Tuesday, December 15, 2015

President Zuma’s tarnished legacy

And how it has strengthened our democracy.

When an astute chess opponent leaves his queen exposed, your instinctive reaction is to take it. Mindful of his skill, however, you consider that it may be a deliberate sacrifice to achieve check-mate a few moves later. But you take it anyway, and then discover that your opponent simply made a stupid blunder.

I cannot think of a more appropriate analogy for President Zuma’s sacking Nhlanhla Nene as Minister of Finance and then having to backtrack to reappoint Pravin Gordhan. The brazenness, manner and timing of the announcement, and the ensuing flip-flop, all point to the unthinkable: the possibility of a simple, stupid blunder – perhaps triggered by a hissy fit after Nene’s doomsday address to cabinet a few hours earlier. While tantrums can sometimes reveal the monster within, in itself it is also a disturbing reflection of power-blindness, one that does not fully realise its own limitations.

We have clearly paid a huge price for this folly and in the weeks ahead will continue to do so. It’s not necessary to repeat the doomsday responses from a large body of respected commentators, analysts and economists, including some of the nebulous calculations of the cost. They are all valid, but at the same time miss the most important point of all: the drawing of a solid line in the sand to show the world that democracy is very much alive and well in this country. The disturbing image of an unstoppable autocrat hell-bent on power-mongering and political intrigue for self-gain has been substantially countered if not destroyed.

In time that should become the overriding message to counter the immediate concerns about having an unstable, unpredictable and confused captain at the ship. Without doubt his wings have been severely clipped. Only time will tell whether this bird of prey can fly again. I somehow doubt it.

At the very least that solid line in the sand will remain as a reminder, not only for the captain, but his lieutenants and inner circle as well. It stands clearly drawn. Cross it at your peril. It is formed by invincible forces that stand outside conventional democratic processes but are crucial to them.

The first is the global markets. They can be criticised for being bi-polar, fickle, impetuous and even emotional. But no country can ignore them, especially not one with an open economy such as South Africa. They will wreak havoc with your domestic well-being; consumer prices, jobs, your ability to borrow money, and the price you pay for your debt.

Current world markets may be fickle, but that very fickleness is why a country has to gain their trust and their favour. In a perverted way, and with the hefty “klap” we have been given these past few days, there is a glimmer of hope that in time we can do just that. For market trust is also largely based on a perception of checks and balances in political decision making. The last few days have shown that we do have that, certainly the first such sign in a very long time since Zuma took the helm.

Another relatively newcomer to power curtailment are the social media. The power of a free conventional media has been known for some time, but in my view and life experience is often overrated. But not so the social media. While admittedly they are relatively new in my life, I have never quite experienced such a galvanised expression of anger and outrage at a government pronouncement: vehement, inflammatory, perhaps even hysterical and defamatory. We have been given a taste of those forces that triggered the Arab Spring, and the ability to effect regime change. Not even the most megalomaniacal mind can ignore that, despite its still rather limited reach in this country.

These two forces: markets and media stand on a rock solid foundation in this country of a vigilant citizenry, as often demonstrated in ongoing street protests and elsewhere; powerful institutions, including Chapter 9 bodies and an active NGO sector; a strong and independent judiciary; an overriding constitution, and a still solid private sector that may have become muted by global economic conditions but that still has to be seriously wooed to contribute to the welfare of South Africans.

Certainly, President Zuma has made serious inroads into all of these. But ironically one could also argue the opposite:  that we should be celebrating Zuma. Not lamenting him. He has single-handedly stopped the growth of a political party that was becoming far too dominant and autocratic. He has created the strongest, albeit disjointed, opposition since 1994. He has put the mighty ANC on the defensive, forcing it to defend its behaviour rather than its promises; personalities rather than principles. He has fragmented not only his party, but its alliances, and has triggered the birth of another powerful political player in the form of the EFF. This will no doubt become evident in next year’s local elections.

The lessons of his tarnished legacy are also valuable. Having a moral compass is not only a question of sound values; it is also a matter of self-preservation. One cannot rule effectively and sustainably on patronage, fear and seduction. Sustainable power is based on having the interests of followers at heart. Great leaders are always seen as servants first. We have also seen that panic is seldom productive; outrage and anger is much more effective.

On balance it has been a good week politically. Far from our democracy being weakened, it has been strengthened. In time, hopefully the credit agencies and markets will come to see that.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Purpose and provision

The two most vexing issues in retirement.

Our local family doctor has just retired. Word has it that in the early stages at least he has been at a bit of a loss and frustrated with the change. He has now resigned himself to spending time with his family as he “contemplates his future”.

This is certainly not an unusual experience for many entering retirement, especially those that see it as an end to something and not the beginning of something – an end to years of toil and simply entering a life of leisure. For medical doctors this must be particularly frustrating. Most of us see medical practice as the ultimate form of fulfilment, a purposeful pursuit in service to others, and one where there is constant affirmation of a contribution to society. This is particularly so for those is small town practices, where they get to know their patients intimately and are viewed by them as members of an extended family. In addition, of course, few in medical practice need be too concerned about provision, and no doubt over the years have ensured that this spectre will not haunt them when they stop practising.

But what it does show is that even those who do not lack provision in retirement can still be frustrated by lack of purpose. Unfortunately for many retirees both are of concern. Purpose and provision are the two main driving forces in our lives and finding a proper balance between the two is fundamental to contentment. For purpose and provision you can also read contribution and reward; meaning and means, and the basic instincts of empathy and survival.

It becomes particularly vexing in retirement for on the one hand, the end of active employment robs one of a sense of purpose, and on the other limits one’s capacity to cope with provision, or at the very least removes aspirations for an improvement in lifestyle. So the elusive balance we may have found in our working lives is suddenly and severely disrupted.

These may be fairly obvious circumstances that face retirees. Yet many I have spoken to, and even in my own experience, one can, like our family doctor, be caught flatfooted within a short time of that critical life change.

Provision is more tangible to deal with. True, the average person does not give sufficient thought to their retirement needs early in their working careers, but as they approach retirement, most would become acutely aware of what they would need and would hopefully have read the volumes of excellent material on the subject on Moneyweb. In addition, we have a very reputable, well controlled and active financial advice and retirement planning industry in South Africa. While we still hear of many cases of pensioners being taken by scam artists and fraudsters, I do believe these are the exception.

Of greater concern in provision are the personal choices one often makes. They include whether or not to sell one’s home, moving to a different area or to the coast, taking a world sea cruise, buying a coffee shop, or investing in a new venture. These are very personal, and few financial advisers are equipped to give advice beyond pointing out the financial implications of those choices.

Many of these choices are linked to purpose, or meaning, illustrating the strong connection between both of these life drivers as well as the strong desire to continue having some purpose in life. But they come at a time when one should be more averse to risk, and it is senseless if one forges ahead with some plan to establish some purpose in retirement, only to have that potential serenity destroyed by concerns about provision. A good example is the number of people who invest in some B&B in an exotic place only to discover that it not only takes hard work, dedication and long hours, but that these ventures can be a financial drain.

I believe the real problem lies in not giving enough serious attention to the “what” and “why” of retirement rather than simply the “how”. In other words, we spend a lot of time, effort and funds on ensuring a “comfortable” and “trouble free” retirement financially, but not nearly enough, and not early enough on ensuring that we can maintain some sense of purpose. When I speak to young adults, and those in their forties and above, I strongly urge them to develop some hobby or alternative activity that they can pursue in retirement. Preferably this should be linked to some commercial benefit, not only because nothing gives one a greater sense of affirmation than a commercial transaction, but most will find the additional income very handy.

Failure to plan early to establish a sense of meaning in retirement is, in part, simply because we underestimate the sense of purpose we had in active employment. No matter how much we disliked our work, the hours, the traffic and a belligerent boss, work has an inherent sense of purpose. We only recognise that fully when it comes to an end. It’s the old story of wanting to run away from something so badly that we fail to consider properly what we are running towards.

Another danger to consider is over-reaching in the new pursuit. You may attain your dream of that small plot in some idyllic rural area, where you grow vegetables, herbs and raise some chickens for market; only to discover that in time you lose energy, concentration and all the physical faculties you need to continue that pursuit. Changing gear at that time of life is far more traumatic than at a younger age. Of course it is a personal choice whether you are prepared to face that. One simply must not underestimate the discomfort it may lead to.

People and personal bonds are a key ingredient to a happy retirement. Few can face seclusion and isolation in their twilight years. Yet many seem destined for that. I have witnessed many sad cases of the elderly in retirement homes and frail care centres, abandoned by even their closest family. Of course, this is not completely in one’s own control and indeed it is a very sad reflection on modern life to see how the elderly have fallen from their revered status decades ago, to the kind of ostracising we have today. So whatever can be done from the retiree’s side to avoid that is worth the effort.

But of course, death itself is a lonely experience. And the last few years by their very nature are an inward, reflective journey.