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Tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn I will begin travelling with my children for a respite after two years of my (it seems somehow personal) Great Recession.

We will be moving through some places that are less connected than others, so I will be posting irregularly for some time.

For this reason I wanted to say something  about  the South African Communist Party’s special conference in Polokwane before I go and before it finishes on Sunday.

Our red brethren have been meeting since Thursday and it seems they have been having an interesting and boisterous time.

Much of the media coverage has centred around a visit by Julius Malema, Billy Masetlha and Tony Yengeni during which the ANC Youth League president was booed and reportedly walked out in a huff, threatening to ‘tell on’ to the president.

But the underlying conflict that is playing itself out between the SACP and a powerful faction of the ANC is the main show in town.

And the SACP leadership is ‘on message’, constantly attacking what it sees as emerging black capitalists whose primary method of accumulation is tender abuse and looting of the state. It appears that the communists believe this “project” is THE real and immediate danger.

The coordinated attack emerges from even a cursory reading of (most importantly) the political report to the conference, but also from the opening address (some of these links are a little dicky – it seems to be a problem with the SACP’s site) by SACP chairman, Gwede Mantashe, a speech by Cosatu’s Zwelenzima Vavi and an address by the Young Communist’s Buti Manamela.

The political report says it most clearly (it’s a longish quote, but it gives one an excellent idea of the main issues in our politics):

This new tendency has its roots in what we might call “Kebble-ism” – in which some of the more roguish elements of capital, lumpen-white capitalists, handed out largesse and favours and generally sought to corrupt elements within our movement in order to secure their own personal accumulation agendas. Some of this largesse helped elements within our movement to emerge as capitalists in their own right.

In particular, these elements of BEE capital have been exploring a class axis between themselves and the great mass of marginalized, alienated, often unemployed black youth. The material glue of this axis is the politics of patronage, of messiahs, and its tentative ideological form is a demagogic African chauvinism. Because of its rhetorical militancy the media often portrays it as “radical” and “left-wing” – but it is fundamentally right-wing, even proto-fascist. While it is easy to dismiss the buffoonery of some of the leading lieutenants, we should not underestimate the resources made available to them, and the huge challenge we all have when it comes to millions of increasingly alienated, often unemployed youth who are potentially available for all kinds of demagogic mobilization.

We do not use the term proto-fascist lightly, nor for the moment should we exaggerate it. However, there are worrying tell-tale characteristics that need to be nipped in the bud. They include the demagogic appeal to ordinary people’s baser instincts (male chauvinism, paramilitary solutions to social problems, and racialised identity politics).

Now  I disagree with a host of the economic solutions that the communists seem to take as gospel and I am convinced that left to their own devices they would kill creativity and diminish personal liberty without commensurate social gains. However, it is the communists who appear to be most clearly identifying where we are going and what the dangers that confront us are.

They might be full of economic nonsense (i.e. stuff with which one disagrees) but you can always trust the reds to spot the fascists before even the fascists themselves know what they have become!

I do not believe that government, by the pure force of will of the members and the clarity of their thinking, can change all societies or societal processes for the better. In fact, I tend to believe that outside of the basic provision of services and the function of co-ordination, benign neglect is what any country needs most from its government.

So, while I do not believe that governments can do much good, I am not advocating that we should not take the government, its capacity and intentions, seriously.

Because one thing is clear: through commission or omission, governments can really mess things up.

Thus I was interested and a little touched to see Joel Netshitenzhe’s farewell speech to his government colleagues. The address was reproduced in full in Ray Hartley’s excellent blog – Ray is editor of The Times as well as the Times Live website; and you can learn more about the inestimable Joel Netshitenzhe from my previous posts and their various links here and here.

Firstly, Joel gives a sense of how long he has been around government (actually from the very first and he was also central to the ANC’s ‘government in waiting’ in Lusaka:

From the early days with Mandela, when he complained that there was no smell of coffee in the corridors of the Union Buildings and we had to construct the president’s office virtually from scratch. We learnt then what it means to manage a transition and unite a nation;
And the cerebral pursuits of the Mbeki era, combined with forging an integrated democratic state;
To the firm but modest hand of Motlanthe in managing an uncertain transition; and
Now, the Zuma era, which holds the promise of merging some of the defining attributes of the two main phases of the first 15 years of democracy and taking us to a higher trajectory.

Then he quotes Geoff Mulgan, head of the policy and strategy unit in Tony Blair’s office – a position very similar to the one Joel has occupied in the four successive government’s he mentions above:

“It is widely assumed that governments have lost power … [T]he perception of powerlessness is an illusion … Governments overestimate their power to achieve change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term.”

Then he advises on how power can be exercised; how government should conduct itself to most powerfully affect shape outcomes:

If I were to add my tuppence worth, I would advise that for the Presidency to be able to exercise leadership in the context of changes being introduced, it:

  • Carefully wield the soft and hard power it has: winning the allegiance of departments, other spheres and society at large;
  • Master the science and art of ensuring all centres of government embrace the Presidency’s initiatives as their own;
  • Ensure both dignified articulation of generic issues and a dignified silence when necessary; and
  • Perhaps most importantly, organise the best parties ever at the end of the year so colleagues can know each other better.

Then he almost ruins it all by quoting a mawkishly sentimental Chris de Burgh song (see correction for this false attribution in end note) – but it kind of works, given the idea that he was part of the organised ANC endeavour that came to power in 1994 and then had to try and fix the things that had been broken:

Black bird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Black bird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free

I for one am going to miss his influence on government; and, in as far as government has any positive influence on our live, I imagine we all will.

(End Note – Blackbird is actually a Beatles song. My error started with Joel, who said it  was a Chris de Burgh song he had heard recently. I compounded the error by the fact that I never checked if he had it right and then presented his casual attribution as authoritative. Go to the comments on this post to see discussion around the song and see me suddenly decide that the song is actually quite deep and insightful, now that some kind readers have corrected me as to provenance and attribution of the song.)

The appointment of  Menzi Simelane to head the National Prosecuting Authority is profoundly reminiscent of the National Party’s style of rule in the declining years of Apartheid.

Do you remember the Broederbond, and other instruments of Afrikaner Nationalism? Do you remember the stolid manipulation of every conceivable government, parastatal or private institution? The constant need to appoint National Party apparatchiks to every level of management?

The fundamental nature of Menzi Simelane , down in his bones and in his genetic code, is to do what he is told by the president and the party. As director general of Justice he attempted to instruct the prosecuting authority to desist from prosecuting Jackie Selebi, he lied for Mbeki, he lied to the Ginwala Commission and he believes the executive has the right to instruct the prosecuting authority – and hang what the constitution says.

Now Jacob Zuma has appointed this man to head the National Prosecuting Authority. This soon after Zuma appointed Mo Shaik – whose only apparent credentials is slavish loyalty to Jacob Zuma – to head the South African Secret Service. The Secret Service and the prosecuting authority? What could he want with those institutions?

(Read that inestimable constitutional law professor and blogger Pierre De Vos for details, transcripts and intemperate language and barbed apology)

There is no doubt – in my mind, at any rate – that Simelane is appointed primarily because he will be prepared to lie and otherwise intervene in the legal process to protect this president and these rulers as he has done for the previous gang.

Only a government entirely overrun with apparatchiks and political gangsters could make an appointment as brazenly  in-your-face as this. This is haughtiness and lack of sensitivity taken to new and dizzying heights. This is the demonstration that the Zuma government will go to any lengths to protect itself from legal prosecution – no matter what the consequences for sentiment, constitutionality and good governance.

The declining years of Apartheid saw the best of young Afrikaners abandoning the party and the bureaucracy of government. What they left behind was an increasingly predatory state in terminal decline, deeply corrupt and entirely dependent on patronage and extra-legal manipulation.

This is the brink upon which we again stand.

This war won’t be won from our air-conditioned offices but in the branches and structures of the ANC, just as it happened in the build-up to Polokwane. – Zwelenzima Vavi at a press conference yesterday (30/11/2009)

It’s over; Cosatu is back where it belongs.

The trade union ally fought its way into the ruling tent and finally gained admittance at the Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007.

Cosatu has, since its formation in Durban on December 1 1985,  played the role of the prickly and critical ally of the ANC.

The organisation has consistently been on the side of the angels (in that role, anyway), acting as the stern fraternal critic of government and the ruling party on issues as diverse as Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS and corruption. After the end of legislative Apartheid in 1994 the glue that had bound Cosatu to the ANC was weakened and Cosatu became ever more strident in its criticisms – especially of cronyism.

The mythology that Cosatu constructed for itself and helped imprint on the 2007 Polokwane class project (hmm, can I patent that?) was that the ANC had been hijacked by an Mbeki led deviation with the promulgation of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution macro-economic policy in 1996 (the 1996 class project).

What Cosatu was doing in the lavish ruling tent, according to their own narrative, was saving the ANC from the 1996 class project.

Cosatu is a trade union movement. Of all possible trade union movements, Cosatu was NEVER meant to be the government. The organisation is the trickster, the Shakespearian fool and it has immeasurably strengthened our democracy by playing that role.

But a trade union movement is limited by its need to protect the interests of its members. I have argued time and time again here and here (for example) that the interests of employed workers ARE NOT identical to the interests of the nation as a whole.  Any attempt to place the interests of employed workers – especially the short-term interests – at the centre of national policy would be profoundly damaging to the South African economy and democracy.

This is not an abstraction. It’s about investment flows, the laws that structure the labour market and the costs of doing business here. Government must balance the creative greed of capital and the suffocating fear of organised labour – in a rough nutshell, so to speak.

The last thing we need is either business or organised labour running government.

Cosatu has stood steadfastly against the rising tide of cronyism and tender abuse within government. But as soon as it has become part of government the organisation pushes to entrench the short-term interests (labour brokers, forced lower interest rates) of the formally employed … and that’s in the interregnum before its leaders join the gravy train.

So instead of watching its own structures and leaders sucked into the familiar patterns of greed and corruption which seem to be the inescapable quagmire of governance in South Africa, Cosatu must find itself a base in the wilderness from which to ‘speak truth to power.’

(Note: There are questions that are begged:
  • Is it appropriate or realistic for Cosatu to conduct its battle  “in the branches and structures of the ANC, just as it happened in the build-up to Polokwane’.
  • What does this mean for the “Alliance”? Split? Drift along?
  • The SACP is obviously talking to Cosatu and coordinating with them. Where does the SACP go?
  • Whereas I do think Cosatu’s apparent exit from government into civil society presages a massive – and generally positive  – upsurge in civil society opposition, this is bad in the short-term for investment risk and, more importantly, civil society opposition is unlikely to divert these trajectories of cronyism, abuse of power and weakness at the centre.
I will try to address these in the next few weeks.)

I am a political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

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