the election. If that is, in fact, the case then it would be appropriate to be less confident of my formulation that  “Zanu-PF is likely to be cautious about policy”.)

Additionally, a serious and high-risk ‘unknown’ is what might happen if and when Mugabe (finally) dies. My own assumptions about how history works is that individuals rarely make a huge difference to outcomes. However, through careful manipulation and a clever ruthlessness Mugabe has become the lynchpin of Zanu-PF power and I am uncertain as to what might happen if a vacuum suddenly appears in the space he currently occupies, but I think it is unlikely to be pretty.

 

Pravin Gordhan – mutters at The Treasury

“Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s leadership style has been called into question as treasury employees accuse him of taking a unilateral decision to cut performance bonuses by more than half, while failing to condemn publicly the expenditure on the multimillion-rand upgrade of President Jacob Zuma’s compound in Nkandla” – Mail & Guardian.

So what?

Aggrieved staff members are not necessarily the most reliable critics of the bosses for whom they toil. However, successive ANC governments have relied on the Department of Finance being a centre of excellence that consistently trains and/or attracts top, highly motivated and effective officials – so any signs of serious stress in the organisation is worthy of consideration. The article, from the ‘quality weekly’, quotes a ‘senior official’ in the following manner: “Since he [Gordhan] was appointed as minister, things have never been the same in the national treasury. He brought a management style that is foreign to the team of the national treasury. He sometimes speaks to the management team like they are kids. His leadership style has seen many of the senior treasury employees, including former director general Lesetja Kganyago, leaving … All he is focusing on is making sure that he is reappointed as the minister of finance after next year’s election. People here say that this is one of the reasons he does not condemn the enormous amount of taxpayers’ money that was spent on the president’s residence”

In the same story, the Democratic Alliance finance spokesman Tim Harris claims that recent replies by the Treasury to the party’s parliamentary questions revealed a ‘significant’ vacancy rate at senior levels within the department, “in particular, 25 senior employees have left the department in the past year,” he said.

We have to take this from whence it comes (aggrieved employees and the official parliamentary opposition) but the status and functioning of the previously above reproach Treasury is important enough to consider even the fruit of this tainted tree.

 

Julius Malema seeks spiritual guidance

City Press reported on Sunday that Julius Malema and his colleagues in the Economic Freedom Fighters left South Africa on Friday for a week’s visit to a massively popular Nigerian preacher in Lagos who has ‘prophesied’ a huge and bloody revolt in South Africa – presumably one led by Malema. The EFF said in a statement that this is a “spiritual visit to meet and create friendship with this son of Africa and his congregation, and ask for blessings on the journey ahead”.

So what?

Nothing really … it’s just that Malema’s antics are endlessly entertaining. Of course this lighthearted approach is based purely on the belief that Julius and cronies are never going to get anywhere in their political party endeavours. If the EFF ever looked like it was a real threat I would probably not be sniggering up my sleeve at their tormenting of the ANC …

I am in Serbia on a social visit and I thought I would record here some of my initial observations about stuff we might learn from this country about some aspects of SA politics and culture.

Cultural Betrayal

Firstly, I am in Belgrade – a city of 1.6 million people built on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava – and a peculiar mixture of modern flash, Soviet-era bland and medieval tatty. The scars of the Nato bombings are still dramatically evident in a sort of carefully preserved tableau, a series of monuments to that seminal betrayal, that you can’t miss on your way in from the airport

Serbian/Yugoslav Army HQ? Taken a few minutes ago (thanks Jaimo) – I will double-check what the building’s original function was … before it (and a few of its neighbours) were bombed on May 1 1999, becoming (permanent?) monuments to Western perfidy

Why betrayal? Because everyone my age here has the same (as me)  … memealogy? (okay, I made it up – memes are cultural genes and you can work it backwards from genealogy). The cultural literacy is all Rolling Stones, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, The Alien, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Billy Joel (you dredge up the cultural icon from the 60s, 70′s and 80′s and I bet I share it with Serbians of an appropriate age – except they are more culturally literate. Interestingly, just like in Yugoslavia, in SA we got this stuff a few years late – in SA because of apartheid and National Party awfulness, in Yugoslavia because of a slightly different set of transgressions.)

… and then one day their beloved Americans and English cultural tutors bombed them and killed the firemen trying to save people from the buildings – ostensibly to stop some new, particularly ugly, transgressions. Oh the treachery, the faithlessness …

Ethnic uniformity

The second thing that strikes me is the populace is ethnically identical. They are all white. There are no black people, no Arabic looking people; no any kind of people who are in any way different looking from what I think of as Slavic – which is just a minute variation on your bog standard white person – the men with chiseled features and the women with unusually long legs and everyone with white skin … not olive or dusky or anything, but white – in the old Apartheid conception of the skin colour.

“The city was more cosmopolitan”, my Serbian friend tells me, “before the disaster of Slobodan Milošević – before then you could see more  Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Slovaks …”

We are wandering down a medieval street crammed with crowds of handsome young people. I ask him to show me some individual examples of these groups that survived the virtual and literal ethnic cleansing that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia.

His attempt seems half-hearted, even dispirited.

“Hmm maybe she is Croat,” he says indicating a woman flicking through some blouses at a street kiosk. She is one of the tall, long-legged, light-brown haired, chiseled cheek-boned and haughty beauties that shoal in these alleys, as ubiquitous as sardines at the right time in Durban.

“Ok, maybe not” he shrugs as I frown at him in confusion.

We finally manage to agree that “those gypsies” selling knock-off Ray-Bans look ethnically dissimilar to the majority. But to me  it’s a margin call – any one of them could have been my old ‘Leb’ Catholic chinas in the Johannesburg of my youth; definitely ‘white’ under apartheid’s racial taxonomy.

Remember it took the terror of ethnic cleansing to create this level of uniformity, but even before that, in the old Yugoslavia, the full range of ethnic diversity could have been encompassed by the differences between, say Rafael Nadel and Charlize Theron …

Let’s compare monstrous barbarisms

Everyone here above a certain age seems haunted by what happened after the collapse of Yugoslavia. You would think that this lot would be immunised to bombs, betrayals, racial and religious purging and radical disjuncture in their social organisation.

It started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” in 50 000 BCE  (okay, I’m exaggerating) who in their turn were replaced by an endless Roman occupation; sacked by Attila the Hun in 442 and then one thousand five hundred years of bloody, impossible to follow conquest, resistance, sacking, rapine, pillage … I could go on and on. It was the Byzantines, the Franks, the Bulgarians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Crusades, the Serbian Empire (briefly) the Hungarians again, the Ottomans (for five hundred years! … and yes, they did persecute the Christians but not half as badly as the Christians did to almost anyone of any other faith during the Crusades … and there are a whole lot of beautiful and ancient churches that the Ottoman-Turk conquerors and rulers left standing) and the Austrians.

And of course, that is only before the First World War, and as you know all the important stuff happened since then.

I know our African and South African histories are important and it is appropriate that we wrestle as long as it takes – which will be forever, obviously – with the ongoing consequences of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

But being here does tempt me to wish my countrymen and women had a slightly less myopic view of our own trials and tribulations.  I read this morning that Belgrade is trying to scrape together the finances to build a memorial to Judenlager Semlin, the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast Europe where in May 1942 the Nazi’s proudly announced one of their first major European campaign successes: Serbia was “Judenfrei”. The men had been executed earlier, but the last 7000 Jewish women and children were killed in the camp in the first few months of 1942.

By May Serbia was Judenfrei.

And this is not a The Holocaust trumps all kind of statement – I just mention it  in the context of the previous 2000 years of European history. The Germans might have achieved a unique scale with their technological and organisational excellence, but the great rivers of cruelty and tears are old, deep and cold here and they flow through every valley of this geography – and not only to and from the mighty lake that was The Holocaust.

The Economy and the European Debt Crisis

The Serbian economy has hit the wall and the government is trying to decide on a balance between cutting public sector wages and salaries by about 6% and increasing VAT to about 22%. The options are limited and there is an absolute consensus that extremely hard times have arrived. This is the European debt crises writ slightly smaller – because Serbia is not part of the European Union.

But what I see are people eating and drinking in restaurants – and partying as hard and as healthily as it gets.

There are almost no beggars – and those that there are are obviously professionals with studied acts:

  • the near-sighted (with ridiculously cute thick glasses) slightly retarded child playing – very badly – the violin, every item of clothing and scuff on his thick medical black shoes a carefully choreographed act that everyone consents to and ignores.
  • An old hunched-backed crone, her nose not six inches from the floor, tapping along on a short, gnarled staff, an arthritis crippled hand held out blindly above her … I am convinced she is a 22-year-old actress who couldn’t find a waitressing job.

The point is there are none of the streams of dead-eyed, exhausted people searching and researching the refuse; people you will find in any South African city. There is a medieval character to Belgrade, which means there are a million nooks and crannies and little hollows in ancient buildings and monuments everywhere. In South Africa those would all be occupied – where they were fenced, the fences would be broken and tunneled under – there would be evidence that someone was eking out an existence in every hollow, in every gap.

But here, nothing.

Sure, there is an occasional drunk sleeping on a park bench, but that is pretty much as bad as it gets. I have absolutely no doubt that I am not seeing the whole picture and certainly there are large areas of the city with awful Soviet-era council housing-type tenements, covered for 10 metres from street level with graffiti that looks to me just like Cape Town’s gang signs.

In South Africa we feel like we are bursting out of our seams, with the poor competing intensely for the leavings of the rich and thereby driving some kind of desperate but highly energetic economy. Here it feels older and emptier, certainly dowdy in places, but calm and stoic.

Everyone has time for a coffee and a rakia.

Don’t get me wrong. These people descend from women who have thrown their babies onto invader’s spears; their forefathers and mothers have eaten dogs and rats and stones to stave off the inevitable rape and slaughter that awaits the fall of the castle walls; they have catapulted the last live chickens at their enemies who have besieged them for years, and successfully convinced the invaders to just give up and go home.

So I  am not exactly saying that this is tired old Europe with nothing left to do but casually sip a coffee in the shade, sneering at the inevitable heat death that comes with impossible debt, dipping personal income and stagnant growth – of the economy and the population.

I am also not exactly saying that we are fresh and chaotic and ready to burst onto the global stage with the vigour and desperate energy of youth.

But there’s something in there, some little kernel or nugget – maybe a hope that I haven’t quite allowed myself to feel yet …

But it’s mid-afternoon and so hot that it is impossible to process this any further. Time for my first rakia and 4th double espresso – I’ll think about this tomorrow.

The Arch live on national television on Sunday night was full of his old and delightful twinkly theatricality.

“Watch out ANC government, watch out!”

My own view is he has every right to his anger and he expressed it with aplomb (and I am deliberately leaving aside placing the Dalai Lama anywhere on the continuum between “paragon of virtue” and “another narcissistic human-rights rock star” – because I think he is irrelevant to the question of the ANC’s moral failure in this case.)

Now Tutu didn’t actually say the ANC was either worse than, or equivalent to, the Nats, but I still wish he would keep in mind the problem of the inflation of metaphor.

He said that the ANC government’s failures of visa issuance are worse than those of the Nats – because at least with Apartheid’s masters you expected the worst.

Which is obviously still rubbish – even in this more limited form – to anyone who remembers how much focus was given the domestic and international movement of black people by the machinery of the Apartheid state.

But moral watchdogs are obliged to bark as loud at the gradual rise of tyranny as they do when that bloody moon reaches its apogee – which is why I am not going to quibble with the Arch; he is doing his job and all strength to him.

What I originally wanted to do was draw a graph using the 4 previous post-1994 South African visa applications (that I know of) for the Dalai Lama and plot them against the rise of China in Africa and the fall of principle within the ANC – but I think that has too many axes (including the grinding kind) and I couldn’t get it to work in Excel.

In 1996 Nelson Mandela invited the Dalai Lama and met him face to face; in 1999 Thabo Mbeki’s government gave him a visa as part of an international interfaith conference but refused to meet him; in 2009 Mbeki’s government refused him a visa altogether and today Zuma’s government has ignored the issue entirely.

You can plot those points yourself against this graphic that I have cobbled together:

The explanation for the changing stance of visa applications becomes fairly obvious when you track them along that curve.

And then, if you have the time or the inclination, feel free to suggest a speech bubble for the protagonists.

*If you are not South African that headline is going to be difficult to explain. “My china” is slang for “my good friend”. So “China’s my ANC” is a species of bad pun crossed with an unintelligible inside joke. (Note: It has been pointed out to me in the comments section below that “my china” meaning “my friend” comes from rhyming Cockney slang … China plate/mate … should get my brass tacks right.)

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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