South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Sassa, Ramaphosa, Mkhize, and the potholed road to Hell

By Richard Poplak 16 March 2017

On Wednesday, as the Sassa chaos played itself out on live television, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize had an opportunity to assure some of the business elites that the current crop of the ruling party rulers know what they’re doing. Instead, they nudged us further towards the void. By RICHARD POPLAK.

It was a weird day for the ANC. Yes, it’s always a weird day for the ANC, but this was a weird-weird day, the sort of day that was laced with ill portents, where the party’s sangomas and soothsayers didn’t need to roll the bones or consult the ancestors in order to formulate a survival plan. And that’s because survival is no longer an option.

First of all, there was the small matter of the South African Security Agency appearing before the Constitutional Court in order to justify or, rather, beg for an extension of an illegal contract between the state agency and an outfit called Cash Paymaster Services (CPS). We needn’t rehash the specifics of the debacle here, but suffice to say that if you’re looking for an example of public sector/private sector “co-operation” during the ANC’s End of Days, the social grants meltdown will do just fine. It’s clear that both Sassa and CPS, in devising their contractual relationship, understood South Africa to be a place in which many luxury cars could be accrued. If they had a modus operandi, it was this:

Screw the poor. And make sure to torture them in the process.

But before the Constitutional Court proceedings got under way, the party’s Great Capitalist Hope, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, was whisked in his motorcade to the Sandton opening of something called the Global Entrepreneurship Congress. According to the press materials, this was the first time the event has ever been held in Africa, and it was intended as a celebration of the DIY spirit manifest on our shores mostly because we don’t have any formal work to bank on.

Ramaphosa loves entrepreneurs, mostly because he thinks he was one before he was enjoined to help misrule the country. The Deputy President was in full finger-wagging mode when he spoke. “[Small businesses] will prosper if we eliminate barriers to entry by reducing the cost of data, transport and the cost of financial services. I want bankers to listen very carefully,” he growled, Idris Alba-like. “They will be sustainable if society is united in combating uncompetitive business behaviour, collusion and price fixing by monopolistic cartels.”

He was referring, of course, to the ZAR-rigging scandal that broke last month, during which we learnt that 17 large financial institutions were colluding to fix the price of our currency when paired with the dollar.

Then, like a manic-depressive on a NyQuil binge, Ramaphosa made up with the bad guys, and assured us that they actually weren’t so evil. He went on to describe the terms of the Presidential CEO initiative, in which “the CEOs of the country’s largest firms are working together with government and organised labour to promote economic growth, [and] a fund of R1.5-billion has been established to support small and medium enterprise development”.

He lost me at “CEOs”.

But perhaps the quietest, and for that reason the saddest, episode of the day took place at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibbs), in Johannesburg. It was titled “Business-Government partnership in the decade ahead: A View from Luthuli House.” The conversation starred ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize and Professor Nick Binedell, and was organised by the school’s Ethics and Governance think-tank.

To my surprise and disappointment, it was not a hilarious comedy skit.

Let’s be clear: Doc Mkhize is a good man. He is enormously genial and incontestably bright. But despite serving as KZN MEC for Finance and Economic Development from 2004 to 2009, (and the Premier until 2012), and despite his current tenure as Treasurer-General of the ANC, he is not an innovative thinker when it comes to the economy. As one of the members of the NEC’s Top Six which is to say, as one of the country’s leaders’ leaders it’s not clear that Mkhize is in any way an effective economic policy helmsman.

Indeed, Mkhize seemed slightly embarrassed to be there. Nonetheless, he could not un-be there, and so he ploughed ahead. In his opening remarks, Mhkhize wanted to highlight the “ritual” of the ANC’s quinquennial policy conference, scheduled for June 30 of this year. He referred to the “open conversation” between the National Executive Committee as framed in the nine discussion documents they released last weekend and the cadres who need to swallow their conclusions. Mkhize acknowledged factionalism. He acknowledged the ANC’s loss of support, particularly in the big metros. He acknowledged the fact that the economy is barely growing. He acknowledged that the ANC will have to deal with land reform in the near future.

Sure, but Prof Binedell wanted to know what the “centre” of these policy documents were, and how in particular they related to “radical economic transformation”, which serves as the ANC’s new fake talking point. Mkhize pointed out that South Africa’s sluggish growth which has effectively flatlined year on year was linked to a fundamental global sluggishness. (Only slightly true.) And he wanted to alert us to the fact that radical transformation was designed to address the rampant inequality that the ANC has done so much to enhance and deepen.

“We want to bring more players into the economy,” insisted Mkhize.

“I think we can agree, economic growth is the engine of our transformation,” said Binedell. “How do we make that happen?”

Mkhize countered that the ANC wanted growth not just for growth sake, but “growth with jobs”.

About Sassa, he had this to say: “We need to tighten up on the efficiency of the state-owned enterprises. This might be a bit of a controversial one, but about Sassa, and about the technology that was developed to distribute grants, government must take over the ability to do that.”

I think someone might have mentioned that at the time.

Binedell then pointed out that this was the age of the greatest prosperity for our species we’re fatter, richer, older and more numerous than we’ve ever been. Sadly, there are winners and losers in this orgy of wealth production, and governments like our own have contributed massively to that fundamental disparity. Did Mkhize and the ANC have a way out of this malaise?

Which is when genuine tragedy poured down upon the proceedings. Mkhize had nothing to say. He had no sharp insights, and no oomph behind his answers. These events are meant to be soft, but not this soft. For a country locked in multiple crises, his talk could have served as a moment when a leader stood up and led. Paired with Ramaphosa’s nonsense salesmanship earlier in the day, and compounded by Sassa’s teatime interlocution with the Chief Justice, it proved that the ANC is so barren of ideas, so dazzled by an outdated hologram of itself, so locked in a retro disco bar in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, that it can be of no reasonable utility to those of us living in 2017.

Zweli Mkhize is a policy wonk, and an intelligent and educated man. But on Thursday he served as a messenger of a group that has no clue how to get us out of the mess we’re in. Sassa may represent the road to Hell paved with bad intentions. But more terrifying still, Mkhize represents the road to Hell paved with good intentions.

The latter route is all the more disappointing. And yet there we all were, trundling onto the abyss, with the decent and reluctant Dr Zweli Mkhize at the wheel. DM

Photo: Homeless people, who are guests at the Moreleta Dutch Reformed church, watch the 2010 World Cup Group A Soccer match between South Africa and Uruguay at the church in the suburb of Pretoria June 16, 2010. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini


"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine