Opinionista Judith February 16 January 2020

Power and Misrule: It’s time to separate truth from lies

In the US, the Trump presidency may well see a second term. Climate change and government inertia are catching up with Australia’s denialist government as Armageddon-like scenes unfold on our screens. In Britain, Boris Johnson continues his rocky road to Brexit. And then there is South Africa.

Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier…’

Alfred Lord Tennyson

You cannot help but be drawn to these two lines from Tennyson’s The Foresters, especially if you’re a hopeless optimist.

As we start 2020, we can only hope it will be happier than 2019 though all indications are to the contrary. The world is grappling with the complexity of inequality, but also with what seems to be an ever-increasing inability to determine what truth is, where “alternative facts” have become part of our common lexicon. The Trump presidency is perhaps the most graphic illustration of such a lack of commitment to truth. The chaotic nature of that presidency is built on a daily dose of falsehoods and a lack of impulse control. There is a powerlessness borne out of self-preservation among elected representatives in the US, and Trump will in all likelihood gain a second term. Climate change and government inertia are catching up with Australia’s denialist government as we watch Armageddon-like scenes of burning unfold before us on our screens. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues his rocky road to Brexit. That Leave campaign was built almost entirely on falsehoods.

And then there is South Africa.

Nothing signifies meltdown more vividly than a country being plunged into darkness. Load shedding occurred in early January thus putting paid to the president’s promise to the country that there would be no load shedding until 13 January. It was a curious promise to make given the instability at Eskom, and was met with predictable scepticism. Deputy President David Mabuza seemed to play his hand in a typically cunning way when he said Ramaphosa had been “misled” and called for increased “maintenance” of power stations.

Whether the comment was meant to show up Ramaphosa, show himself as the man for a crisis and then push for Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan’s resignation — or all three — we cannot be sure. What we do know is that Mabuza was a late convert to Ramaphosa’s “cause” at the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017 and that he cannot be trusted. Known as “The Cat”, his tenure as premier in Mpumalanga was marked by controversy and criminal allegations are constantly swirling around him.

The latest iteration of load shedding took place against the backdrop of the ANC’s annual birthday bash and the President’s January 8th statement. The “celebrations” seemed to go on for days as the people of Kimberley watched the passing show. Located within the Sol Plaatje municipality which suffers from the same deep degradation and high unemployment as most places in South Africa, Plaatje would have hung his head in shame at what Kimberley and indeed what the ANC has become.

As ANC members marched in, parading a large ANC birthday cake and as the Top Six of the party sipped bubbly, Marie Antoinette sprang so obviously to mind. How anachronistic that each year men in military fatigues enter a stadium carrying a large cake and how shamelessly those on stage partake of the cake for all to see. It’s as if the ANC simply cannot help itself. The excess is evident everywhere even as citizens languish in squalor. But the cake ceremony symbolises the reality of a party that has lost its moorings. Ramaphosa’s speech emphasised unity within his fractured party. He declared 2020 the year of “unity, socio-economic renewal and nation building”. We’ve certainly heard those lines before.

And so like Nero, the ANC continues to fiddle despite our Herculean challenges. No matter what Ramaphosa said, it has begun to feel as if we are in a moment of distinct political crisis.

In the days that followed the party’s party, the likes of Bathabile Dlamini and an array of Twitter trolls (including the disgraced Carl Niehaus) were calling for Gordhan to resign, given the state of Eskom.

If ever there was a time to separate truth from lies, it is in this political milieu. Bathabile Dlamini is the same person who nearly brought the social security agency, Sassa to its knees and was found to have lied to court. Then, Dlamini was ordered to pay 20% of the costs in the Sassa matter relating to the further extension of the invalid Cash Paymaster contract when she was minister of Social Development. The unanimous judgment of the highest court delivered by Justice Froneman was scathing. The Constitutional Court held that:

Some of Minister Dlamini’s evidence under oath in affidavits before the court and orally in the inquiry was false. The registrar of the court must be directed to forward a copy of the inquiry report and this judgment to the director of public prosecutions to consider whether Minister Dlamini lied under oath and if so, must be prosecuted for perjury.”

And so in a party where shame is in short supply, the likes of Dlamini feel confident to raise their voices and call for Eskom to be placed under Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe’s watch. The obsession with Gordhan seems an obvious distraction. He has long been a convenient target for the corrupt cronies of former President Zuma and the ethically compromised opposition EFF. The interests of these two noxious factions coincide when it comes to Gordhan and one can easily guess why.

Adding to the feeling of crisis, Eskom board chair, Jabu Mabuza resigned, apologising for the premature load shedding. Within days the entire Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa) board resigned, citing a lack of faith in Mantashe whom they say “frustrated and undermined” their ability to carry out their fiduciary duties. For those who wish to wrest the state from Ramaphosa and return us to Zuma-like years, creating a sense of crisis and chaos serves them well. Think, Donald Trump. His constant tweeting and rambling creates so much chaos that it becomes hard to separate truth from lies. If some of the lies stick, all the better. Amid the chaos Trump creates, focusing on truth and the daily reality of governing becomes very difficult.

And so, for the ANC cadres such as Dlamini, the aim of the noise is to increase the sense of pending crisis specifically around Ramaphosa’s leadership. The aim is not ethical governance that serves the poorest of the poor. The aim is to remove Ramaphosa and to find a way back in to loot the state. It is also payback for those who lost their positions of influence in Cabinet or elsewhere in the state. The noise doubtless serves to distract Ramaphosa and place Gordhan under even greater pressure.

Complicating matters for Ramaphosa, of course, is that he is met with the perfect storm. The looting of the Zuma years left the kitty bare and the dysfunction within state-owned enterprises will be with us for years to come.

It is simply not realistic to think that a turnaround will happen overnight. The rot is too deep.

Ramaphosa has also not been clear about Eskom and how it will suddenly become functional. In Kimberley he said, “…I want to say to you, we are not going to privatise Eskom, we are going to strengthen Eskom, so that it can deliver energy as it should”.

The obvious follow-up question is: “How?” And what happened to the plan to divide Eskom into a Gaul-like three parts? Jabu Mabuza’s resignation can only slow whatever momentum there was.

But Eskom is not the only problem on Ramaphosa’s plate. He presides over a stagnant economy forecast to grow at a miserable 0.9%, an unemployment crisis and a society whose social fabric is all but breaking.

So it is no surprise the feeling of crisis is all around even among Ramaphosa’s backers. He heads a party which is basically unfit for purpose and it is hard to see how the ANC can be the vehicle for change the country needs.

All the while, he will need to watch his back ahead of the National General Council meeting of the ANC later in 2020. It is not an elective conference, rather one about policy, but generally one is able to judge the president’s strength of support within the party over those few days. Between now and then Ramaphosa has several opportunities to assert his authority over his Cabinet and the country, however.

As much as Ramaphosa is hemmed in by the divisions within his party, the problem for the faction within the ANC that wants to be shot of Ramaphosa is that they themselves are a motley crew, whose strategy is noise, chaos and creating a sense of crisis. Who is their leader? DD Mabuza simply doesn’t seem like a convincing option for them. Therefore, Ramaphosa should seize the only moment he now has to try to shape our political future with a sense of clarity.

As maverick Finance Minister Tito Mboweni tweeted (not an ideal mode of communication, but nevertheless) the time for “deep structural economic reforms” is now.

His tweet has a tone of desperation about it and who can blame him? Ramaphosa exhorted us all to join him in this task in his “Thuma mina!” State of the Nation address at the beginning of his term of office. The people are all still here, waiting, though restive with a pending sense of gloom.

The goodwill is fast dissipating and the only way Ramaphosa can take on those within his party who wish to see his downfall, is to build broad-based alliances across society. In shoring up such support within the business community and across civil society, he has a chance at building a bulwark against his corrupt cronies. His legitimacy as leader of the country derives from the people, after all.

For some reason, Ramaphosa has seemed reluctant to build these alliances and when he has, the attempts have seemed either half-hearted or he has seemed unable to commit to action.

Ramaphosa has to play the hand he has been dealt and put convincing building blocks in place to ensure that the prevailing notion of crisis is contained. The paralysis within the state cannot continue, yet it is so hollowed out and drained of capacity that the rebuilding will take years. Ramaphosa’s window of opportunity to provide an honest rendering of our challenges and a clear roadmap of what will be done to deal with them is narrowing. This is aggravated by the wretched economy and increasing inequality.

He risks squandering the goodwill of broader society as he continues to feed us arcane ANC double-speak. There’s been enough talk and pandering to an ANC interested only in navel-gazing about itself and decidedly uninterested in Ramaphosa’s notion of unity. It’s time for Ramaphosa to assert the modern statesman in him and expend his political capital with intent. DM

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