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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.

Herewith my latest news update as of 06h30 this morning.

  • NDP – defections to the left and right
  • Collusion scandal in the construction industry gathers momentum
  • Tax Review Committee – some welcome caution
  • Proposed legislative changes in the mining industry shows SA government’s deep ambivalence towards the sector
  • Ramaphosa – rumours that Zuma faction is planning his side-lining
  • Zimbabwe election chaos looms
  • Zanu-PF funding Julius Malema? Good story, but impossible to prove
  • ICT takes its ‘R150-billion’  iron-ore claim to the Constitutional Court

National Development Plan – under attack from left and right

Trade union Solidarity has added its voice to growing (but varied) criticism of the National Development Plan (NDP), calling it “self-contradictory, heavily race-based, deeply interventionist … largely unworkable … downright intrusive and harmful and … likely to require substantial funding”. [1]

Solidarity joins John Kane-Berman (Chief Executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations) who recently said “half-baked solutions suggested by the National Development Plan would do little to address the multiple challenges facing South Africa” and, further, that the plan “is a hotch-potch of contradictory ideas that have not been properly costed and are bound to fail” – Business Day 03/07/13.  Kane-Berman added that the lack of future scenarios for tax revenues, budget deficits or the public debt means that an endorsement of the NDP amounts to giving the government “a blank cheque for more taxation and more borrowing and probably for both” – ibid.

The NDP was adopted by the ANC at its Mangaung conference In December 2012 and has since been repeatedly endorsed as the cornerstone of the government’s medium and long-term planning by Jacob Zuma and members of his cabinet.

Since then the policy has been welcomed by organised business (for being generally market friendly) but strongly criticised by Cosatu for prioritising growth over inequality, employment over ‘quality work’ and for its reliance on markets and the private sector.

So what?

Jacob Zuma’s government has used the NDP to lend an appearance of coherence and co-ordination to policies as diverse as infrastructure development, labour market reform, tax policy, mining regulatory shifts and anti-corruption campaigns. Our own view is (unusually) closer to that articulated in a recent position paper by the South African Communist Party which said that the NDP is “a broad vision open to necessary criticism and engagement. It is NOT really a PLAN, still less a fit-for-implementation plan.”

Government should not be judged on its broad statements of intent – which is essentially what the NDP is. Government should be judged by what it actually does (or fails to do), what legislation it brings to parliament, what structural reforms it affects, the degree to which it improves the public service, how it manages the public purse … and by a host of other performance indicators.


The collusion scandal in the construction sector

Murray and Roberts CEO Henry Lass’s public apology for the company’s involvement in the widespread collusion scandal made the main headline on the front page of the Business Times yesterday. “I know that the Competition Commission’s findings of collusion in the construction sector has angered and disappointed you, just as it has our board, executives, employees, shareholders and other stakeholders,” Lass bemoans. He then goes on to explain that much of the wrongdoing took place in the dim and distant past. “None of the current executives at Murray & Roberts were found to be at fault for any form of collusive conduct through the Fast Track Settlement”.

So what?

It appears that public outrage at the scandal is growing. The lead editorial in the Sunday Times is particularly scathing. Headed: “Jail the price-fixers in the construction sector”, the editorial argues “when the private sector is caught out cheating and inflating costs for everyone who pays tax, we should judge them by the same standards we apply to the likes of Bheki Cele, Dina Pule or Menzi Simelane. Apologists argue that construction companies did this to make the deadline for the World Cup — but it’s a poor argument. It wasn’t just the soccer stadiums that South Africa’s iconic blue-chip companies with suitably self-righteous corporate governance manifests, such as Aveng, Group 5, WBHO and Murray & Roberts, colluded on. There were many others, including the Coega harbour nearly a decade ago, the Nelson Mandela bridge and any number of other construction projects.”

Expect civil claims from various angry customers (including metropolitan governments) … and it is not inconceivable that criminal prosecutions of some executives who didn’t “come clean” in the Competition authority process could still be on the cards.

 

Tax Commission – some welcome caution

Pravin Gordhan has named members of the long promised Tax Review Committee charged with inquiring ‘into the role of the tax system in the promotion of inclusive economic growth, employment creation, development and fiscal sustainability’. Judge Dennis Davis will chair the committee. Other members are Annet Wanyana Oguttu, prof Matthew Lester, prof Ingrid Woolard, Nara Monkam, Tania Ajam, prof Nirupa Padia, and Vuyo Jack – with Cecil Morden, an official from National Treasury and Kosie Louw, an official from the South African Revenue Service as ex-officio members who will provide technical support and advice.)

So what?

It’s an adequate committee staffed and led by people respected across society and (mostly) with the necessary technical expertise. After the ANC adopted policies at its Mangaung national conference in December last year that specifically called for increased taxes in mining (the State Involvement in the Mining Sector document) it is a minor relief that the Treasury has qualified the terms of reference by specifying (amongst other limitations) that the any changes to the mining tax regime must take account of “the challenges facing the mining sector, including low commodity prices, rising costs, falling outputs and declining margins, as well as to its current contribution to tax revenues.”

 

Mining industry legislative changes show ANC ambivalence about the resources sector

The Mail & Guardian published an interesting piece raising important concerns about proposed changes to legislation contained in the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill that was tabled in parliament on June 21. According to the author of the article (Peter Leon a partner and head of the ‘mining sector group’ at Johannesburg law firm Webber Wentzel) the bill “perpetuates and, in some respects, exacerbates” excessive administrative discretion in the issuing of mining licences.

In the article, Leon says that the proposed legislation “inexplicably deletes all the Act’s statutorily prescribed timelines and leaves this to ministerial regulation … second, it introduces an export licensing system for ‘designated minerals’, which are vaguely defined as: ‘Such minerals as the minister may designate for beneficiation purposes as and when the need arises in the [Government] Gazette.’ All ‘designated’ minerals will require the written consent of the minerals minister prior to their export.”

Leon points out that under the proposed legislative changes “the minister becomes the pricing tsar for ‘designated’ minerals” and “the department will effectively control all exports of such minerals”.

So what?

Many of the proposed legislative changes Peter Leon discusses in this article are precisely those that were originally contained in the State Involvement in the Mineral Sector document adopted as policy by the African National Congress at it December 2012 National Conference. So, despite various attempts to mollify investors after a torrid 2012 (through, for example, Kgalema Motlanthe’s framework agreement for a sustainable mining and the ‘sensitive’ tax commission terms of reference discussed above) the ANC and its government is still following its contradictory impulses with regards to the resources sector. Expect confusion and contradictory signals to continue to undermine sentiment in the sector.

 

“Fierce ANC Ramaphosa succession battle brews” – Sunday Independent

The Sunday Independent quotes several unnamed sources claiming that there is a campaign in the ANC to prevent the party’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, from becoming the country’s deputy president after the national election next year. The weekly newspaper claims the fight is “pitting President Jacob Zuma and Ramaphosa’s supporters against each other.” The story suggests that either ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete or Public Services Minister Lindiwe Sisulu are likely to replace Kgalema Motlanthe in 2014.

So what?

This story is based on the idea that the long term imperative of Jacob Zuma and his lieutenants  is to control the succession in 2017 (in the ANC National Conference which will elect the next ANC president ) and in 2019 (in the national election which will elect the next country president). Why? Because an independently minded candidate (which, in this narrative, Cyril Ramaphosa is imagined to be) might fail to protect Zuma from the consequences of the corruption allegations that still hang over his head. A careful reading of this and similar stories indicates that the “unnamed sources” in favour of ensuring that Ramaphosa becomes deputy president next year are from Gauteng and the “unnamed sourced” plotting against him are from Kwazulu-Natal. Such stories in the popular press are inevitably based on factional leaks out of sections of the party pursuing some or other agenda of their own. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a plot against Cyril Ramaphosa, it just means we need a healthy sense of scepticism about these kind of leaks into the media.

 

Zimbabwe election chaos looms

Zimbabwe is due to host national elections on July 31 – having endured a chaotic ‘special vote’ on July 14 and 15 for approximately 80 000 uniformed personal.

SO what?

The Mail & Guardian put it well:  “every indication is of a poll that will be not only shambolic but also intrinsically unfair. The outcome of the past two elections in Zimbabwe were fiercely disputed and it would be tragic if the result once again left the country in limbo. Equally unacceptable would be a façade of legitimacy over another stolen election.”

(Tony Hawkins, “professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s Clinical Research Centre” gives a useful analysis of the “dismal economic past and the failed policies of President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party” on the leader page of the Sunday Times. After his analysis – which I recommend here  – Hawkins says “given these statistics and Zimbabwe’s ranking near the top of the list of failed states, it is difficult to understand why South Africa’s chattering classes are so convinced Mugabe will win again next week. His track record of economic failure is unparalleled in any developing country that has not experienced civil war or military adventurism.” While this ‘member of the South African chattering classes’ has no real idea whether Mugabe will win –by hook or by crook – next week’s election, I have to agree with both the Mail and Guardian and Professor Hawkins that it is a foregone conclusion that it will be ‘shambolic’ and ‘intrinsically unfair’.)

 

Bits and pieces

  • Facebook profile, Baba Jukwa, purporting to be a kind of ‘deep throat’ in Zanu-PF has claimed (according to  City Press) that Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters are funded by key members of Robert Mugabe’s cabinet. “This is ostensibly in revenge against President Jacob Zuma and his international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, who have been heading the Southern African Development Community mediation process in Zimbabwe following the violent 2008 polls” – City Press 21/07/13.
  • Business Times said “rumours are swirling that Cell C has been trying to put together a landmark, cross-sector deal to partner with First National bank (FNB)”.  The story repeats speculation that “(e)ssentially, this would see FNB start its own cellphone business using Cell C’s network as its backbone” with the intention of rolling out integrated cellphone banking to the customer base of both companies  – Business Times.
  •   Imperial Crown Trading and Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu have filed papers at the Constitutional Court, asking it to set aside Pretoria High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal judgments giving Kumba Iron Ore subsidiary Sishen Iron Ore Company (SIOC) full rights to one of the largest iron ore mines in the world. ICT is co-owned by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s long-time partner, Gugu Mtshali. “At stake for ICT is a 21.4 percent share of the mining right, which is conservatively expected to produce a net profit of R150bn over the next 30 years for its owner” – Sunday Independent.
  • Pali Lehohla, Statistician General and head of StatsSA used some unusual language to describe his feeling about his now retired deputy director general Jairo Arrow as well as now fired chief of Methodology, Evaluation and Standards, Marlize Pistorius – who together identified an 18.1% undercount in Census 2011. Aside from expressing his temptation to “physically manhandle” Arrow, Lehohla also said “we will rid this organisation of those kinds of plotters … you have to act with integrity and flesh, flesh, no blood, no drop of blood must come from the neck … It must be a sword that cuts clean. That’s how we deal with people like these … when you attack you must attack as aggressively to eliminate it completely” (Sunday Independent). Is this what happens when statisticians become generals

[1] Solidarity is a (largely white) South African trade union that mostly organises skilled and semi-professional workers. The criticism of the NDP appear in Solidarity’s latest Labour Market Journal (that can be accessed here.)

In high anxiety at my failure to publish here for several weeks (what with 12 days visiting fund managers in the UK and Europe and new commitments to the Daily Maverick – see here and here for the first two of those) I have decided to again post a modified version of my usually bespoke  ‘SA Political news commentary’ … to show willing; to demonstrate that I am not entirely unembarrassed that my last post, which was also a news commentary, was on March 18.

Perhaps I am edging towards closing down this blog … but I am not quite done yet, and for those who have stuck with me this long, I thank you.

So here,  written to a deadline of 06h30 yesterday, slightly modified for my hanging-by-a-thread website:

SA Political News update 23/04/2013

Cosatu and the ruling alliance: corruption claims and counterclaims

According to the Mail & Guardian (April 19-25), the battle for control of Cosatu is becoming ever more vicious. The article states that behind the noise is an apparent attempt by the ANC to close down a powerful left faction in Cosatu that has been critical of both corruption and the alleged adoption of ‘pro-business’ policies by the ANC and government. The main issues over which the battle is playing out are:

  • Allegations made (according to the M&G) by “an informal caucus … of senior leaders from Nehawu, the NUM, Popcru, Sadtu, Cepawu [they mean CEPPWAWU, I think – ed], the SACP and the ANC[1]” that Zwelinzima Vavi, the popular Cosatu Secretary General, has engaged in corrupt activity and is disloyal to the ANC-led alliance, including by failing to adequately support Jacob Zuma for re-election at Mangaung.
  • A flood of accusations made through the Cosatu linked NGO Corruption Watch that many of the leaders of unions involved in attacking Vavi are themselves corrupt – Mail & Guardian in a story that works more by insinuation rather than actual content – see here  for the story that was later denied by Corruption watch here).
  • The proposal made by Fawu (Food and Allied Workers Union) for a special Cosatu congress to resolve this issue, opposed by the group named in the first bullet, but supported by Numsa, Samwu and several smaller unions[2].
  • Support for and against the National Development Plan.

So what?

Business might be tempted to fold its arms and sit back and delight that the old ‘thorn in the side’ Cosatu is being riven by tension. However, it is worth recalling that some industrial relations consultants also delighted in the emergence of Amcu in the platinum sector as a counter to Num for similar reasons – and look how that played out. The serious political conflict in Cosatu could as easily result in higher levels of labour unrest, with higher levels of unpredictability, in a wide variety of industries than in a generally more compliant labour movement. Several multi-year wage agreements are coming up for review before the end of this year (including in the automobile, chemical, gold mining, coal mining, retail motor industry and tyre sectors – which historically have been trendsetters – Business Times). Add to this my uncertainty as to whether the tight three-year public sector wage agreement set last year will hold under strain caused by a combination of:

  • the (welcome) reforming zeal of Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu,
  • government’s apparent attempt to roll back the power of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, and
  • the generally difficult economic circumstances for union members,
  • the successes of the wildcat strikes, particularly in the platinum sector last year, perhaps having established a new baseline for increase expectation throughout the economy

and it is not inconceivable that we could have another year of potentially devastating labour unrest.

If the government’s (and the ANC’s) intention was to have a showdown with organised labour over economic growth and stability that would be one thing. But I suspect that the evident intervention in Cosatu is based on the sectarian interests at the ruling faction of the alliance rather than in any real desire to pursue the national good. If that faction faction successfully expels Vavi they might precipitate a split in Cosatu and the long awaited formation of a new ‘left’ political formation … and just by the act of pushing, through what appears to be a dirty tricks campaign, for this outcome the ruling faction risks rapidly escalating labour unrest.

The DA and the ANC try on their best dresses (or maybe not)  for Election 2014

The DA has launched a campaign attempting to burnish its anti-apartheid credentials, including publishing a pamphlet with a picture of Nelson Mandela embracing deceased party stalwart Helen Suzman under the caption: “We played our part in opposing apartheid”.

At the same time, the Mail & Guardian has published excerpts of what it calls ‘draft DA election material’ which explicitly compares the ANC to the National Party. The M&G’s quotes from the draft document include the arguments that under Zuma’s ANC there is a “rise of Zulu nationalism and racist rhetoric” and “as was the case with apartheid, the ANC is using the police to suppress criticism of its government”.

In the City Press and Sunday Independent, the ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has separate opinion pieces that argue that the DA’s attempt to appropriate Nelson Mandela is “an abuse of the human and humble character of this icon”. He adds that the DA “remains a brazen advocate for white domination and privilege, and for elaborate schemes for its retention in the guise of liberal policies”.

So what?

The general election next year is likely to be messy and disruptive – sustaining the apparently endless flow of unsettling news coming out of South Africa. From this far out it appears possible that the ANC will be arguing that the electoral issues are essentially identical to what they were in 1994 (white domination and the legacy of apartheid) and that the DA will be arguing that that is just an excuse for delivery failure – it would be difficult to conjure up a more divisive and unhelpful framing of the issues 20 years after the first democratic election.

The unravelling of the Mandela legacy

The weeklies have a flood of stories that pick away at the fabric of the Mandela story. A reality TV show “Being Mandela” is reviewed in the Sunday Times under the heading “Opening up the canned Mandelas – comic kugels[3] help deflate the myth”. The show “unveils the vacuous, pampered lives of two of Nelson Mandela’s grand-daughters, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini” – Sunday Times.

The Sunday Independent leads with a review of “struggle stalwart” Amina Cachalia’s new book “When Hope and History Rhyme” in which, among many other matters, she reveals aspects of her own alleged romantic relationship with Nelson Mandela post his marriage to Graça Machel.

All of this comes as a bitter fight among Mandela’s children (with, among others, Nelson Mandela nominees George Bizos and Tokyo Sexwale) for control of various trusts that Nelson Mandela set up on his children’s behalf comes to a head in the Johannesburg High Court – The Sunday Tribune.

So what?

There may be some inherent advantages to the exposing of myths and legends as … myths and legends – but there really appears to be no upside to this depressing deflation. None of these stories changes the reality of the 94 year old South African former president’s contribution to the South African democracy and state-craft in general, but the incessant exposure does add to the gathering gloom around the South African story.

Bits and pieces

  • The Youth Employment Accord has finally been signed after three years of squabbling in the National Economic Development and Labour council (Nedlac). Not unexpectedly, it does not include a youth wage subsidy in the form of a tax-break for companies employing first time youth workers. Frankly, at first glance, the accord, as reported in the Sunday Independent, Sunday Times and City Press appears vague enough to leave some confusion as to how it might result in its proposed creation of 5 million jobs for youth by 2020. No real surprises there.
  • The weeklies were full of scholarly – and not so scholarly – debate about the resignation of Judicial Services Council member Izak Smuts. The debate boils down to whether there is a tension between the quality of judicial appointments and the need to make the judiciary more demographically representative. This is an intrinsically South African debate that cuts across every sector of society and will likely be with us for many years to come – for better or for worse.
  • ANC MP, Ben Turok, explains in the Sunday Times the terms of reference and limitation of the nine member “inquisitorial” panel appointed by parliament to investigate the “ethical conduct and conflicts of interest, potential or otherwise” of Communications Minister Dina Pule with regard to the various allegations that she has allowed her romantic partner to make significant capital out of her ministerial post. That parliament is investigating this matter can only be a good – albeit long overdue – thing.

[1] In order in which it appears in the quote, and supposedly constituting an anti-Vavi, pro-NDP, pro Zuma  faction: the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union, the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress

[2] And this group, supposedly constituting the pro-Vavi, anti-NDP faction, anti Zuma faction: National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa and the South African Municipal Workers Union (plus a host of smaller unions including the Food and Allied Workers union).

(Note for both footnotes 1 and 2 – it is undoubtedly more complicated than this, but we need to start somewhere to attempt to make sense of the chaos.)

[3] Wikipedia (accessed 22/04/2013) explains the use of this term in South African slang as follows: “Amongst South African Jews, the word “kugel” was used by the elder generation as a term for a young Jewish woman who forsook traditional Jewish dress values in favour of those of the ostentatiously wealthy, becoming overly materialistic and over groomed, the kugel being a plain pudding garnished as a delicacy. The women thus described made light of the term and it has since become an amusing rather than derogatory slang term in South African English, referring to a materialistic young woman.”

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.)

I think the e-tolling saga is important precisely because my headline bastardising the denouement of John Donne’s famous poem is, in truth, wrong.

Gauteng’s road upgrade does not come for free.

The R20bn was borrowed by Sanral and lent by people and institutions (which) who assessed the risk attached to repayment on the basis that e-tolling was part of the deal.

This is a précis of what I told my clients about some of the political implications:

The North Gauteng High Court granted an urgent interdict on Saturday that will postpone the implementation of e-tolling until as late next year – and perhaps contribute to stopping it completely.

At this stage the court has ordered a full review of the process that will probably take at least two months to complete. If the court rules that e-tolling can go ahead the appeals process, all the way to the Constitutional Court, can take up to two years.

So what?

There are a number of significant risks associated with this decision .

The National Treasury itself, during the course of legal arguments, predicted dire consequences for South Africa’s sovereign risk rating and for public finances more generally.

I think they exaggerated but one could hardly blame them. The Treasury is the custodian of the public purse and its officials and political head carry the responsibility  if R20bn that will no longer be raised from tolling has to be dug out from somewhere.

But the ruling is important for a deeper reason. South Africa, according to President Zuma’s State of the Nation address (and confirmed by a number of government and ANC statements in the last few months) is engaged in an infrastructure programme that is expected to cost just short of R1 trillion over the next 8 years.

This is the biggest bet for anyone hoping to invest in the country for the next ten years. Will it happen or will it – again – fizzle?

At least part of the funding model for this infrastructure programme is the  ‘user pays’ system established in the planning of the Gauteng highway upgrade project. In general, I think a user pays system is a more efficient – and fairer – system of allocating capital than unwieldy central plans that draw on the central tax pile.

Further, private sector lenders funded the project on the basis of the collection of user fees – this is how they did their calculations and assessed their risk. The ruling effects government’s credibility as a borrower.

Chris Hart (economist at Investment Solutions) is reported to have dismissed this saying the delay is no big deal – less than 0.2% of planned government expenditure this year. Goolam Ballim (chief economist at Standard Bank) said if there was a contractual infringement impacting on Sanral’s ability to pay, it did not imply sovereign default risk and “will not compromise South Africa’s international credit standing in any way”.

Now those two economists are no slouches – and know more about our public finances and the basis that the rating agencies changes the investment grades of our government bonds than I ever will – but surely it is obvious that there is a degree of damage to government (and Sanral’s) credibility as a borrower? Perhaps not as much as the Treasury argued during the urgent application. But we are coming up for strike season, the Treasury has promised to hold the line on public sector wage increases, the budget is under immense pressure and R20bn is not a meaninglessly small amount.

The whole of the South African government looks weak – with the Treasury and the Department of Transport being the most obviously and immediately affected. Both are “studying the ruling” before making public statements. These issues might not swing Standard & Poor, Fitch or Moody’s against SA bonds, but there is no question that this ruling will be part of their assessment.

The risks are clearer when we look at the political back-story. There is a changed political configuration in the Ruling Alliance. The rise of Jacob Zuma was characterised by an already growing influence of Cosatu on policy making.  A Thabo Mbeki led ANC would have taken a much stronger line against Cosatu’s campaign against e-tolling and would have stood much more firmly behind the Treasury’s arguments in favour. I am not necessarily cheering for that side, but I do think the Zuma administration is beholden to Cosatu in a manner that limits its options in public finance – and that limitation is being set by a very narrow interest group.

Cosatu has – as is its wont at the moment – been tactically brilliant in this campaign. It has built a classic broad front, multi-class alliance against the e-tolls and has strengthened the group made up of Zwelinzima Vavi, Irvin Jim and Numsa on the one hand and weakened the group made up of Sdumo Dlamini (Cosatu President) Frans Baleni and Num on the other.  See here for more discussion on the relevant factional splits within Cosatu.

The gravitational centre of the Alliance is only weakly occupied by Zuma and “the left” in Cosatu has been able to shift the whole edifice towards itself. This is a trend that we will have to keep a close eye on during the lead-up to Mangaung, when the Zuma administration is likely to be at its most docile and weak.

And it is in this environment that Cosatu has taken on e-tolling as ‘privatisation by stealth’ and an infrastructure funding method that taps its constituency too directly. Cosatu is a sectional interest group … and is completely entitled to pursue the sectional interests of its employed worker members (employed, by definition, in ‘union jobs – and all strength and luck to them for that advantage’.)

The most important signifier issue will be how government deals with public sector wage demands over the next few months. It’s strike season, and I mentioned elsewhere, Gordhan’s budget only balanced because of the hard line he took against public sector wage increases.

To give you a sense of why that is important, this is what I said about the budget and public sector wages on February the 23rd:

Public sector wages: This is the area, to our (I wrote this with economist Sandra Gordon) mind, of least credibility with the most consequence:

Total Compensation % of total budget % yoy
2009/10 248558.0 31.8 17.7
2010/11 281619.2 33.6 13.3
2011/12 314907.2 33.9 11.8
2012/13 336959.4 33.5 7.0
2013/14 357168.2 32.7 6.0
2014/15 378148.7 32.1 5.9

Adjusted for inflation those figures in bold are heading towards zero – and remember we are talking about over 30% of the total. The public sector wage bill was R8,1bn more than budgeted for in 2011/12 and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the whole edifice of the budget could crumble on this point.

So what? … Public sector unions set the tone for industrial bargaining throughout the economy. Our main scenario, in which 2012/13 becomes an industrial relations blood-bath, is looking ever more likely – although we await, with interest, Cosatu’s formal response to Budget 2012. This proposed spending shift – if Zuma’s ANC can hold the line – is also supportive of our construction and investment relative to consumer equity theme – with the consumer sector keeping a “look-in” by social grants increases from R105bn in 2012/2013 to R122bn 2014/15 and the promise to reassess if inflation rises further.   
.

So the e-tolling is an ongoing threat to public finances and it is an indicator issue of how beholden … and therefore weak … Zuma’s leadership is.

But there is an upside to this story. The ANC and Cosatu did agree to postpone e-tolling after their meeting last week – and announced that they had instructed government to do this (revealingly issuing a hastily retracted statement saying they would, in fact “request government to postpone”).

But the real upside is that it wasn’t, ultimately, political weakness or fiscal slippage that led to the cancelling of e-tolling. It was judicial sensitivity to popular opposition and an assertion of the principle of the rule of law.

You will be able to tell by reading between the lines that I think e-tolling was actually the right approach, but it is clear that an unaccountable system, that never bothered to consult the public properly and that, in addition, has badly damaged its own credibility in as far as corruption and maladministration is concerned, was defeated by a judge determined to uphold legal accountability and respect for popular discontent.

It might make the Treasury’s job more difficult and it might create uncertainties about funding infrastructure development, but it has got to be positive for the South African democracy as a whole.

Sitting in a lobby between meetings with resource funds in Edinburgh – they want to know about the “nationalisation of mines” call and where I think that is going. I will try and give feedback about that as I go along (London tonight and USA next week.)

But meanwhile briefly: the Black Management Forum pull out from Business Unity South Africa?

“The Capitalists” have never been a unified block; but the split between what BMF and BUSA represent is important.

As I have said elsewhere, BMF (along with the Youth League and similar groups) want the goodies out of employment equity and black economic empowerment legislation and regulation for themselves. They do not care about the functionality of the parastatals or the state or legislation that encourages economic growth. They care about maximising their advantage from transformation – getting the top jobs in parastatals and getting access to control of the linked patronage networks.

BUSA represents productive business – that needs a functional state and needs working utilities. It needs the best management. Its interests are in direct opposition to the BMF’s –  which represents the most parasitic elements of the new elite and see the public sector (as well as their leveraged advantage in the private sector) as an opportunity for rent seeking and looting.

I am delighted that they have pulled out of BUSA. At some point in a struggle to persuade a group to see the bigger picture and take account of the broader set of interests (especially of the poor and unemployed) a line is crossed and a cartel morphs into a gang. Beyond that point the laws of engagement have changed.

If you could see the sneering disgust from a whole lot of fund mangers about cronyism and corruption in South Africa (that I am experiencing as I move around Europe and the UK), I think you would agree that it is past time for us to deal with those who have proven that all they are concerned about is looting and getting the best for themselves and their members.

Let them go into the wilderness and raid as the outlaws that they are.

I am feeling the welcome pressure of a flood of paid work.

The only drawback to this happy state of affairs is I have not been able to put as much effort into updating this website as I would like.

In future I will generally be posting the quirkier side of politics and investment risk – occasionally from a more personal perspective.

I will not be telling you about what I had for breakfast, my deep and interesting views on Islay single malts or the fascinating behaviour of my small brown dog. I expect more posts to have the character of Saturday’s Rowan Atkinson skit – which could have been made for this election – or this one from a few months ago on celebrity culture and the rise of grandiosity in our politics.

Meanwhile here is a summary of some of my views on the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote.

(Note: just before the dog ate my homework my finger slipped on a small streak of high dudgeon that had somehow spilled on my keyboard and I pressed the “publish” link before I had a chance to edit the following piece. I have now cleaned it up slightly, but feel free to email me at nic.borain@gmail.com to point out any mistakes I missed – or to engage me about the article.)

Julius Malema

If the ANC Youth League president was a stock traded on the JSE I would be calling: “buy, buy, buy –  fill your boots! ”

He’s under-priced because of the hammering he has taken over the last 6 months, and the market – as reflected in what the ANC likes to call “the print media” – has not adequately woken to the fact that he is the star of the election.

I have argued before that Malema is the coming man in the ANC and, perhaps, the country. I will not be entirely charmed to have been proven right – although a lot can go awry ‘twixt now and the time of full accounting. But let there be no mistaking or underestimating Malema’s current cachet.

He appears to have done the hard work – personally, in his own name and own voice – in mobilising the constituencies most likely not to have bothered to vote on Wednesday.

This doesn’t even have to be true. It appears to be true, and that is all that matters.

He stuck one in the eye of ‘the madams’ and ‘the masters’ and, as difficult as it is for me to swallow, I am fairly certain that for this reason alone there are millions of South Africans whose hearts swell with pride as they think about their Juju’s audacity and bravery.

Whatever else happens he will be remembered by the loyal party workers and bureaucrats as having turned pro when the going got tough – and taking the fight to the Democratic Alliance just as the Official Opposition was  looking scary.

And this was all building on – and in addition to – the enormous public relations coup of the “kill the boer” trial – which united the party, its leaders and its faithful behind him.

I do think that a party and a country in which a young populist of the streak and character of Julius Malema is so strongly ascendant is in all kinds of trouble in the long term … but that, so to speak, is another story.

I also think financial market sentiment – particularly as effected by the ‘nationalisation of mines’ debate – will counter track his rising and falling fortunes.

Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma has had a fair to good election. This activity is his strength and as with Malema he has earned loyalty points from the party faithful for his tireless commitment and skill in working the crowd.

I am interested in the nature and extent of pressure that he appears to be under – particularly pressure emanating from the Youth League and those that hope to ride that organisation to power and even greater wealth.

President Zuma, to my mind, is awkwardly caught in a relationship of mutual dependence with the sections of the Ruling Alliance with whom he shares the least ideological and cultural ground.

Zuma is the natural Nkandla patriarch, dispensing largesse and spreading his seed in as a wide a circle as possible. These are the attributes that Cosatu and the ANC’s leftwing most despise yet Zuma is their champion and they his.

The confirmation of post-Polokwane populism

I miss the arrogant and austere Thabo Mbeki who would have been ashamed to use the kind of underhand tactics implicit in some of the  ANC election posters – I am assured this one is the genuine article, but I still have difficulty believing it.

For me the word “populism” has a meaning that implies a combination of characteristics, including clever mixing of fact and fiction, appealing to the most base human emotions as well as the manipulation of the fears, greed and anger of oppressed and vulnerable people.

At first this image made me laugh out loud – it is a photograph, so inescapably true, as well as being strangely familiar. Until I paused and realised how manipulative and abusive it actually is – using the image of happy children playing together (in circumstances we cannot know but are encouraged to imagine) to evoke hatred, rage and fear.

The ANC conducted the 2009 election campaign in the style of  a televangelical rally spiced with hotdogs and wet t-shirts.

It is probably arrogant and elitist to hate this kind of politics as profoundly as I do – but I would rather have that defence than for there to be any possibility of being swept up into either the sexy razzmatazz or into the fear and hatred.

This election has given the faintest hint of what a cornered ANC might be capable of and the kinds of appeals it might be prepared to make to the most base elements of its constituency.

Not, mind you, that the DA is guiltless of softer versions of both the ‘sexy razzmatazz’ and the ‘fear and loathing’ populism. But the “Fight Back”slogan seems to have receded and Helen Zille’s sex appeal is such a specialist taste that I am less bothered by the DA’s mass-marketing strategy than I am by the ANC’s.

Helen Zille also rises

My own view is that Helen Zille, for all her preppy awkwardness, jolly-hockey sticks enthusiasm and excruciating body language,  is the Iron Lady of our recent history and has struck at the heart of ANC complacency and tolerance for corruption and failure.

Whatever happens to the DA’s feisty campaign in this election, Helen Zille herself has achieved an extraordinary place in our history. She has personally shaped her party and pushed it into new territory – against history and against personal limitations – where it is, in my estimation, going to play a growing role in the politics of a post-Apartheid South Africa. This would be a phenomenal and transcending achievement for party that originated in the last white parliament.

Results – counting chickens and pigs in pokes

I strongly suspect that ANC panic and DA overreach is going to leave a lot of people slightly shamefaced or deeply relieved.

There is no realistic or publicly available polling data but my thumbsuck guess – unlike that of Allister Sparks – is that the DA does less well than the hype has led us to believe and that the ANC does not go much below 60 % no matter how big the stayaway vote from the party’s angry and disillusioned supporters.

The DA seems to have set its supporters and party workers up for disappointment. Who cannot think that the party will not do considerably better than it did in the 2009 General Election or the  Municipal vote in 2006? But the way it is being spun, anything short of 4 metros and 40 percent of the vote (a vanishingly unlikely outcome) is going to feel like defeat.

Will the ANC lose enough urban African support to scare it into cleaning up its act?

I am ever hopeful, but I am breathing while I wait.

The cacophony – let it stop!!

It is perhaps slightly pretentious to hate exclamation marks as much as I claim to – but I think the sheer awfulness and triviality of the the political debate deep into election time calls for more than one of the flashy little symbols of overstatement and hyperbole.

I refuse to discuss the toilets any further. I promise I will never talk about the ANC’s leaders ‘snuffling’, ‘grunting’  or ‘squealing’ at the trough ever again, no matter how extreme the provocation.

It is an arms race of metaphor and hyperbole and eventually the language cannot adequately express the appropriate range of feelings.

I look forward to a period of calm understatement, starting next week Monday, as we recover from Sunday’s last gush of whining, triumphalism and sage and important thoughts from the analytic establishment.

Real debates about societal problems and ways of fixing them have little to do with elections – which of necessity appeal to the most base and common human drives.

What we have is a Hallmark Hell of platitudes, populism, red herrings and whining.

Spare a thought for those few politicians for whom the behaviour required to win elections is so abhorrent that they develop peculiar lines on their faces that can only have been etched by sickly smiles designed to disguise disgust.

It seems like a gift from the comic gods that the Toilet Saga has become central to this election.

Well for ‘relief’ (you will see in a moment how that joke works in relation to the DA/ANC spat)  from the elections and other bodily discomforts here is one of the finest comic sketches ever to see the stage.

Rowan Atkinson, masterfully combining a sort of pre-Mr Bean goofy prissiness with English reserve plays The Devil welcoming the recent recruits to hell.

Two asides before you click on the link:

  • first, be warned that gentle digs at “the French”, “the Germans”, Christians, lawyers and atheists could, in cases of extreme sensitivity, cause offence;
  • second, I attach the text of the skit below the video, because this is the first time I have embedded a link to YouTube and I have elsewhere experienced the irritation of such links not working for some arcane YouTube management or copyright protection related reason – but it is Atkinson’s delivery that makes it so funny, so watch the video if you can.

The Devil’s Welcoming Speech

Ah hello! It’s nice to see you all here. As the more perceptive of you have probably realised by now, this is Hell, and I am the Devil, good evening, but you can call me Toby, if you like. We try to keep things informal here, as well as infernal. That’s just a little joke of mine. I tell it every time.

Now, you’re all here for….. Eternity! Ooh, which I hardly need tell you is a heck of a long time, so you’ll all get to know each other pretty well by the end.

But for now I’m going to have to split you up in groups.

Will You Stop Screaming!

Thank you.

Now, murderers? Murderers over here, please, thank you. Looters and Pillagers over there. Thieves, if you could join them, and Lawyers, you’re in that lot too.

Fornicators – if you could step forward? My God, there are a lot of you! Could I split you up into Adulterers and the rest? Male adulterers, if you could just form a line in front of that small Guillotine in the corner.

Em… The French, are you here? If you would just like to come down here with the Germans. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to talk about.

Okay, atheists? Atheists over here please. You must be feeling a right bunch of Nitwits. Never mind.

And finally, Christians. Christians? Ah, yes, I’m sorry but I’m afraid the Jews were right. If you would come down here, that would be really fine.

Okay! Right, well are there any questions? Yes. No, I’m afraid there aren’t any toilets. If you read your Bible, you might have seen that it was damnation without relief, so if you did not go before you came, then I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy yourself very much, but then I believe that’s the idea.

Okay. Well, it’s over to you, Adolf! And I’ll catch you all later at the barbecue. Bye!

A guest post from my friend and colleague Sandra Gordon. Sandra is a respected financial market economist and we increasingly present work as a team in what is often called “a dog and pony show” … although in our case there is some disagreement over who will be the dog and who will be the pony. Sandra is an excellent market commentator and I have known and respected her views since she was my client on the “buy side” at Nedcor Investment Bank Asset Management (Nibam) in the mid-90s.

My friend, colleague and author of this post on the National Budget, Sandra Gordon

Over to Sandra:

If there was one message from this year’s budget it is that, despite all the hype that economic transformation has finally arrived (the dreaded “shift to the left” which tends to give the financial market types sleepless nights), it’s actually probably more of a case of business as usual.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, there was serious debate worldwide about the merits of various economic growth models. In the 2010/11 Budget, Minister Gordhan noted: “The recent crisis and its aftermath have led to a serious introspection and rethinking of what were thought to be robust and superior economic models.” With the Washington Consensus in disgrace, South Africa was able to signal its intention of shifting towards a “developmental state” (essentially a more active role for government in the economy).

So it seemed South Africa was headed for a developmental state and real economic transformation. The new model was finally outlined by the New Growth Path (NGP), which was released by Minister Patel late last year. The primary aim of the NGP was the creation of five million new jobs by 2020.

This theme was echoed in the recent State of the Nation address, in which President Zuma announced a range of measures to encourage job creation.

Yet, despite all the talk of economic transformation – and the ongoing tsunami of change in the global environment – this year’s budget is essentially unchanged from the previous. The critical issues facing our economy were again identified as the twin evils of unemployment and poverty, while the best way to address them is to focus on job creation and encouraging growth in those sectors most likely to generate employment.

Admittedly this year’s budget had a greater focus on jobs than last year – with a grocery list of programmes and measures totalling R150 billion over the next three years. A key difference was also the absence of any mention of the “developmental state” – with government’s role limited to the provision of incentives and the creation of an environment conducive to growth – such as the easing of transport and logistic bottlenecks etc. Other than that, the key measures were familiar – more social spending to support the poor, huge sums for investment in infrastructure and a focus on skills development and training.

Essentially the budget delivered on the priorities laid out by the NGP – with one glaring exception: demands for a weaker rand. Minister Gordhan neatly sidestepped this particularly contentious issue by noting that government had already responded to excessive rand strength by easing exchange controls and accelerating the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves in October last year. Beyond those measures, Treasury will be “monitoring” the measures adopted by other countries – including Brazil and Thailand – which have had similar struggles with massive capital inflows and excessive currency strength. So effectively, “we’re looking into it.”

The other political hot potato that was neatly avoided in the budget was the issue of the National Health Insurance. This year’s budget included measures which “lay the foundations” for NHI. The implementation progress is going to take time – but things are undoubtedly going to get more interesting when the debate shifts to how the NHI is to be funded. Gordhan listed a range of possible funding sources including a VAT hike, a surcharge on personal income or a payroll tax. None of those options are likely to be particularly well received.

Essentially then, Gordhan was able to address all the priorities outlined in the NGP (barring rand weakness), while maintaining an element of fiscal discipline. With the deficit remaining at 5.3% of GDP in the new fiscal year – in line with the previous fiscal year but above expectations – debt servicing is now the fastest growing spending category.

While we are in a far better position than countries like America, the UK and various European economies which are slashing government spending and raising taxes, it could well be that this is our last chance to really get the economy moving. If the measures in this year’s budget deliver growth, tax revenues will ultimately rise and fiscal discipline will be maintained.

If, however, growth stagnates – perhaps due to a deterioration in the external environment – the state may find its finances stressed, providing less scope for social spending and job creation initiatives. As one analyst put it in the press this morning, this could be “the last throw of the dice”.

And it is on this front that the news is a little less reassuring.

It is positive that – amidst the global turmoil – the centre is holding and our basic economic policies remain on course. But our key weakness has always been not our policies but our inability to implement those measures. So for all the good news in this year’s budget regarding measures to encourage job creation and infrastructure investment, there have been no developments which would lead one to think that there is going to be any significant improvement in implementation and delivery.

In an increasingly unstable global environment, it is becoming ever more important that we finally start making significant progress on reducing our unemployment rate and pervasive poverty. We have the money, for now, but the ability to implement and deliver is becoming ever more critical.

With so much at stake, it looks set to be another interesting year.

Cosatu has released its long awaited document in which it provides the facts (as it sees them) and theoretical underpinnings for “A Growth Path Towards Full Employment” – and in doing so attempts to align its views with those emanating from Minister Ebrahim Patel’s Department of Economic Planning (the Two Year Strategic Plan) as well as Minister Rob Davies of DTI’s (IPAP2).

Stephen Grootes at the Daily Maverick has done an exemplary quick analysis (catch that here). I am not quite certain I am as gung-ho capitalist as the guys down at the the DM are … although I am as clear as Grootes is that Cosatu’s main planks of policy would turn us into a wasteland in two flicks of a lamb’s tail – as not even my old Granny was prissy enough to say.

I saved a copy of Cosatu’s full document here and hope to give it a more thorough treatment than the cursory skim I gave it in the middle of last night. Whatever I conclude will be faithfully reported on these pages.

Just when all hope flees, as the last good politician still within government leaves his/her post to join the feeding frenzy and as the last decent officials trying to do a public service throw up their hands in disgust; and as the striking workers blockade the last functional HIV/AIDS clinic and trash the streets again; and as the broken bits of the Ruling Alliance go  for the kill in their eye gouging, groin stamping gutter fight – just as all hope flees, whose silhouette is it that appears, backlit and heroic, flying in low over the horizon?

"Franco": General Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco y Bahamonde Salgado Pardo de Andrade - and yes, he did keep his armies up his sleevies

Is it a plane?

Is it a bird?

No, it’s … hmm, I’m not really sure.

When things are going as badly wrong as they are going for us, the person to look out for is the one who seems to have been sent by history itself as the solution to all of our problems.

I am not suggesting, as my old Granny used to say: don’t worry, cometh the moment, cometh the man or all’s well that ends well. I am suggesting the very opposite.

This is more of a warning to be careful about decisions we make when we are desperate than it is anything else.

Societies, political parties and whole nations are uniquely vulnerable at times like these. Our desperate need is for someone who can raise an anti-corruption army, is prepared to control the unions, able to fix service delivery and able to make the difficult decisions that will allow job rich economic growth.

The darker and more dire things become – and goodness knows they are as dark and dire as anyone can remember – the stronger our wish fulfilment drive becomes.

Where is the good-looking one, with the strong jaw and the easy, comforting manner, and the very firm but gentle eye and the plan and the promise and the words – and the record, or at least one you can, in your desperation, convince yourself of?

This is the moment in which nice Germans welcomed Adolf Hitler and Spaniards General Franco. King Constantine II of Greece inducted the awful “Regime of the Colonels” in 1967 saying he was “certain they had acted in order to save the country” and there was  a (brief) Argentinian sigh of relief when Brigadier-General Jorge Videla overthrew the execrable, incompetent and authoritarian regime of “Evita” – as popular culture has dubbed Isabel Martínez de Perón.

I am not suggesting that a fascist opportunist and criminal is about to present him or herself as the saviour from our woes – or that things are so bad that we risk losing our judgement and welcoming him/her into the stockade. Well, not yet.

But explicitly and implicitly various political factions and individuals have presented themselves as alternatives, and the solution to our current problems.

There’s Zwelinzima Vavi – and whatever kind of workerist paradise he represents – who heroically criticised the media appeals tribunal and has laid about himself with a stout cudgel at all the worst of the cabinet ministers and officials trying to stuff the last tasty bits of the family roast into their distended bellies. And he’s available next year.

Deputy Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula suggested (of criminals) we should “shoot the bastards!” and in so doing presents a kind of law-and-order (and anti-communist) alternative, clearly being supported by the ANC Youth League and tenderpreneurs everywhere.

Lindiwe Sisulu dresses nicely and would be excellent if we ever panicked enough to need a kind of Cleopatra/Boadicea empress to save us.

Tokyo Sexwale is getting the kind of press that suggests he is an effective anti-corruption campaigner and an excellent Minister of Human Settlements i.e. he’s clean and gives good service delivery – and he’s  bright, presentable, charming, good-looking and available – very available.

(This added as an afterthought: don’t discount Kgalema Motlanthe as a sort of leftish compromise that we have grown used to and, obviously, Mathews Phosa with his charming Afrikaans poetry and his friendly demeanour and his market friendly comments and his bitter struggle with ANC leader and communist Gwede Mantashe. Also consider a scenario, one I discuss elsewhere, where none of the contending factions achieves dominance and everyone agrees to stick with the burdensome incumbent … all is still possible.)

The National General Council of the African National Congress (to be held in Durban from 20 – 24 September) will reveal the main factions and their key representatives for leadership. The last NGC resulted in a rebellion against Mbeki and foretold his rout at Polokwane. This one is likely to be as instructive.

The point I wish to make here is a simple one. Those who appear to offer solutions must be judged in terms of who they are, what they have done and what they really represent. Just because we are in trouble does not mean we can afford to lose our critical faculties. My long gone Granny would have had two more things to say on the subject: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire.

* The title of this post comes from the glorious “Thunder Road” by the inimitable  Bruce Springsteen (it doesn’t really fit the story … but I really love the song:

You can hide `neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets
Well now Im no hero
That’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?

The news media is full of toyi-toying fat people in red T-shirts blockading hospital gates interspersed with pictures of dead and dying babies.

Alternatively the coverage is of other fat people in red T-shirts clutching sticks and whips trundling around, with their fat bottoms swaying, looking for pupils (bravely trying to uplift themselves by continuing their studies during the public sector wide strike) to beat and otherwise disrupt.

There is a degree of truth in the story… I mean, turn on your television, they’re everywhere, with their megaphones and coffee flasks (and clearly a lot of biscuits and sandwiches), belligerent and unattractive as it is possible to be.

But I suspect that we should treat the picture and the solutions that seem obvious (and are being offered by every newspaper and television station in the country – with unusual unanimity) with more than a degree of caution.

It’s impossible to realistically analyse the strike here – and anyway that is work I have to try to sell to a paying client – but there are some questions I would urge us all to bear in mind.

I lay some of them out here as bullet points:

  • Government has offered 7% with a R700 housing allowance (an offer that amounts, according to the employer, to between 9.4 percent and 8.5 percent, depending on grade) and unions are demanding 8.6 percent wage increase across the board and housing allowance of R1 000. This seems closer than it is – the difference between the offer and counter offer, when aggregated across the public sector, makes a huge difference to the fiscus and to the actual take home value of the workers’ pay packages. Both parties have something to fight for.
  • Workers strike at great cost to themselves – generally, by-and-large and when all the exceptions are smoothed out. Try for a moment and to imagine risking your job and deliberately deciding to take on being portrayed as greedy, callous and on a kind of stolen holiday. This is especially true in the public sector, where the customers you are involved in servicing are your neighbours, their children and the sick of your community.
  • We have the highest levels of inequality (measured by something called the Gini coefficient) of any country that keeps realistic figures in the world – and if not ‘in the world’ then we are in the company of only one or two others. In a public sector wage conflict the employer is government (with politicians representing the owners and the senior bureaucrats the managers). The differential between the earnings of public sector workers and their employers – both of whom take their pay package from the public purse – is a factor many times higher than in most countries in the world. When you add to this the public perception (and the strikers are part of that public) that the politicians are engaged in a nasty, sharp-toothed feeding frenzy at the aching teat of the public purse, ransacking the long built up assets of the public sector and using every mechanism possible to extort money from the private sector, is their any wonder that public sector workers see their lot as unfair?
  • Cosatu and its various member unions and the worker leadership “on the ground”, so to speak, is getting the kind of press it deserves. The behaviour of too many striking workers is so unacceptable that the unions are inviting a Maggie Thatcher to emerge from these battered streets to crush them and reformulate the South African economy to be a growth machine that will benefit merchant bankers and the rich … and no-one else. And the public will cheer that politician on, because the unions have not bothered to see the middle-ground as worth fighting for.
  • This strike –  as a culmination of other things but also in and of itself – is the death knell for the ruling alliance. It imposes upon the vague conflict between Nationalists and “Tenderpreneurs” on the one hand, and trade unions and communists on the other, a clear organisational character and a clear set of objectives and costs over which the contenders deeply disagree. Government might find more money. The unions might shift an inch to meet government’s next offer but I suspect this is the moment that South African politics has been circling ever since Mbeki slapped the unions and “the left” into a subservient position over ten years ago. I am not awaiting a formal announcement by Vavi that he is leading his cohorts into the wilderness. But I expect that in practice the unions and the communists will be out of government within the next few years (Perhaps even more than they were “out of government” under Mbeki … and I use “the next few years” to give myself a margin).

This week is going to be full of the strike and its consequences. It is, ultimately, not a hugely profound point,  but now, more than ever, we need to urge caution in seeing the world as a simple representation between good guys and bad. This impulse, to see things as if they were simple and easy to understand, is increasingly the direction of public discourse on radio, newspaper and television. We need a kind of private media tribunal in our heads.

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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