Opinionista Helen Zille 13 February 2017

From the Inside: Zuma’s Alternative Facts for the Alt-Left

President Jacob Zuma’s SONA 2017 served a clear agenda – and it wasn’t South Africa’s.

Jacob Zuma often says there is a good story to tell about South Africa. So why doesn’t he tell it? Especially in his “State of the Nation” Address (SONA), the ideal platform for the president to “talk up” his country, and take the credit.

Instead our president’s core message was: South Africa has done so badly over the past 22 years that the ANC must now intensify efforts to slay the dragon that is blocking the country’s progress.

He gave the “enemy” a generic name – “white, monopoly capital” – in order to press the obligatory ideological and emotive buttons, without producing any evidence for his thesis.

And he promised that the state would defeat the evil enemy through “legislation, regulations, licensing, budget and procurement as well as Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Charters to influence the behaviour of the private sector”.

This is a precis of President Zuma’s tenth SONA, backed by a litany of “alternative facts” woven together in a chilling narrative. The speech served a clear agenda – and it wasn’t South Africa’s.

Of course, our country has problems (that could even be described as a crisis): a stagnant economy, growing unemployment, and a pitifully weak education and skills pipeline, incapable of preparing most young people for jobs.

We all expected the president to focus on this. But he wasn’t addressing South Africa’s problems. He was trying to solve his own.

In a year when the ANC is scheduled to elect a new party president, the “crisis” on Jacob Zuma’s mind is the risk of his inner circle losing power, and of ending up in jail himself. That is the lens through which to understand his otherwise incomprehensible speech.

He had to paint a picture of a country needing to be rescued from the enemy within; and offering himself as the hero at the helm of the State, mobilising his Superman powers against the kryptonite of racial capitalism.

In reality, what we saw was an ageing Don Quixote riding the weary old horse of power concentration to attack a windmill he pretends is a dragon. His real goal, of course, is to extend and enrich his patronage network, who will, in turn, cover his back in the ANC’s succession battle.

Most rational observers can now see through the fig-leaf Zuma calls Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, which is in reality a flimsy cover for bribe-based black elite enrichment.

Fortuitously, on the very day Zuma chose to extol the virtues of greater state control of the economy (for the benefit of the poor, of course), the Financial Mail published a breathtaking exposé of how the Zuma network had used the State’s electricity generation-and-distribution monopoly to enrich the Zupta circle, while fleecing the poor.

When all the intermediaries had been inserted in Eskom’s supply chain (to meet BBBEE targets, of course), the state monopoly was paying R13.4-million (plus VAT) for coal worth just R4.2-million. Then Eskom blamed growing demand and the cost of coal for the tariff hikes.

This is a classic example of “alternative facts”. The real facts were that electricity demand was stagnant, and coal prices had fallen by almost 50%. In other words, electricity prices soared when they should have been dropping.

In the real world, where facts matter, the market was busy solving the electricity crisis caused by Eskom’s monopoly on coal-generated power. Before long a “green energy” economy was booming, and undercutting Eskom’s prices. South Africa is now the world’s fastest growing green economy. So, it is unsurprising that Zuptanomics now requires “legislation, regulations, licensing, budget, procurement and BBBEE” interventions to prevent the growth of the green economy because its success would make Eskom’s lucrative Zupta monopoly entirely redundant.

The SONA also fell in the week of the international Mining Indaba (based in Cape Town) – and just as news broke that the amended Mineral Resources and Petroleum Development Amendment Bill will limit any future mining permits to majority black-owned South African companies.

This offers endless enrichment opportunities for the Zupta network. As they use the state to pursue their interests, the result will be that South Africa will lose out again on the opportunities created by rising commodity prices. Quotas will ensure that investors stay away, that other countries benefit from an upsurge in the mining industry and that more South African miners lose their jobs.

Not content with the destruction of the mining industry, Zuma’s SONA also addressed agriculture, heralding a switch to expropriation rather than the willing-buyer-willing-seller approach to achieve transformation in land ownership patterns.

He justified this by asserting that only 9.8% of South Africa’s arable land had been transferred to black people, leaving the impression that 90.2% of the land must therefore still be owned by whites. If that were true, it would mean that the situation had deteriorated in the past 22 years, with the current situation worse than apartheid, when just over 13% of the land was in black hands.

But what are the (real) facts?

Political analyst and editor of Politicsweb, James Myburgh, has published an instructive series of articles quantifying the amount of South African land “in black hands”. In particular he focuses on the land that really matters – our most fertile farmland, along the eastern coastline of the country. On the basis of the government’s own statistics, Myburgh concludes that “the ANC has redistributed or restituted an area equivalent to 35.3% of the commercial farmland in KwaZulu-Natal…31.9% in Mpumalanga, 23.9% in Limpopo and 14.5% in the North West”.

Then he adds land from which black people have never been dispossessed (the former homelands) as well as state-owned land, and concludes that “land in black hands” amounts to over 40% in the Eastern Cape, close to 50% in North West, some 60% of Mpumalanga, about two-thirds of Limpopo and around 70% of KwaZulu-Natal. What’s more, these figures do not even include land purchased on the open market by individual black South Africans since 1991, or land owned by companies in which black South Africans are shareholders.

And the amount of restituted land would be much higher still if 90% of successful land claimants had not opted for cash compensation instead of the land they had claimed.

This, of course, paints a very different picture from the President’s SONA dirge. Why did he choose to claim failure when he could have trumpeted significant success and claimed credit for it?

The answer is that the facts do not suit his strategy, which requires a rapid escalation in the type of land reform so prominently reported in yesterday’s Sunday Times.

This allegedly involved political facilitation to enable a Luthuli House comrade to circumvent the formal land claims process to claim a R97-million farm in Limpopo, where farm production is reported to have subsequently collapsed.

I could quote many other examples, such as Zuma’s “alternative facts” on the ownership of shares on the Johannesburg stock exchange, but I have made the point.

Which, to summarise, is this: Jacob Zuma is painting a dismal picture in order to vilify the private sector, and set himself up as the country’s saviour. This narrative enables him to deflect attention from South Africa’s real problem, which is an incapable state.

I, for one, am sick and tired of our country being sold short and embarrassed as we were on Thursday night. Despite our enormous problems, South Africa has an increasingly positive story to tell. It is a story of progress, strongly supported by the people Jacob Zuma seeks to vilify. DM



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