Is it too early to declare 2023 South Africa’s annus horribilis? Perhaps — because as any South African knows, something more politically or socially grotesque is always possible. It is becoming a tired line, but to live here one has to have resilience in spades. Things may well become worse before they get better.
As SA Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago said recently, South Africa is the victim of its own “largely self-inflicted wounds”. Last week several of these were the subject of global focus.
First, there was the power blackout clip on the BBC with dystopian images of South Africans going about their daily business in the dark and setting out the painful truth of corruption, collusion, mismanagement and State Capture at Eskom. We are all too familiar with the facts.
The President’s response has mostly been to watch as we lurch from crisis to crisis. On the electricity crisis, he recently appointed a minister of electricity, someone without any powers (a pun in itself, but this is a country that embraces irony) except to visit power stations and tell us the bleeding obvious. We all know that it is really the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, whose views hold sway.
There are many cooks spoiling the broth. In a recent judgment, the Pretoria High Court held that hospitals, schools and police stations be exempted from load shedding. The minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, is now leading a court appeal against this judgment.
Part of his statement reads: “The department has studied the ruling and has determined through legal advice that the prudent step to take is to lodge an appeal to set aside the ruling and allow for the ongoing efforts to end load shedding to proceed without putting undue risk on the country’s grid infrastructure.
“While the department respects the independence of the courts, in this case the department believes that the judgment would have unintended consequences and undermine the very efforts to balance the protection of the rights that were ventilated in this case, with the need to stabilise and protect our grid infrastructure.”
A lack of empathy
While the practicalities of the judgment have been questioned, the response from Gordhan lacks empathy for those battling to stay alive or keep us safe. It tells of a government unable or unwilling to explain itself fully even in the face of a society angry at the electricity crisis and the concomitant economic damage.
One cannot help but think that Ramaphosa and his government are pushing the country to the point of desperation where the “only” solution to the electricity crisis will be the Karpowership deal. And one has to wonder: Where will the inevitable kickbacks go?
When it seemed that Ramaphosa and his government could not plumb lower depths, South Africa went sleep-walking into a diplomatic crisis last week. South Africa’s non-aligned stance towards Russia has been thrown into sharp relief.
The facts regarding the US ambassador’s comments about the docking of the Russian ship the Lady R in Simon’s Town are now well known. Inevitably perhaps, opinion was divided between those blindly supporting the ANC’s ties to Russia and those against them; was there a more depressing clip than Ramaphosa speaking about our friendship with Russia while the rabble cheered him on? It all felt grossly Orwellian.
Of course, the question of our ties to Russia and then the conduct of the US as a global actor in conflicts around the world requires us to hold two thoughts at once. The first is that the US is often duplicitous in its approach to conflict and its failure to sign the Rome Treaty is, inter alia, a reason (there are many others) to question its consistency with regard to human rights and democracy building around the world.
Yet, we are also required to hold a second thought, that South Africa could be cosying up to Russia for all the wrong reasons and despite our own apartheid history, this ANC government has not been consistent on human rights and foreign policy.
The question of support for Russia is complex and neatly summed up by William Shoki when he says:
“Putin’s speech defining his view of the conflict (given on the eve of the invasion, on February 21, 2022) places significant blame on the Bolsheviks, who needlessly tried to ‘satisfy the endlessly increasing nationalist ambitions of different parts of the former [Russian] empire.’ At first glance, Putin’s antipathy towards the Bolsheviks and their supposed anti-Russian enmity should have complicated the ANC’s narrative of support for Russia as repaying an historical debt.
“Not only is the modern Russian state fundamentally discontinuous with the Soviet Union, but Ukraine itself formed part of the Soviet Union and was the most instrumental constituent republic as far as hosting and supporting ANC exiles. For the ANC, this distinction is immaterial. The terms on which the invasion is being justified draw on a model of self-determination, which is familiar and purpose-giving to an otherwise directionless and illegitimate political party.”
Importantly, Shoki goes on to point out the economic pitfalls of our dangerous dance with Russia:
“But the available evidence yields very little indication that South Africa stands to gain much materially from pivoting East. In fact, it has a lot to lose. Combined, South Africa’s trade with the European Union and the US outpaces its trade with China and Russia. Crackling with indignation at Africa’s most industrialized power cosying up to the East, the US Congress has even tabled a resolution calling for President Joe Biden to ‘review’ relations with South Africa.”
His words echo Masha Gessen’s writing on Putin’s “profoundly anti-modern worldview”.
President kicks for touch
In response to the diplomatic mayhem, the President did what he does best and deferred any form of decision; he kicked for touch, hoping all the questions would magically disappear. He appointed a commission of inquiry. And this after far too much flailing about while South Africa’s ambiguity (in a charitable interpretation) on Russia made headlines across the world. The amateurish presidential communications team was for all intents and purposes missing in action. Dirco’s Clayson Monyela made statements via social media. None of this provided any real comfort except to the most loyal ANC allies and stooges.
Wherever the truth lies in this sorry saga, what we have is a fundamental lack of transparency and trust between a government and its citizenry. We simply cannot believe what Ramaphosa or any of his Cabinet ministers say any longer, not about Russia, electricity, safeguarding us from harm or anything else.
The entire Russia saga had the all-too-familiar shades of the Phala Phala scandal or State Capture about it; the President simply wasn’t aware, would look into it, was shocked, disappointed or one of the other tiresome explanations. These are usually followed by a newsletter straight from the presidential ivory tower.
It is no way to govern.
When the minister of defence, Thandi Modise, who was mostly silent, eventually spoke this week, she was quoted as follows, “We did not send f*kol to Russia, not even a piece of Chappies.”
The National Conventional Arms Control Act
It should give us all pause that a minister of state should have so limited a vocabulary that she finds refuge in an expletive. But this sort of callous and careless disregard for processes and the people has come to mark Ramaphosa’s government. One would have thought that Modise would know better. After all, she was involved in a tussle with Kader Asmal all those years ago during the passage of the National Conventional Arms Control Act.
During the apartheid era, South Africa was much criticised for its conduct in the arms arena, particularly for the many arms sales it made to countries with poor or worse human rights records. When the ANC came to power it pledged to clean up this trade and to apply ethical and human rights criteria to the dealings of its arms industry. To this end, a National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) was established under the chairpersonship of Asmal.
A former professor of international human rights law and prominent exile critic of South Africa’s apartheid arms trade, Asmal was seen as the ideal choice to “clean up” the local arms trade and to bring accountability to its dealings.
The White Paper on Defence released in the late 1990s went so far as to pledge that the “principle of openness and transparency relating to the arms trade shall apply”, with the qualification that this transparency could be curtailed due to national security interests.
While it is true that South Africa no longer sells arms to all and sundry, it does sometimes still deal with countries with dubious human rights credentials.
In 1999, a draft National Conventional Arms Control Bill was introduced into the legislature in an attempt to legally direct the trade in arms. The bill, tabled in July 2000, soon ran into trouble and was withdrawn, first in 2000 and then again in 2001, because it was argued that the bill deviated in several respects from the provisions of the Constitution as endorsed in the White Paper on Defence and consequently compromised the principles of transparency, responsibility and restraint.
After various amendments, several important aspects of the bill were improved to the satisfaction of both the Defence Committee and the NCACC. However, one principal area of contention remained between the parliamentary committee on defence chaired by Modise and the executive.
It involved the issue of parliamentary participation in the review of applications for the sale of arms (clause 23 of the bill). It contained confidentiality provisions in terms of which information on weaponry exported by South Africa, as well as on its final destinations, would be confidential or reported under conditions of secrecy to the national legislature.
The committee criticised the provision as diverting from stated government policy. The clause was also perceived as being inconsistent with the White Paper on Defence cited earlier. Asmal, the chairperson of the NCACC, rejected the amendments proposed by the portfolio committee on the grounds that premature disclosure could have negative effects on the arms industry.
The bill was therefore withdrawn and redrafted. The redrafted bill broadened the dispute between the executive and Parliament regarding the destination of arms sales, the transparency of such sales and the role of the legislature in the process.
In December 2002, the NCAC Bill, albeit an amended version, was enacted despite the concerns of Parliament and civil society organisations about issues of transparency. The clause entrenching prospective oversight had been removed. Parliament lost the battle in its stand-off with the executive despite the best intentions of, particularly, Modise. After the 2004 elections, Modise was “redeployed” by the ANC to the Northern Province legislature as its Speaker. Many interpreted this as a punitive act by the ANC as a direct consequence of her stand-off with the executive.
And so, that bit of history puts the NCAC Act into perspective and leaves one wondering what happened to the fiercely independent Thandi Modise of 2001. It also places the Lady R issue into context.
Modise has said that the Lady R docked in Simon’s Town in December 2022 to deliver a shipment of ammunition for the South African National Defence Force’s Special Forces Regiment that had been ordered before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Presidency denied that the government had granted a permit for such arms or ammunition to be exported to Russia. It said that no permit approval for Russian arms exports exists. The National Conventional Arms Control Committee denied that the government had granted a permit for such arms or ammunition to be exported to Russia.
Why do we then need a costly commission of inquiry? Does the government not believe itself? Does Ramaphosa not believe his own minister?
The President cannot continue running the country by proxy. If he does not know what is happening under his nose, if he is unable to understand the sense of urgency with which he ought to have responded to this diplomatic crisis, he is either very naïve or he does not have control of his government.
One is then drawn to the inexorable conclusion that Ramaphosa is unfit to hold high office, and in any other context he would be called upon to resign and take his sorry Cabinet ministers with him.
But we tend to stop short of calling for this because mostly we are afraid of its full meaning. DM