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Age of Uncertainty, 2016: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique… and the US


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.

Tighten your seatbelts for a bumpy second half of 2016. It’s going to be a rough ride. Donald Trump’s new polling data level-pegging with Hillary Clinton this weekend underlines how insecure the global superpower is.

That a selfish narcissistic populist without carefully considered policies is within sound bite distance of the White House is cause for alarm, even though polls this early are a weak indicator of the likely outcome.

Before then, our own selfish, narcissistic populist, Jacob Zuma, takes his alliance into elections on August 3. The outcome is equally uncertain, as are the consequences. Does the weakening of Zuma in the cities make him even stronger inside his rural base in the ANC? This is the democracy we dreamed of.

For the moment, Zuma the strategist has brought the dissident Gauteng party into line, even if it costs the Gauteng ANC support at the polls. Johannesburg and environs do not like what he is doing to them. Travelling around Johannesburg with a series of taxi drivers last week, each had stories about the blue-light motorcades outside the Gupta estate. Denials of their influence are widely derided.

Zuma is not being idle. As he shores up the politics of his party, and government investigators keep Pravin Gordhan and the Treasury on edge, his executive is shifting control of the money away from the metros to the national level, according to government sources. In case he carelessly loses a metro or two, the new mayors will find it harder to control their budgets than at present.

Our government should be focused on rising regional difficulties. Zimbabwe’s currency crisis of a decade ago is back to haunt us. Taking the country off the Zim dollar and putting it on the US dollar was a short-term stabiliser, not a long-term fix.

Zimbabwe’s problem, being pegged to the American economy, is the same as Greece’s problem pegged to the euro. Both Zimbabwe and Greece have lost their sovereignty – they cannot control the currency in which their own economy operates. Worse, they are pegged to a currency controlled by far stronger economies, and the weakness of Zimbabwe – or Greece – is made worse.

To understand Zimbabwe’s problem in context: Mozambique’s currency, the metical, has fallen 18% against the US dollar this year, and 32% last year. Meanwhile, neighbouring Zimbabwe is run on the rising US dollar. How can Zimbabwe sell to Mozambique without losses? This regional mismatch is untenable.

Mozambique for a time was regarded as the poster child for growth in Africa, logging 14% for several years. Now, it needs money from the IMF. But isn’t there some history here that we should remember? Did we not put up a spirited fight from the 1990s for those highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs) such as Mozambique? Did President Mbeki not argue that this was unfair – they had been embroiled in debt, which had to be forgiven so they could get it right this time?

Under the HIPC initiative Mozambique qualified for $4.3-billion in debt relief, bringing debt down to a manageable $750-million.

What happened? Simple: Mozambique went to the IMF this year cap in hand. However, it had a problem – the government, under pressure, had to admit how much debt it was in, and it lied: Mozambique concealed $1.4-billion of debt. The holders of the debt are not amused.

All of this comes at a time of low commodity prices, though they have risen off their lowest. But two economies of real importance to us, Angola and Nigeria, have been laid low by a year with oil below $50 a barrel. The happy days above 100 are past.

What about the BRICS? Well, Brazil, whose president is under impeachment, is in recession. So is Russia. We in South Africa are clinging to nonrecession status by our fingernails, with forecasts running between 0.4 and 0.8% growth, less than population. India looks best, and China may be surviving its economic restructuring better than expected.

But what are we doing to restore ourselves, as parts of the country head towards ungovernability?

Talking to well-intentioned civil servants is not encouraging. While Pravin Gordhan and his Treasury officials strive valiantly to keep us on track, other ministries take a shorter-term view. They are well aware there will be setbacks on August 3, though whether metros will be lost is still unclear. Opposition parties, including the Economic Freedom Front, will gain power in some small towns. They will find the Division of Revenue Act (Dora) is working less in their favour than in the past. Control is being centralised at national level as I write.

The American election of 2016 will redefine American politics for the party. Principled conservatives, lifelong Republicans, are vowing publicly to oppose Republican nominee Trump in every way they can. Major columnists, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, and several Republican former governors will vote against him, stand against him, and campaign against him.

At home, the ANC will drift further from what it was. A party inaugurated by urban, degreed sophisticates and modernisers, engaged in all the debates on local and international trends, will look further and further backward, to limit the power of cities, as the Nationalist government did before it.

Will a phoenix arise from the ashes of what the ANC once was? How long will it take – a generation?

August 3 and November 4 are days we will remember.

Two months ago I saw one of the grand old men of the Democratic Party, the 90-year-old Newt Minnow, who hired a young lawyer called Barak Obama into his Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin, and had the young Michelle Robinson mentor him in the ways of the law. Minnow told me Trump would become the nominee and would break up the Republican Party.

This weekend two former Republican governors won nomination for the Libertarian Party, setting the stage for a possible Republican spoiler ticket that might take enough votes from Trump for Clinton to win.

Usually, the Libertarians make little headway, but they hope this time disenchanted Republican funders will turn their cheques over to Gary Johnson, former Republican governor of New Mexico, with former Massachusetts Republican governor Bill Weld.

This would enable them to run a serious ad campaign and compete for enough support in opinion polls so he can be on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton. With diehard Republicans, including George HW Bush, George W Bush, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, staying away from the Republican convention, the odds still favour Hillary Clinton, but she remains a clumsy campaigner against Trump’s ruthless instinct for the jugular. Pass the tranquilisers. DM

John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of BETWEEN THE LINES, on CTV and DSTV channel 263, Thursdays at 9pm.


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