Zuma: the end of the beginning?

John Kane-Berman says a lot more has to be done to reverse SA's downward slide

After the British and their many allies had defeated Erwin Rommel at the second Battle of Alamein in October and November 1942, Winston Churchill famously commented that this was not the “beginning of the end but perhaps the end of the beginning”.

The imprisonment last week of Jacob Zuma is of course a victory, however belated, for the principle of equality before the law. It is also a victory for all those whose persistence finally succeeded in bringing the former president to justice. Let us further hope that Mr Zuma’s punishment makes all of our rulers wary of themselves being jailed for contempt of court.

It would nevertheless be over-optimistic to see this important and symbolic event as possibly the “end of the beginning”. When Mr Zuma became president in 2009, this columnist was hopeful enough to ask whether he would be able to prevent this country from becoming a “failing state”. That the question could even be posed shows that South African was sliding downwards even before Mr Zuma became president. He, of course, made things worse. And since Cyril Ramaphosa took over in 2018, the downward slide has continued.

To those urging Mr Ramaphosa to speed up reform, or at least embark upon it, the retort from many journalists, academics, and business leaders was that he always “played a long game”. They were right, of course, as the tragically tardy pace of vaccination in South Africa shows – while Mr Ramaphosa, like a typical Third World victim, busies himself by railing against “vaccine nationalism”.  

President Ramaphosa gets invited to G7 summit conferences and the like, but he must be one of the most over-rated “leaders” in the world today. This is not because his policies are wrong, although most of them are, but because his government fails to carry out some of the most basic functions of any government. These include preserving law and order, running an efficient public sector, and providing essential services.

As president and party boss Mr Ramaphosa presides over a vast number of ministers, their deputies, provincial executives, and local councillors, along with their support staff of public servants, not to mention officials of state-owned entities. If numbers translated into efficiency, we should have one of the best-run countries on the planet. But the reverse is true.

The pockets of excellence one sometimes finds are more than outweighed by the failures, the well-known causes of which include cadre deployment and the absence of consequences for corruption. Another factor is hostility to racial minorities which leaves posts vacant if black Africans cannot be found to fill them, or sometimes fills them with unqualified people rather than members of minority groups.

But there is another problem: the appetite for power characteristic of bureaucracies, and socialist bureaucracies in particular. Not only do they find it difficult to give up power, but they are also always on the lookout for some or other means of acquiring more.

Some of this is ideologically driven, such as the proposed national health insurance system. Some of it is born of visceral hostility to private enterprise, the mining industry and private health care in particular. Some appears to be driven, at least in part, by hostility to farmers: removing self-defence as a lawful reason for owning guns, just as the commandos were disbanded some years back.

Some is because the ANC is simply out of its depth in running a modern state. It cannot provide security to enable mining, construction, trucking, and other companies to operate in safety. Its capacity to build is heavily outweighed by its wrecking capacity, the most obvious examples of which are the fate of Eskom, South African Airways, the SABC, and numerous other entities, including much of the country’s rail network for both freight and passengers.

Municipalities across the country are in a state of collapse. If Gift of the Givers can dig boreholes when public hospitals are facing water shortages, why can’t the ANC? The list goes on and on.

As South Africa slips down numerous international league tables, the response of the Ramaphosa administration invariably consists of little more than empty promises wrapped up in platitudinous speeches, along with nostalgic references to the “glorious” past of his party, whenever that was. Does Mr Ramaphosa care about the ratings? Does he study them? Is he bothered by abysmal education, anaemic investment, and sky-high unemployment?

He puts his toe in the water with a bit of privatisation, but his ministers continue with plans to tighten racial legislation, further hamstring the private sector, and undermine property rights.

In his fulsome tribute last week to the Communist Party of China on its 100th anniversary, Mr Ramaphosa hailed it for placing “the needs and interests of the people at the centre of its work”. Nobody could accuse the ANC of doing that.      

When the ANC took over the country in 1994, the question that many asked was whether South Africa would go the way of the rest of Africa. The answer usually given was that we had a strong private sector, the best infrastructure on the continent, more graduates than most countries further north, vigorous institutions in civil society, a higher level of urbanisation, a culture of free speech, a free press, and a tradition of pluralism in both black and white politics. Even though the private sector is under attack, and infrastructure crumbling, these are precious assets for the new democracy to have inherited.

Although Mr Zuma has finally been imprisoned, it will take a lot more than that to halt and then reverse the country’s downward slide. Like liberation movements elsewhere, the ANC would abolish democracy and establish a one-party state if it could. It is too late for that, for pluralism is now too powerful. Along with free speech and other attributes of an open society, this means that there are plenty of tools available for the long battles ahead, not only against the predatory ANC but also against its destructive ideas and reckless policies. That Mr Zuma has eventually been brought to justice shows that battles are worth fighting even when the odds against winning seem so great.        

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.