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You might be surprised at how carefully some people who’ve never set foot on these shores, people who are mostly blindingly clever at maths and informed to a scarily deep level about our politics and history and whose job includes trading our currency and bonds, have asked me that headline question in the last week.

I have a stock answer that is true to myself but provides cold comfort to those whose fingers must hit one or other button to ‘short‘ SA relative to Russia, or vice versa, or Turkey or Brazil or the Philippines or offer up a financial instrument more exotic than I, for one, can understand, an indecipherable instrument that hedges all the angles but still takes a bet that has within its algorithms a call as to whether South Africa sucks completely or sucks less than the market has priced.

That answer begins: “well it’s complicated …”

Zuma as a president and the various cabals and gangsters that have kept him in place have had free policy and patronage range since 2008.

Nhlanhla Nene’s axing was the worst and most damaging – and exposing – decision Zuma and his cronies have taken since Zuma was elected ANC president in late 2007 (and I would include Mbeki’s recall in that comparison.)

Nene’s summary and unexplained axing and Van Rooyen’s appointment showed astonishing depths of either ignorance, cronyism or hubris – but I am tending towards ignorance, seasoned by the other two.

Only an extremely ignorant man, advised by people whose basic stupidity or grandiosity (undoubtedly a perfect combination of the two ) could have shat on the doorstep of global capital markets, of the people, countries and institutions that lend us money, those who own our banks and those who rate the quality of our government debt – and thought they could walk away from their malodorous mess.

We hear all this blather in ANC discussion documents about the crisis of capitalism, the unstable ‘casino economy’ and the glorious rise of China and Russia (India is occasionally mentioned) and this self-serving internal jabbering has left Zuma surrounded by coterie of people who think sentiment and a rain of Chinese dollars has relieved us of the brutal disciplines of global capital markets? Are these not lessons we learned in 1994 – 1996?

What? China will lend/give us money to bail us out as our currency crashes and the bond yields spike? Dream on morons. The markets aren’t everything you know, I hear him bleat, and this is what I have learned, Zuma proudly asserts, from my week at Focac and the visit of Premier Zi Jinping, my new best friend. The rise of China means ‘western’ markets have lost their power to take away our sovereignty.” Yay! Lets fire that neo-liberal sell-out Nene and get along with the business of taking back what is ours.

… and the awful retribution of the implacable, cold and thoughtless ‘markets’ crushed us under its heel, without even noticing.

Okay so a group of ANC leaders managed to slap him (Zuma) and his handlers down and have appointed Gordhan (again) who is going to deliver up some brutal lessons to this crew (I cannot wait!) … you will see in previous posts why I think that Gordhan’s appointment is not only a good idea, but leaves us in a position even better (politically) than when Zuma fired Nene (although it is a close call) – that is the answer I finally give to those who ask the question in the first paragraph … but only after long and probably boring but stern admonishments that complex systems do not yield up easy, dualistic answers.

But I want you to think about our core political leadership … or rather think about what they think about. Who are they? I assume it’s Zuma and his myriad sons and daughters and cousins and wives, it’s obviously the Guptas, the increasingly awful Lindiwe Zulu and others scattered about the differentially abled ANC Youth League, the Woman’s League and the Premier League with Ace Magashule neck and neck with Zulu in the running dog, protect-the-President-at-all-costs, Joseph Goebbels’ cup.

Jacob Zuma gave a perfect explanation (in terms of his logic) and defence of why he axed Nene in the speech he gave after the announcement. Rian Malan, journalist and author, nailed the problem by closely examining the unscripted words Zuma delivered after announcing that Nene was out and Van Rooyen was in.

You must read Malan’s article (here) but the long and the short of it is Zuma said “I am rebelling against (the idea that) what determines the value of a commodity is the law of supply and demand … The value of a commodity is the labour time taken in production …”

Do you know what that means? Do you realise how dire the consequences that flow from this being the view of our President?

Having been in reading groups in the early 80’s where we poured over and over “Capital: Critique of Political Economy” and several of Karl Marx’s other texts, I know exactly what Zuma thinks he means when he incoherently refers to Marx’s  Labour Theory of Value.

In the intellectual vacuum that Zuma and whatever advisers he used when he fired Nene and appointed Van Rooyen there could only have been a complete absence of the knowledge that most of those who lend us money, buy our financial equities or trade our currency base their decisions on the reliability, predictability and respect of the Minister of Finance. It doesn’t  matter if the traders and fund-managers are wrong or right in using this Cabinet Minister as the touchstone of policy credibility, it only matters that they do and the actions and inactions of the head of the National Treasury are scrutinised and combed with ruthless thoroughness by those who sell or buy our currency or debt (and in this case our bank’s equity as well).

We have a President surrounded by a coterie of what I am tempted to describe as imbeciles – and I don’t mean the Cabinet. Do they really think that  (the interrupted) rise of China will free us from the dictates of markets? Our debt, equity and currency are traded on markets where prices are set by how many buyers or sellers there are, not some sentimental, half baked understanding of Marxist theories from the mid-to-late 1800s. When those markets ‘think’ the politicians are clearing obstacles (Nene) so they (those politicians) and their clients can loot the public purse they (the traders) will unsentimentally sell the financial instruments that are the backbone of our economy and we will crumble. And this time we came that close.

We have a steely new Finance Minister who I believe has more reason than ever to stand up to the ignorant and incoherent policy coming from the centre – although growth and our place in the world will make his job intolerably hard.

We have seen that the centre can be countermanded when its decisions are so bad that they could have a real chance of pushing the country into penury.

However the centre is still the centre, and it is still strong and dominant in the ruling party anyway. We are not home and free while Jacob Zuma occupies the driving seat. It doesn’t really matter if he is a crook or a fool -he has shown unequivocally poor judgement, and this looms over us as an ever present risk.

 

 

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 have been interviewed several times this week about the Cosatu strike.

Is this an irreparable breakdown between the ANC and Cosatu?

Does this have implications for Zuma’s bid for re-election at Mangaung?

How stable is the ANC/Cosatu alliance?

What do I think of Jackson Mthembu’s response to Vavi’s claim that the ANC says “Cosatu is exaggerating poverty of workers in South Africa”? (… or whatever … If you can’t follow the subjects and objects in that sentence check out the ANC statement here – or not.)

Where is the SACP in all of this … and is Cosatu split between its president and secretary general?

Where is all this leading … what is going to happen … what does it all mean?

I’ll give those of you who are interested a kind of answer to those questions in a separate post, but I first wanted to say:  it’s a peculiar business this being a ‘talking head’, someone whose views are sought on something as slippery as what’s really happening in our politics, where it’s all leading and why.

This is not (only) an idle existential question to while away a windy Cape Town Saturday morning … it is brought on by a perilous attempt at humour by that leading bastion of irony and satire, the South African Communist Party and their laugh-a-minute, Umsebenzi Online – and more particularly the March 8 “Red Alert” that you can catch here.

(Perhaps only start reading from the “Succession battles at leading newspaper” headline. That way you might still be open to that old Marxist quip: history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce” – here for Wikipedia’s sketch of the source of that quote, Karl Marx’s excellent The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon – something I find it difficult to believe the writers of Umsebenzi Online have actually read or understood … but that is just by the by.)

Anyway …

The SACP’s satire is a teasing poke at … well, at people and institutions that do what I do for a living.

The premise is that Umsebenzi Online has come into possession of “dramatic new evidence” of a deep factional split at 195 Jan Smuts Avenue … which is the address of the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

The premise is that editor Nic Dawes is being challenged by “the ring-leader of the Young Turks” Matuma Letsoalo.

And the issue over which they are divided?

Whether to stick with the fading Julius Malema as the leading character in the soap opera the M&G produces or replace him with “the unions” as the new villain.

Umsebenzi Online then seeks the views of “two well-known, dial-a-quote, soap opera specialists – Aubrey Habib and Eusebius Mashele”* who proceed to pontificate incoherently about the split at the M&G.

There is a whole cast of villains in Umsebenzi Online’s slightly stilted (hardly unexpected that – Ed) attempt at humour.

And all the villains are ‘talking heads’ … people who have come to make their primary living from giving their views on the South African political soap opera.

I think there is a real question to be answered about political analysts – poorly asked and answered in this pinkish satire

Are the views of ‘political analysts’ any more reliable than anyone else’s? It’s not like there is a professional association that erects barriers to entry and puts in a whole lot of quality controls. And anyway such associations are usually just a gang hierarchy that protects the turf from competition.

My own answer – and I have to have one, or my tongue would shrivel up and drop out of my head and my fingers fuse uselessly to this keyboard – is that political analysts are to politics what critics are to art and literature. The critics don’t have to be artists or writers themselves – in fact, that might well be a drawback to them performing their function.

Critics come to be what they are through a market mechanism – their views are sought out and some consumer ends up paying for them. The art consuming public is looking for confirmation, information or rebuttal; they are looking for a view against which they can balance their own view, or learn something from – or just to think about.

The best critics are a mirror for the artist – trusted or hated by the practitioner, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

Rubbish critics can find an oppulent home in rubbish publications and TV stations – because mediocrity does so often rule the mass market mechanism.

Fine critics can quietly go about their business and eke out an interstitial existence of quiet excellence and the small comfort of professional respect.

Or the other way around.

I am all in favour of communists using satire to further their aims – it is so much more desirable than the dystopian bureaucratic terror which appears to be the default instrument – when available – of this vanguard of leading intellectuals.

But I wish this satire had been more … well, funny … and clever – basically, more thoughtful. We are bludgeoned daily by the views of “experts” – and it might not have escaped you that I both bludgeon and am bludgeoned in my turn.

How and why political analysts come to be part of our lives and part of the cultural and public intellectual process is an important question – one we should think about before consuming the sometimes suspicious fruits they offer.

* Those fake names are a melding of the real Professor Adam Habib:

Aubrey Matshiqi:

Prince Mashile:

and Eusebius Mckaiser

(Right you four, you can send donations to The Association of Professional Standards in Political Analysis for the free publicity – Ed)

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 Securities South Africa (Pty) Ltd.

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