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South Africa: It Could Be Worse

“We have three gangsters, one suspect, and a president who is prisoner of a Top Six that is clearly compromised,” said Zackie Achmat, Aids activist and Nobel Prize nominee, on hearing that Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and businessman, had been elected president of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC).

It’s hard to celebrate when another billionaire wins an election, but thoughtful people in South Africa are at least relieved: it could have been worse. It could have been Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, a profoundly corrupt man who has allowed, even encouraged corruption to spread through the higher ranks of the ANC.

There’s no evidence that NDZ is corrupt herself, but it was widely believed that if she won power she would protect her former husband, who is otherwise likely to go to jail after he leaves the presidency. He faces 18 charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering, money laudering and tax evasion relating to 783 payments.

In October the Supreme Court of Appeal reinstated the charges, which Zuma has repeatedly used his presidential powers to suppress or postpone. His former financial adviser, who went to jail for making those payments, says he will testify against Zuma if necessary.

Zuma was counting on NDZ to protect him (they have four children together), and most of the ANC bigwigs who joined him in plundering the economy also backed her bid for the presidency. But Cyril Ramaphosa outmanoeuvred her, and on Tuesday he was narrowly elected president of the ANC.

He’s not yet running South Africa, but in the 23 years since apartheid ended the ANC’s president has usually become the country’s president as well. Zuma can technically stay in power until the next scheduled elections in 2019, but last time the ANC’s president changed, the party immediately “recalled” the sitting president of South Africa (Thabo Mbeki) and put in the new man (Zuma). That may happen again this time – or it may not.

If Ramaphosa becomes president of the whole country soon, there are high hopes that the corruption and the constant subversion of the law will stop, or at least shrink. Billionaires don’t need to steal. And if local and foreign investors believe that Ramaphosa is not only honest but competent, then maybe the economy will manage better than one percent growth.

That would be nice, since it’s a long time since South Africa has seen any real economic growth. But it’s far from guaranteed, because Ramaphosa has been lumbered with a “Top Six” in the National Executive Committee (NEC) – a kind of cabinet – at least half of whom backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Two of them, David Mabuza, now Deputy President of the NEC, and Ace Magashule, now Secretary-General, are definitely “gangsters”. They have ruled two large provinces, Mpumalanga and the Free State, for a long time; they are both inexplicably rich; and both of them have close ties to the Guptas, a mega-rich family of Indian immigrants who have such influence over Zuma that they have been accused of “state capture”.

Mabuza has also been accused of running a private militia, and there has been an unusually high death rate among his local critics in Mpumalanga. Magashule’s critics have also had some health issues. The two men are definitely part of the problem, not of the solution.

It’s less clear whom Zackie Achmat thought the third “gangster” was, but it could be Jessie Duarte, now Magashule’s deputy. She also has ties to the Guptas, and vigorously defends Zuma’s action at every opportunity. All three were elected by the leadership conference, and Ramaphosa can’t fire them, so his hands are tied – or at best, his freedom of action is severely restricted.

Zuma will therefore probably have another year to feather his nest and undermine the judiciary and the police before the scheduled general election in 2019. Even after that it is questionable how much headway Ramaphosa can make in cleaning up the party.

The great irony here is that Ramaphosa is richer than all of the thieves put together. If he could just have given them all the money they stole (an estimated $40 million in Zuma’s case, but much less for most of them), Ramaphosa would still be rich at the end of it and a lot of these crooks would have done the jobs they were elected for.

Some of them might even have done their jobs well, in which case South Africa would be a different place. But if Ramaphosa had gone down that road, he would probably have ended up trying to buy the courts and the country’s remarkably free media as well, and those are its only safeguards against a descent into total dysfunction.

As an old friend and lifelong ANC member said to me a couple of years ago: “If you had told me in 1984 (in the depths of apartheid) what South Africa would be like now, I would have been delighted. If you had told me in 1994 (the year of the country’s first free election), I would have been in despair.” The right attitude, of course, is somewhere in between.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 13 and 14. (“Mabuza…solution”; and “The great…dysfunction”)

South Africa: Last Chance for the ANC

The African National Congress has ruled South Africa for 23 years, ever since the end of apartheid and the first free election in 1994. Twenty-three years is a very long time in politics, and you would expect it to be losing power some time around now. But it was a great and noble institution in its prime, and it would be a pity if its ending was merely squalid.

Nelson Mandela, the first ANC President of South Africa, was a secular saint admired world-wide. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was a honest and intelligent man, but also reclusive, completely lacking in empathy, and obsessive (he spent thousands of hours searching the internet for evidence that HIV did not cause AIDS, and at least half a million South Africans died because his government did not make the standard drugs available).

And then, eight years ago, came President Jacob Zuma, a man who is neither honest nor intelligent, but who is wily enough politically to have survived the endless corruption scandals that litter his past. This time, however, he has done something that damages the whole country economically, and if the ANC cannot force Zuma to resign now then its political future is likely to be short and miserable.

Ironically, it’s not clear whether Zuma’s motives in this latest initiative are entirely corrupt. He has feathered his own nest and those of his cronies and allies quite adequately over the past eight years without getting rid of the incorruptible finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. Why dismiss him now, only two years before Zuma must retire at the end of his second term?

Maybe Zuma is just doing a final big favour for his friends – but maybe he has been talked into this by smarter men who told him that if he just spent a lot more money (which isn’t there to spend), that he could finally raise the living standards of the multitudinous South African poor.

Zuma is an “old comrade”, after all: he spent years imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and the other ANC icons. Maybe some shreds of his old idealism remain, and it was his associates inside and outside the government who persuaded him that Gordhan was the only thing standing between South Africans and prosperity.

That’s how the rhetoric justifies it. Zuma talks about the need for a “radical socio-economic transformation” in South Africa, and the new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, points out that “the ownership of wealth and assets remains concentrated in the hands of a small part of the population.” All true, of course, but these are not the people you would hire to fix it. And meanwhile, the resistance to Zuma’s move builds.

Pravin Gordhan was seen by foreign investors (and many South Africans) as the only guarantee that Zuma would not turn the country into a feeding trough for his associates. The finance minister held the purse-strings tight, blocking many of the government contracts that would have enriched them further. Now he is gone.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa called the dismissal of Pravin “totally unacceptable” and condemned “greedy and corrupt people” in a broadside clearly aimed at Zuma. Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, said the list of new ministers which Mr Zuma presented to the party leadership was compiled “elsewhere”. Even his old allies in the trade union movement have called on Zuma to step down.

The South African currency, the rand, lost 5 percent of its value on the foreign exchanges, but far more serious was the fact that one of the big ratings agencies, Standard and Poor’s, downgraded South African bonds to “junk” status. If only one of the other two agencies follows suit, big international investors like pension funds will be obliged to dump their South African government debt, and the government will be unable to raise loans abroad.

The reactions against Zuma’s action are so intense that you would think he cannot just ignore them and carry on running the country into the ground. Unfortunately, he may be able to do just that, because real power within the ANC lies in the National Executive Committee, and he has devoted much attention to ensuring that most of the NEC’s members owe him for past favours received.

The odds on Zuma really being forced from office by this incident are less than even. If he gets two more years in office, now with a pliable finance minister who allows the looting of the state coffers to proceed unhindered and with wicked foreign investors to blame for the resulting havoc in the country, the ANC will be discredited beyond hope of resurrection.

What comes afterwards may be better and it may be worse, but the familiar ANC-ruled South Africa of the past quarter-century will be gone.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“That’s…builds”)

Nelson Mandela: Peace at Last

17 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: Peace at Last

By Gwynne Dyer

The Catholic Church consecrates saints with less pomp and sentimentality than was lavished on Nelson Mandela during the week-long media orgy that we have just been through. We haven’t seen such a ridiculous spectacle since…oh, since the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy three weeks ago. But at least the Kennedy orgy was over a lot faster – and nobody compared him to Gandhi or Christ.

Pity the poor journalists who had to grind out endless stories about what was hardly a news event at all – 95-year-old man dies after lengthy illness – and inevitably ended up sounding like sycophants and fools. True, the world needed (or at least wanted) a political icon of perfect virtue, but the beatification of Nelson Mandela took much too long.

The problem was that everybody in the media knew well in advance that Mandela was dying, and had time to invest millions in preparing to “cover” the event. Hotel rooms and telecom facilities were booked, crews and anchors were deployed, and the expense had to be justified by round-the-clock, wall-to-wall coverage of funeral orations, vox pop interviews, and talking heads.

And of course all the world’s politicians showed up for the greatest photo op of the decade, including many who had condemned Mandela as a terrorist before he pulled off a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa. But now that the babble of rhetoric has died down and just before the myth takes over completely, let us talk honestly about who he was and what he accomplished.

Mandela understood that South Africans needed an icon, not a mere mortal man, as the founding hero of their new democracy, but he had a strong sense of irony. It would have got plenty of exercise as he watched the local politicos and the foreign dignitaries strew metaphorical flowers on his grave.

The man whom they buried at Qunu on Sunday was arrested by the white minority regime in 1963, probably on a tip from the US Central Intelligence Agency. He was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), at the time, and continued to back its campaign of sabotage, bombing and attacks on military and police targets throughout his 27 years in prison.

If the South African Communist Party is to be believed, he was a member of its central committee at the time of his arrest. It was a different time, when US President Ronald Reagan could declare that the apartheid regime was “essential to the Free World,” and the ANC’s main international supporters were the Soviet Union and Cuba. Mandela might have ended up as a man of violence if he had not gone to prison.

Instead, in prison, he had the time to develop his ideas about reconciliation and persuade the other ANC leaders who were also confined to Robben Island of their value. By the time he came out of prison in 1990, he had become the man that everybody knew they could trust – including the whites.

During the next four years, when he and F.W. De Klerk, the last white president, negotiated the transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority, he really was the indispensable man. His commitment to reconciliation was so visible and genuine that whites were willing to do what had once seemed inconceivable: to hand over power before they absolutely had to.

If you want to know what South Africa would have looked like if the whites had clung to power down to the last ditch, look at Syria today. But it was not only Mandela who saved the country from that fate: they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to both Mandela and De Klerk, because the miracle could not have happened if De Klerk had not had the will and the skill to lead his own Afrikaner tribe out of power.

Then, after the first free election in 1994, Mandela became the president, and frankly he wasn’t very good at it. He had no executive experience, nor much aptitude for it.

Thabo Mbeki did most of the hard administrative work behind the scenes during Mandela’s presidency (1994-1999), while Mandela greeted visiting celebrities, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and solicited donations for various causes that included, unfortunately, his own extensive family. He was not personally corrupt, but he was involved in a few dubious deals, and he tolerated corruption in others.

But he did his country one last big favour: he retired at the end of his first term rather than clinging to power. He was already 81 years old at that time, but lesser men (Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for instance) have not let that stop them. And he even had a few good years left to enjoy his family before age began to drag him down.

He was not a saint; he was just a man. But he was the right man at the right time.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Pity…long”; and “Thabo…others”)

 

 

 

South Africa: The Politics of Massacre

20 August 2012

South Africa: The Politics of Massacre

By Gwynne Dyer

Forty-eight hours after South African police killed 34 striking miners last Thursday (16 August), Julius Malema showed up at the Lonmin platinum mine north of Johannesburg to assign the blame.

“President Zuma said to the police they must act with maximum force,” Malema told a crowd of thousands of miners. “He presided over the murder of our people and therefore he must step down….From today, when you are asked ‘Who is your president?’, you must say ‘I don’t have a president’.”

President Jacob Zuma was in Mozambique when the slaughter happened, and is unlikely to have given the police instructions on dealing with a local strike. But professional demagogues don’t have to worry about the details, and Malema was fundamentally right in what he said next.

“Zuma doesn’t care about the mineworkers, he came here last night and met with whites,” Malema said. “It’s not the white British (mine-owners) who were killed. It was you.” And in a final slap at the governing African National Congress (from which he was recently expelled): “They only come to you when it’s time for elections. Once you put that cross, they disappear.”

Julius Malema fills the same role in today’s South Africa that Winnie Mandela did in the dying days of apartheid in the early 1990s: the radical demagogue who uses violent, often anti-white invective to articulate the rage of the impoverished black majority. This terrifies South Africans who have something to lose, black and white alike.

Malema preaches hatred of the rich and hints at social revolution. The fact that he has become mysteriously rich himself at the age of 31, although his only jobs were as an official of the ANC Youth League, doesn’t bother his millions of admirers at all. They just want to see a real redistribution of the country’s wealth in their favour, and they think Malema is their best bet.

They are probably wrong. Malema is ruthless and cunning enough to have a chance at winning power some time towards the end of this decade, when the ANC’s political near-monopoly finally collapses. But he is not skilled enough, and perhaps not even clever enough, to push through that sort of redistribution without destroying South Africa’s industrial economy in the process. Nevertheless, many of the poor feel they have nowhere else to turn.

It is now 18 years since the fall of apartheid, and a substantial class of prosperous middle-class blacks has emerged (together with a small group of very rich people with close links to the ANC). However, the poor majority remain desperately poor, and they no longer trust the ANC to bring positive change in their lives. They are starting to defect politically, and the main battle is being fought on the territory of the trade unions.

Mining is South Africa’s biggest industry, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is the country’s biggest union. It is closely tied to the ANC, but many believe that it is also in bed with the bosses. Cyril Ramaphosa (who chaired the ANC’s disciplinary appeals committee that expelled Malema from the ANC early this year) was the founder of the NUM 30 years ago, but now he is on Lonmin’s board.

The Lonmin strike is actually a turf war. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (ACMU), a new, radical union, has been stealing the members of the National Union of Mineworkers, including three or four thousand of the 26,000 men working in Lonmin’s platinum mine. ACMU promised to triple the workers’ wages, and the violence began when it tried to stop NUM members from going to work.

Ten people were killed in clashes between the two unions in mid-August, including two police who were hacked to death with pangas (machetes). So the police were understandably nervous last week when they faced an angry mob of about 3,000 workers armed with pangas, spears and clubs.

Unleashing a torrent of automatic fire that killed 34 strikers and wounded 78 was an act of gross indiscipline, but frightened men, even if they have far better weapons, will not always respond in a measured and disciplined way when they are under attack. The reflex, unfortunately, is to hold the trigger down and spray the threat with bullets.

Nobody wanted this tragedy to occur, and it is unlikely to happen again in the same way. Jacob Zuma will still probably be re-elected as the leader of the ANC in December and go on to a second term as president. There will be a commission of inquiry, and judges will reach conclusions and make recommendations.

But the main political beneficiaries of the incident are the forces that are trying to loosen the grip of the ANC’s old guard on the unions and the country. It has been a very auspicious occasion for Julius Malema, who is trying to position himself as the only real alternative to Zuma and the gang. Some time later in the decade, the Lonmin massacre may come to be seen as a turning point in South Africa’s history. Or not, because history does not run on rails.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and . (“Julius…alike”; and “Mining…board”)