The buck starts here
16 April 2014 04:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Branko Brkic

168 hours

  • Branko Brkic
In the US, the president got re-elected, enraging Trump, Palin and millions of other assorted intellectuals. In South Africa, the president may be impeached, if the united opposition has it their way, enraging the ANC officials and just about no-one else. Also, Telkom is in trouble, part 78.

Sitting here, in the considerable shadow of Drakensberg’s mighty Amphitheatre, the troubles of the world seem somewhat remote, philosophical almost. With no Internet connection and a little TV set that is limited to the SABC news, I am as good as cut off from the rest of the world. One is never totally successful in banishing the disconnection blues; still, if just for a most fleeting of moments, South Africa’s downward spiral feels unreal, illogical, temporary. The sheer power of Drakensberg’s finest makes sure one adjusts the sometimes skewed perspective on life.

The week behind us saw the end of the most expensive advertising campaign in the history: US voters gave Barack Obama another four years to complete the Sisyphean task he started on 20 January 2009. At the end, it wasn’t even close: Obama handily edged Romney in the popular vote and trounced him in the electoral vote. While the US’s entire right wing for a few weeks actually believed that Romney may win, the final result was remarkable: even as the president’s reforms failed to deliver the promised pace of recovery, even if the unemployment rate still hovers stubbornly around 8% when Obama promised 5.7%, even as many stopped believing in Obama the Messiah and saw Obama the Politician. For anyone following US politics, the mere fact that Romney was able to wrest away only two states that McCain could not in 2008, Indiana and North Carolina, which are traditionally red states anyway, is nothing short of a political miracle.

So how did Obama manage to defy the laws of political gravity? For once, the electorate refused to forget. 

It refused to forget that Obama was handed the rawest of the deals any president has faced since FDR: the economy was in a death spiral while fighting two massively expensive wars; the financial sector was nearing collapse. Shortly after he took over, on 6 March 2009, the Dow Jones stood at 6626.94; these days it hovers around 13,000. Not only that he faced the multi-headed hydra of calamities GW Bush handed to him, Obama also faced an unprecedented and concentrated effort by the GOP, whose congressional and senate leaders decided that they would not give him an inch. 

The electorate also refused to look away when Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard and Obama led the country’s emergency response with such authority that even the staunchest of GOP critics had to give him credit.

The electorate also noticed that “Obamacare” did not end the world as we know it. For their part, the US auto industry refused to forget that Obama saved GM and Chrysler, and with it the states of Michigan and Ohio; also crucially, they refused to accept the Romney’s belated attempt on re-writing history. 

(And some of the electorate also looked into the history books to remember why FDR is seen as one of the greatest US presidents and why Herbert Hoover is pretty much forgotten.) 

If there is one take-away from Obama’s win that I personally appreciate, is the defeat of the Romney’s bet on the electorate’s stupidity. His flip-flops, inconsistencies and sometimes downright lies will one day, hopefully, mark him as the unforgiven man of US presidential politics. While many voters indeed did not have enough knowledge or brains to unpack the even the most unbearable lightness of the trail of Romney lies, the majority of the 2012 voters decided they would not be played for fools. (One, though, cannot bet that the lying will not win some time in the future.)

Of course, all of this would be worth nothing if the Obama campaign was not run by the best team in the history of the political warfare. Plouffe, Axelrod, Messina – these names will one day soon be inducted into the Hall of Presidential Campaign Fame, with Karl Rove, Robert Kennedy, James Carville and, of course, deadliest of them all, Lee Atwater of the 1988 George HW Bush fame.

And while we watched Obama deliver his forceful victory address, so many South Africans asked the same question: What about us, here in South Africa? Why can’t we have the president we admire and respect – both the man and his job? The leader we would trust when he says he will fight for us, who we want to follow into the future he envisaged? The man we elected directly, president we’re proud to call our own? The best is yet to come, said Obama. When next will the people of South Africa be able to say the same words and actually believe it? 

Only two weeks ago, Obama looked to many as the man who might not hold onto his job, while Jacob Zuma looked rather opposite. What a difference a few weeks make! Obama was given four more years by the world’s toughest electorate, while President Zuma may face, for a first time, an existential fight in Parliament. 

While it does look pretty unlikely that at least 68 ANC MPs would go against him, let’s not discount it completely. Because it is increasingly unlikely that Zuma will be seriously challenged in Mangaung, a Parliamentary vote of no confidence might be the last opportunity for Malema and company to survive. The rest is an equation: how much desperation is in the Malema camp vs. how much damage would such a move inflict on the ANC itself. ’Cause it would be pretty difficult for the parts of the ANC to vote Zuma out and for the mother body not to be seriously, maybe even mortally, wounded. 

Either way, it is genuinely refreshing to see SA’s political fights move from the ANC’s smoke-filled rooms into the forum where it should all be happening, the Parliament. 

If any of you believed the government of South Africa is right in being so heavily involved in business, the CEO’s departure and the ongoing crisis at Telkom should be a final moment to sober up. Few entities in history were as detrimental to the development of this country as Telkom was over the years. Not only that the long-term monopoly was hell-bent on sucking as much money from everybody (pretty much the same way Eskom is shaping up to be), but it also understood its mandate as a license to put brakes on everyone else’s development. For years, Telkom lawyers and then-Minister of Telecommunications Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri genuinely harassed everyone who would as-much as raise their arm wanting to be in the game. As a result, for many years, the media concentrated on how expensive Telkom services were, and they were amongst the highest in the world. 

But there was an even bigger damage that Telkom wreaked upon this country: the loss in growth because so many developments could not happen at all. One day, a research institution may have enough funds to establish the extent of the damage Telkom inflicted. My hunch is it will be a shockingly high percentage.

As I finish this mostly depressive screed, the Amphitheatre is still massive, beautiful and completely disinterested. Our storms in millions of tea cups, our pettiness, our obsession by the sometimes most selfish of us, our sheer inability to make the goodness more powerful then the menace, all of it will come and go. The Amphitheatre will still be there. And there is something deeply soothing about it. DM

  • Branko Brkic
branko3048 a ray

Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick.

He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa.

Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.

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