As promised some comments on the politics of Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget … but first forgive me for expressing some of my irritation at two of his (Gordhan’s)  recent statements.

That will be followed by some of  the bits and pieces I found interesting in the weekly newspapers – if you didn’t see the ‘Zuma gaffes” selection in the Sunday Times and City Press I reproduce some of them here.

Excuse me?

Look I am not yet ready to start calling him a tubby little tyrant with the charisma of a mud prawn but Pravin Gordhan has been saying some things that are not hugely endearing.

First he told a joint parliamentary committee that negative news flow from ‘the media” was partly responsible for sovereign downgrades of South Africa’s debt. So what, he thinks Moody’s, S&P and Fitch get their understanding of government policy from the Sunday Times?  It is just a stupid thing to say and makes him sound just like a National Party ministers circa about 1986. Catch that here.

Secondly, responding to the flurry around South Africa’s cancellation of its bilateral investment treaty with Germany he “blamed lawyers serving the private sector for increasing uncertainty in South Africa’s investment environment” – catch that Business Day story here .

I didn’t personally hear Gordhan in either of these instances but there might be a pattern emerging:

Pravin (PW Botha) Gordhan

Look familiar … think PW Botha? (That’s Business Day’s photo btw, I hope and trust they don’t mind)

Okay, I am glad I got that off my chest – on with the rest.

Political messaging and the medium-term budget – all good

If political messaging was all that we were looking at in the MTBPS then we would have to conclude that Pravin Gordhan’s performance was overwhelmingly financial market positive. Obviously ‘messaging’ doesn’t determined the price of eggs or the price of much else. The believability of Minister Gordhan’s various estimates and projections is ultimately more important for determining sovereign risk, but the overt politics of the message indicates a more confident government prepared to stand on organised labour’s toes to reassure global capital markets (and other investors).

Firstly, Gordhan was on message with regard to the Employment Tax Incentive Bill. This is the latest manifestation of the youth wage subsidy and has been bitterly opposed by Cosatu and, to some degree, by members of the SACP (for reasons that I have explained elsewhere). It is unclear whether the policy will make a significant dent in South Africa’s serious youth unemployment problem (which deputy minister of Finance Nhlanlha Nene recently put at  42% for  those aged between 19 and 29) but what the rating agencies have been looking for is signs that the ANC and government can forge policy independent of, especially, Cosatu – and in this confident assertion by Gordhan they have their signal.

Secondly, the Finance minister cast the MTBPS – and, in fact, all future budget statements – as the accounts of the National Development Plan (NDP). Again, the NDP is bitterly opposed by Cosatu – and is less than warmly regarded by the SACP. It is a confident Jacob Zuma that backs his Minister of Finance to define government budgeting as : “(t)aking the National Development Plan as the point of departure”.

The NDP is little more than a shopping list and a general statement of intent but it generally conceives of the market as the appropriate mechanism for the allocation of capital (at least more so than the New Growth Path and the Industrial Policy Action plans do). It also puts the infrastructure plans and improving capacity and accountability of the public service as key planning objectives. There is no evidence that the ANC and the Zuma administration is going to succeed in moving beyond planning to implementation, but Gordhan made the right noises in his speech.

Thirdly Gordhan pressed every conceivable button in his attempts to tone down excesses in the executive and the public services. He placed a number of ceilings on luxuries, cars, travel, catering, accommodation, use of credit cards – and amongst the Twitterati the cry went out: Gordhan derails the gravy train!

Again this is good form but we have to keep an eye out for the content. After all this is a government led by a president deeply implicated in the ambitious abuse of various privileges. It is going to take a more than fine sounding words to convince the country that the gravy train has, in fact, been delayed let alone derailed.

Fourthly the key political aspect of political risk in relation to the budget is the commitment to restrain growth of the public sector wage bill and social grants – two pillars of both political stability and continued electoral support for the ANC. Obviously the minister (at this stage the apparently tough and skilful Lindiwe Sisulu) in public service and administration will have to hold the line in public sector wage negotiations – we will have to wait to see how that plays out, but Sisulu is the right person for the job of holding that thin red line.

Loud and widespread muttering about power struggles in the Democratic Alliance

It should probably be seen as a sign that the Democratic Alliance is on the verge of breaking out of its previously narrow ethnic base that the fine details of its internal power struggles are becoming a matter of national public debate. All the major weeklies discussed a putative succession struggle between the DA’s national spokesman and candidate for Gauteng premier, Mmusi Maimane and the DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. The point being that Maimane’s supporters are pushing for him to be on the parliamentary list so that if the DA does not win Gauteng next year (dah!) he will still get into parliament.

So what?

Obviously the Democratic Alliance believes that it needs a black leader if it is to make a serious dent on ANC support in 2019 – but the matter is not so pressingly urgent that they are likely to dump their extremely successful and popular leader Helen Zille any time soon. I still think there is space for an amalgamation of the DA and AgangSA after that new party performs adequately but fails to shoot out the lights in 2014. That will leave the tantalising possibility of Mamphela Ramphele finding her way into the top leadership of the DA some time in about 2016. So of the three potential black leaders of the DA, Maimane probably has most township credibility and would represent the DA going out there head-to-head with the ANC for the African vote. Lindiwe Mazibuko would be the most palatable for the DA’s traditional support base (yes, we all know who I mean). And Ramphele, with her struggle credibility and achievement in academia and business seems like a perfect – and heavy hitting – compromise. She might need a charisma injection, but that is purely a personal observation.

Mozambique – Renamo rears its scarred and ugly old head

The Mozambique army overran a key Renamo base in central Sofala province on Monday last week and Renamo guerrillas hit back on Saturday by ambushing a minibus, killing one person and injuring 10 more.

So what?

This might seem like small cheese, but Monday’s government attack has forced Renamo opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama to flee into the bush and has raised the spectre of the restart of the 16-year civil war which ended in a 1992 peace pact that established multi-party democracy in Mozambique. Renamo has lost every election since 1992 but Dhlakama’s party said on Monday it was abandoning the peace agreement. In and of itself what has happened over the last week is not huge, but in the context of the hopes for Mozambique’s economic growth as that country emerges as a natural gas giant, Renamo becomes a significant risk that needs careful attention.

The Cosatu vortex is sucking in everyone in – this is a clear and present danger

This weekend the national general council of the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union lined up in precise opposition to Numsa in the on-going and bitter struggle taking place in Cosatu. Sadtu backed the disciplinary process against Zwelinzima Vavi, it vigorously opposed the holding of a special Cosatu conference and it unequivocally backed the ANC in elections next year.

So what?

My own (perhaps counter-intuitive) view is that the only way for Cosatu to remain as a functional federation and part of the ruling alliance is for a special congress to be held during which Zwelinzima Vavi wins the popular vote, escapes disciplinary action for his various infractions (both the real ones and the made up ones) and Numsa decides to stay in the federation. However, it is looking increasingly like the ANC loyalists are going to force Numsa, Vavi and their various allies out of the federation. Note that Sadtu itself is facing something of a minor palace revolt after receiving threats from some of its own members who are angry at the suspension of the union’s president Thobile Ntola for supporting Zwelinzima Vavi. Yes the key Zuma and ANC allies in Cosatu can force the leftist critics out of the federation but that will lead to a split – and, in my opinion, cascading instability throughout the labour sector as Numsa and others compete in every workplace against the incumbent Cosatu union. This outcome is closer than ever and it appears to me can only be averted if a special Cosatu congress is allowed to take place and that a likely democratic victory by Numsa and Vavi is allowed to carry at any such conference. It would stick in some ANC craws, but it would re-establish the status quo of a restive Cosatu that remains a faithful, if critical, ANC ally.

Jacob Zuma provides some light relief

Politicians often say things that outrage some and delight others by providing grist to the social satirist’s mill.

Jacob Zuma provided a gem last week when he said:

“We can’t think like Africans in Africa, generally; we’re in Johannesburg (the N1 is) not some national road in Malawi”.

(Gauteng ANC manifesto forum – October 21 2013)

This provided the opportunity for several journalists (most notably Gareth Von Onsellen in the Sunday Time and Carien Du Plessis in the City Press) to aggregate some of Jacob Zuma’s more illuminating gaffs from the last several years. Here, purely to save you from having to dig into the papers yourself, are some of those:

“I’ve always said that a wise business person will support the ANC … because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business”

(ANC 101st anniversary gala dinner in Durban – January 12 2013)

“Sorry, we have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that’s how democracy works”

(President’s question time in the National Assembly – September 13 2012)

“Kids are important to a woman because they give extra training to a woman, to be a mother.”

(SABC interview with Dali Tambo August 19 2012)

“Even some Africans, who become too clever, take a position, they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything”

(Speech to the National House of Traditional Leaders November 1 2012)

“When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed.”

 (Address to ANC supporter in Easter Cape – February 4 2011)

“The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back.”

 (Gauteng ANC special council – March 15 2004)

We don’t want to review the Constitutional Court; we want to review its powers.

(Interview in The Star Newspaper – Feb 13 2012)

So what?

When compared with other famous presidents Zuma’s gaffes are fairly benign … (hmm I am no longer as sure that those are quite as benign and cute as I thought they were when I wrote that early Monday morning … but I will let it stand for now.) What is interesting is how socially conservative some of his off-the-cuff comments are. It gives some insight into the gradually building pressures in the ANC with regard to appealing to an urban professional class versus traditional rural groups. There is no question that Zuma represents only one of those choices.

Bits and pieces

  • Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget statement received both criticism and praise. Cosatu’s spokesman Patrick Craven described it as “a conservative macroeconomic framework predicated on a neo-liberal paradigm”. Piet le Roux, the senior economic researcher at Solidarity (coming, in some ways, from the other side of the spectrum) said Gordhan’s mini budget was based on an “unsustainable model of deficit spending, mounting government debt and onerous taxation”.
  • The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) announced on Friday (25/10/13) it would consult its members on a possible strike after it received a certificate to strike at Impala Platinum (Implats) when wage negotiations deadlocked. Amcu is demanding a basic salary of R12 500 a month for underground workers and R11 500 for surface workers.
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