The Medium Term Budget Statement delivered by Tito Mboweni in late October was in effect a declaration that the government acknowledges the gravity of the economic and financial situation but that it has decided to do nothing very much to improve things. Instead it has opted for continuing drift. This is not surprising when one takes into account that the Ramaphosa presidency has done nothing but drift since it began.
In this respect it is very similar to the Zuma presidency, especially since quite staggering corruption goes on just as before. Indeed, two years ago, in the twilight of the Zuma period, the then finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, delivered an exactly similar address when he too pointed out the gravity of the financial situation – but did nothing.
Moreover, the situation has been building in seriousness over many years and although the previous finance ministers, Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene, must have been well aware of the mounting crisis, they did nothing to curb public spending or to limit the pay increases to the already vastly overpaid civil service. Instead they steadily increased taxes, taking more and more away from the public rather than face up to their responsibility to control government spending.
Mboweni’s headline announcement was that in order to show how serious they were in their bid to cut public spending, cabinet ministers’ pay was to be frozen, the amount they could spend on a car was R700,000, subsistence and travel allowances would cease, and cabinet ministers’ and provincial premiers’ salaries would have a “downward adjustment”.
Mboweni then got a rough ride from his colleagues and by the next day the car allowance had risen to R800,000 the promise of a pay freeze or cut had disappeared and the ban on subsistence and travel allowances had clearly been relaxed as well.
In other words, the ministers were not serious after all about cutting public spending. And it was difficult to believe that Mboweni was either. Despite the gravity of his words, he smiled and joked as he delivered his speech and seemed immensely pleased with himself. In other words what was really being announced was a policy of further drift.
Within a few days the civil service unions had declared that they would fight to the death rather than accept anything but an inflation plus pay rise. This, they now feel, has become their birthright and they are wholly unembarrassed by the fact that they are the only group in the population whose salaries have risen by a real 66% in the last decade.
Why is there such commitment to a policy of drift? It is, of course, true that almost no one in the ANC understands economics and that they also fail to realise that the penalty for not drawing in their belts now simply means very much harsher cuts down the line. But the larger reason is that since 1994 the entire country has essentially been run for the benefit of the political and public sector elite and their BEE associates.
Ramaphosa symbolizes this perfectly. The ANC is allegedly the workers’ party but it has taken it only 25 years to get into the African habit of having one of their richest men as president. Probably, among Africans only Patrice Motsepe has comparable wealth and he is Ramaphosa’s relative. Ramaphosa is, of course, completely immune to any spending cuts and his cabinet colleagues clearly feel that they should be too.
This group – its heart is the bureaucratic bourgeoisie – is as ruthlessly self-interested as only a first generation middle class in the Third World can be. It is completely indifferent to the catastrophic effects of its own policies, the plight of the unemployed and the destruction of the health and education systems.
As Zimbabwe shows only too clearly such a group is willing to grind its country into dust provided it can stay in power and enjoy a life of privilege. The appetites and desires of this group are the real driving force behind the ANC.
The trade union bosses and Blade Nzimande have become extremely prosperous members of this group so, despite the rhetoric the workers and unemployed are completely unrepresented. And this relatively small number of people are absolutely determined to continue enjoying the high life and to veto any measure which might limit that. Indeed, they are extremely hungry for a lot more. The result is drift.
We should by now be used to this. For a long time now the ANC has disregarded warnings about all sorts of things so that nothing gets done until the wheels come off and there is a complete crisis. It was obvious for years, especially when Nomvula Maponyane was the minister, that Water Affairs was in a desperate state. Despite lots of warnings by experts the ANC paid no heed at all.
Now there are water shortages up and down the country and the crisis has arrived so perhaps in a year or two the ANC will deign to notice this. And of course, Eskom’s warnings in the 1990s of the need for more power generation were completely ignored. Only when the lights started to go out in 2007 did the government sit up.
But even then it was quite satisfied if things could just limp along – it even “saved” on essential maintenance - which is why, twelve years later, Eskom is producing less power than ever and the crisis is still with us. In any ordinary country twelve years would have been quite enough to lick the problem. It really shouldn’t be any surprise that the government effectively continues to ignore the dire economic warnings it gets on a daily basis.
South African journalists have a very bad habit of writing articles in which they say that the government of the country “must” do this or that. Another variant is articles about other countries in which it is stressed that South Africa should really “learn” from them. (Often this produces bizarre articles about, say, Trump or Brexit in which the writer rapidly moves from such subjects to alleged South African analogies as if everything that happens in the world needs to be translated into what it means for South Africa.)
The fact is, of course, that all this is not journalism at all but pure wishfulness. Such writing is also very silly. After all, if our government us unwilling to listen even to the direst warnings from its own citizens, what hope is there that it will pay attention to what happens elsewhere? Right now, of course, there are endless articles about what the government “must learn” from Rassie Erasmus and the Springboks. This is a pure waste of breath and paper.
There are several key features to this politics of drift. First, new policies are announced and then, say nine months later, when nothing has happened, they are announced again, perhaps this time with a deadline by which time action must take place. These deadlines are always disregarded and after a while the “new” policy simply gets announced again.
Another feature is that when problems arise, usually because of some colossal blunder in the past (e.g. “saving” on maintenance), it is announced that these are not mistakes or blunders but “challenges, which must be addressed”. What this actually means is that the government will look at the problem and perhaps issue a statement about it or make the odd speech. It is then possible to say that the problem “is being addressed”, so don’t worry, it’s in good hands. Except it’s not and never, ever will there be any question of holding accountable those who committed the original blunder.
In good part, of course, this inaction is due to the slothfulness of ministers who are far more interested in their perks and in intra-ANC politics than they are in governing since they know that they owe their perks, their entire career and future to the party and, if they lose their footing, they might struggle to get another job.
It is also due to “transformation”: it is hard to find a new head of Eskom, for example, because the applicant has to be black and in good odour with the ANC. Such people owe their business careers largely to a large leg-up from BEE, know nothing about engineering or energy and have never run a large organization before.
If the government was at all serious it would choose one of many very able white or Indian businessmen. Similarly, of course, there are the large numbers of able and experienced people who used to run Eskom extremely well. Many of these would be willing to return to national service but such a notion could not be tolerated because of the symbolism of calling whites back in to do what others can’t do.
After all, such a move might have implications for bringing some able whites and Indians into the government itself. This is an unbelievably horrid idea and far more important than whether the lights stay on or whether there is an adequate supply of water.
To be fair, the civil service was ruined back in the days of Mandela and Mbeki. People of expertise were dispensed with and replaced by large numbers of placemen and women. These new recruits were paid enormously more than the people they replaced but they were pretty much incapable of doing anything, which was why they ran up enormous bills by hiring consultants who did their jobs for them.
The apartheid bureaucrats wasted a great deal of time, money and reputation on operating the pass laws, setting up bantustans, removing “black spots” and so forth and they were not a patch on, say, the British, French or Indian civil service. But they did build large dams and many large townships as well as a major highway network. Things got done. They managed with very few consultants, were paid a great deal less and were also less corrupt. They are badly missed.
Thabo Mbeki was always desperately concerned by the white racist taunt that “Africans can’t govern”. This is, of course, ridiculous. The governments of Botswana and Namibia are both doing a very passable job right next door to us, as is the government of Mauritius, another near neighbour. Further afield Rwanda and Ethiopia catch the eye. But it does seem to be true that the ANC can’t govern.
It doesn’t understand economics, it can’t face up to its challenges, it is corrupt and it can’t get things done. Law and order are breaking down all over the country. One can see this in the hijacking of lorries on major highways, the disruption of building sites, the military style raids – 25 men wielding AKs – on gold mining companies, and of course, even in a case of utterly gross theft like VBS a year later there are no prosecutions. We also have 58 murders a day, something like eight times the rate in the USA. And law and order is the very first duty of government.
Ordinary people have understood the politics of drift some time ago. They know that the political elite are wholly indifferent – indeed, uninterested in – their problems and that they could go on protest marches all day long and no one would bother. They understand that to get noticed you have to do something much more violent and dramatic – stone passing vehicles, block roads, burn trains or loot and burn foreign-owned shops.
Even the foreigners in our midst have learnt from the locals the need for such direct action, hence the Nigerian attacks on policemen in Jo’burg and the large-scale sit-in by foreign migrants in the UNHCR offices in Cape Town. The latter was particularly notable. People who had come to this country of their own volition and often illegally were demanding that someone else should pay their airfares back home or, preferably, to a third country elsewhere.
It is unimaginable that people from the DRC, Mozambique, Nigeria, Malawi or Zimbabwe would dream of behaving in such a way in their own countries. Clearly, they have benefited from lessons in entitlement here.
So, the politics of drift is what we’ve got and there is absolutely no point in writing articles about what the government “must learn”. It isn’t listening. Moody’s have just given the government three months in which to take serious steps to address the country’s economic crisis but it is almost beyond belief that this will happen. So the much more interesting and important question is what happens if this policy of drift continues. To this I shall return in a second article.