NEWS & ANALYSIS

The Pol Pot Protea plan

Andrew Donaldson queries President Ramaphosa's recent fynbos analogy with regards to the economy

A FAMOUS GROUSE

WELCOMING delegates to the third annual South African Investment Conference in this week, Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at some length about reigniting investor interest in the economy. As is the custom at these indabas, there was a pronounced optimism in the prattle: the continent being on the cusp of a new era in economic development, and South Africa, with its infrastructure, diverse economy, capital markets and manufacturing capacity, was an ideal location blah blah blah …

It’s a hard sell, almost impossible given the country’s state of affairs. Who would want to be in the President’s shoes? It’s not fun batting for the continent’s most sophisticated economic powerhouse when said powerhouse has all but been burnt to the ground by your predecessor.  

To make matters worse, most of the conference delegates were participating virtually because of the coronavirus. Could Ramaphosa even see them? God knows if they were even listening as he babbled on into nebulous void. That was bad enough, but what’s the point if, after the speeches, you’re not even able to corner some passing industrialist at the nibbles table and badger them into stumping up some tom…

How best then to hold the audience’s attention? 

With flower power, obviously. Yes, from buffalo boer to botany bore, there is no end to Squirrel’s talents. “Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic,” he said in his opening remarks, “we have understood that the best way to protect the economy is to bring the disease under control. As we confront this crisis and as we look to the future, I am reminded why the protea is South Africa’s national flower. The protea has survived for millions of years.”

Such floweriness is a pleasant enough distraction, I suppose. But is that really why the protea is the national flower? Because it’s been around for millions of years Which is perhaps not as long as some South African villages have been waiting for a clean water supply. 

But back to Mr Green Fingers. According to Squirrel, it’s a fynbos thing. The plant has settled into a symbiotic relationship with wildfires for its existence and survival. As opposed to the ruling party, which has opted for a parasitic relationship with the country to ensure its existence and survival. Or, as we Spesbonan devolutionaries are wont to say, it’s more of a jou ma se fynbos thing.

“The protea has a thick underground stem which allows it to endure significant heat,” Ramaphosa continued. “In the aftermath of a fire, dormant buds survive and the protea releases its seeds. The land comes back to life even richer than before. In many ways it exemplifies how a phoenix rises from the ashes. This is the situation we find ourselves in today.”

Away from such folksiness, there is a suspicion the plant-speak could be coded intimation that prime minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s mad plans to utterly destroy the economy and thus make way for a more revolutionary model a la Pol Pot have been set in motion. As the country went into lockdown before winter, Virodene-Zuma wasted no time in wielding her national disaster powers and set the veld ablaze in an apparent attempt to bring about, under the cover of Covid, the much vaunted national democratic revolution.

Then the strangest thing happened. The seasons passed, autumn and winter turned to spring and South Africa apparently emerged from lockdown with far fewer deaths than expected and a Covid infection fatality rate pegged at being about five times lower than that of western Europe.

The pandemic did however result in R660-billion in pledges drummed up at previous investment conferences being put on hold. This year, according to Reuters, the conference managed to attract just R110-billion in new pledges by companies and financial institutions, suggesting some caution on the part of investors, particularly regarding the Covid-19 recovery plan unveiled by government last month. This, we are told, will focus on “public works and job creation”.

Elsewhere, there are warnings against complacency over the country’s relatively low Covid death rate. Writing in The Times on Thursday, Jenni Russell warns that our figures are deceptive and mask government incompetence and corruption. 

Before the winter, Russell argues, the country certainly appeared to be a candidate “for death and illness on a grand scale”. She cited all the customary basket case factors: high levels of poverty, overcrowded cities, poor health facilities, and the presence of other endemic diseases. Coronageddon was coming.

“Instead, around 19 000 Covid deaths have been recorded in a population of 58 million. Ministers and officials have concluded that their strategies are working, and everybody from the World Health Organisation downward has been speculating about the reasons: could it be due to Vitamin D, the protective effect of TB vaccinations, South Africa’s young population, a fierce and timely early lockdown?”

It was none of the above. These figures have been challenged by epidemiologists and economists. “The emerging facts,” Russell writes, “show that South Africa has been hit as hard as anywhere else. Excess natural deaths from May to October have been so high, at around 48 000, that total death rates per million have been in line with much of Europe during the first wave of the pandemic.”

It was summer that saved the country from that first wave, not the incoherent and brutal lockdown. In the meantime, though, the virus had spread to millions. “When winter starts,” Russell says, “infections and deaths will rise again as people gather indoors, particularly in the areas or among the groups the virus did not reach the first time around: quiet towns, rural areas, and the sick and elderly who managed to shield.”

There are fears that government will once again opt for an ineffective lockdown when that happens. Perhaps, protea-like, Proxy-Zuma’s radical economic transformation plans will rise phoenix-like once more. The vaccine, alas, won’t save us from that stupidity.

Soldiers of fortune

Bad news for the jihadists. In an interview published in The Times, old dog of war Simon Mann called on the British government to send troops and cash to Mozambique to prevent Islamic militants from establishing a caliphate in southern Africa. The former Scots Guards officer and SAS member was generously described by the newspaper as a person “who has led effective mercenary campaigns on the continent”. 

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), Mann is best known for his role in the “Splodge of Wonga” debacle, the failed attempt in 2004 to topple the Equatorial Guinea government. Along with 69 others, including former members of the SADF’s 32 Battalion, Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe after the mercenaries’ chartered aircraft was seized during a stop-off at Harare’s airport. Some weeks later, Mark Thatcher, twit son of former British PM Margaret Thatcher, was arrested at his Cape Town home, and eventually pleaded guilty to bankrolling the plot. He got off lightly — a fine and four-year suspended sentence. Mann and the others were not so lucky, and served jail time in Zimbabwe.

Prison has not offered much in the way of rehabilitation, and Mann now apparently wants to reoffend. He’s proposing that a special fighting of 3 000 serving or former soldiers be contracted from Britain “and elsewhere” (read South Africa) and sent most pronto to the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. This, he told The Times, would be a bunch chaps “that wants to get out on the ground, find the enemy, kill them”. Movie buffs will be reminded of the immortal words of renowned matinee idol Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Milius’s dark masterpiece, Conan the Barbarian, in response to a question on what is best in life: “Crush ze enemies, see dem driven before you, and hear der lamentation of der women.”

My own feeling is that the Economic Freedom Fighters should offer their services. The Kiddy Amin Kommando, or KAK, as some have referred to the Redshirts’ “fighter command” unit, are notoriously gagging for a scrap and they should find the caliphate’s vanguard in the torrid northern regions a more worthy foe than a Brackenfell school and the Western Cape Education Department. This could be their moment and, as they say in the mercenary game, carpe that per diem, cry havoc and bring on the wonga.

The bells are ringing out

The BBC has issued instructions to radio stations concerning Fairy Tale of New York, the enduring Christmas classic by Irish folk-punk band The Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl. A smash hit upon release in 1987, it has featured in the UK Top 20 every festive season since 2005. It was in the charts again this week, at number 59, and rising.

Those unfamiliar with the song should know it’s no Bing Crosby or Boney M yuletide fare, relating as it does the bitter break-up of an alcoholic and heroin junkie’s relationship during a drunken spree in the Big Apple following a stroke of luck at the race track. As the song grew in popularity over the years, concern was raised about the lines sung by MacColl: “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.” 

Mindful that younger listeners are “particularly sensitive to derogatory terms for gender and sexuality”, the broadcaster has instructed BBC Radio 1 not to play the original, but an edited version in which “faggot” is replaced by “haggard” and the reference to a “slut on junk” is removed. Radio 2, meanwhile, will play the original. Over at digital station 6 Music, DJs will be free to choose between the two. 

Confusing? Not to Laurence Fox, the actor who recently formed the Reclaim Party to combat “woke ideology” and protect the UK’s “shared heritage”. “Here we go again,” he tweeted on Thursday. “The cultural commissars at the @bbc are telling you what is and isn’t appropriate for your ignorant little ears. Wouldn’t it be nice if we sent the (proper) version to the top of the charts? #DefundTheBBC. RT” 

Acting swiftly to avoid further controversy, The Pogues responded to Fox via their official Twitter account: “Fuck off you little herrenvolk shite.” Ah, bless, and give that band a Bell’s… (Or perhaps not. The band do flog their own brand of Irish whiskey after all. And it’s not bad.)

Truth decay

What is the meaning of Donald Trump, what is his legacy and what can we learn from it? In years to come, when the squall and mewl over his election defeat is all but forgotten, scholars and academics will be casting a dispassionate, yet critical eye over the Pantone 130 era, studiously poking through its detritus in a bid to understand this upending of the common good.

Trumpism, we’re told, is here to stay. To the hardcore faithful, he has reshaped the Republicans’ ideological identity, and possibly the office of the American presidency itself. His cherry-picked conservative judges will certainly cement that legacy. 

To his opponents, it is a shot across their bows. The ball is now in their court. Strip away the demagogy that characterised the Trump presidency as “the crassest, vainest, stupidest, most dysfunctional leadership” in US history, as one commentator labelled it, and a core issue remains: the economic plight of the working classes. The Republicans will almost certainly campaign in 2024 on fears that American wages will be undercut by unskilled immigrant labourers. Failure by the Biden administration to address such concerns will greatly bolster the prospects of this odious brand of conservatism’s return. 

It is true that, like Jacob Zuma, Trump struggles with big words. He once had difficulty, for example, reading aloud an extract from the American constitution. Some of it was “like a foreign language”, he complained. He is, in other words, not a bookish person. However, and for all the reports that he’s never read one, he does recognise the symbolism and power of books. Which is explains his clumsiness when holding the Bible during a photo-op in Washington’s Lafayette Square in June this year, and why he hired stooges to pen the score or so titles that bear his name.

For all this, there are hundreds of books about Trump. Carlos Lozada, a Washington Post critic, has binge-read 150 of them for his acclaimed new study, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era (Simon & Schuster). The book serves as a reliable introduction to Trump Studies, a course soon coming to a university near you. Lozada’s analysis offers up interesting essay opportunities, especially as exercises in cultural criticism. 

One possible theme is the death of “the American experiment”, and how Trump’s isolationism put this myth of national optimism to the sword. His 2016 campaign painted a country that was beset by foreign devils and outside malevolence. The obsession with the wall grew. Soon it was as big as it was bogus. It would never be completed, but it did the job as an election gimmick. But it did negate the notion of “frontier” in the American imagination; when Americans now look at the border, Lozada writes, “so many see threats rather than possibilities”.

Trump’s enduring legacy, however, is the elevation of cranky, fringe conspiracies to the mainstream. His single-word attacks – “Fake!”, “Rigged!” and “Hoax!”, your basic Twitter troll stuff without any factual support – are not aimed at convincing his followers of any one particular lie. They’re spat out to undermine all arbiters of the truth. “But,” as columnist David Aaronovitch writes in The Times, “perhaps much of the excitement of Trumpism lies precisely in this adoption of conspiracism as central to the big story. ‘They’ are rigging the vote to get you. All the bad stuff is ‘them’. There is no virus really. There is no defeat really.”

And should they upset you and you disagree with them, there are no facts really. Just your important opinions.