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I intend, in the near future, to dust off my Marxist theory.*

I am going to need a framework through which to express my growing conviction that much of our politics can be understood as a function of the collapse of the alliance of classes that underlay the national democratic revolution – and the African National Congress.

The big driver is the strongly emergent black middle class – or perhaps competing versions of that class. In the background is a sort of bad kung fu movie fight scene involving the industrial working class, various parasitic elites within the state and party, a comprador bourgeoisie and a whole mess of tribalists, proto-fascists, landless peasants and  lumpen proletarians of various stripe.

(The camera occasionally flicks across the deeper shadow behind, where we almost catch a glimpse of Moeletsi Mbeki’s lurking oligarchs, watching us.)

It’s my job to have some kind of understanding of what is going on … and I will need all the help I can get theory-wise.

In the last week the ANC has given strong hints that the Labour Relations Act amendments are being held up because government wants balloting prior to strikes and a ‘forced mediation’ strike-breaking mechanism. (See here.)

Also we have the astonishing re-emergence of the (excellent) idea that we should break up Eskom and sell off some of  the bits and get the private sector to build other bits. (See here  … and btw I can’t help but notice how much interesting news is written by Carol Paton of Business Day.)

What’s going on?

Well, one things is government is facing further downgrades because it can’t pay its bills.

The biggest bill of all is public sector wages, which will be renegotiated before  the current wage agreement expires in March 2015.

That bill will represent above 35% of non-interest government spending and the wage level the employer and the employee eventually agree upon and the degree of disruption that accompanies the bargaining is extraordinarily important for South Africa and therefore for the stability of the governing party.

Also government is burning due to its apparent inability to get the endlessly promised infrastructure built. At least part of the reason is the constant labour stoppages, for example at Kusile and Medupi.

Having lost much revenue (and political support) during the recent strikes led by Amcu and Numsa, the ANC government is forced to find a way to rewrite the terms of engagement between employer and employee.

Also Eskom is bleeding … or potentially bleeding … government dry.

The case for privatisation is threefold: you get money from the asset sale to pay your debts, you don’t have to keep bailing out the loss-making enterprise and you get the ‘efficiencies’ (the removal of structural impediments to growth) that supposedly come from the private sector running the enterprise.

(As an aside: privatisation seldom works quite like that. This government, and the people of South Africa, have barely recovered from the the drubbing we received from the ‘private sector’ following the partial privatisation of Telkom in the 90’s.  But desperate times, desperate measures … and all of that.)

The groups that traditionally oppose these policies are in disarray. Cosatu has essentially collapsed in a heap – and the most energetic sections of organised labour are actively hostile to government/ANC anyway and no longer require wooing … or rather, following Marikana and various statements of outright hostility by the ANC and government leaders, are no longer susceptible to those old sweet lies.

The forces that shaped our labour market are profoundly changed.

A growing mystery to me is where the SACP is in all of this?

So its all: hello 1996-class project, we who threw you out with the bathwater at Polokwane in December 2007 would like to apologise and welcome you back. Don’t worry, the communist are in China learning how to deal with corruption and with the labour force … you can chat to them if they ever come home.

So meanwhile here is a sort of ancestor to my questioning the ‘class character’ of the moment; a column I wrote for the Compliance Institute of South Africa in November last year:

Is this Jacob Zuma’s Maggie Thatcher moment?

I admit that on the face of it the comparison seems something of a stretch.

For example I can’t think of an ‘Nkandla’ equivalent in Baroness Thatcher’s world – although her son seemed to benefit from parental political power in much the same way as Jacob Zuma’s myriad offspring seem to be enjoying.

Maggie1

The point, though, is Thatcher came to power with the reforming mission to roll-back back the influence of organised labour and to make labour markets more flexible– all as part of her attempt to stop an on-going recession, bring summer to the ‘Winter of discontent’ (paralysing wage strikes by public sector unions in Britain in 1978-1979) and increase employment and economic growth.

(‘Thatcherism’ as a political-economic ideology is also considered to include attempts to keep inflation low, shrink the state – by privatising state owned enterprises – and keep a tight rein on money supply … (and is not famously concerned about employment – Ed) … but let’s leave those details aside and stick with the matter of organised labour.)

Much to my surprise there is growing evidence Jacob Zuma is forcing a showdown within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – and between the members of the ruling alliance (the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu).

Since 1994 it has been a good bet that tensions in the ruling alliance would flare up and then subside – but that the constituent ideological factions and organisations would always back off from a real split.

The ruling alliance has always seemed to me like a vaguely unhappy marriage that none of the parties have the resources or discipline to leave.

I have been covering South African politics and financial markets since 1997 and in 1999 I commissioned this cartoon :

Maggie2

 

The original caption read: ‘She means nothing to me’, he pleaded unconvincingly. ‘You’re the one I will always love’.

The report that accompanied the cartoon – which I originally published for the then stockbroker Simpson Mckie James Capel – made it clear that the man in the middle represented the ANC and his entreaties were addressed to Cosatu and the SACP … while his real passion (and the furtive fumbling behind his back) was for business, global and domestic. (Cathy Quickfall drew the cartoon and did a better job than I could have hoped for: the Cosatu/SACP figure’s naive and hurt innocence, still wanting to trust Mr ANC; business in a sharp suit, her disdainful look into the distance with just the busy hand behind her back revealing her urgent and furtive intent.)

It has looked for many years as if the dysfunctional relationship would continue for ever – that the parties involved (both the institutions of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu but also the myriad ideological factions that exist across those organisations) have more to gain from being inside and more to lose from being outside.

But, surprisingly, it appears that the ruling faction within the ANC (the incumbent leadership, represented by Jacob Zuma) appears to have finally drawn some kind of line in the sand with the ‘left’ unions within Cosatu, most obviously the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

The first signs that this was happening appeared when evidence surfaced that Jacob Zuma’s allies within Cosatu were moving against Zwelinzima Vavi, the now suspended secretary general and strident ‘left’ critic of corruption in the ANC and critic of the slightly more business-friendly economic policy (particularly the National Development Plan) of the Zuma government … (remembering that this was written late last year and Vavi has now been reinistated … sort of – Ed).

At first it appeared that Vavi would be got rid of by being accused of corruption or some form of financial mismanagement related to the sale of Cosatu House for a price less than it was worth. While that investigation was still on-going, Vavi handed his enemies a perfect excuse to suspend him by having sex with a junior employee in the Cosatu head-office earlier this year (last year – Ed).

Since the suspension of Vavi his allies in Cosatu, especially the biggest affiliate (the 350 000 member Numsa) has been on a collision course with both Cosatu itself and with the ANC.

The conflict is likely to come to a head at the Numsa special congress to be held on December 13 – 16.

Why do I see this as, partly, Zuma’s Maggie Thatcher moment?

Well, Vavi’s suspension is only the proximate cause of the impending collision. The ‘real’ or ‘underlying’ causes are what are important.

Vavi, Numsa secretary general Irwin Jim, his deputy Karl Cloete – and probably a majority of Numsa leaders and shop stewards … and several other groups and leaders within Cosatu) appear increasingly of the opinion:

  • that Cosatu has been bullied by the Zuma leadership into accepting policy positions with which it (generally) disagrees
  • that the ANC under Zuma has attempted to turn Cosatu into a ‘labour desk’ of the ANC and the alliance summits have become nothing but a ‘toy telephone’ rather than a real joint decision making forum for the ANC/Cosatu/SACP alliance
  • the policy positions with which this group disagrees are, particularly, the National Development Plan, but also e-tolling, the Youth Wage Subsidy and the ANC government’s failure to ban labour brokers. (The reasons why this ‘left’ group opposes these policy measure are crucial: they oppose the NDP because it is seen as ‘neo-liberal’ and anti-socialist; e-tolling because it is seen as covert privatisation of public infrastructure; the youth wage subsidy because it segments the labour market, threatening Cosatu’s monopoly and potentially exposing ‘protected’ Cosatu members to competition from ‘unprotected’ youth workers; and the failure to ban labour brokers because those institutions are also anathema to Cosatu’s monopoly.)
  • that the ANC under Zuma has been captured by a crony-capitalist regionally based (possibly ethnic) elite bent on looting the state
  • that the gamble to back Zuma against Mbeki has badly misfired

 

There is widespread press and analyst speculation that the tensions within Cosatu could lead to the federation splitting – and in some way or another the more specifically ‘socialist’ pro-Vavi, Numsa-based group leading Cosatu – or a piece of Cosatu – out of the ruling alliance.

In what way is this ‘Zuma doing a Maggie’?

Well, because the disgruntlements of the Vavi/Numsa group (described above) are real and represent significant shifts against organised labour by the Zuma government.

If we add to the youth wage subsidy, the NDP, the failure to ban labour brokers, e-tolling in Gauteng to the very tight budgeting for public sector wage increases mentioned in my October column I think we have a strong circumstantial case that Zuma’s ANC has moved decisively to roll-back the power of organised labour.

Maggie3

 

Why Jacob Zuma and his allies might have done this is revealed clearly in the anaemic Q3 GDP growth figures of 0.7 per cent compared to the previous quarter, or 1.8 per cent on a year-on-year basis . Almost across the board analysts and economists have ascribed most of the weakness to labour unrest, particularly in the motor vehicle sector – where the recent strikes were organised by Numsa! (Again, remember that this was written in November last year … just imagine how many exclamation marks he would have used if he had written that sentence today? -Ed)

Numsa has also helped plague Eskom’s flagship Medupi project – and has undoubtedly contributed to government’s infrastructure plans looking shaky.

The ANC’s motivation is not purely an attempt to fix economic growth – and bring to an end our own ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vavi and his allies in Numsa have harried and harassed the ANC leadership over corruption – and particularly the upgrade to Nkandla – and this has clearly helped force the hand of the Zuma ANC to drawn a line in the sand with the left-wing of Cosatu – especially as the ANC enters an election and struggles to cope with this level of internal dissent and criticism.

The resignation earlier this week of Numsa president Cedric Gina (who, unlike the majority of his Numsa colleagues, is close to the current ANC leadership: his wife is an ANC MP and he probably has similar ambitions himself) is probably an indication that the Zuma/ANC allies intend contesting Numsa’s direction in the lead-up to the Numsa special congress in December. The ANC leadership has probably decided to fight it out in Numsa – and Cosatu more generally – making sure that if/when a split occurs the faction that sticks with the ANC/Zuma/SACP is as large as possible and the faction that defects is as small as possible.

The big risk for investors and financial markets associated with a possible split in Cosatu is that Vavi/Jim group is likely to contest with unions within Cosatu that currently support the ANC and Zuma’s leadership – most obviously and most unsettlingly –  with the National Union of Mineworkers which has complained repeatedly that Numsa is poaching its membership. This potential for a widespread contestation of each workplace and each economic sector between a new ‘Cosatu’ and an old ‘Cosatu’ is probably the most important threat represented by the unfolding crisis.

Politically the Vavi/Jim group will likely be campaigning against the NDP, the youth wage subsidy, e-tolling and Nkandla-style corruption just as the ANC’s election campaign peaks early next year. I do not think a split in Cosatu will translate automatically into specific electoral declines for the ANC – it is possible and even likely that Numsa members who support a split could still vote for the ANC.

However, one of the big unanswered questions is whether the defecting faction has any possibility of linking up politically with the EFF. Up until now the defecting faction linked to Vavi and Jim have unequivocally rejected the EFF on the grounds that its (the EFF’s) leadership are ‘tenderpreneurs’ (much like the Nkandla faction of the ANC) who just happen to be out in the cold.

However, the EFF’s support for nationalisation of mines and expropriation of white owned farms with or without compensation does dovetail with aspects of the Vavi/Jim faction’s essentially socialist ideology.

My own view is that in the event of a split it is possible that the Vavi/Jim faction forms a ‘labour party’ which could only feasibly contest elections in 2019.

The motivation for Thatcher moving against the unions was as much about weakening the Labour Party as it was about repairing the economy – so we shouldn’t dismiss the Zuma/Thatcher comparison purely because his motivations are mixed.

If Zuma and the ANC succeed in reducing the militancy and power of organised labour it is possible that they will have contributed in a small way to laying the grounds for an improvement in public education, for a period of recovery and even extended economic growth.

It’s a risky – and complicated – business, but it was for Baroness Thatcher as well.

 

* It was, in our eyes,  a fine hat and we cocked it jauntily. And thus attired, and to our very great satisfaction, we successfully answered all the important epistemological questions of the day. We let the  cowards flinch and traitors sneer as they boastfully proclaimed the end of history. We were history … or at least, through the complex functioning of the intelligentsia in Marxist Leninist theory … we were history’s engine made flesh. And the race wasn’t over … we were merely getting our breath back.

Zwelinzima Vavi’s suspension from Cosatu and the ANC/SACP/Num decision not to attend the Marikana commemoration, both on Friday last week, are, to my mind, indicative of a significant retreat of ANC hegemony.

Hegemony’,  as I imbibed the concept from probably slightly fevered readings of Antonio Gramsci’s sublime Prison Notebooks while I was a student activist (and from endless discussions in those semi-mythological ‘smoke filled rooms’) has proved, for me personally, a useful and adaptable tool for conceiving of the ebb and flow of political power.

The concept comes from the Greek word ἡγεμονία (look at me … I can cut-and-paste from Wikipedia) which means both ‘rule’ and ‘leadership’ but especially implied and indirect power or rule.

Hegemony (in my own lexicon) is used to describe the myriad ways in which the dominant group extends its direct power (let’s say, for argument’s sake, that direct power is that exercised through party discipline, or through the state, especially apparatuses of implicit or actual coercion). The extension of the reach of the dominant group beyond the immediate terrain that it obviously controls and into the middle ground or the rest of society (usually conceived of as civil society) is what I think of as hegemony. It is direct power extended as influence and leadership and as a result of occupying the high ground and by in some way representing the national as opposed to sectional interests and, ultimately, effective through persuasion rather than control - forgive all the awkward italicising.

The ANC that won to power in South Africa during the end of the 80’s and early 90’s was, to my mind, the exemplary example of the exercise of hegemony. The only power available to the ANC during this period was so called  ‘soft power that derived from its occupation of the moral high-ground and came about as a result of its (the ANC’s) careful building of broad fronts and tighter, more disciplined formations, like the ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance itself.

This is the context in which I assess both Vavi’s suspension from Cosatu and the fact that the Marikana commemoration appears to have been a ‘no-go area’ for the Ruling Alliance. Obviously both news items can be understood as important for other reasons, but this is the prism through which I have chosen to view them.

(Note: ‘retreating power or hegemony” is not the same as having  ‘lost power or hegemony’. I am not saying in raising the points below that the ANC has lost its ability to ‘influence’ and ‘lead’ … rather I am saying that there are signs that it is significantly weakened in this regard. Not explored in this article is the consequences – which I believe are extremely serious and threatening – of any such potential loss of ANC hegemony. I have previously discussed this in an article entitled Beware the thing that might pick up power lying in the street and I have made similar points in Zuma’s brittle grip tightens.)

Cosatu suspends Vavi – and the Ruling Alliance shudders

Zwelinzima Vavi, suspended after a special meeting of Cosatu’s central executive committee on Wednesday last week, has indicated that he will challenge the decision in court.  During his press conference on Friday announcing this, Vavi released a document containing what purports to be a series of intelligence reports claiming that he (Vavi) is part of a US ‘soft-power’ plot to undermine Cosatu and the ANC.

Vavi’s strategy, and that of his supporters, appears to be to mobilise ordinary workers, notably in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu), the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) as well as in those branches, regions and local areas of otherwise anti-Vavi unions where Vavi remains popular with the rank and file – including, for example, the Kokstad region of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).  The ‘fight back’ strategy will culminate in a special Numsa congress to be held in December.

So what?

Vavi’s refusal to accept his suspension and his publically announcing that he will contest in court the Cosatu CEC decision suspending him is more serious than it first appears – and may well lead to his expulsion. (To get a sense of why this may be the case, here is what Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary general, said of Vavi’s decision to challenge his suspension: “This is unprecedented. It is the worst case of organisational ill-discipline. If the ANC takes me through a disciplinary process, the worst thing I can ever do is to go out and attack the ANC. That is unheard of” – Sunday Times.)

The so-called ‘intelligence document’ that Vavi released on Friday (available as a pdf at the Mail and Guardian website here) appears to be a clumsy attempt to discredit Vavi by linking him (and various other Zuma opponents) to comical ‘imperialist plots’ to spread coups and chaos in Africa. The contents of the document are not worthy of consideration. However, if it is true, as Vavi claims, that his opponents in Cosatu and the ANC distributed the document, it is legitimate to consider the possibility that it was produced in a ‘dirty tricks’ department somewhere within the state security apparatus and/or somewhere close to the leadership of the ruling party.

The outstanding question is whether Vavi’s suspension or expulsion could lead to a defection of Numsa and other unions or parts of unions from Cosatu. The labour environment could be catastrophically impacted upon by this kind of collapse of Cosatu – especially if Numsa, already the largest, best organised and, perhaps, most militant Cosatu union, decides to contest with other Cosatu unions (especially Num) for membership.

The difficulty in making an assessment of whether Numsa could split from Cosatu is rooted in the fact that there is no template for the consequences of the factional driven axing of such a senior, respected and popular alliance leader such as is Vavi.

Up until now it was always a good bet that while ‘left’ and other ‘militant’ factions of the Alliance might fight against various positions and policies with which they disagree, the benefits of being within the Alliance always outweighed the loss of access to the policy-making/leadership-election processes that would go along with being outside the Alliance.  However, Vavi represents, more than any other single individual, the ‘left’ critique of ANC/government corruption (particularly allegations around Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence) and of government economic policy (particularly the National Development Plan) and it is distinctly possible that ‘left’ factions of Cosatu could conclude that the space for them to operate within the alliance would be closed down if Vavi is forced out.

Marikana – ANC and Num refuse to participate in commemorations

The African National Congress, the SACP and the National Union of Mineworkers boycotted the first anniversary commemoration of the Marikana killings, saying the event was “hijacked” (Num), that Amcu was  “a vigilante grouping” (SACP, quoted in Business Day 16.08.13) and that the “commemoration is organised by an illegitimate team called ‘Marikana support group’” (ANC, quoted in Business Day 16.08.13).

Thousands gathered on Friday at the hillside in Marikana where 34 mineworkers were shot a year earlier. During the commemoration, Lonmin CEO Ben Magara “apologised for last year’s deaths, the first and only company or government official to do so” – Business Day 19.08.13.  Ben Magara said at the commemoration: “I heard about your request to employ a relative of each of the deceased. I heard about the request for R12,500. I am here today to say: let us sit down and talk”. Joseph Mathunjwa, president of Amcu said this apology “was overwhelming” … he is the only person who came and gave an apology and he was not (at the time of the massacre) even part of the management … not even government has done that …his gestures show that he is a man who is willing to engage” – Business Day 19.08.13.

During the commemoration Dali Mpofu, legal representative of injured and arrested miners at the Farlam Commission, acted as the master of ceremonies, Julius Malema was among the speakers and Agang SA leader, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, “deposed” PAC leader Letlapa Mphahlele, NFP leader Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi, IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota, African People’s Convention leader Themba Godi, EFF leaders Kenny Kunene and Floyd Shivambu and UDM leader Bantu Holomisa also attended (City Press).

So what?

The complete retreat of the ANC and its allies (the SACP and Cosatu) in Marikana represents a highly significant loss of political terrain. The commemoration gathering was widely accepted and legitimate, Lonmin was represented as was a broad cross-section of the Nkaneng community as well as church, political and worker organisations. The fact that this was a ‘no-go area’ for the ANC and its allies is, in my opinion, the most significant evidence of loss of ANC hegemony since the 1994 election. The political loss for the ANC is reproduced throughout the platinum sector and tracks the relative gain of Amcu and the losses of Num. The opposition political parties are hovering around the platinum sector hoping to pick up the votes the ANC loses … but it is not yet evident which parties, if any, will benefit from the ANC’s apparent loss of support and legitimacy amongst platinum mineworkers. However, the existence of ‘no-go areas’ in national election campaigns is a recipe for violence.

Imagine you are the producer of a major and successful television soap-opera.

Gradually, for reasons that are not immediately apparent, market research begins to indicate your share of the prime-time television audience is diminishing – and, further, that the declines are accelerating.

I suspect what you do is try to work out whether the viewers are being tempted away by a better soap, whether the quality of your show is slipping and/or whether your product is losing its appeal because the ‘demographic’ that follows your production is shrinking … or some combination of those.

Perhaps you try to adapt your trashy product to follow the shifting demographic; change the time-slot, perhaps kill off the older actors … have the Elizabethan extended family that has been the central theme be infiltrated by shape-shifting aliens who teleport the stately manor out of the English countryside and into a future post-apocalyptic New York … change the name to Downtown Abyss? Ok, maybe not.

Or you do a serious quality overhaul of your existing production, get better writers and introduce more popular and skilled actors, win back the defecting viewers … stick to your knitting, trust the product … and all those other management-speak exhortations.

I think the ANC is facing a crisis similar to that faced by the producers of this imaginary soap-opera. I suspect that the ANC, Agang and the DA do market research that is indicating and projecting significant voter swings away from the ANC . But I have nothing firmly in my hands other than rumours, leaks and hints.

So forgive me if I float an untested (and untestable at this time) hypothesis; one we are all going to hear bruted about soon: that it is ‘true’ that on current trends the ANC will get less than 59 percent of the vote next year but more than 52 percent, and further, that the ANC will receive less than 50 percent of the vote in 2019 (thumbsuck alerts all round).

The assumption is untestable (by me) because I don’t have the bespoke polling data and (by anybody else, in my opinion) because such data do not take adequately into account the myriad subjective and objective factors that might  impact on the trend.

But among the reasons I take seriously the possibility that this is, in fact, the trend is, for example, the rapid growth of Amcu and the concomitant shrinking of  Num. Another is this public domain ranking of Zuma’s approval rating amongst urban Africans by TNS Research published in the Sunday Times on 12/03/13:

%

Apr

‘09

Jun

‘09

Sep

‘09

Nov

‘09

Feb

‘10

May

‘10

Sep

‘10

Nov

‘10

Feb

‘11

Mar

‘11

Sep

‘11

O/N

‘11

Feb

‘12

Apr

‘12

Aug

‘12

Feb

‘13

Approve

52

57

53

58

43

51

42

49

49

48

45

55

55

46

48

41

Disapprove

29

13

19

23

41

33

44

34

35

38

41

38

35

46

44

51

Don’t know

19

31

28

12

17

16

15

17

16

14

14

14

10

8

8

9

Net positives

+23

+24

+34

+35

+2

+18

+2

+18

+2

+15

+14

+1

+20

0

+4

-10

 

… and updated by TNS this Monday (1/7/13) indicating a slight improvement in favour of Zuma (read from the top: 42, 50, 9 and -8). The point is there is a significant drop in Zuma’s approval ratings and concomitant rise in his disapproval ratings from February last year. It is reasonable to consider the possibility that this applies to the ANC (although, again, and at the risk of being pedantic, there is no established corollary between Zuma’s ratings and the ANC’s … but as a personal aside, I would imagine he must represent a specific liability.)

When I think of Mandela’s ill health and what I see as signs of how destabilising for the ANC his passing be may be (although the opposite could also be true), when I consider the anti-Zuma noises coming from Winnie Mandela and the frisson of mischievous excitement around Julius Malema’s proposed Economic Freedom Fighters … and when I put a whole mess of hints, trends, rumours and suppositions together with other metaphorical canaries that I use and which are dying around me like flies, I feel confident, for the first time since 1994, to at least consider how things might be when and if the ANC is clinging to an electoral majority, or perhaps even losing one.

As I begun to consider this (and helped along by a good and irritatingly insistent friend) I discovered that I still, subconsciously, conduct my professional duties under the burden of a normative (as in relating to an ‘ideal standard or model’)  assumption that has remained unchanged and largely unexamined since about 1994.

This normative assumption goes, roughly, something like this:

South African society is shaped by irresolvable contradictions. Most obviously between the poor, largely African, majority and the propertied white minority. Only an African National Congress, held comfortably in power by the trust and momentum established by its role and identity as leader of the liberation struggle, and by its clearly ‘African-led’ character, could possibly negotiate the perilous path between the imperative to deliver radical redress to the African majority and the absolute requirements to operate within the disciplines of global capital markets and to keep whites engaged and invested.

There are so many assumptions – and slippery phrases – in that statement, that I am not sure where to begin.

But briefly (in as far as that is possible):

Firstly I am implicitly using a (somewhat antiquated) theoretical model of society that is based on the idea that the competition between  groups with closely aligned economic interests acts as some kind of driver that interacts with and shapes other features of society, including the state and formal party political contests. This is a (hopefully sophisticated) version of the base/superstructure model of Marxist theory. As a rough, working model, I will continue to employ this system in political analysis – even if it is purely as a way of organising my thoughts. It is an elaboration of the injunction to follow the money which I consistently find the most useful hand-axe in the tool kit I use to help me work out, to my own satisfaction if no-one else’s, what the hell is going on.

Secondly, I am weighting the racial divide, its historical features, its ideological characteristics, the materiality of its ongoing consequences – including the radical disparity in wealth and income – more heavily than any other feature of South African society. ‘Politics’ occurs around such contradictions and our politics remains overdetermined by this structural feature. I think this remains true – but less true than it was 18 years ago. Primarily because class development, including the development of a black wealthy/property-owning class, a black middle-class and a sophisticated and slightly wealthier working class (driven by the changing character and function of labour processes and the relative growth of the services sector) dilutes the central contradiction and adds competing fissures.

Thirdly, I continue to assume it is imperative to keep whites “on board”… and that we have to keep within the discipline of global capital markets. I am also assuming (or perhaps estimating that on balance) the ANC still sees these as fundamental constraints. Those are brave (wild?) assumptions, I know, but I do not have all night. So moving swiftly along …

Finally, the aspect of my normative assumption about which I am most uncertain is the central one. Who says the ANC cannot fall below 50 percent, that an alliance of opposition parties will not get above 50 percent? And that if both those bridges are crossed we are into the game mode where  “(o)nly (the) African National Congress  … could possibly negotiate the perilous path”. Which means?

I  appear to be saying that in the event that those barriers are crossed we will fail to negotiate that path.

That we collapse in a heap? That the ANC morphs into Zanu-PF – but with even scarier tribalist and repressive features – to recapture the political initiative? That the ANC embarks on an ever more expansive looting of private and public assets to feed a patronage system that comes to replace all other mechanism that establish stability, but a system that is absolutely limited by the availability of such lootable assets? Or perhaps that our future will look something like what (might be) happening in Cairo tonight? … I will get to that as soon as I hit “publish”.

If a democratic election goes against the ANC why am I so uncertain that the party or party’s that the same election goes in favour of will be unable to govern?

I suspect I actually believe that without the ANC in a comfortable majority that things fall apart, that the centre cannot hold, that

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed*

Thus, this is little more that my personal failure to imagine a future significantly different from the present, yes?

It appears that I am constrained by my own habits of thought and prejudices. Now there’s a big surprise.

So, back to the soap opera.

If the ANC is slipping in the ratings, it can chase the shifting demographic by attempting to spread its skirts ever more widely – although I think it is already beyond the limits of the possible with that indecorous exercise.

… or it can do the political equivalent of the narrative device of having space aliens infiltrate the family (hmm, that might have happened already – ed).  I am not sure what a radical discontinuity in the ANC’s brand might look like – I think it could go one of two general directions, but I would imagine that the ANC strategists defining ‘the message’ for the upcoming elections must envy the clean simplicity of the Economic Freedom Fighters emerging platform.

… or the ANC could improve its character and performance by sticking to its knitting: cleaning up its leadership and improving its governance performance and winning back the trust of its purportedly defecting support. My impression is the ANC is going in precisely the opposite direction, but who’s to say they wont turn it around in response to a mild shock in 2014?

I  do not hold to the popular notion that “anything is possible”, but I am prepared to accept that a lot more things will come to pass than I have been able to imagine.

* As always, the best poetic accompaniment to fretting about the future of our politics is William Butler YeatsThe Second Coming … catch the incomparable poem here.

I am struggling to make up my mind whether there really is a small accumulation of good news, clearly visible against the looming night … or if I am just desperate. Today’s Business Day story by the always interesting Carol Paton looking at Manuel and Sisulu on a stern clean up the public service drive must be positive, surely?

… and several points in my take on the political news in the English language weeklies from last week are postive:

Cabinet reshuffle

The Sunday Times says Jacob Zuma is planning to axe Dina Pule, Minister of Communications and Lulu Xingwana, Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities. Pule’s tenure has “limped from one scandal to another – including the questionable millions paid to her boyfriend from sponsorship money meant for the ICT Indaba last year” – Sunday Times.

So what?

The Department of Communications has failed to unbundle the local loop, missed innumerable opportunities with Telkom, under-resourced the regulator Icasa and generally failed to appoint/settle/keep senior management … and has had three ministers in 3 years. Fixing this is a priority area in the National Development Plan and one of the key ‘bottlenecks’ or ‘obstacles to economic growth’ that need to be removed. So Pule’s removal has (if it actually happens) to be seen as a good thing.

(Interesting – to me – speculation on the side is that Zuma might move Thulas Nxesi (Public Works) to replace Angie Motshekga (Basic Education) and have Motshekga replace Xingwana. This means that Jeremy Cronin (deputy minister in Public Works) might then replace Nxesi. But, as the Sunday Times says “there are concerns in the Zuma camp about whether he (Cronin) can be relied on to protect the president from the repercussions over the controversial R206-milliion Nkandla upgrade.”

Public service

Lindiwe Sisulu (Minister of Public Service and Administration) is quoted in the Sunday times about planned amendments to the Public Service Act setting in place ways of stopping senior administrators benefiting from government contracts. She also promised a “super-director-general’ who would ensure that all heads of department adhere to performances linked reward systems.

So what?

Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi lauded Sisulu plans, saying this would stop the “looting” of public funds by government employees. “We can only say halala (congratulations) to that!” he is quoted in the Sunday Times. I have to agree with Vavi. The biggest political failure that is actually in control of government in South Africa is the poor performance and monitoring systems – and therefore delivery failure and corruption – in government and public sector institutions. Sisulu’s intentions are to be welcomed – and she probably has the steel to follow through. So another plus.

Ramphele wanted DA to be dissolved

The Sunday Times quoted several DA members essentially claiming that Mamphela Ramphele almost joined forces with the DA, but wanted the party to be dissolved first and for her to have an equal share of a new institution. “She wanted a new political party and not to join the DA … she came with nothing but wanted an equal share” said one unnamed source.

So What?

The week has been beset with rumours about the impending announcement by the respected academic and business person Mamphela Ramphele that she is to set up a new opposition party. Speculation reached a climax when it was announced that she had resigned as Chairperson of Goldfieds on Wednesday last week. Ramphele would make an excellent addition to opposition parliamentary politics in South Africa – but the idea that one person, with no party structure or obvious constituency in hand, will change the South African game is hopeful at best. However, on the balance, this is undoubtedly another positive. (That’s three in a row for those who are counting.)

Zimbabwe referendum

Several of the weeklies reported that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe issued an official proclamation on Friday setting March 16 as the date for a referendum on a draft constitution. Most expressed concern that local activists felt that that gave very little time to explain the draft constitution (it took 3 years of bickering to cobble together) to voters and that the draconian Public Order and Security Act would need to be suspended or repealed before campaigning for a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ vote could take place. All opposition parties have  called for a referendum ‘Yes’ vote to allow the constitution to be accepted and signed into law without any further changes.

So What?

Zimbabwe’s stability and growth prospects impact on South Africa in a myriad ways, for example in the floods of economic refugees and the shifting size of the export and investment markets in Zimbabwe. An interesting story in the Sunday Times by senior editor Mondli Makhanya argued that Zanu-PF is likely to benefit from opposition disarray and an improving economy. “With the elections just months away, Zanu-PF is smiling and looking forward to strolling to victory. After having brazenly stolen four parliamentary and presidential elections between 2000 and 2008 Zanu-PF will not have to resort to violence and skulduggery this time.” If Makhanya is correct (which he may well be) it is going to stick in a lot of craws that through a combination of looting, patronage networks, repression and the chasing of the urban poor into the arms of the South African informal economy and welfare system, Zanu-PF might remain in power.

New Iran claims hit MTN

The jailing of Iranian born US citizen Mohammad Hajian for supplying “sensitive and potentially dangerous equipment to MTN’s mobile network in Iran” (Mail & Guardian) deepens MTN’s woes in relation to its Iranian operations.

So what?                             

“The conviction is damning for the South African mobile giant, as it provides judicial corroboration that the company used sanctions-busting networks to beef up its technical infrastructure in Iran” (M&G).

State of the Nation Assessment

Most reviews pointed to the key absence of any binding theme in Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address.

City Press probably had the best coverage.

  • It (CP) correctly points out that there was a specific “shift on land reform” –  with a move from “willing buyer, willing seller” to a “just and equitable” formulation.  This refers to the establishment of a “valuer-general who intervenes on behalf of the state … who then oversees land valuation …to keep the price … affordable for the state to redress” – CP quotes Gugile Nkwinti (Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform).
  • It argues that the youth wage subsidy has been swept aside and that government, business and labour in negotiations through Nedlac will announce a plan soon whereby “growth industries with young workforces will attract state support to hire the young and jobless … unskilled young people will also be offered a second chance to write their matric exams”. So no across-the-board subsidy … but a directed one, only in selected industries.
  • It picks away at the infrastructure programme and the various roles that will be played by Malusi Gigaba (Minister of Public Enterprises) and Ebrahim Patel (Minister of Economic Development). City Press interviewed the ‘up-and-coming’ Gigaba and asked him if Ebrahim Patel had left him much of a role to play. Gigaba replied: ““Economic Development is responsible for a broader plan. My department is responsible for three big infrastructure projects: the roll out of broadband, electricity infrastructure and logistics like rail. Other departments are responsible for roads, transport and dams.”

So What?

The State of the Nation address is always over-anticipated and usually bitterly lamented as not having been specific or visionary enough. This year, not unexpectedly, Zuma enumerated the successes of government and hyped the plans.  Much of what Zuma and his government will do and say in the next while will be focused on the national election in 2014 – and expectations likely to be disappointed.

Bits and Pieces

  • City Press reports that the department of fisheries, headed by Tina Joemat Pettersson is in “total free fall” – raising serious concerns about government’s ability to conduct research required to determine quotas of ‘allowable catch’ for key species.
  • Sunday Times business section reports that industrial unrest and violence at the Medupi construction site make the “chances of the R91bn power station feeding power into South Africa’s overstretched grid by the end of this year … slim”.
  • Sunday Times reports Harmony Gold made history by making individual workers at its Kusasulethu mine sign a treaty with the company in order to lock individual workers into a contract with the company. “This is quite a revolutionary move … (it) means that individual workers can now be taken to task when stepping over the line” says Peter Major, Cadiz mining analyst. Major argues, according to the report, that if similar agreements had been put in place a year ago when trouble first started brewing on the mines at Impala Platinum, a “Marikana” might have been prevented.

(Added as an afterthought: I realise I haven’t made any kind of conclusion given that the opening paragraph suggests I was going to indicate either that I am more positive than negative or vice versa. Frankly, I can’t make up my mind. Which probably makes me a fairly bog standard South African.)

Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza provides the lead headline in today’s Business Day as “warning of a rogue state future for SA”.

So imagine if you could, for a moment, that you are playing a sports game.

As in a dream, you suddenly realise you don’t know the rules; you don’t know how to score, who’s on your side or what the parameters of the field are.

This could be a comical situation – and I am sure I remember boys from my school days whose mystification on the rugby, cricket or hockey fields would bring a gentle smile to our (his team mates’) faces.

But this is also the stuff of nightmares: an inscrutable world where what happens happens for reasons entirely mysterious, where people are motivated by incomprehensible impulses and the dread of the unknown builds and builds.

I am sure I am not alone in having worked in a dysfunctional institution?

I mean something worse than a j0b in which you are poorly paid and have a psychopath for a boss (entry level experience requirements for human adulthood as far as I can make out).

A dysfunctional institution is one in which the sum total of what the organisation achieves appears to be at-odds with its explicit mission.

I am suggesting something worse than an organisation that doesn’t achieve what it is designed to achieve. I am suggesting that in some instances a deeply dysfunctional organisation can, when everything is aggregated, achieve the very opposite to its stated purpose is.

Which brings me to the institutions of the South African state.

I am occasionally lucky enough to get hold of some excellent economic commentary written by Sanlam Group Economist Jac Laubscher and published on that company’s website. In his most recent contribution (which appears here) he takes some concepts from Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson (book I haven’t yet read, but will do so on the back of Jac’s comments) and hints at how they might be applicable to South Africa.

According to Laubscher, Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the dominance of “inclusive institutions”  over “extractive institutions” is the difference between success or failure of nations.

Inclusive institutions harness and unleash human creativity and incentivise citizens and workers to give of their best.

As Jac Laubscher summarises:

Inclusive institutions are characterised by guaranteed property rights (vital for investment and productivity growth), an impartial legal system that upholds contracts, the effective provision of public services to create a level playing field, space to create new businesses, and the freedom to choose one’s career.

“Extractive institutions” in the words of Jac Laubscher:

… are aimed at extracting income and wealth from one section of society to the benefit of another section of society, usually the elite. In fact, extractive political institutions are the means by which the elite enrich themselves and consolidate their political dominance.

It is a fairly simple matter to demonstrate that to some degree key state and semi-state institutions and processes in South Africa have become mechanisms for extracting wealth by the politically connected elite.

But a key qualifier here is “to some degree”. I don’t think the state has yet, unambiguously, become an extractive tool of the political elite. But it is obvious that at least part of the political elite is struggling mightily to shape our institutions to and for that purpose.

Yesterday I listened to Trevor Manuel deliver the National Development Plan to a joint sitting of parliament. At the same time the the Constitutional Court was hearing an application by the Treasury and Sanral to set aside the April interim interdict granted by North Gauteng High Court halting e-tolling and mandating a full review of the system.

My views on both Trevor Manuel and e-tolling are ambiguous – they both have their good and bad points – but I appreciate the subtlety and complexity of what the National Planning Commission has tried to achieve … and I celebrate the fact that we have a Constitutional Court we can trust with decisions like the one it was busy with yesterday*.

But the institutions of our society are not yet the corridors of the predators’ labyrinth – but we’d be foolish to ignore the signs.

* The Concourt matter is important for a number of reasons, but the aspect that interests me professionally, is part of what is happening is driven by the fact that the Treasury feels the need to defend its credibility as a borrower. I suspect that the rating agencies are happy that the Treasury is fighting this matter but are anxious that they might lose. The lender wants to be certain that the entity to whom it lends is properly able to make the agreement to pay the money back. The Treasury is ultimately arguing that the North Gauteng High Court ruling means no lender to the South African government can be sure that the courts might not declare, in effect, that government was legally incompetent to make the decision in the first place – significantly increasing default risk.

Remember kaleidoscopes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to my worries about ANC policy making.

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

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

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

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

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

Much ado – and confusion – about the ANC policy conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has the South African state become an instrument in the hands of the class of predators that dominate our politics?

Think a crowbar or a 9mm automatic and think of the Nkandla or Limpopo crews using that tool to rip or rob huge sections of  provincial and national budgets.

Cosatu is clearly suspicious of the ANC dominated state, but believes that the struggle is not over.

Corruption Watch, launched by Zwelinzima Vavi Thursday last week is premised on, and shaped by, the assumption that the state is contested terrain; that if you put enough pressure on it you can slow the process of it becoming an “instrument” or a “tool” in the hands of the bad guys .. and perhaps reverse that process.

On the same day that Cosatu launched its initiative – Thursday last week –  the SACP journal Umsebenzi Online published a “Red Alert” by deputy secretary general Jeremy Cronin critiquing

the liberal notion of society as being constituted by two realms – the “state” on the one hand, and a distinct “civil society”, on the other.

and, in particular

This anti-majoritarian liberalism (that) treats rights almost entirely as rights of citizens/civil society AGAINST the state – and not, for instance, the right of a democratic state (and the right of a democratic majority to actively HELP that state) to vigorously implement an electoral mandate in the face of equally vigorous opposition from powerful class forces lurking behind the fig-leave (obviously he means “leaf” – NB)  of “civil society”.

Thus the SACP is deeply and supportively engaged with government and the state – indeed Jeremy Cronin is Deputy Minister of Transport – and appears to be directly backing Jacob Zuma for re-election at Mangaung in December. Clearly the SACP has made a practical estimation that Zuma is the better of some bad options.

Cosatu is also, ultimately, engaged with the state and government – and appears to have also given support to Zuma’s re-election – but in a far more conditional and ambiguous way than the more open-ended support offered by the communists.

Corruption Watch is indelibly stamped as a ‘civil society’ initiative – and one that has individuals in its leadership that skirt close to Cronin’s faintly Stalinist definition of “anti-majoritarian liberalism (that) treats rights almost entirely as rights of citizens/civil society AGAINST the state.”

Explore Corruption Watch’s website here  – and decide if you are going to sign the pledge.

The Executive Director is David Lewis – ex-independent trade union movement in the 1970’s, constructor of SA’s competition framework and until recently chairperson of the Competition Tribunal.

The Chairperson Vuyiseka Dubula is also the Secretary General of that bastion of civil society and thorn in the ANC government’s flesh, the Treatment Action Campaign.  She is  also Chairperson of the board of directors in the AIDS Law Project.

Vuyiseka Dubula - civil society multitasker and luminary: TAC Chairperson; Corruption Watch Secretary General and Chairperson of the board of the AIDS Law Project

The list of board members includes Bobby Godsell, Mary Metcalfe Supreme Court judge Kate O’Regan and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane – just to give a sense that the initiative is likely to be a constant source of criticism of the spread of corruption in the ANC and government.

Cronin directly warns against some of the features of Cosatu’s previous “civil society” conference that caused so much anxiety in the ANC and the SACP last year (and I put the quote in full here because it speaks to the heart of the differences of emphasis between Cosatu and the SACP):

Obviously, the SACP expressed support for COSATU`s right to convene a conference that mobilized a range of social movements and NGOs to address, amongst other things, corruption in the state. However, we believed then, and we still believe now, that it was a mistake to exclude COSATU`s own party political alliance partners – as if there were something inherently pure about supposedly non-political “civil society” formations, and something inherently predatory about those more directly engaged with the state. It was a confusion that reflects the hegemony within our society of the liberal “civil society vs. the state” paradigm.

It is probably useful to read the full text of Cronin’s intervention, which you can see here.

As it happens ANC heavyweight and Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe spoke at the launch of Corruption Watch alongside thorn-in-the-ANC’s-flesh Public Protector Thuli Madonsela – thus tentatively addressing some of Jeremy Cronin’s and the SACP’s insecurity about Cosatu taking more and more oppositional stances in relation to the ANC and government.

The two main organisations within the ruling alliance to the left of the ANC appear to be launching something of a rescue bid to stop the ruling party slipping more unambiguously into the hands of a predatory political elite – although the SACP appears more concerned that the rescue bid stays out of the hands of “anti-majoritarian liberals” than it does about the success or otherwise of the endeavour.

Cosatu is the “bad cop” and the SACP is the “good cop” (vis-à-vis the ANC) but they are both operating under the assumption that there is something still worth saving in the state and the ruling party.

If the rescue bid fails and the ANC and government pass some abstract point of no return Cosatu is poised to give up on them first.

The SACP is likely to stick with its ally to the bitter and awful end.

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.)

In case anyone was wondering if I had disappeared into the ether: I have been seriously busy and have had no time to post on the blog.

If you were paying extra attention, you may have noticed that a post reviewing the nationalisation of mines debate appeared and disappeared a few weeks ago.

My mistake – it was bespoke for a month, and I jumped the gun. I am now able to publish it and you will find it below.

Meanwhile I am into my second reading of An Inconvenient Youth – Julius Malema and the ‘New” ANC by Fiona Forde. It is exceptionally good and I strongly recommend you go out and buy yourself a copy. I have begun a review which I will publish here during the course of the week.

But meanwhile, here is the month-old nationalisation update/review. My views haven’t changed much since I wrote it … and it is good to get it on the record … even if it is a little turgid and written in an overly formal tone.

Nationalisation update/review

The nationalisation of mines debate in South Africa is, as predicted, reaching new heights of sound and fury. Yesterday it appeared that Cosatu was officially supporting the Youth League call. This is a situation fraught with danger although I do not change my assessment that the ANC is unlikely to decide on mine nationalisation along anything like the lines proposed by its youth wing.

Summary bullets

  • Yesterday Cosatu economist Christopher Malikane argued that the ANC has accepted as fact that the mines would be nationalised and that it was only a question of “how” not “if”.
  • This does not imply significant new risk although the markets are likely to interpret it as such.
  • In reality Cosatu is significantly divided on the call and current shifts in Cosatu policy have more to do with (important) internal conflicts.
  • Cosatu does not have the final or even main say over ANC economic policy and its current flirtation with the Youth League is actually about frustration with not achieving its policy aims with the ANC.
  • The ANC and its left wing allies have been consistent and steadfast in their criticism of the call and I outline the history both of the Youth League call and of the critique of the call in this report.
  • The nationalisation call has consistently been deployed in political battles for power within the ANC and in government which both gives the call unrealistic political energy and makes the threat difficult to interpret or assess.
  • The ANC has set its Economic Transformation Committee the task of assessing the call and making proposals. I expect clarity to emerge in November this year but a final decision will only be made at the centenary national conference in December next year.
  • Cost, international agreement, the Bill of Rights and the constitution make it inconceivable that the ANC attempt to nationalise the mines.
  • However I think the party and government will use the threat as a stick to get a better deal out of the mining houses.
  • Between now and the final decision the “sound and fury” will keep the issue alive and the threat present.

Cosatu shifts towards the ANC Youth League

Yesterday  Congress of South African trade Unions economist Professor Christopher Malikane was reported to have said at a South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry forum that the group charged with discussing the nationalisation of mines in the ANC had moved beyond the issue of whether the mines should be nationalised and is now purely considering modalities to achieve this aim. “Investors are looking for certainty around the issue of nationalisation, well this is the certainty they need,” he said.

The ANC Youth League managed to place formally on the agenda of the ruling African National Congress (at the party’s National General Council in September 2010) the proposal that government consider nationalising a majority share of the mining industry – for report back and a decision at the party’s Mangaung elective centenary conference in December 2012.

The general noise gets louder

With the ANC and government leadership mired in controversy relating to poor service delivery, poor government performance and accusation of corruption – and the Zuma presidency as weak as it has ever been – the ANC Youth League and its supporters in government appear to have seized the initiative and are making all the running at a public level. Investors and other observers would be forgiven for thinking that the slogan “Economic Freedom in our lifetime!” and the calls to nationalise the mines, banks and the land (that last explicitly without compensation) were not government policy. I am of the view that owners of mining equity and other property in South Africa are starting to feel the heat.

My view

My view has been that the ANC is highly unlikely to decide to nationalise the mines – although uncertainty in this regard will persist right up until December 2012 (although some clarity is expected to emerge after the ANC committee examining this issue reports back some time in November this year).

I think that the party and government will attempt to use the populist surge to discipline the mining companies to fulfil their social and Black Economic Empowerment obligations under the Mining Charter (which arises out of the 2002 Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act).

Additionally government and the party are likely to use the opportunity to change the tax and royalty regime to extract more revenue from the sector – particularly with the imposition of a tax on windfall profits.

Finally I think it likely that new obligations will be placed on the mining companies – especially with regard to some form of obligatory contribution to the building and maintenance of transport and power infrastructure near where the mining operations are located.

Brief History of the nationalisation call

The ANC Youth League on nationalisation of mines

Soon after the current leadership of the ANC came to power at the landmark Polokwane conference in December 2007 the ANC Youth League elected Julius Malema as its president (in April 2008).

By the end of that year Julius Malema and the Youth League began proposing that the mining industry be nationalised. This was the essential elements of that proposal:

* an immediate suspension of the issuing of mineral rights and permits;

* the establishment of a state owned mining company;

* the nationalisation – with or without compensation – of fifty percent of all mining operations;

* that licenses only be issued in future on the basis of a 60 percent equity stake being held by the state owned company.

The Youth League drew authority from the historic Freedom Charter document. The document, drawn up in a national consultative process led by the African National Congress in 1955 and adopted at the Congress of the People in Kliptown says of the economy:

“The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole”.

Criticism from the Left of the ANC Youth League call

The major critique of the ANC Youth League call was formulated by Jeremy Cronin, Deputy Minister of Transport and Deputy Secretary General of the South African Communist Party (and major ANC intellectual and ideologue).

It is my guess that Jeremy Cronin was deployed by the incumbent leadership of the ANC in the belief that a criticism of the nationalisation call articulated by leading communists would defuse the Youth Leagues claim of militancy and radicalism – and I therefore cover these arguments in detail here.

Cronin argued that the Freedom Charter passage supports the idea that “the people” get the full benefit of the economic resources “not that there be a narrow bureaucratic take-over by the state apparatus and the ruling party’s deployees” (all Cronin quotes in italics in this section from SACP’s Umsebenzi Online Volume 8, No. 20, 18 November 2009).

The state owning important aspects of the economy says nothing, for Cronin, about whose interests are being served:

“Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and Verwoerd’s apartheid South Africa all had extensive state ownership of key sectors of the economy.”

So for Cronin the 2002 Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act had already gone some way to fulfilling the Freedom Charter’s objectives by explicitly stating:

“… that South Africa’s mineral and petroleum resources belong to the nation and that the State is the custodian thereof ….  In other words, it is the “nation” (with the state as custodian) and not the mining companies that have legal ownership of the mineral resources beneath our soil”.

Cronin argues that the Youth Leagues proposal of nationalising

“mining houses in the current global and national recession might have the unintended consequence of simply bailing out indebted private capital, especially BEE mining interests”.

And further that:

“Many of our gold mines in particular are increasingly depleted and unviable. Some reach costly depths of four kilometres below the surface. Recently the global gold price has bounced back, but it is telling that, unlike in the past, our gold output actually dropped by some 9% in the same period. Our gold mines are simply no longer able to respond dynamically to gold price rises.”

Cronin (while making it clear he thinks “the people owe the mining houses absolutely nothing”) points out that South Africa’s Bill of Rights sanctions expropriation but requires compensation at a price agreed by both parties or determined by the courts.

The bottom-line for Cronin is that nationalisation would do nothing to further the “national democratic struggle”. Rather it;

“would land the state with the burden of managing down many mining sectors in decline … burden the state with the responsibility for dealing with the massive (and historically ignored) cost of “externalities” – the grievous destruction that a century of robber-baron mining has inflicted on our environment. In the current conjuncture, nationalising the mining sector at this point would also probably unintentionally bail-out private capital, in a sector that is facing many challenges of sustainability. The problems of liquidity and indebtedness for BEE mining share-holders are particularly acute.”

Opposition to and support of Youth League call

President Jacob Zuma, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe (who is also SACP Chairman), and Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu have all explicitly rejected the ANC Youth League’s call – with Shabangu having famously said that the mines would only be nationalised “over my dead body”.

However despite this being the overwhelming position of the ANC and government, the Youth League scored a significant victory by having its proposal placed formally on the ANC’s policy agenda – achieved at the National General Council meeting in September last year.

At that conference Tokyo Sexwale (Mvelapanda Resources and Human Settlements minister) and Bridget Radebe (Mmakau Mining, wife of minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe and sister of Patrice Motsepe) both came out in support of the ANC Youth League’s call – giving some weight to the now widespread allegation that the Youth League is operating with a hidden and funded agenda to have failing Black Economic Empowerment deals bailed out by government.

Arguing against the call were leading ANC intellectuals Joel Netshitenzhe, Jeremy Cronin and Trevor Manuel. However the ANC incumbent leadership failed to block the Youth League proposal and it is now formal policy of the ANC to investigate the matter and report back for a decision to be made at the centenary National Conference of the ANC which will be held at Mangaung (Bloem) in December 2012.

The ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee

The committee tasked with formulating the ANC’s position on the nationalisation of mines is the Economic Transformation Committee – which has the general brief of investigating the role of the state in economic development and is the natural forum in the ANC to develop a position on nationalisation.

There is not much in the public domain about the proceedings of the committee, but it is my information that Gwede Mantashe is overseeing the work of the committee which is formally headed by Enoch Godongwana (deputy minister of Economic Development and ANC NEC member).

The contributors thus far include those from the ANC Youth League, Joel Netshitenzhe, MZ Ngungunyane, Cosatu, Floyd Shivambu, Paul Jordaan and the National Union of Mineworkers. The full text of the initial contributions can be found in the last five issues of ANC’s internal discussion publication “Umrabulo” (find those on the ANC website at http://www.anc.org.za/list.php?t=Umrabulo).

It is my understanding that those opposed to the nationalisation call – for the reasons that have already been summarised in this report – are attempting to craft a compromise that will allow everyone to save face while allowing government to wrestle a better deal out of the mining companies – as stated in the “My view” section at the start of this report.

It is my understanding that the committee will report back in November this year and I expect the markets to get an indication of how the debate will pan out then. However, it should be borne in mind that the formal conclusion of this debate will only be reached at Mangaung in December 2012 and the noise is likely to continue right up until the last minute.

Cosatu’s shifting sands

The major change of external inputs into my assessment has been a struggle within the Congress of South African Trade Unions that has resulted in a shift away from the federation’s original position which was closely aligned with the view of the SACP and the incumbent leadership of the ANC – as articulated by Jeremy Cronin above.

The last unambiguous statement from Cosatu on this general issue came in the form of a joint communiqué with the SACP on the 24th of June 2011- I quote it here in full:

“… periods of capitalist crisis are also typically characterized by various forms of right-wing demagogic populist mobilization acting on behalf of various capitalist strata in crisis, but often masked behind a pseudo-left rhetoric. We believe that the same phenomenon is apparent in SA, finding a potential mass base amongst tens of thousands of unemployed and alienated youth in particular. However, behind this populism are often well-resourced business-people and politicians seeking to plunder public resources. We resolved as the SACP and COSATU to close ranks and to expose the true agenda of these tendencies and their connections to corruption and predatory behaviour in the state.”

However, at the Cosatu National Executive Committee meeting a week later a split appeared in Cosatu that has impacted on this debate.

The conflict is complicated but in a nutshell, it is between a faction led by powerful Cosatu Secretary General Zwelenzima Vavi and Irvin Jim of the National Union of Metal Workers (Numsa) of South Africa and a faction headed by leaders grouped around the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) under Frans Baleni. Broadly the NUM/Baleni faction is supportive of the SACP and the Zuma leadership of the ANC while the Vavi/Jim/Numsa axis has become frustrated with broken promises (concerning both corruption and economic policy) of the Zuma/ANC leadership and would generally seek a more radical socialist or workerist political solution than is being offered by the ANC.

The Vavi/Jim/Numsa faction has over the last month begun courting the ANC Youth League, and attempting to harness the energy coming from this sector for its own ends. This is highly opportunistic as Vavi and Numsa have consistently characterized the Youth League leadership as “right-wing demagogic populist” and the League’s nationalisation call as fronting a corrupt BEE agenda looking to take a double bite out of resources available for transformation.

Rank opportunism or not, the crack in the Cosatu position is adding a new element to nationalisation debate. It is my understanding that the National Union of Mineworkers remains opposed to the ANC Youth League call, but the new element will undoubtedly add some confusion.

The point to remember about Cosatu – a point reiterated by the ANC and government leadership time and again – is that the federation represents a sectional interest. There are obvious reasons why some elements in Cosatu would want the mines nationalised – who wouldn’t want a guaranteed job for life as a Greek style (up until recently) government employee?

It is to NUM’s credit that its president Senzani Zokwana said in November last year that the Youth League was being reckless with the industry and that the League’s call was inspired by rich Black Economic Empowerment recipients looking to get failing deals bailed out by the state and Frans Baleni a month ago reiterated: “It is not only the private sector that has invested (in mines), but the workers with their pension and provident funds have also invested. We should have maturity and the debate should not have political undertones.”

It’s the law!

A key motivator of my view has been that South Africa is bound both formally and informally to agreements – including in the Constitution – that make it impossible to nationalise the mines without full compensation. Nationalising 50 percent of the mines would cost in the region of $130bn. There is no conceivable advantage – and an almost endless downside – for the government to nationalise the mines. Therefore it is not going to happen – although the end result might look like a compromise and might entail the establishment of a state owned mining company, although one with a much smaller asset base and agenda than conceived in the Youth League’s call.

Nothing material has changed that would allow me to change the view – although my confident smile has assumed a slightly brittle quality. Cosatu was never going to be the determining factor in this debate but the weakness of the ANC leadership – in particular the weakness of Jacob Zuma’s presidency – means that I am no longer certain that the centre of the Ruling Alliance can hold.

From the start the nationalisation of mines call has, in part, been a stalking horse for leadership challenges within the ANC and government. I have argued elsewhere that the call has been central to Tokyo Sexwale’s political ambitions and that he has covertly supported the Youth League in this regard for some time.

Now we have an element of Cosatu attempting to forge some form of alliance with the Youth League around the call clearly as part of a strategy to shift the leadership balance within the ANC.

The Youth League itself is using the call for its popular mobilization potential to help push its own candidates (particularly Fikile Mbalula – currently minister of sport) for higher office.

In this environment it would be foolhardy to be overconfident about the call. However it is my opinion that predicting the success of the Youth League call would be the same as predicting the imminent failure of the South African democratic project and state – a view I believe is too extreme and alarmist.

In many ways what is happening now is very much as predicted: the situation will be full of sound and fury right up until a decision is made at the end of 2012.

Two brief thoughts – on a rainy Cape Town Sunday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that was last week.

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

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

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

Itumeleng Mahabane says it like it is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, he warns:

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

Fourthly he asked us analysts why:

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

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

Following a previous post: The Limits of Politics I want to argue that what the ANC is becoming is less a function of the failings of its leadership and more a consequence of the titanic forces of social change.

The past and present history of the African National Congress could be characterised (in shorthand) like this:

National Liberation Movement

The ANC arose out of the fact of the prolatarianisation of an African peasantry and the deepening national oppression of all black South Africans – only codified in Grand Apartheid in 1948 but stretching back much further.

What the ANC was was a natural expression of the changing pattern of the oppression of Africans (and other black South Africans)  between 1912 and 1994. One way of understanding the shape, raison d’être, policies and leadership of the ANC during this period is to trace the history of the strategy and tactics of the pre-Apartheid and Apartheid states.

Each phase of ANC resistance to colonisation and apartheid – from the initial polite depositions of the early years, to the militancy in the 50’s, the banning in 1960, the crushing of the organisation’s internal structures, the launch of the ‘armed struggle’, the imprisonment and exile of its leadership, the playing catch-up after the 1976 explosion, the United Democratic Front as an internal wing to prevent Coloured and Indians being won over to a National Party strategy leading up to mass protests, negotiation – was mirrored in the changing structure of the society.

This is not to say the ANC was a perfect expression of all aspects of African resistance or that, in turn, such resistance was a perfect response to national oppression. The shape that all things assume is always a complicated expression of subjective and objective factors and this is true too for the African National Congress.

The forces that ended Apartheid

Of course the struggle for freedom of South African people and their organisations (and their allies around the world) is one way of understanding what brought about the end of Apartheid.

But another is to ask: what was Apartheid trying to control, for what end – and why did it fail?

Apartheid was ultimately a system of law, repression and inducements designed to deflect African’s economic and political aspirations away from white owned and controlled South Africa – for the purpose of securing white economic power and security.

It ultimately failed because Africans “voted with their feet”. The National Party was trying to legislate (and police) against the collective desires and actions of millions of people. But Africans would not have their aspirations diverted to the geographical or the political Bantustans. In the face of fines and brute force Africans kept coming back to the cities, the bright lights, the markets, the chance of work and the chance to do business.

To avoid complicating this further, let me say my own shorthand understanding of what was happening (and the timing of what was happening) is the South African and global economy were growing in ways that required an educated and settled workforce and this in turn raised for African South Africans the realistic possibility of being ‘settled’, ‘educated’ and, ultimately, of achieving a better life.

Apartheid and National Party rule constituted a barrier to the swelling aspiration of African South Africans – particularly for property, assets, homes and the right to work and live where they pleased.

The ending of Apartheid and National Party rule was the bursting of the dam.

1994 and beyond – the time of the flood

The African National Congress had always been forced to root itself in a marginalised African population and this meant it faced most forms of power in the society as the challenger and the outsider.

The ANC was able to ride the wave of rising African aspirations in the 70’s and 80’s – but there was no expectation that it meet those aspirations.

Everything changed of 1994.

The government’s of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had a mandate and responsibility to use the winning of the ‘political kingdom’ to seek the economic one. What followed was a two-pronged approached to empowering the ‘previously disadvantaged”:

  • take the state bureaucracy out of white hands and put it into black ones;
  • encourage transformation of ownership and control of the private sector through employment equity laws and regulations and through the development of a black economic empowerment  regime.

The process very quickly assumed its own momentum and the first stratum of individuals who were sucked into the maelstrom was the political class … the senior members of the ANC and government.

Once you have begun to use the state as a lever to gain economic power it is difficult to stop.

But by the time Thabo Mbeki’s government attempted to formalise, control and broaden the process with the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 it was out of control – and engulfing large sections of the ruling party and the senior levels of the state bureaucracy.

… and the point?

The point is not to exonerate the ANC or government or individual leaders who have become tenderpreneurs or crony capitalists. It is not even to excuse government (particularly Thabo Mbeki’s) for making specific errors in structuring the process  … there were others paths that could have been taken that might have made a difference.

But the reason I suggest this vantage point or approach is because I think the hope that this process could ever have been calm or orderly is based on misunderstanding the deep, structural and historical nature of what is happening.

A flood of wealth and power is moving from the old order to the new and has blurred the boundaries between the public and private sector and is threatening to overwhelm government and the ruling party. Once the waters have achieved a new equilibrium it may be possible to re-establish a separation and rebuild the laws.

But it is going to be close.

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.

‘Not as bad as I feared; perhaps even better than I hoped’ – is my reply to the question implicit in the title.

I have been flat-out covering the event for paying clients and I was at parliament in the gracious hands of the lovely people from Radio 2000 – where I commented for about an hour. Hence me only scribbling these short notes at this late stage in proceedings.

View from before

This is what I had to say before the event:

It is a ceremonial occasion; Jacob Zuma is there in his capacity as Head of State (not only head of government); it’s a joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces; the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary is in formal attendance; there’s a red carpet, a twenty-one gun salute and a public gallery packed with ordinary people, senior representatives of the governing alliance and foreign and local dignitaries … this is just not a place where policy decisions, especially the various nettles Jacob Zuma will be required to grasp, could be spoken of in the clear and forthright terms that will, ultimately, be required.

View from the moment

I was initially very positive.

After a ten minute glance at the document I said to Reuters:

With surprising fluency Jacob Zuma managed to sound like a head of state dealing with an emergency – the crisis of unemployment.  He didn’t  grasp the nettle of the regulations that are strangling the labour market, but he placed more emphasis than expected on the private sector – especially manufacturing. There was also more detail than expected – and a confirmation that the interventionist aspects of the NGP will be issues to be dealt with this year.

I was impressed by the details namely:

  • The nugget at the core of the speech: the proposed R20 billion in tax breaks for manufacturing investments above R200 million for new projects and R30 million for expansions and upgrades – I do not expect the ANC’s trade union allies to be charmed by this idea (money in the hands of the bosses!) even if they will be amongst the ultimate beneficiaries.
  • Significant (and part of the New Growth Path’s underlying strategy of fiscal constraint and monetary easing) he foregrounded the statement that: “The Budget deficit is set to decline from the current 6.7% to between 3 and 4% by 2013. Concerns about the exchange rate have been taken to heart”.
  • The R9 billion by 2013 “jobs fund” – what is interesting about this is apparently Helen Zille interpreted this on an SAFM interview as the long-lost subsidy for first time youth workers … Cosatu is also going to hate that implicit segmentation of the labour market. ’

View from today?

I’m still positive. There was lots of ra! ra! in there, but that is to be expected in an election year and, quite frankly, every victory he claimed he said how far we still have to go.

He also spoke surprisingly like a statesman and he made the drive for jobs sound like a clarion call to mobilise the nation for war … which this campaign is or should be.

Finally, he mentioned that the Municipal elections will take place before the end of May. That will be enough grist for me mill … heady times to be a political analyst in this country.

Capitalism, at its most basic and unbridled, is a system that says: okay, the king is dead and therefore no longer owns all this stuff; take what you can … if you can hold onto it, it’s yours. Oh yeah, and you can pay the people who don’t manage to hang onto any stuff to work yours … because if they don’t they will starve.

On your marks, get set … go!

The system is extraordinarily productive, driven as it is by those gargantuan twin-thrust engines: human greed and human fear (you can keep what you can take/failure means death).

One of the great political achievements of the last 300 years has been the refining, softening and regulating of this system so that it maximises the good it can produce for as many as possible.

But note this: it can’t produce the same amount of good for everybody – because its fundamental driver is that it allows the hungriest, cleverest, most creative and most intelligent to keep what they can take. That’s why those people build the enterprise. So they can keep what they can get out of it. That’s the creative heart of the system.

(One of the many flaws of capitalism is it also allows those who have become powerful for reasons other than those listed in the last sentence to “keep what they can take”. Thus both Apartheid apparatchiks and New Elite cronies are (still) living high on the hog for reasons that have nothing to do with the unleashing of their creative spirit and more to do with their ability to cheat and steal. But that is another story.)

The point I wanted to make, is that in its most basic and unregulated form capitalism will allow the owner of the factory or mine to extract the last drop of blood from the worker – and the last drop of blood from his children, his old mum and his maiden aunt.  Without regulation the only thing that will stop the capitalist working the worker to death is the need to have him come to work tomorrow and for his children to come to work in ten years time. The history of capitalism has demonstrated this unfortunate truth about humans time and time again.

Thus we have labour market regulations: minimum wages, basic working conditions, rights to dignity, rights to organise and strike. These are amongst our greatest achievements – and they are all there on the law books of the new South Africa.

But there is a line over which we must not cross.

When the law, in effect, demands that the capitalist share equally the profits of the enterprise with the workers, the enterprise is over.

If local regulation means the capitalist can’t make sufficient profit here he (or she) will go elsewhere or will spend his or her time doing something else. That’s it; end of factory, end of jobs and end of story.

"Not only are the proposals contained in these draft bills a staggering contradiction of the government’s economic and social objectives with the potential to destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs, but they are also poorly drafted and difficult to interpret." Michael Spicer, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa

Michael Spicer, as CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, is the perfect person to listen to if you want to get an average signal of what South African capitalists are feeling.

His comment in today’s Business Day about the conflict between the flood of proposed changes to labour and employment equity laws and government’s job creation agenda is well worth a read. Catch it here.

It seems to me we are carelessly testing for the “tipping point”, the point beyond which the capitalists mechanise their plants or leave.

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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