"You're damn right I want a downgrade!"
One of the best courtroom dramas ever filmed has a young US Navy lawyer, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, trapping Colonel Nathan R Jessup into a damning admission in the witness box that leads to Jessup's arrest. The issue is whether Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, issued a criminal order for a "code red", a form of violent extrajudicial punishment that led to the death of a young marine at the Guantanamo base in Cuba at the hands of some of his fellow marines.
Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise in the 1992 film entitled A Few Good Men, suspects that Jessup actually wants to make the self-incriminating admission to show the wet-behind-the-ears lawyer how discipline is maintained among real soldiers as opposed to the ones wearing sparkling white naval uniforms. Provoked beyond endurance by Kaffee's insistent and insubordinate questioning as to whether he ordered a code red, Jessup finally blurts out "You're damn right I did!"
It would be good to see Jacob Zuma in the witness box questioned as to whether or not he would like to see South Africa downgraded by international credit ratings agencies when they reassess the country later this year. President Zuma is too smooth to be so easily provoked, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that he would actually like to see a downgrade.
To the Marxists and economic illiterates in his party and among its communist and trade union allies, defiance of the agencies' warnings would be a powerful means of expressing contempt for the colonialist imperialism and white monopoly capitalism the agencies supposedly represent. The certainty that they would react adversely to any dismissal of Pravin Gordhan from the finance ministry no doubt gives Mr Zuma and his business associates an extra reason to hate the agencies. They are in effect protecting the man who holds the keys to the National Treasury and is therefore supposedly in a position to prevent more looting.
When the "Hawks" renewed their witch-hunt against Mr Gordhan last month, Business Leadership South Africa said it was shocked by this "sinister behaviour" which "so insidiously subverted "the national collective effort to avoid a ratings downgrade". Since any action against Mr Gordhan is almost certain to contribute to a downgrade, it is a reasonable assumption that the "sinister" behaviour" was not negligent but a deliberate attempt to bring about this result.
In February this year, this column expressed the view that the African National Congress (ANC) did not take the agencies seriously, as it had previously fobbed them off with empty promises. One of the themes this year has been pep talks to "Team SA". Various ministers have thus called for "all hands on deck" and "pulling up our socks". Another theme has been "working round the clock", "tackling red tape head on", "re-industrialising the economy", "fast-tracking reform," and "reigniting growth".
Little by way of reform of state-owned enterprises has materialised, except that Mr Zuma is seeking greater personal control over them. Nor is there any sign of the promised "structural reforms" that will supposedly "re-ignite" growth. New procurement regulations in the pipeline will damage growth by pushing up business costs.
The proposed new mining charter will discourage investment in that sector. The mooted new national minimum wage will undermine employment growth. Of the promised legislative amendments to make secret strike ballots compulsory, there has been little sign.
Various business leaders are in the meantime planning a trip to New York next month to put investors at ease about South Africa. They would be wise to remember what Geoffrey Howe said about Margaret Thatcher when he resigned from her Cabinet in 1990. He had been sent in to bat in Europe only to find that when he got to the crease and faced the first ball, the team captain had broken his bat behind him.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.