South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER

The ANC – where Reality meets Unreality and where every Fight is a Zero-Sum game

African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule during a media briefing about his meeting with former president Jacob Zuma on September 11, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Responding to allegations that he met Zuma to discuss a plot to oust President Cyril Ramaphosa, Magashule said he met the former president over organisational issues. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

The era of ‘quantity easing’ has apparently begun. Good luck with that, South Africa.

Too big to succeed

In an essay written in 1943, called “On the abolition of all political parties”, the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil observed that “the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit”. In Weil’s view, every party is a stand-alone universe, expanding endlessly until time and space implode, sucking into oblivion hundreds of luxury vehicles, R30,000 suits and shitty office furnishings.

Under no circumstances, added Weil, could politicians “ever believe that their party might have too many members, too many votes, too much money.” Her conclusion?

Every party is totalitarian — potentially, and by aspiration.”

Unhappily, her essay is as relevant today as it was at the height of Hitler’s wartime excesses. Big Money has hosed its way through democracies across the world, perverting political systems and revealing parties for exactly what they are: vectors of totalitarianism, for sale to hedge fund ghouls with killer single malt collections.

Not all of this happens outside the bounds of the law, or not explicitly so. And nor is any of this anti-democratic, per se — elections are scheduled, voters trudge to the polls (albeit in diminishing numbers), and ticks are etched on ballot papers. As Weil noted all those years ago, totalitarianism flourishes within democracies due to the expansionist nature of political parties — which are by design and in practice totalitarian. The liberal order just doesn’t function as advertised.

How does this scenario unfold in practice? Example: the Nazis were part of the democratically elected government of the Weimar Republic. So there’s that.

Weil would have arrived in contemporary South Africa and uttered a sigh of exasperated recognition. Eighteen months in office, two Cabinet shuffles and a general election later, we are done with maybes. We know exactly who Cyril Ramaphosa is: a party man who hopes to reform South Africa by cleansing the party, so that the party can endlessly expand with only minor tweaks to its standard party operating procedures — a garish form of incrementalism that promises nothing other than that his party will now kill this country more slowly than would otherwise be comfortable.

An example? On Tuesday, South Africa learnt that its economy had not so much crashed but committed suicide in the second quarter of 2019 — a massive 3.2% GDP evaporation that we haven’t experienced since American banks robbed the global economy 10 years ago. This latest spectacular feat was a group effort that must be entirely credited to the ANC.

The good news, I suppose, is that the environment gets a break from the death cult destruction that is another of the Congress’s great legacies. The bad news is that this was not planned, and nor was it forecast by economists or pundits. The ANC’s corruption is now complete, but it is not just financial. It’s philosophical, metaphysical. If the party is totalitarian — and by Jesus, it is — it’s so old and so sclerotic that it is deep in the dementia phase, wandering around the palace halls in shit-stained drawers, singing show tunes into a gold-plated vuvuzela.

Instead of panicking at the horrifying GDP shrinkage news, the party held a National Executive Committee lekgotla, where they resolved to implement the nationalisation of the South African Reserve Bank, as per the policy conference held in Nasrec back in 2017. This is meaningless if destabilising piece of kabuki theatre contained in a widely ridiculed paragraph that defined the abiding insanity that has gripped the 110-year-old nutjob. Just let this sample from the press release roll around your brain for a quick minute:

It was agreed that all deployees will ensure that resolutions of the 54th National Conference will be fully implemented in this regard the ANC NEC Lekgotla agreed to expand the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank beyond price stability to include growth and employment, It also directed the ANC Government to consider constituting a task team to explore quantity easing measures to address intergovernmental debts to make funds available for developmental purposes. These measures should consider inflationary impact on the currency and the poor and all must be done to cushion them. This is consistent practice by developed countries to save their economies. This will go a long way in dealing decisively with the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

I think by quantity easing they mean “quantitative easing”, which actually means printing money — something “developed countries” do because they make the rules. Regardless, get that biltong and chips platter ready for the International Monetary Fund bailout crew. They’ll be hungry when they arrive in early 2020.

Super Prez

There has been much talk of reforming the ANC from those who now ostensibly lead it. Their apologists in the media and Big Business have shilled for them, insisting that the ANC is the only entity that can save South Africa… from the ANC. This has never made any logical sense, but this is the line Ramaphosa and his hench-folk have sold us for more than two years, and it’s the line that might serve as their political epitaphs.

Without a natural local consistency — without even so much as a township in Limpopo to call his base — Ramaphosa is sort of a corporate celebrity president who knows which fork to use at dinner with the Queen. A well mannered Big Business deployee, a BEE-minted billionaire, he now heads up a pluto-kleptocracy that is the hallmark of the illiberal democracies emerging across the planet.

As the past year-and-a-half has made clear, his reboot is meant to result in a technocratic government with a self-imposed “austerity” mandate. His people reckon that the best way to get things done is with a fully empowered executive that renders sustainable the patronage network that Zuma solidified around Cabinet appointments.

Government becomes a panopticon, where the all-seeing presidential eye surveys the “four key sectors” that will “move South Africa forward”. These are, in no particular order, public administration, socio-economic development, redistribution, and private sector economic stimulation. The top-down focus will, we are told, result in a de facto Super Presidency, transforming the Union Buildings into a centre of government from where policy and implementation are driven, as Ferial Haffajee put it in these pages.

This will not be regarded as a stroke of genius when DD Mabuza becomes president, I can assure you.

Meanwhile, the recent late-night Cabinet announcement — the unwelcome revival of an old Zuma dance move — was billed as a new era of small(er), lean(er) government. Instead, it turned out to be an exasperating feat of internal ANC realpolitik.

Exhibit A: Zuma henchman and shyster-spook David Mahlobo installed as deputy minister in the vital Water and Sanitation ministry. The bar is so low — or, rather the bar is visited so often — that the firing of Bathabile Dlamini, unfit to serve even as a Southern Republican religious warlord in second-term Trumpistan, was deemed a wise Ramaphosian move. Youngish and widely admired apparatchik Ronald Lamola was handed the Justice ministry. But this cost the government two deputy ministers, another odd move that meant the previously massively bloated Cabinet was cut by only 10 appointments.

Some other notes: ignoring a sustained campaign against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, Ramaphosa returned his chief lieutenant to his post — one of the few ministerial positions that form an essential link to the Super Presidency. And the aisle-crossing appointment of former Democratic Alliance executive mayor Patricia de Lille as Public Works minister was a cheeky “fuck you” to the official opposition, and a not-so-coy overture to coloured voters. Regardless, these little sinecures are meant to give the party the impression that it gets to keep feasting while giving its critics the impression that the feast has come to an end.

This slash-and-burn approach — however chimerical — is a delicate dance. On one hand, it requires reducing the size of government and the state-owned enterprises it oversees, and on the other restoring the rule of law. But the law is a fungible commodity in any country.

Let’s take ingrate renter of the Public Protector’s office space, a bad boxed wine hangover from the Zuma years. As I hope my previous sentence makes clear, Busisiwe Mkhwebane is bad at her job — catastrophically so — but she’s the useful kind of useless. As she runs interference for the ANC Youth League in exile — AKA high priest rentlords Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu — and as she ignores many urgent cases in favour of concentrating on Ramaphosa lieutenant Pravin Gordhan, Mkhwebane is destabilising the ground on which the new government is trying to establish a functional legal framework. She has now escalated this fight — playing the spoiler role that Zuma assigned to her. Allegedly.

How can all of this factional insanity exist in one party? It can’t. Someone has to lose. Back in the early 1990s, a cadre like Ramaphosa, outfoxed by Thabo Mbeki, could leave politics and get rich, travel the world, buy some buffalos. That can’t happen any more. Because Zuma fucked up the country so perfectly, and because the ANC is the only portal to comfort for millions of South Africans, politics has devolved into a zero-sum game. There is nowhere for secretary-general Ace Magashule to go, nowhere for Deputy President DD Mabuza to go, nowhere for Jacob Zuma to go — they have to win, or they die either in jail or penury. There is nothing else but the ANC.

Give me Austerity, but not yet!

Whatever the Ramaphosa spin-doctors end up calling their attempts to balance this mess, the combo of corruption clean-up and austerity tends to drive a large stake into the eyeball of the patronage monster — not enough to kill it, but certainly enough to piss it off. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, who prayed “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”, Ramaphosa’s camp demands austerity, but not right at this moment, thank you very much.

Regardless, this strategy means war with at least half of their comrades, if not more, and that’s only at a national level. As for provincial and municipal structures, through a mixture of hubris and naiveté Team Ramaphosa has failed to build significant — dare I say, any — support outside of Gauteng.

Chopping corruption at regional and local levels requires bringing provincial law enforcement and prosecuting authorities into the Ramaphosa camp, a near impossibility in the medium term. It means nothing short of a nuclear holocaust perpetrated against capos and dons like Mabuza and Magashule, who happily built centres of power in their forgotten provincial redoubts. Their successors will not welcome the intrusion of alien forces from the distant capitals.

This has very quickly resulted in a national government with its own distinct power centre, divorced all but entirely from the party that bore its members to power, and yet linked emphatically to that party for its legitimacy: a technocratic core in a factional maelstrom. This, needless to say, is unsustainable. But we must also ask ourselves whether the Ramaphorians are competent technocrats.

Much faith has been placed in the Public Enterprises ministry, run by God/Devil Pravin Gordhan. But the recent resignations of Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe and SAA chief executive Vuyani Jarana, both within the past month, hints tantalisingly at the fact that government doesn’t really know what it’s doing. (Prasa and Transnet, both un-saveable, are also without CEOs).

Tito Mboweni’s Finance ministry has been openly hostile to further bailouts for the 737 Max of airlines, one that basically exists to shuttle ministers and their flunkies around the world in business class. The minister’s pugnacity, if not his cooking skills, means that “turnaround strategies” — code for “big loans guaranteed by the SA taxpayer” — can’t be implemented. SAA, it seems, is being forced into administration. All of this widens the gulf between high-end CEOs and the Public Enterprises ministry, a situation ripe for exploitation by those who preach that black Africans are being squeezed out of state-run institutions by a Gordhan-led Indian cabal.

As a majoritarian entity, the ANC has been remarkably successful. As a totalitarian outfit, it has proved near-perfect. But its internal and external incoherence are leading it to the part where technocrats run into a wall, and the populists take over. Soon, bagmen like DD Mabuza will exert their influence, and the ructions will grow bigger and bigger. The unstoppable rise of Julius Malema will, um, not stop. The demons that lurk in any democracy — the shame and pain and hurt of historical indignities — will demand to be salved.

Like all party men, Ramaphosa believes that consensus is possible until the moment he gazes up and sees the glint of the guillotine. The Zen koan goes something like this: the ANC must remain intact while SOEs remain nationalised as well as privatised, the size and cost of government must be reduced without any reduction in cost and size, while corruption must be eliminated by the very same people perpetrating corruption.

And I want a moon-base full of cocaine. And supermodels.

Simone Weil believed that fealty to a political party “established mendacity at the very centre of [the] soul. For this, [the] punishment is inner darkness.” The problem is that it also results in outer darkness — country after country has lost its way, subjugated by a political elite that places the endless growth of party over the health and welfare of the state. We should call this what it is — quantity easing. DM

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