Return to the Rubicon days

David Bullard writes on our state of national despondency


I can’t remember a time when people were so despondent about the future of this country. Even back in post Rubicon SA, when some of our best and brightest were taking their skills, I and many others still thought that things would take a turn for the better as indeed they eventually did.

My wife and I were on holiday in the UK in July 1985 when the State of Emergency was declared. The TV channels were full of footage of rioting and mayhem but one image that stuck in my mind was the sight of the Rev Allan Boesak whipping the crowd to a frenzy before rushing off to move his new BMW 3 series to a safer place.

My parents kindly offered us accommodation should it prove impossible to return to South Africa which seemed to be collapsing into a state of anarchy. We decided to phone friends in Johannesburg to hear how bad things really were and they hadn’t a clue what we were talking about and assured us it was perfectly safe to return which we did.

In 1985, after the Rubicon speech, R9.2 billion of foreign investment (mostly in the bond market) disappeared from South Africa and that disinvestment continued at a lower level for the next three years. I can’t precisely remember when the ‘debt standstill’ first occurred but I think it must also have been in 1985 and quite possibly just after PW Botha’s disastrous ‘Rubicon’ speech. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

I went to the Inanda Club on the night of the speech for dinner with financial market colleagues because we thought that if it was to be good news then we had already celebrated and if it was to be bad news (as it turned out to be) then we were already partially anesthetized to the pain.

The euphemistically named ‘debt standstill’ happened post Rubicon speech in 1985 and the financial markets were closed for a few days to allow the shock to sink in. It was triggered by an announcement by Chase Manhattan bank in August of that year that they would be making no new loans to South African entities.

It wasn’t all bad news because a new newspaper called Business Day started life on May 1st replacing the by now defunct Rand Daily Mail. It was briefly edited by the late Ken Owen who was pithily described by a rival editor as “being rather like life; nasty, brutish and short”. Business Day decided to put their name to a wine festival in late 1985 and that is where you would have found most financial market participants during the closure of the markets; glugging Meerlust and hoping to hell that their open positions wouldn’t look too disastrous when the markets eventually re-opened.

The governor of the Reserve Bank at the time was the highly respected banker and academic Gerhard de Kock, himself the son of a former Reserve Bank governor. A steadier hand PW couldn’t have wished for on the financial tiller and our carefully negotiated ‘debt standstill’ was not a full blown Argentinian style default but, rather, an inability to pay back capital until further notice. Interest on any loans though could be paid.

This didn’t go down terribly well with a banking buddy of mine who was working for Nedbank in Hong Kong at the time. On the Friday he was visiting potential clients, selling Nedbank as a good credit risk and opening new accounts and on the Monday he was phoning those same clients to tell them that they couldn’t have their money back for now. As anybody who knows Hong Kong will testify, it’s not easy to avoid fellow bankers in the relatively small area in which they are to be found.

US led sanctions followed in the late eighties and the country ran desperately short of…..well nothing actually. In those days I was a regular visitor to Sandton City and the luxury stores on the upper deck seemed to be even better stocked than in pre sanction days. Pretty well all the in-demand designer labels were on display and I can’t recall sanctions making the slightest difference to my life.

Luxury German automobiles were available (I bought a BMW 7 series in 1988) and reasonably priced Havana cigars were on sale at Wesleys while Benny Goldberg’s carried fine stocks of European wines (Dom Ruinart bubbly at R16.00 a bottle). If anything it appeared as though there were more materialistic temptations under US sanctions than before.

I started a new bond option broking business in early 1987 which ran successfully for ten years. I don’t remember feeling in the least bit pessimistic about SA’s future even though the currency had tumbled with the Rand trading at just under R4 to the Pound (sorry Prof Jansen…what was that question about whether we were better off under apartheid again?).

Part of my optimism might have been down to youthful enthusiasm or sheer stupidity but I think it was more the fact that most of those who were staying and committing to the country could see that things couldn’t continue as they were and change had to come. We also comforted ourselves with the fact that there were so many foreign vested interests in the country that it was incomprehensible that they would all throw in the towel at the same time and give SA up as a hopeless case. On the contrary, there was plenty of new investment planned at the time such as the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

It did admittedly take a few years but once PW Botha had resigned in 1989 to be replaced by F W de Klerk a new wave of optimism was noticeable which was confirmed by the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and the whites only referendum on the future of apartheid in March 1992.

As 1994 approached there were inevitably those who thought that the end of the world was nigh and rushed to emigrate but there were far more who finally saw a promising future in a post democratic election South Africa and were richly rewarded for their confidence in the early, pre gangster days of ANC rule.

Nothing approaching that hope or optimism is possible today. The grim realisation that the mafia state will continue uninterrupted until being replaced by a possibly even worse gangster state in 2024 is inescapable. The handful of bullish white businessmen who pop up from time to time on podcasts and social media to tell us of the great opportunities ahead generally have a couple of things in common. They are either already immensely wealthy with lots of FU money stashed offshore or they are snuggled up to the rear end of the ANC in the hopes of reaping future benefits such as the introduction of the disastrous NHI. Or both.

For the normal South African of any skin colour the future looks decidedly bleak. Pres Frogboiler has turned out to be a man completely devoid of ideas and any leadership qualities. But who is there to replace him? The long overdue cabinet reshuffle (mass sacking would be a better plan) doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen and the farcical promise to appoint a minister of electricity has been met with complete derision from all sides.

Who on earth would be prepared to accept a poison chalice like that after 15 years of worsening load shedding? What possible upside is there? The ideal candidate would be someone who could negotiate a very fat salary and benefits while keeping quiet about the fact that they are suffering from a terminal illness and have six months to live.

Back in the late eighties it really was possible to envisage a better South Africa for all. Now, with our courts clogged with ANC sleazebags delaying justice and thievery still taking place on an epic scale it’s well nigh impossible to see any glimmer of hope on the horizon. As I write this I have just been alerted that we are sliding back into Stage 6 loadshedding on a Sunday night. Now, where did my wife hide the bloody corkscrew?


Last week saw the beginning of the academic year at the University of Cape Town and students eagerly assembled to attend lectures and embrace their enormous privilege at having access to a tertiary education which will guarantee them a well paying job once they graduate.

Except that this wasn’t quite how things went. True to form the rabble who have somehow managed to be accepted by UCT as students decided to give lectures a miss and upturn a few rubbish bins, make a lot of noise and prevent genuinely interested students from attending lectures.

Last Friday the Western Cape High Court issued an interim interdict telling the Student Representative Council to stop their nonsense but since the entire legal system is a colonial construct I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for peace on the campus.

Students who owe more than R10 000 have been barred from registering for the new academic year according to news reports but the problem runs much deeper than that at UCT. Unless some students can get access to free education, free accommodation, free food and free booze they will never be happy.

As Prof David Benatar, author of ‘The Fall of the University of Cape Town’ has pointed out, the toxic leadership at UCT and the attempts to cover it up are the main causes of the problem with the current disastrous vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, probably about to be kicked out.

Maybe much distress could be avoided in future by only admitting students with a proven level of intellectual attainment. The current matric results and pass marks are well known to be a joke. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve high grades and genuinely want to study STEM subjects rather than Lesbian Dance Theory with a view to becoming useful future citizens should never be denied financial resources.