Long before any of us had ever heard the word Nkandla, then Deputy President Jacob Zuma was in yet another briefing with government economists in the early 2000s as they set out their plans for the economy. Perhaps his frustration was understandable. But it was his understanding of how economic policy works that is revealing. If we are to turn South Africa around, we need to know how this president thinks about economics.
Because he educated himself on Robben Island, painstakingly helped to read and write by then Pan Africanist and now Constitutional Court Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, briefers know not to rely on lengthy documents to persuade him. He has said as much himself.
Don’t give me these convoluted presentations for building the economy, he complained. He had another way to understand the policy prescriptions. “Give me,” he told ministers in the economic cluster, “give me Nkandla economics.”
It is not certain what he meant. What he appeared to mean was build a building, something you can see and feel. Perhaps it’s a house. Then build more. That is a start. Then you build a road to it, a shop, other services, until you have something substantial. People work there. They earn money. Something is happening that was not there before.
His State of the Nation address revealed the same thinking. Under pressure to do things that sound contradictory, cut spending and make the economy bigger, he had a solution. He would cut spending on travel by ministers, MPs and their entourages by moving the legislature from Cape Town to Pretoria.
The ANC has investigated this before, and found little economic advantage. Huge spending would take place on new building. A new Parliament, new parliamentary villages, new staffing. A new micro-economy would emerge at the site. Nkandlanomics!
But the savings in travel costs would take decades to offset the costs of purchasing land, hiring architects, constructing edifices befitting their national purpose, and hiring and training staff. The productive economy would not benefit materially. The disruption to government would be huge.
At best, moving Parliament from Cape Town to Pretoria or Midrand or Johannesburg would, in time, put a small dent in government inefficiency and the travel budget. A poor return for the effort, but plenty of juicy tenders to solicit.
What else do we know about the president’s views on governance? We know he likes frequent Cabinet reshuffles. We know explanations for these changes are rare, and when forthcoming do not illuminate. “Redeployment” is used as if it’s an explanation, when actually it’s just a route. Under pressure to explain why he removed Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene after 9/12, he said he was needed at the BRICS bank. That need was not urgent. Indeed, three months later Nene is still waiting.
More important, the compelling reason was that Nene was desperately needed for a job far less critical than the one he vacated.
So when Stone Sizani stopped being ANC Chief Whip this week “with immediate effect” so he could take up the job of Ambassador in Berlin, a job which requires several months of training, scepticism was inevitable. His urgent redeployment left his more important job, Chief Whip of the governing party, in the hands of a temporary appointment. In this context, reports that his changeover was caused by political fallout in Parliament is more credible.
Three finance ministers in five days broke a previous record of five communications ministers in five years. Anyone in government, any government-watcher, knows this disrupts work, costs efficiency, good decision-making and jobs. On the continent it’s associated with the Big Man syndrome. It’s a way to keep rivals off balance, to prevent a challenge to the president, no matter how necessary.
Moving Parliament is more Nkandlanomics, and Nkandlanomics has brought more corruption than even Zuma’s critics thought possible. We have to ask: does the president think about corruption the way the Constitution does? If you see growth as a matter of building things, and helping your nearest and dearest to build things next to your things, then there is no clear line between that kind of “economics” and corruption.
Creating jobs and transforming the economy are the key challenges since the end of democracy. It’s a challenge largely unmet. It has been only patchily attacked. There have been successes, such as in car manufacturing, the growth of radio, television, the music industry and filmmaking. But for every success there have been failures such as the arms deal’s multibillion rand offset programme and the damaging telecommunications mistakes.
If the government had faced up to the evidence and debated its failures publicly, progress would have been possible. Instead the messengers were removed, no matter what they could offer.
The highly trained economist Andrew Feinstein had to go because he had studied the international academic literature on arms offsets. Nape Maepa, an American-trained South African engineer heading the South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (SATRA), was heaved aside. His successor as chair of the reconstituted Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), Mandla Langa, was made unwelcome.
There is a common thread: a failure to look at evidence, to respect expertise and value integrity. Instead red herrings are used to undermine the best of us by confusing the public, until we can’t tell the honest and competent from the crooks and the self-serving.
Who is next? The Treasury and the South African Revenue Service (SARS) face the current firing line. If they go, who is safe? Certainly not South Africa. DM
John Matisonn is the author of God, Spies and Lies — Finding South Africa’s future through its past.