Herewith an extract from my weekly news summary and analysis.

The big question of the week was the degree to which Zuma’s Thursday morning briefing helped or hindered our economic decline.

I know I cringed as he was speaking, especially during the twinkly admonishment at the end urging journalists present to report favourably on South Africa. I wanted to shout at the TV and call out to my president (and he is my president, however much I might wish it otherwise): “Don’t be cute! This lot is ready to crucify you – and us – don’t you get it!?”

Well, I didn’t say anything … I have not yet sunk to shouting at the TV, but I do find myself switching channels to avoid those excruciatingly embarrassing moments our politicians seem to bless us with on an ever more regular basis. I am embarrassed at my embarrassment – it is such a childish response, but I find it gets worse not better as I get older.

The fact is I think Zuma’s attempt to talk up mining wage negotiations was the right thing to do. The problem, as others have pointed out, is his credibility is so shot that almost anything he says is dismissed by financial markets and the mass media out of hand.

So herewith, from early Monday morning, my analysis of the previous weeks news:

Rand and GDP growth down – the drivers are complicated, but at least some of this is about politics

Last week the Rand hovered around R10 to the dollar as Stats SA released figures that showed South African GDP had grown an unexpectedly low 0.9 % in the first quarter of 2013 (seasonally adjusted, annualised). Then on Thursday Jacob Zuma held a surprise press conference during which he announced that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu and Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant would hold talks with parties involved in the coming bargaining season in the mining sector – in the interests of reaching settlements with a minimum of production losses.

During the course of the next forty hours the Rand continued its significant decline and the media, not unexpectedly, busied itself with blaming Zuma’s performance for the country’s economic woes. “Zuma sinks Rand” – The Star, “Rand takes a dive after Zuma pep talk” – Mail & Guardian, “Rand talking cure off to a rocky start” – City Press, “South Africa’s Zuma takes a drubbing for run on rand” – Reuters and “Zuma not only reason for rand fall” –  together these headlines probably give an adequate summary of the media’s take on the week’s economic turmoil.

So what?

Drivers of the price of the ZAR are complex and varied as Business Report (the Sunday Independent’s business section) points out in perhaps the best press economic analysis of the week. Ethel Hazelhurst (Sunday Independent) argues that the rand is primarily being driven by a “cocktail” of uncertainty about US quantitative easing, a continuing slowdown in the Chinese economy, falling commodity prices, a strengthening US dollar and volatility in global markets – and more, that several currency strategists are likely to be recommending ‘buys’ on the rand at this level (which has proved true as the ZAR was at 9.88/$ a few minutes ago). The Sunday Times quotes Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan supporting this view: “We are very confident that the rand will recover in time, that the markets have overreached themselves.”

However, it is my view that the rand’s idiosyncratic behaviour (compared with the basket of currencies from emerging market resource dependent economies) requires further explanation. Traditionally it has been adequate to argue that the ‘idiosyncrasy’ is due to the fact that the rand is particularly liquid and therefore overreacts to more general exits from that group of currencies. However, so called “structural features” that relate to issues as varied as our ‘outlier’ current account deficit, insecurity of the electricity supply, risk of labour unrest and unrealistic labour demands in the mining sector, policy paralysis as a result of the unwieldy ruling alliance, poor governance as a result of preoccupation of political leaders with patronage extraction, corruption, escalating service delivery protests and the permanent risk of instability related to high levels of unemployment and inequality are combining to make for a particularly gloomy South African story at this beginning of winter.

Vavi lives to fight another day

Zwelinzima Vavi, the Cosatu secretary general, has survived the latest attempts to remove him from his position. However an accounting firm will investigate if there was any impropriety in his involvement in the sale ‘the old Cosatu building’ and the purchase of ‘the new Cosatu House’. More importantly there will be various commissions to investigate Vavi’s political loyalties in the light of his failure to adequately articulate Cosatu support for Zuma in the lead-up to Mangaung (Mail & Guardian, City Press, Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and various online news sources … although be cautious, at least some of these outlets have reported factional rumours about Vavi in the past).

So what?

The deep fracture in Cosatu is assuming a clearer ideological and political character with unions clustered around the Num attacking Vavi especially for disloyalty to Zuma and the ANC and unions clustered around Numsa defending Vavi and asserting that his criticism of the ANC leadership for corruption and policy meandering are correct and appropriate. The issues are complex – as I have repeatedly discussed before – but it is probably true to argue that Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa have become the most significant source of opposition to Zuma’s government and leadership of the party, outweighing even that coming from opposition parties in parliament. No matter what happens with the investigation into Vavi there is likely to be a widespread belief that Vavi is the victim of a ‘stitch up’ (slang for framing someone for a crime or misdemeanour).

National Prosecuting Authority – further evidence of structural negatives

Last week senior state prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach was cleared of 15 disciplinary charges brought against her by the National Prosecuting Authority. The subtext of all of the coverage in the weeklies is contained in the summary analysis by constitutional expert professor Pierre De Vos: “It will strengthen the increasingly widely held perception that senior NPA leaders are appointed because of their political loyalty to the dominant faction inside the ANC (and especially to President Jacob Zuma and his campaign to stay out of prison) and not because of their personal integrity, independent attitude and ability to act without fear, favour or prejudice (as required by the Constitution)”. The charges against Breytenbach related to her alleged failure to act impartially when she was investigating the Kumba Iron Ore, Arcelor Mittal SA, Sishen and Imperial Crown Trading mining rights issue but was also widely interpreted as motivated by the her insistence on pursuing several other Jacob Zuma allies including suspended crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli and Nomgcobo Jiba, the person Jacob Zuma has appointed acting head of the NPA.

So what?

Ever since the suspension of Vusi Pikoli, the National Director of Public Prosecutions by Thabo Mbeki in 2007 (probably because Pikoli was pursuing then Mbeki ally Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi on corruption charges) and then his firing by Kgalema Mothlanthe (probably because Pikoli was pursuing corruption charges against newly elected ANC president Jacob Zuma) the National Prosecuting Authority has been in a precipitous state of decline. The institution has been used increasingly as an instrument to favour or retard various factional interests in the ruling alliance and with this has come a predictable decline in its effectiveness. The functioning of the prosecutorial authority is intimately tied up with the functioning of the South African constitution and can become a determining factor in investment decisions. The decline of the NPA should be seen as a not insignificant deterrent to investment in the country.

Bits and pieces

  • Num officials faked stop orders to hide the degree to which it has lost ground to Amcu according to reports in City Press business section. Eight of Num’s full-time shop stewards have been ‘expelled’ by Lonmin due to alleged fraud around union membership. “Full-time shop stewards are employees of the company who do only union work, but receive a salary – usually equivalent to relatively high grade jobs.” Num has until July 15 to regain members or lose its offices at the mine. According to the report the “offices have long doubled as the branch offices of the ANC” – as is the case with the hundreds of Num offices across the country. “Amcu represents roughly 74% of the 18 000 employees and 9 000 contractors at Lonmin” – City Press.
  • Most of the weeklies ran stories about talk show host Dali Tambo’s People of the South television programme due to be broadcast in two halves on state broadcaster SABC last night and Sunday next week.  The show is an intimate and warm interview with Robert Mugabe at home with his family.
  • “Gaddafi billions found in SA” was the lead story in the Sunday Times but over to the right on the front page was the bigger surprise: “It’s official: Pule lied about lover.” The Sunday Times claims it has seen documents that prove Dina Pule, Minister of Communications, has repeatedly lied about her relationship with businessman Phosane Mngqibisa. Failed telecommunications policy is a structural constraint to growth in the country and Pule, who is being investigated by a parliamentary ethics committee about whether she directed business towards Mngqibisa, has proved to be part of the problem. Her removal will come as a welcome relief, but policy uncertainty in the sector is a bigger problem than just this minister.
  • The Sunday Times argues that Cyril Ramaphosa is going to be used to “win support from the middle class and professionals in next year’s election”, while Jacob Zuma “will still be the face of the campaign in working-class communities” – (duh). The weekly has an interesting quote from an ANC leader supporting this assertion: “(w)e realised that the majority of our people love the president, but there are also these negative perceptions about him. What we identified was the issue of his associations, controversies about his children and family using their name to get business and the millions spent in Nkandla … So we will make sure that the DP (Ramaphosa) is visible in campaigns” (my emphasis added). All parties are intensively polling opinions in the electorate in the lead-up to elections and it is refreshing to hear ruling party leaders speak about the obstacles they face with such candour.
  • The Sunday Times also interestingly reports that the national leadership of the ANC is likely to bypass the structures of the party in Gauteng to reach voters in 2014 because the provincial executive (PEC) of the ANC has “not accepted the Mangaung outcome”. This is code for the assertion that the Gauteng ANC does not support the presidency of Jacob Zuma, which certainly squares with the position of the ANC in that province prior to Mangaung.
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