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TRAINSPOTTER: Preview – Reading a Budget in a post-Bu...

South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Preview – Reading a Budget in a post-Budget country

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan will read his 2017 Budget in front of his enemies – main among them President Jacob Zuma – and his friends. But whatever he says, we’re so deep in a series of systemic crises that it has almost ceased to matter. RICHARD POPLAK sums up where we are, and where we may be going.

I want to share a little side-story that exemplifies why tomorrow’s Budget speech will be given in a country atomising beneath our feet. It comes to us courtesy of the Chamber of Mines, the body that lobbies on behalf of the mining industry:

Yesterday, the Chamber of Mines, acting on behalf of gold producers AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony and Sibanye, welcomed a ruling by the Constitutional Court in favour of the gold producers. The ruling itself related to the decision by the Labour Court on 23 June 2014 to uphold the interim order issued by the Labour Court in January 2014, preventing Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) from embarking on protected strike action in respect of wages and other conditions of service, on the basis that AMCU was bound by the collective agreement reached for the period 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2015.

At the time the agreement was reached, AMCU represented 17 percent of employees in the sector. The agreement was extended by AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony and Sibanye to AMCU and its members in terms of Section 23(1)d of the Labour Relations Act.

Speaking on behalf of the Chamber of Mines, Dr Elize Strydom said: “This ruling brings final certainty about the binding nature of the extended 2013 wage agreement reached at a centralised level by way of an inclusive process.”

On the surface, unless you’re a member of AMCU, this is an immensely good story. It depicts a day in the life of a country that is run by the rule of law, one that adheres to the terms of its foundational document, a progressive Constitution for which millions of people were willing to die. And yet, what the above process highlights is the extent to which the law can mimic old-school disenfranchisement. If you’re poor in South Africa, or a member of its dwindling working class, the Constitution is not a document you spend much time lauding, or thinking much about at all.

It is true that genuine social justice has emerged from rulings at the Constitutional Court. It is also true that its findings have routinely been misinterpreted by the highest office in the land. The Constitution has become lodged in the esophagus of a voracious beast – a country that, as it lurches towards another Budget speech in the midst of another political crisis, may be perhaps considered post-Budget.

Economists, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan himself, will be the first to admit that. And yet, like drugged-up groupies under the sway of some unseen yet sexually charismatic impresario, they will offer a Budget that leans towards European style “austerity”, one that makes prudent noises about reducing the Benz budgets of our MPs, while providing sops to student movements and other political actors who have most loudly demanded concessions from the state.

The culture of the Treasury dates back to the earliest Mandela days, when it was the sober, internationalist, Davos-driven edge of the ANC wedge – a place where former revolutionaries donned Italian suits and behaved like Blair’s New Labour, or Clinton’s Democrats. The main rule is that there are rules, and those rules promulgate a gently redistributive social democracy that is impossible to affect in South Africa. “You could replace Pravin Gordhan and put a dog there, it would still do what he has been doing,” financial journalist Sikonathi Mantshantsha told Radio 702 yesterday. He’s absolutely correct – since the earliest days of the democratic republic, the Treasury has adhered to a certain outlook. Many very brilliant men and women have passed through its doors, along with some morons. They’ve all dutifully played straight man to the South African fool.

This state of affairs is largely a result of a trade-off made at the end of the ancien regime between the corporate and governing classes – the decision to create a new elite along the lines of the old, while half-assedly betting on the feasibility of the trickle-down theory. And so, our governance is premised on one prevailing commandment: Thou shalt not fucketh with the Treasury.

The resulting stability has, of course, come at an immense cost for those whose lives were never stable. The economy has certainly grown, but the uptick has come almost exclusively from the financial and commodities sectors – we build not much, we R&D not much, we process almost nothing. As a result, wealth accrues to a very small number of people, many of whom were beneficiaries of the previous dispensation. (Call it Right Place, Right Time-ism, and it is a feature of many of similar gangster economies that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall). Our social grant system, currently being held ransom by the cravenness of the South African Social Security Agency, has served only to keep people on the fringe of the consumption economy. Grant recipients slavishly closing the fiduciary loop by spending at Shoprite, at VodaShop, at the fuel pumps. Meanwhile, we blow our youth dividend on one of the worst rates of unemployment in the world, while out there on planet Earth, the very nature of employment is changing.

What will the words “work” or “umsebenzi” – the most overused in our politics – even mean when our democracy turns 50?

Will our democracy turn 50?

There are no guarantees. Our politics are in the inevitable 20-year post-liberation meltdown. The governing party is shredding itself with internal warfare. The Western Cape is lost forever to the opposition. Gauteng will follow in 2019. The big metros are run by coalitions. What’s left for the ANC is a rural heartland politics that must by necessity become smaller and more vicious, the pork shovelled into useless billion-rand infrastructure projects, while national policy becomes increasingly disconnected from the country’s actual requirements. The factions have already calcified – like an arthritic after a tumble, the party is destined to shatter, and not necessarily into two neat pieces. This means tearing up our social and economic contracts at a time when there is nothing – not one single element of a shared, consensus-based ideology – to replace them with.

Welcome, then, to the governance siloes. The urban centres currently belong to the Democratic Alliance (itself in the midst of an internecine, but quieter, fight for power) and, to a lesser extent, the Economic Freedom Fighters, neither of which are strong enough to resist the strongman populist appeal of someone like Herman Mashaba. His Trump-ish anti-crime, anti-corruption, anti-immigrant stance will win him lasting and widespread support across all sectors of society. Recently, a nascent anti-migrant party launched, offering the dopamine punch of institutionalised xenophobia as its sole platform. More players like this will emerge, and they will poison our politics with a new strain of deadly expediency.

One day soon, Zuma’s canny chauvinism will be made to seem quaint.

Talk of land expropriation has become more and more pitched; talk of a “better deal” for the mining sector has become louder and louder. Both issues are immensely emotive in this country, and for good reason. But the Expropriation Bill has gone back to Parliament for another review, and the upcoming mining charter is widely loathed by the mining industry. With industry and government completely out of step, the South African “people” (read: pension plans, investment funds, and a connected few) will soon own a bigger cut of the mines, while the industry mechanises and its workforce dwindles to, basically, seven R2D2s. We have four centuries of precedent to teach us that the house always wins, and yet Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, a genuine idiot, believes he holds a great hand?

In the midst of all this chaos, an already politically compromised financial sector is embroiled in a vast and spreading currency collusion scandal. The big banks were last year under fire from the Zuma syndicate for unbanking their paymasters, the Gupta Family. What the syndicate didn’t know is, just as the banks were professing to be upstanding corporate citizens by jettisoning genuine gangsters from their asset sheets, Absa was squealing to the Competition Commission regarding a currency-rigging gambit undertaken by its own traders, and by those of 16 big brand financial institutions.

We’ve seen this movie before, and it begins the same way it ends: with a suit snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s butt. This time, however, things may be different. If the banks are found guilty by the Competition Tribunal, the fines will be punitive. But it is the Zuma syndicate’s intention to completely and finally undermine the sector in the name of “radical economic transformation”. If his faction can take over the Treasury, take down the banks, charter a state bank, and ram through the nuclear deal, they’ve effectively pulled off one of the greatest heists in history. And they’ll have been assisted in these endeavours by the banks’ near insane greed and stupidity.

Even if they don’t win, and even if Gordhan reads his nice speech nicely, and even if everything in it gets implemented, and even if some people get some land, and even if the mines share the gold a little bit, and even if some of the transformation is radical, the gaping rates of inequality in this country still require something much more than incremental change. We are in the dreadfully unfortunate position of standing underneath a giant that is in its death throes. A system is terminating, “right” and “left” no longer mean anything, and no one seems to have a workable plan that matches the technological and political revolutions that are under way across the globe. 

We do have one thing going for us. Every thinking human in this country knows that we need fundamental change. And knowing that you have a problem, well, that’s the first step, isn’t it? Let’s not think of the Budget speech as a beginning. Let’s think of it as the end.

And then let’s start moving on. DM

Photo: South African residents of Masiphumelele take part in a protest march along Kommetjie road on their way to the Simonstown Magistrates court to support community leader Lubabalo Vellem, in Cape Town, South Africa, 14 June 2016. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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