Remember those days when we walked around optimistic and misty-eyed about the rebirth of South Africa under the new president? When we reacted to his speech on TV with swelled hearts, and remembered a similar feeling over 22 years ago? And then, suddenly, so suddenly as to have left us gaping like fish out of water, it all came crashing down, and we seem to be heading into territory that is depressingly familiar.
A couple of startling things have happened over the past couple of days that have nakedly broadcast the weakness of our new president, at a moment when he was most required to show strength and decisiveness. One may argue that he is treading lightly, horse trading, awaiting the right time to flex his muscles, protecting his flanks until reinforcements arrive. That is the charitable view. That is the view of the chattering and hopeful classes.
It ain’t so. The honeymoon was short. We should look the beast in the eye and call it out for what it is. I argue that we are still largely stuck in the grinding factionalism, corruption and mire of the old ANC.
First, and most alarmingly, was the Hawks raid on Jacques Pauw’s home. The intelligence services, awash with compromised individuals like Shaun Abrahams and many other more deeply and darkly embedded spooks, needed to make a statement. They knew they would find nothing at Pauw’s home (did they think that Pauw put secret documents in his desk drawer, if in fact he had them?). More important, they knew that the new president would not have condoned such a move, especially at this time when the wedding party was not yet over. The raid was a simply a message. Do not mess with us. We ran the show under Zuma and we still run the show now. The raid was a direct globule of runny spit in CR’s face.
Then of course, the Cabinet appointments. Where to start? If you’re going to open the door to international investors (as Cyril has promised many times), you remove the communists. You no longer need them to support a constituency, that has been clear since they contested their first municipal election last year. Rob Davies, Blade Nzimande and a few others could easily have been replaced without any political harm, and to the huge relief of the billions of dollars considering a return to South African shores.
And then there’s retention of incompetents like Bathabile Dlamini and a slew of well-known and probably corrupt Zuma-loyalists. Ramaphosa’s strength, or lack thereof, was only limited to the financial cluster and that old tough-talking policeman, Bheki Cele. So those of us expecting a sleek new government – sharpened and energised and competent, ready to push this country into brave new worlds – got an ugly hybrid of competing and warring and sclerotic old-timers.
And so how does this Cabinet make our dreams come true? A few appointments that will ensure monetary and fiscal probity and no nuclear build, and perhaps cleaner and smarter SoE governance. But the rest remains basically the same.
And finally, of course, the expropriation without compensation brouhaha. An ANC-led Parliament rejected this firmly some years ago. In normal times this would have been thereafter rubber-stamped in policy conference and that would have been it. But that process has now been replaced by a sort of marketplace chaos, now muddied by the loud ambitions of the EFF. They said, support this land thing and you get your cities back – Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Tshwane. This dangling carrot was far to appetising to turn down, and so Ramaphosa caved. And international investors will take one look at expropriation and turn away. And someone will have to find the tens of billions to repay the banks that have extended loans on land purchases.
Ramaphosa may talk the talk when it comes to jobs (and without large investments from abroad there will be no jobs recovery), but there will be nobody rushing to open their wallets in the light of the early warning signs, all of which are confused and contradictory.
Yes, of course, there are legacies and lists and nominations and payback and process and the rest. So one may argue realpolitik; I do not. I argue opportunity squandered and weakness bared for all to see. DM
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Award-winning and multi-shortlisted novelist Steven Boykey Sidley has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Free Association is his fourth and latest novel.
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