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.

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