The ANC's bitter pills

RW Johnson on the psychological hurdles facing the liberation movement at a time of crisis

A strange event occurred on April 23rd. Tito Mboweni was due to tell the press the details of the R500 billion relief programme. And, indeed, a dull and boring statement was duly released to the press. But it had nothing in common with Mboweni's outburst to the press in which he not only reiterated the government's determination that a shiny new airline must emerge from the wreckage of SAA, but in which he went on a rant about the prevalence of Zimbabweans and Malawians among the waiters and waitresses of the restaurants he patronized.

In 1990, when he had first returned from exile, 90% of the waitrons were South Africans, he averred, but now foreigners had an almost 100% monopoly of restaurant jobs. This was unacceptable and in future any relief given to such businesses would be conditional upon their having a South-Africans-first labour policy. This was sheer nativism, though of course Mboweni was careful to avoid that word.

Quite what had upset Mboweni so badly as to make him throw away his speech, we don't know. In all probability he is finding himself the target of attacks as a neo-liberal, a toady of the IMF/World Bank and thus a sell-out. Certainly, his rant seemed to be aimed at reasserting his credentials as a strong African nationalist. What is interesting is the themes he chose in order to do that, for they are key areas of sensitivity.

First, SAA. For some months now the airline has been in Never-never land. On the one hand the government has flatly confessed that it cannot afford any more bailouts. Worse, the government has bullied the local banks and the South African Development Bank into handing out billions to SAA and it is not clear that they are going to get their money back. Yet at the same time we hear the repeated mantra – from Pravin Gordhan, from the unions and now from Mboweni – that the airline is about to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes. This is absolutely impossible without a large re-capitalization of SAA - which could only come from the government. And that's not on. So what on earth is this about?

The liquidation of SAA (and SA Express) will mean the direct loss of 5,000 jobs and, without much doubt, the loss of many more indirectly. This would be a major affront to Cosatu and represent the breakdown of a key component of the Alliance – viz. that the government will support with subsidies and bail-outs any loss-making SOE, irrespective of how badly it has been run, in order to prop up its feather-bedded labour force.

If this key conditionality is lost there will be a major political fall-out within the Alliance. Secondly, a bankrupt SAA/SA Express would be a body-blow to ACSA, for they provide a large portion of the airports' income. Powerful ANC interests are involved in ACSA and, quite likely, if SAA/SA Express disappear, ACSA will have to join the queue of SOE beggars at the government's door. Thirdly, the collapse of an SOE and its replacement by private airlines would be a major affront to all believers in the NDR, for it would be a move away from the socialism which we are supposed to be heading towards.

There is, however, an even more sensitive nerve. African nationalists are all too uncomfortably aware of the mocking chorus from racist whites according to which black majority rule leads inevitably back into the heart of darkness, with every aspect of modern society falling into disrepair. This is psychically very damaging and feeds into all manner of insecurities, including an anxiety as to whether this might indeed be true.

Thus African nationalists want very much to believe in the vision of an African future incorporating all the symbols of successful modernity. It is no accident that President Ramaphosa dreams of bullet trains connecting wholly new cities – when it seems beyond the state’s capabilities to keep even an old-fashioned train service going to serve existing centres. Similarly, the President enjoys flights of fancy about South Africa’s role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while in fact the country has been steadily de-industrializing for at least a quarter of a century.

The ANC government accordingly had no hesitation in spending vast sums on the Gautrain, a service which almost none of its supporters could afford to use. It is probably also why, ten years after the 2010 World Cup, South Africa still boasts of a whole series of futuristic white elephant stadiums which exercise a colossal drain on the public purse. South Korea, more sensibly, built wonderful stadiums for the Seoul Olympics and demolished them straight afterwards, knowing they could use those sites better for other purposes. But then South Korea, the home of Kia, Samsung and Hyundai, has no need to reassure itself with symbols of modernity.

It is this which makes the Eskom and SAA crises so painful for the ANC. When, in 1992, I suggested to a seminar that South Africa must at all costs avoid the usual African syndrome of an energy crisis and power cuts, Thabo Mbeki walked out and I was rebuked for what he had apparently taken as an insult.

Fifteen years later, on Mbeki's watch, the power cuts arrived – and, of course, they remain. But SAA with its jumbo jets is an even more potent symbol of national power: remember how these jets were used for flypasts at presidential inaugurations and at the World Cup? Thus the fact that this primary example of modernity has failed and may not survive ANC rule is more psychologically painful than many outside the ANC realise. Hence the frantic insistence that, against all rationality, SAA will survive. It is pure denialism.

The prevalence of Zimbabwean and Malawian waitrons is another sensitive spot. For many years now Cosatu leaders have uncomfortably ruminated on the fact that there are ten million unemployed but that Zimbabwean and Malawian immigrants nonetheless have a happy knack of finding jobs. Employers explain this largely in terms of the foreigners' greater proficiency in English and lack of any sense of entitlement but it is surely also important that they do not qualify for social grants: if they don't work, they don't eat – so they are often willing to work for less. Either way they are an unsettling example of how a liberalized labour market might work.

Another psychological hurdle – borrowing money from the IMF – seems to have been surmounted. Even Bheki Ntshalintshali, the Cosatu boss, has agreed that it is only sensible to take advantage of a 1% interest rate to borrow $4.2 billion from the IMF. But there are those who still retain a religious horror of the IMF and who realise that accepting money this time will make it that much easier to ask the IMF for a bail-out later on. Thus in the latest edition of Bua Komanisi[1] the SACP warns that “While there are some indications that the IMF and World Bank are offering low interest Covid-19 loans, we need to appreciate (that) the fight against Covid-19 will not likely be out of charitable concern from these quarters but a strategic imperative to support their interests”.

That is, it's all a cunning plot to subordinate South Africa to the Bretton Woods institutions but, happily, the SACP will fight to the last breath to retain national sovereignty. This is all somewhat fantastic. The SACP, after all, strongly supported the ascent of Jacob Zuma and the consequent state capture, with no apparent qualms as to the national sovereignty they were selling down the river to a family of foreign thieves.

Indeed, not so long ago Blade Nzimande himself was leading a demonstration in favour of Zuma's Nkandla palace, claiming it was “rural development”. But leave all that aside. The idea that the Bretton Woods institutions are a sort of permanent conspiracy to undermine national sovereignty is ridiculous. No one makes any country take a loan: they have to ask – and they do. If a country then finds that it is tough having to pay back that loan with (low) interest, this is hardly the IMF's fault. The loan and the amount are openly negotiated and a debtor country knows exactly what it is signing up for.

But the issue of an IMF bail-out is now closer than ever. Mboweni has thus far been coy about saying where exactly the R370 billion of extra spending is to come from but it is difficult not to believe that at least some extra borrowing will be involved. The World Bank reckons that the debt limit for a middle income developing country like South Africa ought to be 60% of GDP, but in fact we could well end up this year with a budget deficit around 15% of GDP.

That is, we are now rapidly closing in on a debt of 80%-90% of GDP. If a debt trap of classic proportions is to be avoided, Mboweni and Ramaphosa are going to have to introduce such swingeing structural reforms that GEAR will look very left-wing in comparison. Thus far we have had a lot of huffing and puffing about this, though neither man has given any indication of any specific reform. But they have gone too far to turn back and the markets will punish any procrastination heavily.

As this moment of truth approaches one may be certain that there will be a rising chorus of hysterical denial – of wild denunciations and imprecations. These will redouble as the Left slowly grasps the fact that one result of these developments will be to take NHI right off the agenda. The Treasury, which has never believed in NHI, will have little difficulty in pointing out that the last thing that South Africa can now afford is the huge new expense (perhaps 5% of GDP per annum) of launching such a scheme.

This will be a bitter pill since the sight of the private medical sector happily co-operating in the fight against Covid-19 has raised hopes on the Left of an immediate state take-over of that sector. Similarly, the SACP is still punting the notions of a state pharmaceutical company, a state shipping line and a state bank – unperturbed by the fact that the only bank the state does run, the Land Bank, has just gone bust for a second time. All of this is now pie in the sky, as is the equally potty idea of nationalising Sasol.

So it is going to be difficult to retain a cool head amidst the heated sea of rhetoric which looms before us. Two things stand out. The first is name calling. The word “neo-liberal” carries much of the load. Any person, policy, institution or programme that is disliked is labelled neo-liberal although (of course) the word itself is never explained.

Personally, I have never been sure what a neo-liberal is. I first heard the term in relation to Thatcher and Reagan and since I strongly disliked both of them I assumed that I couldn't be a neo-liberal. But I'm equally sure that I would be called a neo-liberal by some – and I have a nagging feeling that it's not meant as a compliment. This is a puzzle, especially since I still don't understand the term and no one seems able to explain it, let alone explain quite why it is thought to be such a bad thing.

My own private solution to this conundrum is only to use terms which the subject of those terms is happy to use about him or herself. Since I've never heard anyone describe themselves as a neo-liberal, I don't use that term. But plenty of people are happy to call themselves liberals, communists or even quite esoteric things like being a neo-Keynesian, so these are all legitimate terms which I feel free to use. Similarly, many neo-conservatives are happy to be called neo-cons so we can use that term with general agreement as to what it means.

The principle is simple. Many political terms are used only as terms of abuse and thus to use them is to align oneself with whichever sect or faction that likes to employ such terms about its enemies. But mere ideological dislike, however vehement, is not an argument. So if one wishes to be more rational, not to mention more objective and more polite, it's best to omit the name-calling terms. I've never heard anyone call themselves a proto-fascist, a pseudo-intellectual, a neo-colonialist stooge or an imperialist lackey, so I avoid such terms.

These are really just yah-boo words. On the other hand I knew an Italian, a supporter of the MSI (the Italian Social Movement), who called himself a neo-fascist. I also knew Frenchmen who described themselves Bonapartists or who used the old Vichy slogan of “Patrie, famille, travail”. And I had an English friend who could never quite manage to join the Communist Party and sadly confessed that he was “just a fellow-traveller”. So, at a pinch, all those terms are acceptable.

If one applies this principle one quickly realises that a lot of so-called political debate is little better than playground name-calling – a tradition which Marx did much to foster. Indeed, I had an English friend, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, who eagerly pointed out to me that Marx was clearly haunted by visions of vampires – so we have endless mention of blood-sucking exploiters, employers battening upon the poor and other images from the Hammer horror stable. He argued that if one wanted to render this into less objectionable prose you could just say “you're all a lot of rotten vampires”. Admittedly, it lacks a certain zing.  

A second tell-tale characteristic of those who trade in ideological denunciation is the entire lack of a sense of humour. There is a sort of deadly earnestness about them and they take themselves most seriously of all. Anyone who ventures a joke or merely enjoys a flippancy is viewed like someone swearing in church. This is a sort of double warning. Could one really want to join a political group which was entirely humourless? Has anyone managed to get a laugh out of Umsebenzi or, for that matter, Marine Le Pen?

But, love him or hate him, Boris Johnson can be very funny (I remember one particularly hilarious lunch with him) while Jeremy Corbyn was never known to tell a joke. Even my parents, who voted solidly against Churchill, loved his sense of humour. Similarly, Barack Obama could be funny but even unintentionally Trump has never achieved that.

It's not surprising that people prefer politicians who can make them laugh or who can laugh at themselves. In any case it is difficult to trust people who have no sense of humour, for they have no sense of the ridiculous. Even at their own most ridiculous they just don't get it and are thus capable of endless solemn bombast. One is reminded of Gore Vidal's impression of Hell: “My dears, it was so awful. The noise! And the people!”

[1]     Special Issue Vol.13, Issue No.1, April 2020