South Africa

Analysis: Fear, death and loathing, SA style

By Mandy De Waal 6 December 2012

As local politicians lay bleeding or dying on the streets of this country and international heavyweights report on the fatal feuds and factions inside the ruling party, the image of SA as an investment destination starts to die too. By MANDY DE WAAL.

In New York, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an investment analyst is on her way to work but stops off at Café Grumpy for a Heartbreaker espresso and a Blueberry persimmon corn muffin. In between bites and muddy sips of the strong stuff, she starts poring through the global edition of The New York Times on her iPad, where a story catches her eye.

Written by Lydia Polgreen, the New York Times piece describes the brutal deaths of ANC members Dumisani Malunga and Bheko Chiliza. It relays how Malunga went to a party meeting, stopped by at a friend’s place for curry, picked up Chiliza and was driving home when their lives ended.

“At 9:30 p.m., a gunman fired into their car. Their bloody, bullet-riddled bodies were later found sprawled on the ground beside the white Toyota hatchback,” Polgreen’s article reads. “Mr. Malunga and Mr. Chiliza were the latest casualties in an increasingly bloody battle for local political posts in South Africa,” the article continues under the headline: “In South Africa, Lethal Battles for Even Smallest of Political Posts”.

In London a dealmaker’s browsing multiple screens when a headline from the ‘Voices’ section of the New Statesman draws his interest, and he clicks through to read the answer to Martin Plaut’s question: “Can South Africa’s ruling party overcome its reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence?” 

After all, Plaut should know what he’s talking about. He’s the Africa editor for the BBC World Service News, was the British Labour Party’s adviser on Africa, and led the Africa research programme for the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The co-author of Who Rules South Africa? (with Paul Holden), Plaut writes that the ANC’s Mangaung conference has been a “protracted, bloody and even murderous affair.”

The article notes the 40 or so political killings in KwaZulu-Natal, and dozens of others in the likes of Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo. The ruling party’s Jackson Mthembu is quoted as saying that the “ANC has never condoned violence”, and reference is made to the party trying to quell the viciousness.

“Yet party meetings continue to be broken up and the assaults continue unabated. On 30 November the ANC conference in Limpopo to select the party’s leadership had to be abandoned. It ‘…was collapsed [on Friday night] by violent hooligans,’ provincial spokesperson Makonde Mathivha said. ‘Delegates had to flee the venue. It was terrifying’,” writes Plaut, adding: “There have also been repeated allegations of membership manipulation, with ‘ghost members’ being paid for in order to win backing for particular candidates. Party members have claimed that auditors padded the figures for provinces crucial to Jacob Zuma’s re-election campaign.”

These articles aren’t snuck away in some arbitrary gazette, or written by people who don’t matter. These are titles and writers that thinking readers who are influential themselves turn to for independent and accurate reporting.

The New York Times is the greatest newspaper on the planet. The New York Times sells 717,513 newspapers daily, but its digital subscriptions have soared to 896,352, which makes the combined ‘circulation’ 1,613,865.  Media audience measurement company Gfk MRI puts the mighty Times’ print newspaper audience at just over 4,6 million (net Weekday/Sunday readership), while online www.newyorktimes.com gets 25,4 million unique visitors each month. So the massive reach and huge influence combines to create a double whammy for ‘brand South Africa’ when Polgreen writes that “Dozens of officials, including ward councillors, party leaders and mayors, have been killed in what has become a desperate, deadly struggle for power and its spoils,” and that “The killings threaten to tarnish the image of the so-called rainbow nation, whose largely bloodless transition from white minority rule to nonracial democracy has made it a beacon of peace, tolerance and forgiveness.”

The New Statesman has a much smaller paid-for circulation, which is set at some 20,000, including kindle and digital sales, but its online reach is massive and it broke the one million mark in July this year. This title has reach, but it is the authority with which it reports that makes bad press under its masthead so damaging. And then there’s the nature of the content. 

Unlike locals who may have developed a thick hide or become jaundiced or comfortably numb to the shocking headlines that chronicle regular reports of ANC-on-ANC political violence, tales of politicians stabbing each other with beer bottles in the neck, or constituents rushing into schools and gunning down councillors in cold blood must deliver a visceral shock to readers in more genteel democracies where parliamentarians occasionally raise their voices in chambers to signal dissent.

These days, South Africa still has a proud Constitution and a rule-bound economy that is strongly ring-fenced by law. But if the very Minister of Police is knee deep in an alleged vote-rigging scandal, what confidence does that offer that the law governs here?  

The answer to that question is obvious in an information-flooded world where people rely on heuristics to make fast decisions, and the media climate couching ‘brand South Africa’ is damning. In Europe the FT announced that President Jacob Zuma was the ANC’s frontrunner with an article that labelled him a “weak leader” who was “soft on corruption”. It stated that under his watch the ANC’s credibility was “badly tarnished by rampant factionalism, corruption and cronyism”.

Unfortunately this bad news isn’t limited to mere opinion, but includes well-researched empirical data. The just-released Transparency International Corruption Perception Index showed SA was losing the public sector graft battle. SA now ranks 69th out of the 187 countries included, dropping five places since 2011. We’ve dropped 31 places in the index since 2001. 

And the bad news from ratings agencies is coming so thick and fast it difficult not to get attention whiplash receiving it. The latest is that the Moody’s has cut the outlook for SA banks from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’, while Telkom was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s to the rating agency’s lowest investment grade

But back to the dealmaker and the investment analyst reading the news about South Africa, and how it could affect them. Investment choices are complex and influenced by the rule of law, regulatory efficiency, the degree to which markets are open or closed, and government spending. Locally our labour market, attitude to property rights, and investment restrictions already have ‘brand South Africa’ on a back foot, and the world’s only recently turned its glare away from the Marikana Massacre.

The bloody political war for power, patronage and privilege in this country only serves to increase perceptions of South Africa as risky destination, some of which have already been dealt a deadly blow by the Marikana massacre. Perceptions are powerful – at times more than the reality. The mental imagery created by top-flight media of our people lying bleeding and dying on the streets, local politicians resorting to mafia-like tactics to achieve their goals, and the grinding, hopeless poverty is infinitely damaging. Push it for far too long and it will take decades to erase it. 

Our leaders’ choice is simple: their personal politics, or, the country? What is it gonna be? DM 

Read more:

  • In South Africa, Lethal Battles for Even Smallest of Political Posts by Lydia Polgreen in the New York Times 
  • Can South Africa’s ruling party overcome its reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence? In New Statesman   

Photo by Daily Maverick.

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