Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 10 December 2015

Nene’s axing: We can still avoid going over the edge

We’ve all seen the action movie where the bus slams through the bridge railing and is left teetering precariously over a deep ravine. The smallest movement could send it crashing to the rocks below. The last thing you want in this situation is an unnecessary move. Everyone stays right where they are, and you think very carefully about how you can ease the vehicle back from the edge.

The SA economy is that bus, and we’ve been rocking dangerously back and forth for a while now. Many have predicted that the crash is inevitable and are either looking for ways to jump off or are simply bracing for impact.

Others believe that if we all do the right thing in unison – if we all shift our weight together in the right direction – our economy and all on board can be saved. I’m one of those people. I firmly believe we can get ourselves back on the road and facing the right direction again.

However, Jacob Zuma is not. He doesn’t care what happens to the economy. He doesn’t care what happens to the people of South Africa. He has turned his back on the credit ratings agencies and is only interested in forging an allegiance with his new best friends, China and Russia.

By firing Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, for no apparent reason other than his refusal to open the Treasury taps to the irresponsible SAA and nuclear projects, President Zuma has made precisely the kind of shift that our perilous situation cannot afford. This is a deliberate and calculated move that places our country in grave danger. It is an impeachable offense, and one in which the ANC is complicit. Whether by impeachment or at the ballot box, Zuma must fall, and fall quickly.

In an otherwise useless cabinet, Minister Nene was a lone voice of reason, arguing for fiscal prudence and taking a stand against both the ill-considered nuclear deal and the continued haemorrhaging of state funds at SAA. Although neither the Presidency nor the ANC offered any explanations for his axing (in fact, the ANC seemed to be as in the dark as the rest of us when the news broke), doing the right thing seemed to be his undoing. President Zuma will not let a responsible, conservative Finance Minister stand in the way of his ambitious and selfish interests.

I’m not going to repeat here the details of our economic prospects following the minister’s axing. You’ll find dozens of sobering articles and editorials written over the past two days speculating on the possible impact on our currency value, our inflation rate, our credit rating, interest rate hikes and tax hikes. How alarmist or conservative these predictions are is impossible to say as we are in completely uncharted territory here.

I’m also not going to spend time discussing the unsuitability of David van Rooyen as new Finance Minister. There are plenty of reports you can read about his disastrous stint as Mayor of Merafong Municipality and his baffling rise via the ANC back benches to become the head of the most powerful Ministry in our government.

But I would like to make two points. The first is that this move by President Zuma is going to be absolutely devastating for millions of South Africa’s poorest – the unemployed, the indigent, the elderly, those already excluded from the economy and who face a daily struggle just to survive. And the second point is that the only possible solution to this situation will have to come from ordinary South Africans by exercising their democratic right to fire a leader who threatens their future.

There is often a disconnect between the decisions a government makes – particularly when it comes to the economy – and the lived experience of ordinary citizens. Abstract concepts like trade, investment, credit ratings and debt don’t feature in their lives, and it is hard to see the link between government actions and living conditions. Mostly, this suits a reckless or incompetent government very well, as their poor economic decisions aren’t punished at the polls.

Instead of campaigning on the back of sound policy that stimulates growth and jobs, such a reckless government will rather bank on the dependence of the poor on the state’s social safety net – grants and pensions. This is dangled as a carrot – a “gift” from the government – in return for continued support. The state’s constitutional obligation towards its most vulnerable citizens is turned into a branded, taxpayer-funded election campaign for the ruling party.

In a country like South Africa, with its high levels of poverty and unemployment, these vulnerable citizens form a massive voting bloc. And the false narrative that the ANC gifts them their grants and pensions is a powerful motivator to remain loyal. But what they don’t realise is that this very safety net is placed in grave jeopardy by President Zuma’s callous actions. By sending our currency into free-fall, by risking further ratings downgrades, by chasing off investment and by racking up an unpayable national debt, President Zuma is gambling with the state’s ability to afford its social welfare programme. The implications for those on the breadline are dire.

Of course, the other way the poor will suffer far more than anyone else is through their spending patterns. Proportionally, they spend a far bigger chunk of their income on food and transport than the middle class. And when our plummeting Rand has to start paying for imported maize (remember, we’re in the grip of a devastating drought) and fuel, the inflation in these two sectors will push millions more into grim poverty.

This is the reality of President Zuma’s selfish power game. When he fires the one Minister who advocates restraint and replaces him with a pliable lackey who will give him unfettered access to the Treasury, the world is going to react with scepticism and suspicion. It is clear this has already happened, and the likely result for our poorest citizens will be catastrophic.

My second point is that there is still time to turn this mess around. But this is not going to come from within the controlling faction of the ruling party – the ANC has been well and truly captured by Zuma Inc. And there is little any of the opposition parties can do on their own. This can only be done by the collective will of millions of South Africans who care enough about the survival of our democracy to stand up to the wrecking ball that is Jacob Zuma.

And here I include the good people within the ANC. There are many of you who think you cannot stand up to what appears to be an all-powerful Zuma faction. But you are wrong. You are plenty and you are powerful. Now is the time to take a stand in defence of our country and its people. If you don’t do this soon, there may not be anything left to defend. I know it’s asking a lot to turn your back on the ANC, but you are being used by Jacob Zuma to legitimise his plunder. Come and speak to the DA about what needs to be done to fix South Africa. You will find you have far more in common with us than you think, once you get past all the party-political posturing.

Our only hope is for enough ANC voters and ANC members to look past what they have been told about the DA – to see the spin and the stereotyping and the propaganda for what it is – and to realise that we all want the same thing for our country. We all want a country that belongs to everyone in it. We all want a country where the economy, resources, land and opportunities are truly shared.

I have said many times before that the DA doesn’t expect unconditional and unlimited loyalty from anyone. All we ask is for one chance to prove that we are who we say we are. One chance to prove that we are nothing like the ANC government, and also that we are nothing like they make us out to be.

If we then somehow let you down, then fire us at the next election. But at least give us that chance. And do so in six months’ time at the 2016 Local Government Elections. Standing together against an unjust and destructive government is surely a better course of action than wringing our hands in despair and predicting our doom. DM

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