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Ratings agencies will downgrade us if Zuma does not protect institutions


John Matisonn is a former senior United Nations elections official, Independent Broadcasting Authority councillor, and long-time political and foreign correspondent. He is the author of Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform; and God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past.

Don’t be fooled by the Hawks’ assurances that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is safe. Its statement has wide enough loopholes to drive a blue light motorcade through it. He is safe “at this stage” means nothing in a different time, and the time line of the ANC ends August 3, local government election day.

South Africa’s legacy institutions face a pincer movement – attacked by President Zuma from the top, and by demoralised youth from below. Zuma is undermining institutions of justice, government departments and state-owned enterprises, while jobless youngsters are burning universities and schools, and their politicians continue making Parliament a circus. The ratings agencies are watching and will judge whether we have the leadership to stop the madness.

In fact, between the accountant-speak of the ratings agencies reports on South Africa is a clear warning: if our institutions are undermined, we can wave goodbye to ratings security, and say hello to junk. The cost of our debt will then go up, making everyone poorer.

Moody’s ratings agency has kept South Africa one notch above junk, albeit with a negative outlook. The other two agencies, S & P and Fitch, will announce their decisions next month. While President Zuma declared Moody’s decision a sign that government’s engagement with business was turning the corner, Moody’s actual statement provides a much wider warning.

In Moody’s opinion, the constitutional court judgment against the president over the misuse of public funds and the Parliament for rejecting the ruling of the public protector and, more recently, the High Court ruling to reinstate corruption-related charges against the president … attest to … renewed attentiveness to bringing corruption out into the open and maintaining the rule of law.”

If weekend reports are correct, that the National Prosecuting Authority will announce today (Monday) that it will appeal High Court decision calling for the 783 charges against Zuma to be reinstated, that will be another kick for touch. It will probably push a decision beyond August 3.

Ratings agencies do not want to be seen to be driving a nail into the coffin of the rainbow nation. But they are telling the government how and why they will do it for themselves. Moody’s gave us the benefit of the doubt. Or a long enough rope to hang ourselves. Moody’s said its “litmus test” will be the local government elections on August 3 and their consequences.

All three of the largest political parties see the August vote as a game-changer. But how the governing party will be affected is hard to predict. Whatever the ANC’s losses, a battle is coming that may be the last chance for Cyril Ramaphosa to force the issue and come out on top.

Those who want Zuma out will argue that the ANC cannot afford more setbacks. But they may be the most weakened. Gauteng is most hostile to Zuma, but it was forced to temper its criticism last week. The ANC under Zuma becomes more rural, less an urban party every day. Johannesburg may be the economic powerhouse, but its political clout continues to decline.

The ANC faces a bloody nose in the cities, whether it’s as bad as it deserves or not. Early polling suggests at least one will go. In any event, a drop in votes in the metros will see losses in patronage jobs – council seats, municipal jobs. The ANC will become ever more rural. Its 100-year history of (mostly) quality, modern intellectual leadership will fritter away into rural and traditional domination. It hopes to keep the opposition at bay by allowing them only cities, where the hub of the economy may lie, but not the majority they need to govern.

The Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane doubled down on his attack this weekend, demanding social grants be doubled. While fiscally highly risky, its political benefit is to break the spell cast by the ANC on poor voters, warning that the social grant will be lost under any but its benign leadership. And the Economic Freedom Fighters are determined to set the highest benchmark in their first municipal test.

Yet for the first time since 1994 South Africa’s election machinery is being questioned. Changes in the Independent Electoral Commission show the president’s influence for the first time, and the EFF is likely to dispute its integrity where results look questionable to them.

Right now Zuma seems to have regained the upper hand in his battle with Gordhan and others trying to keep South Africa straight. Like Robert Mugabe, he can get stronger in his party while the country gets weaker. Only a patriot would know that should be the real litmus test.

Meanwhile, institutions around the country are under threat. R100-million in damage at the University of Johannesburg, R400-million in lost schools in Limpopo. An average of 14,000 service delivery or related protests a year.

In a further negative sign for institutions, Free State University vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen resigned his dream job to become a research fellow in California. The country is falling apart through lack of leadership. There is no unifying vision from the top, no sense of a direction we can follow. Institutions are under threat, and so are parts of the state. These are the Zuma government’s inheritance. It had the chance – and responsibility – to build them and transform them to serve the whole country.

Lest any claim constructive solutions were not offered when they were needed, the ANC has a path back to legitimacy. It can replace Baleka Mbete as Speaker with her predecessor, the trusted Max Sisulu. Mbete’s two hats, as Speaker and ANC chairwoman, serve fundamentally conflicting mandates, and the opposition will never forget it. Sisulu, on the other hand, would have broad support for sensible disciplinary measures in the National Assembly.

A president who cared about his school children’s education would have had Jansen on the phone in minutes. If there is anything useful about that damned jet he is buying, it would be to fly Jansen to the Union Buildings to find a role that would keep him in South African education, where he belongs. DM

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future though its past, and host of CTV’s Between the Lines, starting Thursday June 2 at 21:00, DSTV channel 263.


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