If there is one thing the small print of the ratings agencies’ collective decision not to consign us to the junk heap tells us, it’s that we are adrift. Their message is stark: if we do not get the engine of our economy moving soon, they will have no choice but to complete the job that President Jacob Zuma started so ably a year ago. We should be grateful that they did not act now; no doubt some of their experts argued strongly that they would be failing in their duty to not remove our “investment grade status”. But instead of grabbing the opportunity of all reaching for a wrench and twisting away at the various knobs of our spluttering economy, we are going to spend the next 12 months aboard our vessel arguing about the re-arrangement of the deck chairs. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
In one year and one week’s time, we will be discussing one thing and one thing only. The ANC’s leadership conference, which should see the end of President Jacob Zuma’s time as leader of the governing party. The current betting is still that the person who emerges victorious will be the favourite to then occupy the Union Buildings in 2019. It would be totally rational then to assume that this leadership race will be dominated by the single most important issue. If you haven’t worked it out, Stupid, it’s the economy.
We sometimes forget, wracked by the pain of our past and trapped in the torment of our history, that the economy is everything. It is the one thing that can help ease our scars. If it works, if it grows and people have hope in the future, they tend to fight a little less among each other. If it doesn’t, if they believe their children are going to have to contend with a smaller pie than they themselves have, they will fight harder for every piece of it. This common wisdom would suggest then that the next 12 months is going to be dominated by discussions about how to grow the economy.
But instead of a proper debate about the economy, about how to get it moving, we are going to have fights along other lines than that. Race, class, ethnicity, the politics of identity, all of these will probably get more attention than economic policy. In some ways it’s a terrible indictment on our politics, in other ways it’s what makes us all human. And, given our history, it is entirely legitimate.
But this is going to have terrible repercussions. We have tremendous opportunity, we have millions of people willing and able to work, to put their minds to good use, we have huge mineral resources, a proper industrial backbone, all of the things that can be used for productive ends.
What we lack is the proper will, and the proper cohesion, to make all of that happen. Instead, both in the ANC and out of it, we have a sense of “grab what you can”, of short-termism. This includes everyone from metro cops who demand “cool drink money” to titans of industry who think they can justify taking home share options worth tens of millions.
But it is in the governing party that we see the worst of it, because of its very proximity to power. It’s here that the real fight over state capture is under way. It seems that the major players in the fight for control of the National Treasury have fought themselves to a standstill. That while Zuma may want to reshuffle his Cabinet, he could be caught in a bind. Risk making a move, taking out Pravin Gordhan and then hoping the reaction is not the same as it was last December (which, considering he must have been weaker than he is now, is probably a foolish bet), or do nothing. Of course, he could try for some kind of middle ground, a shuffle that takes out Mcebisi Jonas and thus weakens Gordhan. But that would reveal his weakness – that he cannot remove Gordhan himself. And looking at the current context, it would be unwise for Zuma to show any more weakness at present.
So what we’re left with then is this low-intensity conflict in which neither side is really strong enough to move openly.
While some may be tempted to say this is a positive outcome, considering the absolute danger we were in a year ago, that would be a mistake. Because it underplays the very real danger that drift creates in a country like ours.
To an extent, we as a nation were created on hope. It was hope that Nelson Mandela harnessed to convince millions of people that while their lives would not improve immediately, they would in the future. Hope is what bought us the time we needed to start that change, that convinced the poor not to physically attack the rich. This hope is fading. Fast. Look at Vuwani, look at the attacks on the symbols of the state, on schools, police stations, libraries and clinics. Look at the ordinary citizens who attack police officers in the street, while other South Africans do nothing. And look at the actions of the students who feel that if they do not achieve their aims through violence, they have no hope of a future.
In some ways, the current criticism of the “agreement” brokered by Madiba is a reflection of this loss of hope. It’s no coincidence that the arguments we have now around race and class did not spring up during the Mbeki era. That’s not a comment on him, but rather on the lucky fact that the economy was growing strongly during that time. Now that it has stalled, these arguments are springing back to the fore.
It is possible to say that there is very little that the government could do to stop this, that this is not really the result of in-fighting at the top of the ANC, but the simple economic situation in which we find ourselves. To some, it could be a convincing argument. But what we have absolutely lost as a result of this in-fighting is any sense of direction. There is not even a pretence of unity, a mirage that we are all pushing the wheel in the same direction. Zuma may say one thing one day, and be contradicted by another top ANC leader the next. When people see this, it is obvious that the country’s leaders are fighting for positions, and not for the country.
In those circumstances, hope cannot survive.
And to make matters worse, this is not just confined to the economy. There is an absence of national leadership in every sphere of our society.
Earlier this year, as almost everyone should remember, we were in the grip of attacks on statues representing certain white leaders from our history. Paul Kruger, Louis Botha, historic figures of whom statues were created to celebrate white history, found themselves defaced. This came just after the decision by the University of Cape Town to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes. It was clear then that someone needed to act. That we needed a process, a group of people who could be trusted to decide which statues go, which stay, and of whom we need new statues (Steve Biko surely deserves several, as would Robert Sobukwe, Walter Sisulu, OR Tambo, the list is long and honourable). To date, no sort of public process along these lines has started.
It is surely clear to anyone that this is a recipe for disaster. It is only a matter of time before someone, with a strong motivation, decides to take the law into their own hands, and remove these statues from public view. That type of gestures always, of course, generates an opposite reaction; both moves play to the extremes in our society.
There are various pockets of people trying to fill the vacuum that government and the ANC have created. Inspirational leaders who try to provide a symbol, or direction, or simply hope. But they cannot do it without government. It’s why we have governments in the first place, to make the hard decisions and to implement them. The ANC is not capable of doing that at the moment. And in South Africa, the reality is still that no one else can completely fill that void.
Unless something dramatic happens, driting is going to be the fate of the Good Ship RSA for almost all of 2017. At least until the ANC has a new leader, with a new mandate. But for many South Africans, 53 weeks may simply be too long to wait. DM