One step forward, two steps back… it ain’t fiction just a natural fact (2023)

Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

The year 2015 is behind us. It has been year which President Jacob Zuma, would probably want to forget. Then again, there is a large coop on the President’s homestead in Nkandla, and there are very many chickens that will come (home) to roost in the coming months and years. For the rest of us, well, there’s an old Latin proverb which says: Semper in excreta sumus solum profundum variat. This is sometimes translated as: “we are always in shit, only the depth varies”.

Starting at the top. How, then will 2016, turn out? If events and trends of the past few years are anything to go by, it is not impossible to speculate about the coming period. The same people who have been in power over the past few years, will be in power in 2016, with a few changes here and there. The increase in rubbish that has been spoken over the past year does suggest a turn to the comedic, if not the calamitous. Consider the expedient asininities and non-sensical rubbish stated by Tina Joemat-Pettersson about the Western Cape and conspiratorial/racist whites/capitalists; Lindiwe Zulu’s kiddie pool brilliance spewed forth on a discussion best left to deep-sea divers; President Zuma’s throwback 60s, speech that had more of Borat to it than it did Kwame Nkrumah or Patrice Lumumba; the earth-shattering genius of Zwelinzima Vavi in response to the discovery of Homo Naledi at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site, and Blade Nzimande’s cynical and callous joke about starting a students must fall movement, when he was asked about the future Ministerial conduct in the face of a national crisis in education. We can only hope that they will give their improv tendencies a rest, and focus on more important political economic matters. In the meantime, the good ideas and policies that disappeared mysteriously over the past few years, will probably remain somewhere in the ether, and the bad ideas, customs and practices that marked our politics and governance will remain in light.

Looking at the political landscape, there are two main challenges that stand out, to me, anyway.

The first will be whether we can work through, around or without Jacob Zuma. There cannot be too many people who still believe that any solutions to South Africa’s problems can be reached with Zuma in office. Questions remain whether he will, eventually, leave quietly, and take his retinue of loyalists and patronage-beneficiaries with him, and return to his home in KwaZulu-Natal. The key question here is whether he will stay out of politics. It is not inconceivable that Zuma may join up with traditional forces in the province, especially if this will help strengthen the protective ring around him. It is possible that some of these, and other questions will be addressed in the exit strategy that is being prepared for Zuma. Clarity on this and other pressing issues may emerge by the end of January…

We should moderate our expectations, however. Zuma’s departure, when it does arrive, will not be the end of South Africa’s problems. This bring us to the second challenge for 2016:

Depending on who Zuma’s successor is, we may experience what in football is referred to as the “new manager bump”; that lift a team experiences when a new manager has taken over after a drawn-out slump. If Cyril Ramaphosa is the new president, this “bump” may last a while, and there may well be sustained optimism among investors, and the private sector – the actors who typically provide most of the jobs required to help lift the country out of doldrums. Ramaphosa will, however, not be able to make the changes that (he knows) would restore great confidence in the state and the country. At least not without great disruptions in the public service, in the ANC and among members of the ruling alliance.

To set the country on a development path that would expand the economy by increasing investment, growth, employment, training and strengthen distribution mechanisms, there has to be confidence in a state that can demonstrate the capabilities that the most successful countries have put in place, and achieved marked success.

Chapter 13 of the National Development Plan (NDP) makes firm recommendations in this respect. To start restoring confidence in the country, South Africa should have: a state that is capable of playing a developmental and transformative role; a public service immersed in the development agenda, but insulated from undue political interference, and ensure that staff at all levels have the authority, experience, competence and support they need to do their jobs. It is rather unfortunate that the NDP has become a pejorative term in South African political discussions. The main reason for this is that the Presidency has failed to produce an aggressive and effective communications strategy, while the NDP’s main opponents are winning the public relations battles. This is something that Ramaphosa and the new members of the National Planning Commission can put right; the problem is that they have to work with what they have, in terms of bodies. This goes back to the capable state matter. Bums on seats make a difference only to the government wage bill…

Fresh impetus in government, and in new leadership will, also, be severely circumscribed by the political calendar of the next two years, with a disproportionate focus on political “events” in South Africa. Between each event there is a tendency to wait, to not focus on anything controversial, to not make any decisions, and to wait (again) for a Cabinet lekgotla, or the SONA, or the Budget, or the ANC’s lekgotla, or the ANC’s policy conference, or elections or the ANC’s elective conference.

While I have no direct access to information on the ruling party, there is every probability that they will meet, or that a Cabinet meeting will be held early in the year, to discuss the multiplicity of crises in the country. Nkandla will not be on the agenda; there is no reason why it should be. Anyway, before then, no work will be done. Then there will be the SONA, and all energies will be focused on the President’s speech. We then have the Budget. Again, no work will be done, because everyone will hold their breath for the first speech of Pravin Gordhan’s second coming. By then we will know when the local government elections will be held. This would not be the time to get rid of the flotsam, jetsam, derelict and lagan of the great ship South Africa, which the ANC led into the iceberg’s bulk below the ocean line. Immediately after elections, there will be contestation of results, court challenges and some changes in the politico-administrative interface, and then all our energies will be drawn to the ANC’s leadership race…

By the time we have seen the back of Jacob Zuma, we will have returned to that wonderfully familiar space, the new normal called SNAFU. We will, unfortunately, be nowhere near the stable, prosperous, productive, safe and harmonious society we have dreamed of since 1994. We will, over the next two years, take two steps back, for every one step forward. As the song goes, “that aint fiction just a natural fact.” DM


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