Bloody literary agents
24 November 2017 22:26 (South Africa)
South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: New Deal, Old Spiel – Ramaphosa campaigns on saving the South African economy

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during the Women’s Day celebration held at Harry Gwala Multi-Purpose Centre in Sasolburg, Free State. 09/08/2015 Kopano Tlape GCIS

Um, WHAT economy? By RICHARD POPLAK.

It defies logic, all parties are happy with their scores – it’s a win-win situation for everybody.’ Cyril Ramaphosa, upon the successful negotiation of the Interim Constitution.

At precisely 18:00 military time, White Monopoly Capital’s back line filed into the Orlando East Communal Hall – Investec’s Stephen Koseff, Goldman Sach’s Colin Coleman, FirstRand’s Johan Burger, to name only a few. It was a touching moment: the cohort with the most to lose (at least in financial terms) had come in force to cheer on their Manchurian Candidate. They looked morose, as if they were deficient in iron and vitamin D, and who could blame them – the currency has apparently hung itself in a flophouse cupboard; the entire Johannesburg Stock Exchange is propped up by a Chinese internet company; Jacob Zuma is about to steal all of their money. They were down to one option: Cyril Ramaphosa, and a speech that was billed as a promulgation of his brand new economic policy.

You could basically feel the rand twitching.

But more important, where was the complimentary Rupert & Rothschild and the platters of artisanal biltong?

Despite all of the flash and financial muscle behind him, the betting line does not favour Cyril Ramaphosa in his current endeavours to become president of the African National Congress. But memories being as dim as they are, folks seem to have forgotten that he has stolen the party once before. Back in 1991, shortly after a young Ramaphosa was elected ANC Secretary-General, the former union leader was widely regarded as the party’s rising star. No one agreed with this assessment more than Ramaphosa himself. When Thabo Mbeki, at that time head of the constitutional negotiations team, made the misstep of leaving the country, Ramaphosa sneakily convened a national working committee confab. The absent, insists the proverb, are always in the wrong: Mbeki, along with his close pal and ANC Intelligence head, Jacob Zuma, were ousted from their positions in favour of Ramaphosa and Mosiuoa Lekota respectively. Mark Gevisser, Mbeki’s biographer, has described the events as a “palace coup”.

Obviously, the coup didn’t stick. But Ramaphosa nonetheless etched himself into South African history by out-negotiating the morons from the National Party, while leading the efforts to craft one of the planet’s most lauded, progressive constitutions. He was a superb negotiator, a ballerina dancing on a livewire, and the smartest man in any room he entered. He literally wrote himself into the DNA of the country, which should give us a very good sense of who he is and what kind of president he would become: an outwardly cheery, non-racialist, progressive social democrat with a dangerous, perhaps deadly, authoritarian streak. But Ramaphosa has never been that easy to pin down. As his own biographer, Antony Butler, once wrote, “Confronted at any time by the question, ‘What does Cyril believe?’, his colleagues and comrades would offer wildly differing answers.”

To the cypher goes the spoils.

But maybe not. For one thing, there are no spoils left to dole out. For another, does Ramaphosa really have a plan? Outside of detoxifying the ANC and sticking to the party’s boring National Development Plan, the deputy president hasn’t evinced much of a Weltschmerz. For the white monopoly capitalists and their black upper-class fan club, this appears to be sufficient. But in order to keep his constituency happy with internet-enabled mega fridges and hybrid Volvos, South Africa’s very own stolid centrist needed a plan.

Which is why, it seemed, we were summoned to Soweto, along with some of the richest men in Africa. It was game time. Ramaphosa was about to own the moment.

* * *

When the newly anointed finance minister Malusi Gigaba waltzed into the National Treasury in early April, it was obviously his intention to purge it of sentience and strip it down to the last fake Tretchikoff. He has made good on that promise. Even so, the department’s most recent defection, and perhaps its most institutionally catastrophic, is that of Michael Sachs, who served for a decade as Deputy Director General: Budget Office. And yet, Sachs’ bolting cannot entirely be blamed on Gigaba. The bean-counting veteran was apparently miffed that Zuma was planning to empty the vaults in order to buy a bunch (a bushel? What is the collective noun?) of Russian nuclear reactors, and fund a year’s-worth of free tertiary education for all of his new friends.

But there’s something genuinely transformative, in the proper sense of the term, about coming face-to-face with a fiscal crisis, and understanding what it would mean for South African sovereignty should the country actually run out of money. The new minister of finance could not stave off the initial spate of downgrades, and nor could his bullshit-ese inspire confidence in the local and international financial establishment, but his mid-term budget proposal policy statement was a remarkably lucid exegesis of the country’s financial situation. With a R50-billion revenue shortfall resulting from a Kamikaze recession and Tom Moyane’s extended looting project, South Africa is not just broke, but fiscally broken: policy decisions can now only be made while running around a padded cell screaming, and ideology is a luxury we can no longer afford.

During his address, glistening with flop sweat, Gigaba gazed out at the honourable members of the House, the most honourable of whom was sleeping only a few paces from his lectern. Gigaba knew what we now all know: Zuma – a serially insolvent, numerically illiterate shyster – had wrested control of the National Treasury from his trusted lieutenant, and was applying his mind to a bunch of Despicable Me-style comic-strip capers, including a policy paper drafted by one of his daughters’ beaus, Mukovhe Morris Masutha, a State Security spy masquerading as a student activist.

But this is a story about Cyril Ramaphosa. And the story that Ramaphosa wanted to tell was this: he presented the antidote to these flagons of vicious sangoma poison. The Orlando event was designed as an economic colloquium that would finally address all of the above-mentioned problems. Gauteng may be all but dead to the ANC, but campaigning here still has its merits: this is where the money is, and there was enough cash in the room to buy Trump’s America, never mind Zuma’s South Africa.

Speaking of Zuma, ANN7 was about to run an interview with the president, in which he would incoherently mewl his way through a bunch of softball questions, flubbing every last one of them. In contrast, we were about to encounter Ramaphosa on what counted as home turf – as close to an unflubbable moment as any politician could hope for.

Surely, this was where the deputy president sewed up the succession race. Surely?

Surely.

Ramaphosa took to the lectern under lighting the pallour of diseased egg-yolk – these were the kind of halogens under which mass executions take place. He is portly these days, but wears his business-casual well, and the sharpness in his eyes remains undiminished. Sadly, he was the only element of the event that was remotely slick. The seating arrangement was poorly organised; the sound was Bar-Mitzvah-in-Uzbekistan crap. At the back of the hall, a disinterested group of cadres chatted among themselves. Eminem would have cracked in this hall; Ramaphosa wilted within seconds.

He started off by demanding, “We need real and equal radical economic transformation – the transformation that will impact people who live in places like this. It is places like these,” he continued, “where we would like to see new black entrepreneurs. It is places like these we would like to see new businesses emerge. It is places like these that we would like to see progress in our economy. If this is not the future of our economy, then our economy does not have a future.” He reminded us that the deals may be made in Sandton, but the people effected by them live in places like Soweto.

Next, he spoke about the Freedom Charter – “which still remains our policy lodestar” – and how its injunction that “the people shall govern” has yet to materialise. (Speaking of materialism and other Marxist doctrines, these he failed to mention.) “The struggle that all South Africans should share in the country’s wealth needs to be the centre of our agenda,” he said. He wanted something bold, something new, something – ahem – radical.

We need to strike a New Deal,” said Ramaphosa.

Was the DP consciously referencing US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the sweeping series of policies credited (by some, derided by others) for dragging America out of the Depression into a sustained and glorious period of growth and relative equality?

I’d say he was.

So, okay, a New Deal. How would it work? First, Ramaphosa outlined how badly apartheid ruined the lives of black South Africans, but also how its economy was “structurally flawed. The economy that we inherited was not only a deformed economy, but one that was in crisis and on the verge of collapse.” Apartheid’s central tenant, he said, “was basically asset stripping. It found our people and their assets, and stripped them naked.”

All true.

And in order to combat this, the ANC has built 4.3-million houses, handed out 17-million or so social grants, and feeds 9-million kids at government schools every day, among other social welfare initiatives. And while there are currently attempts under way to break these important institutions down – yes, he used the term “attempts” – they are effectively unbreakable with the right leadership.

These are not inevitable failures,” said Ramaphosa. “State Capture has had a very negative impact on the economy of our country – whether people want to acknowledge that or not, it has.”

So now, what was required was a “decisive new approach”.

There was dissent and disquiet at the back of the hall, and it was throwing Ramaphosa off his game. Nonetheless, he forged on, insisting that his New Deal would include “all stakeholders” – business, labour, students, government, pre-schoolers, rhinos, really rich people. He used the term “concretised” in a sentence. He then said that his New Deal must be rooted in the National Development Plan, while being defined by “renewed unity and purpose of action”.

He offered a 10-point plan, which tends to serve as the salvation of those without actual plans. Picture a word cloud populated with the following: jobs, Special Economic Zones, programme of economic recovery, policy certainty, regulatory backlogs, wise leadership, natural resources, local content, SMEs, national minimum wage, growth. He even managed to address the land question. “The people are ready for the land, we must restore the land, we must give the land back,” he said, while WMC fiddled with their smartphones.

We cannot accept that the majority of our economy is owned and controlled by a minority,” he insisted.

In short – and this was not a short speech, so bear with me – Ramaphosa was pitching himself as a manager who would bridge all sectors of society in fixing all of South Africa’s greatest misses. There was nothing that he failed to mention – absolutely nothing – and yet it was nothing that hadn’t been said before.

The technocrat’s technocrat. The CEO president. The Prioritiser-in-Chief. This was the speech that was meant to define his campaign.

* * *

And yet, the event was a disaster.

The Johannesburg ANC can’t even get a microphone working properly – all the money in the world is not nearly enough to rent a decent PA system. Nor, apparently, can they get Ramaphosa to answer a question: directly after his speech, he was supposed to join a colloquium that would interrogate his proposals. But Ramaphosa doesn’t like to be interrogated. No single player in this campaign season, very much including Jacob Zuma, has been less accessible and more opaque than has Cyril Ramaphosa. He is above all of this. It’s his time.

Politics has one last lesson to teach him: there’s no such thing as time.

But now we must come to the curious appearance of his rich friends. This was clearly supposed to be a major campaign event, a sign that he served as a link for a broken society’s disparate silos. Also, their appearance was a show of strength – a statement insisting that he had the backing of the hard money, the real money. But are they the real money in this joint? Because if money can’t buy power, is it really money? (Ask that question of a Russian oligarch who fell out of favour with Vladimir Putin. Football teams and super yachts are a distant second prize.) Mpumalanga Premier DD Mabuza’s money is, indisputably, real money – it buys him ANC delegates, which in turn will buy him a deputy presidency. And unlike Ramaphosa, his appointment will come at the behest of a rented constituency, and therefore a semi-guaranteed path to the presidency.

Has the country passed the point where the bankers and their compradors can change the direction of the political winds with a flick of their Breitlings? Has our proximity to the Upside-Down made the super-rich just another bunch of whingeing Heritage Day chop flippers, with no more influence than the dude selling phone chargers on a congested highway off-ramp?

I’d say it has. And so Ramaphosa’s declaration of strength was actually a wail of weakness. He fled the hall in a scream of bulletproof metal, shadowed by the wealthiest men in South Africa. Their options are now limited: they either flood this race with so much money that it swamps the competition and buys out the bad guys, or they hand them the money on the other side of the elective conference. That’s the only New Deal that counts. And I get the sense that Ramaphosa knows it. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during the Women's Day celebration held at Harry Gwala Multi-Purpose Centre in Sasolburg, Free State.09/08/2015 Kopano Tlape GCIS

  • Richard Poplak
    HEADSHOT_Rich-Poplak_orange.jpg
    Richard Poplak

    Richard Poplak was born and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He trained as a filmmaker and fine artist at Montreal’s Concordia University and has produced and directed numerous short films, music videos and commercials. Now a full-time writer, Richard is a senior contributor at South Africa’s leading news site, Daily Maverick, and a frequent contributor to publications all over the world. He is a member of Deca Stories, the international long-form non-fiction collective.

    His first book was the highly acclaimed Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa (Penguin, 2007); his follow-up was entitled The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop-Culture in the Muslim World (Soft Skull, 2010). Poplak has also written the experimental journalistic graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, 2010). His election coverage from South Africa’s 2014 election, written under the nom de plume Hannibal Elector, was collected as Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle (Tafelberg, 2014).  Ja, No, Man was longlisted for the Alan Paton Non-Fiction prize, shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Literary Award and voted one of the Top-10 books of 2007 by Now Magazine. Richard has won South Africa’s Media-24 Best Feature Writing Award and a National Magazine Award in Canada.

    Since 2010, Poplak has been travelling across Africa, seeking out the catalysts and characters behind the continent’s 21stcentury metamorphosis. The coming book, co-authored with Kevin Bloom, is called The Shift

  • South Africa

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