South Africa, World, Politics

Drift Equals Disaster: When Public Policy is frozen in the headlights

By J Brooks Spector 10 April 2016

The continuing national fixation on Jacob Zuma’s political travails – and his 24/7 efforts to stay alive politically — encourages J. BROOKS SPECTOR to think back to the Great Depression and how such drift can equal national disaster instead.

Right now, an entire nation is behaving like a deer crossing a rural road, but frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, as the country remains transfixed by a slowly unravelling national political crisis. And, no, this time around we are not speaking of the United States. This time it is South Africa’s turn.

In fact, not a day goes by that doesn’t produce more proof the Zuma presidency – perhaps in its final weeks, perhaps not – is sucking up nearly all the oxygen of public discourse, leaving virtually none of it left for any other topic or even more critical issue.

In fact, while the focus of the media, the political class and an increasingly substantial section of the population is on the day-to-day, slow-motion progression of the latest development of the constitutional crisis that is the Zuma presidency, meanwhile, a crushing backlog of still more important issues gains little real attention. And the failure to confront these questions with the full weight of the government engaged on them, in tandem with the rest of the nation, increasingly condemns the country to real possibilities of an ever more dismal, man-made future. Most especially, this can become even more difficult as the Zuma constitutional crisis spirals ever onward.

While everyone is focused on the latest Zuma news, the country’s economic growth is now pegged at well under a single percentage point – generating virtually no new jobs for the country’s young population. Meanwhile, unemployment already affects at least a quarter of the workforce and businesses are largely failing to invest in new businesses and productive capacity over the fear of what new horror is around the corner.

Moreover, sensing much worse to come, unions are increasingly pushing for wage increases that go beyond rises in productivity and ahead of inflation. Of course, too, the country’s schools and its educational system continue to augur ever closer towards nationwide disaster. Additionally, any rational movements towards significant land tenure and land reform remain locked in a gluey policy muddle, even as there is little real effort towards a systemic cleanup of the hyper-patronage and corruption networks plaguing the nation, in addition to the (possibly premature) bon voyage, adios, and farewell party being planned for the Gupta clan.

But, regardless, the national discourse has now almost entirely been captured by the adventures of Jacob Zuma and his increasingly frenetic writhing to avoid finally being called to account for the government spending on his recently constructed private “Xanadu”. And, as long as this decaying Zuma presidency continues, it is almost certain there will be no great movement on any of those urgent, fundamental issues. There is, after all, only so much space in South Africa’s collective mind for every other real or potential disaster around the corner.

And lest we forget, the international ratings agencies are watching all this closely for the upcoming decision up/down/let it be cycle coming up in two months regarding the nation’s creditworthiness. (A Moody’s team has actually been in South Africa, watching all this sturm und drang on the morning news shows and as they read the local newspapers while they eat their room service omelettes.) Also, international investment houses are contemplating their own next moves over South Africa’s attraction as a place to place funds, and international investors, save perhaps for car manufacturers (for the special reasons of the major tax relief provided for export-driven car manufacturers and the benefit they derive from a devalued currency in competing abroad with their exports) are increasingly drawing a line through the name “South Africa” on their potential investment location short lists.

But, still, the papers, the airwaves, social media, and all those braai, dinner and barber shop conversations now seem stuck on whether, how and when he will go. Drift is in the driver’s seat and the deer of public policy is frozen in those oncoming headlights.

The US suffered through something similar back in the 1970s as the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal, in its ever-increasing gyre, eventually consumed a nation’s full attention. Beyond the public’s attention, of course, the scandal almost completely absorbed the attentions of an increasingly paranoid administration whose only real task eventually came to be how to dig out from under the waves of disclosures generated by reporting, congressional hearings and admissions of complicity in court proceedings. This was in spite of the increasingly precarious state of the economy, as well as the pressing necessity to extricate a disillusioned military from its engagement in Vietnam. As written about earlier in these pages, the country finally managed to be rid of Richard Nixon – but only after it became clear he had lost any support in the country’s legislative branch, where a bill of impeachment and a conviction was almost certain – and where the possibility of real jail time had begun to be visible.

But for a real “trapped in the headlights” moment (actually three years of one), one must turn back the pages to the Great Depression that began in late 1929 with a precipitous collapse of value on the New York Stock Exchange. Herbert Hoover, the highly regarded secretary of commerce, a genuine humanitarian relief hero, heroic mining and engineering entrepreneur, and an exponent of technocratic efficiency, had been elected president of the US in 1928.

Promising that metaphorical “chicken in every pot”, Hoover had told voters, “Given the chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” And, then, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.”

But, within months, the country faced that major stock market crash. The disaster became a much broader economic crisis, and that, in turn, morphed into the Great Depression in America – and it spread throughout the globe. Soon enough, a quarter of America’s labour force was out of work, industrial production had declined precipitously, and banks and credit failed across the land. Congress reacted to the demands to protect manufacturers and farmers with the imposition of major import restrictions, the Smoot-Hawley tariff that Hoover signed into law but that soon generated retaliatory tariffs against American exports, cutting international trade severely and helping make everything still worse.

Photo: Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington DC, 4 March 1933. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the economy sank further into depression, although Hoover did support some spending on infrastructure building, including the dam in Nevada that now bears his name, he also insisted on maintaining balanced federal budgets and new tax increases to help cover those infrastructure programmes and emergency relief measures. The latter two pro-cyclical approaches contributed aggressively to worsening the spiralling economic crisis. Through it all, Hoover remained stuck to his previous positions, and he refused to respond imaginatively to the increasing economic catastrophe.

By the time the 1932 election took place, the national mood had increasingly come to revile Hoover’s economic policies, rather than respect him as president, as with the bitter popularity of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s 1930 song, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time?;
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime;?
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
?Brother, can you spare a dime?

In response to the crisis, the 1932 election gave New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt a massive win as the candidate who had promised a “New Deal” to respond to the national crisis, hoping to hold off the possibility of ever more dangerous political changes. Led from the street.

And of Herbert Hoover, the new president would say, disparagingly, observing his evident inability to grasp new thinking in the face of the nation-threatening crisis, “There is nothing inside the man but jelly!” Hoover would leave office a reviled president, a kind of national swearword for ineffectual, seemingly heartless policies in the face of calamity.

And for South Africa, the lesson seems clear enough. The country has that multiplicity of crises – economic, social, and political – and yet it seems stuck on the manoeuvrings of one man trying to evade responsibility for his mistakes, and to hang on to his power until 2019. And for the most part, the top tier of government officialdom remains fixated on making that happen, rather than working overtime to achieve a national pivot towards the deeper, more fundamental problems the nation must address. Just as in 1932, it is a time for leadership. DM

Photo: Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as “Migrant Mother”. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” In the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country. Lange’s image of a supposed migrant pea picker, Florence Owens Thompson, and her family has become an icon of resilience in the face of adversity. However, it is not universally accepted that Florence Thompson was a migrant pea picker. In the book Photographing Farmworkers in California (Stanford University Press, 2004), author Richard Steven Street asserts that some scholars believe Lange’s description of the print was “either vague or demonstrably inaccurate” and that Thompson was not a farmworker, but a Dust Bowl migrant. Nevertheless, if she was a “Dust Bowl migrant”, she would have left a farm as most potential Dust Bowl migrants typically did and then began her life as such. Thus any potential inaccuracy is virtually irrelevant. The child to the viewer’s right was Thompson’s daughter, Katherine (later Katherine McIntosh), 4 years old (Leonard, Tom, “Woman whose plight defined Great Depression warns tragedy will happen again “, article, The Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2008) Lange took this photograph with a Graflex camera on large format (4″x5″) negative film.

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