Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Friday, September 29, 2006

A contrarian view
I always enjoy looking at a contrarian point of view that challenges the status quo in order to round out a debate on an issue, especially one that is largely emotive. Over the years, contrarians have often proved to be right in the face of a majority that builds a collective concensus through a group-think mentality. And so this brings me to Jacob Zuma.

Let's start with two current elements of the status quo within this issue. The first is the widely held belief amongst the white elite that if Zuma comes to power in South Africa, we will immediately begin a slide to a non-functioning and socialist state, beginning with the repealing of our macroeconomic policies and the dismantling of the political centralisation. The second is the view that we do not have a robust enough democracy in South Africa that is able to stop him from pursuing any agenda he so chooses.

Let's continue with the ground rules. Firstly, I harbour no favour for a Zuma presidency and believe that he holds little to a leader of the international quality of Mbeki. Secondly, I make and see no excuse for his failings in terms of allegations of corruption, sexual misconduct or his recent bigoted comments regarding gay people. My point here is to provide a contrarian view to the two elements of the status quo mentioned above.

So the hypothesis then is that if Zuma comes to power, it will not push South Africa into a communist, backward country and ruin the economic freedom and development so hard fought in the past decade.

I base this initial segment of the hypothesis upon a few key facts from Zuma's past. Firstly, one has to realise that Zuma is riding Cosatu's coat-tails primarily to achieve his aim of reaching the presidency. Zuma had been deputy president of South Africa for six years, and sat by and supported the ANC's committment to the current - and by emerging market terms, substantially capitalist - macroeconomic policies. Secondly, as recent Markinor surveys have shown, less than half of Cosatu's base would support a Zuma presidency, it's no foregone conclusion. Should he come to power, he will need much more than Cosatu's backing alone. But I think that people misunderstand Zuma's political savvy - he's built a significant power base, as can well be seen, and he's built it in direct opposition to the type of leader Mbeki is, because he cannot beat a leader like Mbeki. He has to take another approach, and this is by way of populist support. I don't think Zuma accidently procured populist support, I think he's courted and nurtured it. Does that mean if he comes to power, he has to adopt an entirely populist approach politically? Not neccessarily. The current ANC voting bloc is impressively forgiving of its president - a hangover from the 'liberation party' principles of our nascent democracy. I believe that Zuma undoubtedly knows this, and may well understand that he can pay lip service to his populist base and make some fairly demonstrative moves, but will not need to (and I will explain - will not be able to) push through a socialist populist agenda.

This final point finds relevance in the fact that in modern South Africa, many of our largest and most influential businessmen (vis a vis Messrs. Sexwale, Ramaphosa etc) are ex-ANC struggle leaders that hold large sway in terms of influence of party faithful and the ANC's upper echelons. There is simply too much riding on the success of our economy to alter its course to a significantly more socialist one. Small changes can be made, such as the extension of the income grants, but the sway of these ex-leadership businessmen will be fully brought to bear on the ANC upper echelons should this go any further. Then there is the issue of South Africa's democratic institutions, most notably the press. The South African press has a largely negative view of Zuma, and one cannot underestimate the power of the press to sway influence in the succession battle. This naturally makes the 2007 ANC AGM a critical time for the press' influence, as once the ANC presidential candidate is chosen there, power is largely a given. However, if Zuma does take power, the press will undoubtedly give him a very tough time on political issues, and can be a significant power in shifting voting patterns in municipal elections and in shifting electorate views. The ANC is also well aware that it is in the early stages of a very difficult time for the party, with different factions both in the Tripartite Alliance and the party splitting its unity. The press can only further divide these factions, and should Zuma try to force through socialist reforms, I think that the press would raise the stakes and make it very difficult for him to do so without doing notable damage to the ANC's future strength.

I think if Zuma comes to power, he may well tip the scales back a bit from our current position in terms of a truly capitalist macroeconomic policy, but we need to realise that will most likely not be anything that will harm the long term success of the country. Countries like France, Germany and Canada are successful with macroeconomic policies that are largely more socialist than ours, and nobody tolls the death bells for them. There will undoubtedly be some capital flight as foreign investors perceive greater political risk and move money from emerging economies, but should the economy stabilise, this will undoubtedly return. Likewise for the Rand, but again, our economy has shown to be very resilient to internal shocks in the past.

Finally, there are the electorate themselves. The white elite generally views the black majority as a homeogenous voting bloc, which is far from the truth. Surveys have shown that Zuma has divided the black electorate and whilst they will probably not shift votes from the ANC to other parties, they may abstain from voting and will probably be very vocal in their opposition to what they perceive will be Zuma policies if he elected. This will also be a handicap for Zuma, as there is no person bigger than the party in the ANC, and there will probably be much pressure on Zuma internally to respect the party's historical strength as a party that represents the largest proportion of the non-white majority.

One needs to remember that this is what happens in a democracy - it's the will of the people as a whole, not your vote individually. In the US, many on the far left emigrated from the country because they were so unhappy that Bush won the 2004 election. That is not the right response there, and its not the right response here either. If you don't like something in a democracy, you own it! It's your democracy - get out there and change it. Campaign for the other guy, write letters to the press, donate to a competitor's campaign, do something about it.

Sadly, I feel that too often the white elite falls into the Chicken Little mentality, where they are continually waiting for the sky to fall. The Zuma presidency is the latest such event that is "doomed make us like Zimbabwe". But before we listen to the dinner party talk and believe it, or buy into the group-think mentality, take a moment to challenge that view, and check those assumptions.

A Zuma presidency will undoubtedly not be ideal for our country, but let's wait and see how bad it is. It may not in practice prove to be nearly as dire as many believe, and I contest that our democracy, its institutions and our economy are much stronger than many believe. I can tell you one thing, South Africa will still be a great place to live...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Clinton takes on Fox
The great Sunday news story in the US was former president Bill Clinton losing his rag at Fox News' Chris Wallace during an interview. Clinton was asked to come on to Fox for a 15-minute interview, with half the questions discussing his charity initiatives, and the rest asking other "topical questions".

The background to this interview is that there has been a marked Republican campaign in the US press over the past few months to deflect blame for the difficulties currently being experienced in the 'War on Terror' to the Clinton administration's "failure" to kill Osama Bin Laden.

It takes little time for the Fox machine to roll into action, asking a few precursory questions, before diving in to the Republican party line of shifting the blame to Clinton. Bubba gets pretty riled by this, and launches into a bit of verbal sparring with Wallace. It's great to see how articulate he is, even under quite significant pressure, and the result is pretty entertaining. Fox have told You Tube to remove the video from their servers (after it got over 800 000 views on Monday), but Google Video has the whole interview here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Business is taking me to the heaving metropolises of PE and East London, so blogging will be slow this week. Normal service to resume shortly...

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Welcome Change
Let's see what comes of it, but Government's announcement that it wants to mend fences with the TAC and other AIDS bodies is a great sign. Government spokesperson Themba Maseko said:
"... the deputy president's office will take steps to ensure that there is interaction with all other players who have a meaningful contribution to make in the fight against HIV and Aids. The meeting underscored the need to take concrete steps to mend relations and raise the level of interaction between the government and stakeholder groupings."

This once again highlights Government's decision to sideline Manto as the public face of the ANC's AIDS programs, which I think we'll continue to see in the immediate future. It seems finally that Government has woken up to the fact that this is a serious issue, that simply cannot be ignored in the face of terrible human tragedy.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wouter a salaried government employee
The fact that Wouter Basson is still pulling a substantial salary as a military man for providing no services is inexplicable. Dr Death is currently working at a number of hospitals around Cape Town ("Dr Death I presume?"), but according to reports, stills receives a R50 000 a month stipend from government.

Basson states that he still holds a senior post at One Military Hospital in Pretoria, although he says that "I would not able to tell exactly what post, but I hold a senior post and receive a senior remuneration."

All I can say is, disgusting.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The DA's embarrassment
The old war-horse Helen Suzman has broken her silence of recent times to climb into Douglas Gibson's recent antics, and I couldn't agree more. It's more of the same stupidity from the DA, and it's exactly these types of over the top performances that only alienate the party from an electoral base that is its only hope of a future.

I simply cannot understand why the DA has not cognicised the fact that their abrasive, all-publicity affront simply does not win any votes in this current electoral climate. The DA has lost its credence in South Africa, and its relevance. It incessantly makes it easier for opponents to paint them with the racism brush, and does little to detract from those accusations. As Suzman says, these events have "diminished the DAÂ?s claim to respect as an opposition party". If the DA wants to rebuild trust with the electorate, and more importantly, to win more votes, the party has to focus on relevance.

Again, Suzman wins the last word:
"?The official opposition has, surely, much more important matters to attend to, such as corruption, crime, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, TB, Zimbabwe, and the government's failure to deliver on its many promises."?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

As one door closes, another opens
Two big pieces of leadership news from both sides of the Atlantic today that have a bearing on the future of both countries. In Britain, Tony Blair finally was forced to officially state that he will "he will resign from office within a year". After years of trying, Gordon Brown finally has his man.

In the US, a Gallop poll shows that the challengers for the '08 US Presidential elections will be Hillary Clinton and Rudi Guilliani. Clinton was a no-brainer, but I would have thought that John McCain would have been the stronger challenger. However, his moderate nature, especially against the Bush administration, is probably too much for Republicans to bear. However, US elections are usually decided by the middle, and this is where McCain is strong. Don't count him out just yet...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The end of the first neocon dream
Great op-ed piece in the Business Day today by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman. Rachman discusses the neocon strategy of US-led wars bringing democracy to the Middle East, as well as the notion that democracy would serve US interests.
Looking at the Iraq misadventure, it seems the neocons were not as free of liberal wishful thinking as they imagined. Their big mistake was to overestimate how easy it would be to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. That error was compounded by a naive faith that the democratisation of the Middle East would serve Americans interests. Proclaiming his neocon-inspired 'freedom agenda' for global democratisation, US President George Bush said: 'America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.'

The 'freedom agenda' is seductive as it holds out the prospect of abolishing the uncomfortable moral choices associated with Kissingerian realpolitik. But the reality is that Iraq is a bloody mess; and that Arab voters have developed a habit of casting their ballots for the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Officially, the Bush administration is undaunted. Unofficially, it is shelving the 'freedom agenda'.

Rachman goes on to talk about the resurgence of "realism" amongst conservatives, as espouced by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. A well-written piece, and well worth the read.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sudanese make their move
It's dangerous times in Darfur at the moment, as Khartoum tries to keep the UN forces out of Sudan. With conflicting headlines that bring a homogeneous message, the Mail & Guardian reports that Khartoum will accept the AU force's presence in lieu of a UN force, whilst the UK's Independent reports that Khartoum has ordered the AU out of Darfur to be replaced by its own 10 000 strong army force.

Either one of these endgames is bad news for the long-suffering people of Darfur. The AU has proved itself to be a pretty useless force for keeping any real peace in the area, and the militias have been able to continue tormenting Darfur. A Sudanese military force would be even worse, as these soldiers have largely been those inflicting supportive oppression with the militias.

The UN force needs to be sent in, but it has been rejected by the Sudanese government, as well as with tacit rejection of a number of international players. Three countries abstained on the recent UN resolution - China, Russia and Qatar. The Independent reports:
The abstentions indicated the types of support Sudan can rely on. Qatar, the only Arab nation currently sitting on the UN Security Council, did not wish to be seen supporting an international force entering another Arab country. The Arab League asked the UN to postpone the vote and refused to send their observers to the Security Council session.

For Russia and China, the motives are economic. Both have close economic ties with al-Bashir's regime, in particular China which has big oil interests in the country. There is another crucial pillar of support which Khartoum can lean on. Osama bin Laden has backed al-Bashir's decision to refuse a UN presence in Darfur, and al-Bashir has in turn borrowed rhetoric from al-Qa'ida's leader, likening any UN force to "western colonisation".

This presents a really tough situation for a world trying to prevent genocidal acts. Without a UN force, there are few countries willing to intervene. Any singular military force will be seen as an imperialist attack on an Arab state, which in the current global climate can do serious harm. And if a "regime change" operation would occur, what would replace it in Sudan? It would be easy to see Sudan descend into a modern-day Somalia very quickly. Without easy solutions, it seems like the Darfurians will be facing further oppression for a while to come.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Another unwanted milestone in Iraq
Another unwanted milestone passed yesterday in Iraq, as more US citizens have been killed in Iraq than were killed in the September 11th attacks. There simply seems to be no end to the situation in Iraq and as Bush's - and the Republican Party's - support wanes in the run-up to the mid-terms, one can only see pressure intensifying on the US position there. And as a rallying call for Islamic militants around the world, Iraq has been the best possible servant to their cause. Whilst many Republicans and many supporters of the Bush administration will still see the cause as being just and true, one can only imagine that history will not be kind to George W Bush.