Danger: mind-broadening ahead
25 April 2017 08:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Vukani Mde

Radical economic transformation? Bollocks. It’s a rent extraction opportunity

  • Vukani Mde
    Vukani Mde.jpg
    Vukani Mde

    Vukani Mde is co-founder and consultant at LeftHook Solutions, a Johannesburg-based political risk and comms consultancy. Previously he was the Group Opinion and Analysis Editor at Independent Media, with oversight of opinion/editorial content across the group's print and digital titles. He was previously a senior Political and Policy analyst at africapractice, and SADC editor for Southern Africa Report. He has also worked as political editor for The Weekender, Business Day's Saturday sister publication, and as a political writer at Business Day and This Day.

It is a sign of our rotten luck as a nation that “radical economic transformation” is now being “championed” by the wrong man and for the wrong reasons, driven by nefarious and selfish motives.

Let us freely admit – even in the face of judgement and peer condemnation – that social media isn’t always very useful. In fact it is rarely ever so, a fact attested to by the trolls, fake news sites, intemperate but boring “twars”, bad grammar, cyberbullies, 140-character arguments, stalkers and the abundance of Helen Zille drunk tweets it has introduced to public discourse in the 21st century.

But the one area in which social media has made a (sometimes) positive contribution is the struggle against forgetting. The events of every passing day, no matter how commonplace – mundane even – are dutifully recorded and recalled by at least one of your apps, messaging services, video streamers, or whatever you use. Nothing is lost, the past cannot be outrun.

“You have memories with So-and-So today and five others today”, chimes in Facebook as you open the app, all too often confusing “regrets” with “memories”, or reminding you of the birthdays of individuals you may no longer care for. 

“Would you like to relive this day from 4 years ago?”, asks your Google +. You mean the day four years ago when I weighed a full 16kg less than today? No, I’ll pass thank you.

But every now and again these Big Brother-like programmes we freely choose to keep do end up saving us from embarrassment or even a truckload of hurt. They may keep us from making the same mistakes and remind us of the lies we used to believe. They keep us off well-trodden paths we may tread again, for the fragility of human memory. Sometimes, they may just save us from the tedium of repetition.

And so I sat down this weekend to reflect at leisure and with some measure of calm (at least I thought) on the spectacle and substance of this year’s State of the Nation Address. Just as I thought I had constructed an intro worthy of the piece and the event, Facebook intervened.

“You have memories with Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema, Baleka Mbete, John Steenhuisen and countless White Shirts to look back on today”. And there it was, my words staring back at me exactly one year to the day I had written them: “Zuma is incapable of leading SA”. Posted, according to Facebook, on February 12, 2016.

Zuma is not capable of leading South Africa (or the ANC) is not the most remarkable thing to say. Too many have said and written it before and since, for it to be so. What is remarkable, I thought, was how I nearly repeated – in February 2017 – everything I had written in February 2016, based on pretty much the same evidence, and manifested in pretty much the same way.

Everything from the empty pomp and ceremony ahead of the main act, to the EFF’s “Point of order” playbook, from the DA walkout followed by an indignant court challenge, to the gleeful violence of the Blackshirts…. sorry, the white-shirted parliamentary “ushers” who were there, according to the Speaker, to “assist” the entire EFF caucus out of the chamber (by, among other means, squeezing the nutsacks of the male MPs, because nothing assists a man towards the exit quite like a firm grip of the gonads).

Even the gormless Zuma giggle after the chaos was the same as last year, followed by the same dry, uninspiring reading of words he has no interest to understand, and empty promises he has no intention to keep.

But no, I refuse to repeat what I wrote last year, and thank Facebook for saving us all from that fate. Saying Zuma is unfit to lead so much as a prayer meeting is no longer useful. And it is in any case a fact accepted by all reasonable people. Hardly anyone raised an eyebrow the last time I said it, let alone a word in protest. I suspect that even Zuma himself knows it. He clings on to office not because he thinks there’s still a chance he can prove everyone wrong about him. He holds on because he doesn’t give a shit; and of course he has a lot more to lose if he leaves office than if he holds on (the small personal price of which is the mere loss of dignity, the ritual humiliation of SONA, and the highest  courts in the land finding him to be an incurable scoundrel. Contrast that with the near certainty of prison if he lost control of the machinery of justice, and the calculus is fairly simple).

What we should do instead is engage the substance, such as it was, of Zuma’s speech. Because, to be fair, there was in it at least something somewhat … new-ish. A fresh lie, if you insist on being a cynic. This is the idea that, nearly eight years since taking office and with the country in tatters around him, our compromised president now cares deeply about “radical economic transformation”.

Having become a rallying cry of the ANC since at least 2007, and a regular feature of the party’s disused policy documents, radical economic transformation this year finally reached the big time. It is now a promise from the president to the people. To be sure, this is a president who has had a piss poor record in promise-keeping from day one (“I will serve only one term in office and retire”) but let us cling to the assumption – the hope – that such promises still count for something, and that the men and women who make them have at least the intention to try to honour them.

A few questions immediately come to mind. Perhaps the most obvious is the one we need not necessarily answer right now, because as the cliché goes, only time will tell. It is simply this: how does a political party that over 23 years in office has failed to bring about moderate economic transformation, hope to deliver the radical variety?

Look at every acceptable measure of progress on fundamental economic change, and two things are soon obvious: that first, the ANC’s targets in 1994 were infuriatingly modest, and that second, they have hopelessly failed to meet them.

Let’s look at just some of the matrices of economic change briefly, and marvel at how unsurprising our current economic and political quagmire really is:

  • Land restitution: By far the biggest amount of land is held in state ownership, but South Africa’s most productive and lucrative land is still firmly in the hands of the white minority. The state’s land restitution programme has failed, and the “new”, less market-driven process has been 10 years in the making.
  • Property: Patterns of home- and property ownership are still racially skewed in favour of whites.
  • Share ownership: Black ownership of the accumulated wealth in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is estimated at less than 10% of the total.
  • Employment equity: EE laws have allowed more blacks and women into the workplace, but everywhere outside of the state management is still the preserve of white males.
  • Ownership patterns: Outside of the violent, lawless mess that is the taxi “industry”, no sector of the South African economy is black owned and managed.
  • BBBEE: Black economic empowerment has failed, and its rather modest targets (26% share ownership in mining) have not been taken seriously by established business.
  • Labour legislation: There is little to no enforcement of the protections contained in the Labour Relations Act, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and the other post-1994 labour legislation.
  • Labour and consumer protection: Standards are dismal everywhere you care to look, and South African business still literally gets away with murder in its treatment of workers, consumers and the communities in which it operates.
  • Unemployment and poverty: These are still the lot of the majority of blacks (the jobless rate is 37%, and some 53% of the population regularly experience hunger).
  • Inequality: The median household income for whites is six times higher than the equivalent for Africans. Even in the workplace, racialised income inequality abounds.

The full laundry list of failures that the new “radical” phase of ANC governance is meant to resolve is of course much longer than this, but we don’t need the full list to understand the hopelessness of the task. For that we need only recall the more modest list of interventions that Zuma took to Parliament in 2015. Here again, Facebook was most kind, reminding me that in February of that year I wrote these words: “…even before Zuma had the chance to be disrupted, he had to sit patiently and watch MPs yet again challenge Speaker Baleka Mbete’s heavy-handed exercise of her authority…

“Things degenerated as soon as Zuma started speaking, with first Mbete and then Thandi Modise (Chair of the National Council of Provinces) unable to impose themselves on proceedings and restore order.

“The ejection of the EFF and the walkout staged by the DA and UDM was one of those moments when the ANC’s challenge just crystallised for all to see.

“The immediate challenge on Thursday night was this: after watching those scenes, who exactly is likely to remember what the State of the Nation address was about, and what Zuma had to say about the multiple challenges that beset his government and his country?”

That year, when he eventually managed to speak, Zuma introduced his government’s 9 Point Plan to kick-start economic growth. Two years later, the economy and the country are in a worse state than 2015, and because he relies on us to forget these things, Zuma has moved on and is now selling “radical economic transformation”.

For a clue to where the radical economic transformation train may take us, look to one of the nine points the president unveiled in 2015, and how it has cleverly morphed into a feasting opportunity for the friends, family, handlers and hangers-on whose hands are on the levers of the Zuma presidency and deep inside our pockets.

The plan promised immediate and far-reaching interventions to “resolve South Africa’s energy challenge” and secure our energy needs for the long term. It aimed to end both the immediate crisis (load shedding resulting from high demand and low supply), and to plan for a high growth future by diversifying our energy mix and moving us steadily away from fossil fuel reliance.

So what has happened in the two years since? Well load shedding is thankfully no longer a daily reality, though that has nothing to do with the 9 point plan. It is due mainly to lower demand than more secure supply, as the economy continues its southward trajectory. But it is in the plan’s promise of longer-term energy security that the Zuma crowd has sought to live out the idiom that every crisis is an opportunity. They have used this crisis to force down the country’s throat a quite unaffordable R1-trillion nuclear build programme that economists, energy experts, ruling party policy drafters and the state’s own assessments have all concluded is not necessary. Why? Because R1-trillion is a shitload of money, and a lot of crumbs will fall off that table.

And that, in the final analysis, may be what radical economic transformation amounts to in the hands of the most compromised man in South Africa: a rent extraction opportunity. Remember that Zuma and his cohorts only became concerned with the “untransformed” nature of the financial sector once the accounts of their friends and paymasters at Oakbay were closed down, and not a moment before.

Decades of the banks’ super profits, exorbitant executive pay, red-lining of black townships, extracting the highest banking fees on the planet, excluding millions of blacks from the banking and payments system, lily-white managements and boards, disregard of sector charter targets and countless other regressive practices, were happily tolerated. It is only when they got pesky and unnecessary about such trifles as money laundering and international laws and conventions to combat illicit capital flows that the banks exposed themselves to the urgent need to be “transformed”.

Two years ago I wrote that the ANC had a serious Zuma problem, and they wouldn’t be able to achieve anything, however laudable, if they failed to come to grips with that problem. Two years later and the problem has only got worse, and will fester even further if left unchecked.

“And before the ANC points to its still large electoral majorities to argue that it, and by extension Zuma, still has the mandate to govern, consider that in a democracy the citizens’ consent is active and dynamic, ebbing and flowing in-between electoral cycles.

“Winning 62 percent of the vote in 2014 is not a free pass to railroad both people and institutions in 2015.

“The ANC so far doesn’t seem capable of a political response to the challenge to Zuma’s and Mbete’s authority, preferring rather a purely security response. This will, over time, chip away at the party’s already fraying hegemony, and undermine citizens’ active consent to be governed by the ANC.”

And I wrote that a full 18 months before the party had its arse handed to it in the majority of the country’s metros in the local government elections.

Fundamental and far-reaching reorganisation of the South African economy – a reordering that is unashamedly in favour of blacks, women, the poor, the countryside and the urban proletariat – is necessary and long overdue. It is a sign of our rotten luck as a nation that it is now being “championed” by the wrong man and for the wrong reasons, driven by nefarious and selfish motives.

For that we have the ANC to thank. For 23 years South Africa’s oldest and most popular political movement has squandered the world’s most robust electoral mandates, feebly tinkering at the margins while the people’s patience wore dangerously thin. Now, desperate and wounded, the ANC wants to do in the space of two years what it should have being doing over the last 20. But its desperation and weakness means that it will all end in tears, hopefully for the ANC only but more likely for us all. DM

Vukani Mde is co-founder and consultant at LeftHook Solutions, a Johannesburg-based political risk and comms consultancy

  • Vukani Mde
    Vukani Mde.jpg
    Vukani Mde

    Vukani Mde is co-founder and consultant at LeftHook Solutions, a Johannesburg-based political risk and comms consultancy. Previously he was the Group Opinion and Analysis Editor at Independent Media, with oversight of opinion/editorial content across the group's print and digital titles. He was previously a senior Political and Policy analyst at africapractice, and SADC editor for Southern Africa Report. He has also worked as political editor for The Weekender, Business Day's Saturday sister publication, and as a political writer at Business Day and This Day.

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles





Do Not Miss