You know that Eno feeling? When the fizz literally does its thing, emitting bubbles, aroma, a bit of puff and all that jazz.
Bonang Mohale, until recently the head honcho of the Business Leadership South Africa, is one hell of a speaker. He literally has the Eno effect: a totally effervescent nature which was evident at the Wits Business School recently where he talked about the role of business in our democracy.
Many in business, civil society and the media love punching their chests about their role in booting out Jacob Zuma out of the Union Buildings. Mohale is one of the proponents of that organised business gospel that barked hard when Zuma went rogue, and even fired then finance minister Pravin Gordhan after instructing him to abort a London roadshow.
Business is justified in crowing about its activism against the rise of corruption and economic mismanagement under Zuma. Critics, however, will argue that business jumped onto the bandwagon only when Zuma directly threatened their interests.
For example, business got aggressive around December 2015 when Zuma did what we thought was unthinkable. He did the political equivalent of running amok, firing then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and replacing him with the short guy — Des Van Rooyen – an unknown entity in both financial market circles and national politics.
Many in business then used that moment to draw a line in the sand: up to here and no further, effectively forcing a wounded Zuma to remove his Van R within four days and bring Pravin Gordhan to the finance portfolio. From that moment, business ratcheted up its voice, although their squeal did not bother the Prince of Nkandla much, as he repeated the deed in March 2018, booting Gordhan from the Treasury.
Looking back now, from the promised land of Cyril Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn”, business can say confidently it took a stand. That’s fine.
But it would not have been necessary for business to take a stand then had it taken heed of many warning signs in the early Zuma years. For example, one of their own, Reuel Khoza, sounded warning bells way early.
“SA is widely recognised for its liberal and enlightened constitution, yet we observe the emergence of a strange breed of leaders who are determined to undermine the rule of law and override the Constitution,” Khoza, then Nedbank chair, wrote in his chairman’s letter following the release of the bank’s 2011 financial results.
“Our political leadership’s moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past.”
He was lynched by the likes of Gwede Mantashe, then secretary-general of the ANC. Mantashe stopped short of calling Khoza a lousy businessman, literally playing the man and never the ball, questioning the value he brought to the finance house. Business was frightened after Mantashe’s groan and tails were tucked between the legs. The ANC went on to silence another bank — First Rand — over an advert that implied Angie Motshekga — the 30% pass mark minister — was a fool. It did not stop there. The ANC even went to Absa to inquire about the suspension of the Gupta bank accounts. How idiotic. Those were the happy “Zumantashe” days, where normally reasonable people were hypnotised into Zombie-like creatures that used logic, political consciousnesses and morality were like make up, used when convenient, if at all.
Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke fired a warning back in 2008, making a career-limiting move of criticising the outcome of the ANC’s “Polokwane” elections a year earlier. “I chose this job very carefully. I have another 10 to 12 years on the bench and I want to use my energy to help create an equal society. It’s not what the ANC wants or what the delegates want; it is about what is good for our people.” That earned him the wrath of the ANC, and his career quickly faced a rather abrupt cul de sac. When Zuma had to choose a Chief Justice, he looked around. It was a case of anyone but Moseneke.
Years later, not many people were able to link the eventuality of the Zuma disaster with their complicity through their own silence and cowardice in the early years. The reality is that business was largely very happy to sing along, attend all the pomp and ceremony of a “people’s president”. They foolishly celebrated the dawn of a “consultative and approachable” presidency instead of a stubborn philosopher in the form of Thabo Mbeki.
As Ramaphosa’s dream of a New Dawn is about to take off or fail, business is very chuffed with itself. In the words of Mohale, Ramaphosa’s is a “business friendly” Cabinet. And that may be true. But you have to ask if business’s concern is only its own benefits from this era, and not the social instability that is created when only business is happy. Bankers, for example, stand to benefit the most from the management of our public debt crisis and the correction of the mess that is our state-owned companies. That will be the case even if the New Dawn project itself fails.
While men in pointy shoes and shiny, tailored suits will smile all the way to the bank, the ordinary man will suffer for generations to come. South Africa is facing a powder keg, and a situation where there will only be a few winners, if any. Social and economic stability is threatened through dysfunctional politic and It does not matter how much the Ramaphosa Presidency represents the aspirations of the captains of industry.
The debate about the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank is one example. Ramaphosa’s power is totally borrowed. This is shown by the razor-thin margin by which he won at “Nasrec”, an event that forced him to share the grip with the likes of Ace Magashule, the secretary-general who is on the populist side of the boerewors curtain, to put it mildly. As a result, the captain of the New Dawn has to wait until his second term probably before he can institute meaningful reforms. He is like a smitten boy who cannot make a move on their crush, and as a result gets friendzoned by all potential liaisons. For example, David Mabuza and Paul Mashatile have quarantined the president in a proper friend-zone, where Ramaphosa gets zilch out of the triangle, besides a veneer of control.
This situation of a policy direction deadlock is not about to improve, and it might get worse, as the party at sub-national level still resembles the stalemate that created the RamaGashule phenomenon: a case where every positive statement is negated by one equally controversial response, all from the same party. It’s like conjoined twins who don’t share the same DNA and brain cell particles, but are tied together through a biological accident. Business, naively, chooses to celebrate its place at the trough, and is too blind to see the need to be champions of a system that will create lasting equality and prosperity.
With so many people in suits cheering, Ramaphosa simply has no incentive to extricate himself from the ANCs well-established ruinous economic management style. He will not do anything drastic for as long as he has praise singers in dark suits every-time he turns to business for support. He will rush to G20 meetings before sorting out the South African Reserve Bank succession quandary, represented by the two vacancies at Deputy Governor level, plus the question of whether Lesetja Kganyago will get another term. This is more important than the market’s nervousness about Magashule’s take on economics. It’s pretty obvious he has to appoint Kganyago, not just for the sake of stability, but the skills drain at the top makes it unwise to rock the boat. Why delay the goddamn announcement? Is he waiting to consult Magashule, Mantashe, Jessie Duarte, or the so-called communists on this?
The risk is that South Africa will stay in the junk basket much longer than it should, and there will be many threats to business interests. Once again, our champions of industry will grow some guts only once the train leaves the station and threats to their interests are more pronounced. In the meantime, Absa will keep bailing out Denel every time it can’t pay salaries. And more banks will be blackmailed into funding more state-owned enterprises, from the SABC to SAA. And the government will not release the terms of the loans, because they do not exist. It’s a one-way relationship where business gives and the government takes, and in dark corners. Business remains just a booty call in this set-up. Ramaphosa is not even the man they are sleeping with, as he is just a stand-in for Mabuza and Mashatile — the guys who created the Nasrec moment, with the help of the likes of Mantashe. Trust their rationality or intentions at your own peril. DM
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