The climax of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Goodfellas, is among the most perfect stretches of cinema ever produced. It unfolds in a coked-out, paranoid haze: above, a helicopter surveilling Mafia bagman Henry Hill on his daily chores: sell a bag of guns; duct-tape cocaine to a drug mule; sauté veal for dinner. Below, a network of gangsters and narcs steadily closing in on his floundering operations. We know that Henry’s triple-act is unsustainable, but we’re never certain whether it’s going to end in a) an arrest, b) a bullet to the head or, c) an escape to an unpronounceable Canadian prairie town. The film’s principal act of legerdemain is making us care about Hill, a two-bit scumbag rat who has been faithless to everyone in his life, very much including his mistresses.
The corollary here should be obvious. The ANC is in the final act of its own epic underworld caper, and the bad juju helicopter is circling relentlessly. In a country driven half-insane by four centuries of supremacist shenanigans, the lunacy now unfolding seems a lot like … business as usual.
Two things in particular have become clear in the months since the garishly entertaining Zondo State Capture Commission horror show began proceedings.
First, over the last decade the ANC has devolved into a gangster’s playground so perverse and larcenous that senior leaders would think nothing of mass murdering each other for political appointments, or shaking down banks in order to secure finances for the capo’s benefactors. (This part is actually a bit fucked up: the ANC’s secretary-general at the time, Gwede Mantashe, nudged financial execs to reconsider unbanking the unbankable Guptas. The Mining Minister at the time, Mosebenzi Zwane, threatened to unbank the banks. Mantashe is now Mining Minister. Zwane remains a Member of Parliament. And South Africa remains the only place on Earth that makes bankers look like saints).
Second, and very much related: the country is broke. Not broke as in, Shit, I can’t afford a new pair of work shoes and I may miss rent this month. But catastrophically, existentially, how-did-we-get-here? busted.
Amazingly, while the aforementioned problems are mutually reinforcing, they are both entirely self-inflicted. The Zondo Commission, along with the Nugent Commission on SARS and, to a lesser extent, the recent and more sweeping People’s Tribune on Economic Crime, lays bare the scale and trajectory of our national meltdown. It is now a matter of historical record that colonial-era looting was followed by the thievery of the apartheid years, which morphed into the crookedness of the arms deal, and then the nightmare of the Zuma regime. Given apartheid’s manifold deprivations, the ANC’s job was never going to be easy. But they peddled to voters a booklet called Ready to Govern, promising that in exchange for power they would break the centuries-long cycle of robbery and shame.
Instead, they’ve extended it into perpetuity.
Now, a new don wants to govern. No, he really really does. Cyril Ramaphosa and his small team of like-minded reformers are serious about their attempts to turn this country around. The problem is that many of them actively and willfully got us into this problem in the first place. (Howzit Gwede! G’day Gigaba!) More significantly, they’ve left it far too late. South Africa is of course mired in a recession, one that Deputy President David Mabuza recently described as nothing more than a state of mind, but one that isn’t the worst part of the economic picture. That honour goes to the fact that we’re shackled to the debt accrued by our State-Owned Enterprises, which constitute a nightmarish 11% of our GDP, a yoke that is dragging us off the cliff to eternal penury.
The International Monetary Fund is coming. At this point, almost nothing can stave them off. But what if we designed our own stimulus package, jazzing up the fiscus by erecting bridges, and bridges over the bridges, a Keynesian orgy of concrete and farming co-ops stretching as far as the DRC?
It works in the economic textbooks. Should work here just fine.
Had the South African government trained and enabled a class of capable bureaucrats to build up our institutions unencumbered by gangster-politicians —and it hasn’t— there would be a case to be made for a giant defibrillating wallop of cash. But the government does not have the will or energy to grow and professionalise the public sector, and it cannot borrow money on a level significant enough to ignite real economic afterburners. Instead, several months ago, we were proffered what Ramaphosa called a “stimulus package”— which is really just a reorientation of government’s priorities in a way that sort of makes sense. (The loosening of the draconian visa policy, one of two-time Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s dafter legacies, is so obvious that it doesn’t even constitute an idea).
We’ve been here before. Every tin-pot, rotted-out, end-of-days regime — think The Donald’s Amerikkka— kicks off with promises of heretofore unimaginable infrastructure mega-dreams. (Trump promised a “huge”amount, which would largely be disbursed to private sector contractors. Nothing has happened yet. For his part, Ramaphosa is reportedly unleashing a R400-billion standalone Infrastructure Fund, which would also go to what’s left of the private sector. Nothing has happened yet).
The ANC, like political parties everywhere, has always understood infrastructure spending to mean the spreading of patronage and/or pork barrel politicking. Tragically, Ramaphosa actually seems to think that this whole stimulus thing will work, or will kind of work, or will work until the debt picture can be turned around. But he’s mistaken. This is how it unfolds: the South African government either pays companies belonging to connected cronies to do work they know will never be done; or hires capable black-owned business and delays paying them until they starve to death (former Treasury director-general Lungisa Fuzile bitterly described this technique as “the government’s cash flow management”); or gives big apartheid-era corporations the opportunity to fleece two regimes in a row for overbuilding bridges and overpasses.
Bafflingly, the fake stimulus package was greeted in the press as the second coming of, well, stimulus packages. But that doesn’t make it a stimulus package. Nor has it been clear for what projects the money will be earmarked; nor how it will flow through an economy that is clogged by SOE debt, and where there is no policy certainty around property ownership given the spectre of expropriation of land without compensation.
Perhaps all of this will be discussed at the ANC’s maniacally expensive Stimulus View Dinner, to be hosted at Johannesburg’s swishy Summer Place, a little colonial wonderland where the furniture is made from melted Cecil John Rhodes statues and the soup is served in upturned pith helmets. (Not really, but it should be). The invite for the dinner has been circulating among the hoi polloi over the past week or so, and even among the moneyed classes — not known for their shame — it has resulted in bouts of spontaneous vomiting.
Q: On what planet does the ruling party of a country with over 9.3 million unemployed people send out an invite for a R1-million double-plate dinner party?
A: On Planet South Africa, apparently.
While Ramaphosa will be the star of the show, the country’s seemingly ridiculously crooked deputy president will host a table at which two seats will run to R600,000. The enterprising business tycoon can also watch Gwede Mantashe inhale springbok carpaccio, while Public Enterprises Minister — everybody’s favourite Mr Clean — Pravin Gordhan, sips chilled Moët. Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte will be there. So will her boss, Ace Magashule. And newly-minted finance minister Tito Mboweni, whose recently tabled medium-term budget policy statement was another marker of just how badly the ANC has bungled the country’s economy: he offered not a stimulus package, but a New-York credit agency-mandated austerity regime.
I’ll have the abalone
Anyway, blatant access-buying is a hallmark of how the congress has always “negotiated” with business: give us money, and we’ll play nice. Under Zuma, who preferred cigarette smugglers and secondhand computer salesmen to bankers and hedge fund operators, the ANC routinely reneged on the deal, until such time as former-former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was fired in December 2015, and the oligarchs got in a snit and demanded a refund. That worked out for about a year or so until another former former finance minister was fired. In order to finally end the war, Zuma’s opposition in the ANC was plied with hundreds of millions of rand in order to mount a campaign for the congress presidency. Team Ramaphosa won. And now they want to win the national elections in 2019, and so those e-wallets must start pinging once again.
Pay-to-play deals are standard operating procedure in any democracy. But this doesn’t make the deals ethical, and they’re especially disgusting in a country that is routinely described as the most unequal on earth. In a failing post-capitalist kleptocracy, R1-million allows you to whisper sweet nothings into the ear of a “reformer” president, whose inner circle has convinced itself that an alliance with the country’s business elite will result in “growth” and a “better investment environment”. It won’t. Under the cover of darkness — or, rather, in the candlelit confines of Summer Palace — it can only result in corruption.
What’s even more troubling about this Stimulus View Dinner is that it points to Ramaphosa’s greatest weakness (other than, you know, generalised weakness) — his routine conflation of party and state. This is post-liberation Africa’s enduring software bug: the ruling party confuses the walls of its headquarters with the borders of the country. In selling the stimulus as an ANC policy rather than as government policy, Ramaphosa’s (divided) congress is reminding business who is in charge, and where their fate lies. But by jamming cash into the ANC, “business leaders” will not engender great jolts of FDI or a new Silicon Valley. They will just extend the life of the ANC — a stimulus package for discussions about stimulus packages. Even for companies that sat on hundreds of billions of rand of cash during the so-called “investment strike” — which Ramaphosa has supposedly ended — this is a waste of money.
One last thing about the alliance between the ANC and its pet oligarchs: Zuma’s cabal of shysters and chancers may have been bad for legitimate business. But it turns out that legitimate business is also bad for legitimate business. Consider PwC’s recently published “Global economic crime and fraud survey 2018: South Africa”, which rated Sandton corporates as the world’s most fraudulent. So if the ANC is manifestly corrupt, and so are the business leaders paying for the pleasure of dining with them, how can this lead to “reform” or a “new dawn”?
If Ramaphosa was serious about a turnaround, he’d commit himself to a regime of ruthless transparency. He’d fast-track the Political Party Funding Bill before the 2019 elections, which would result in much cleaner party finances leading up to the upcoming campaign. (He won’t). He’d demand from Sandton not money for his party, but assistance in re-envisioning the economy that would result in the break-up of huge monopolies. (Think Germany). He’d decouple in his mind the ruling party from the government, and remind himself that his primary job is to serve all South Africans, not Ace Magashule’s family members’ family members.
The Goodfellas chopper is circulating, and it’s bound to land on the ANC’s head. All criminal syndicates are eventually undone by their own greed. The real shame about the ANC is that an entire country goes down with it. DM
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest