Our leaders in government, labour and business seem to be sleepwalking their way towards the cliff’s edge, says Allister Sparks.
Three months ago, I suggested in several articles and presentations that South Africa was heading rapidly towards the dangerous convergence of both a political and an economic crisis. That moment has arrived.
I claim no special foresight about this. The stark facts have long been there for all to see. But our leaders in government, labour and business seem to be sleepwalking their way towards the cliff’s edge. No one seems to realise what a serious situation our economy is in, or how close the ruling ANC alliance is to disintegration. Nor what the consequences of these two interacting crises may be.
It is almost exactly a year since our previous minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, warned that state expenditure was overtaking revenue inflows, and that unless something was done to cut expenditure and boost revenue, the point would be reached where the government would be unable to fund both its infrastructure programmes and its ballooning welfare payments.
Well, nothing was done. Instead, we got the Nkandla blowout, the continued haemorrhaging of SAA and other state-run enterprises, as well as further growth of our dysfunctional and hugely expensive cabinet and civil service. This is to the point where Gordhan’s successor, Nhlanhla Nene, has now told us there is no more money.
And even as he spoke, calling for stringent expenditure cuts in his medium-term budget policy speech, the Post Office bosses were demanding a 26 percent pay increase and President Jacob Zuma was seeking a huge expansion of the presidential budget.
It was also exactly a year ago that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) decided at a special congress in Boksburg to withdraw its support for the ANC at the upcoming national election. It also gave notice of its intention to establish its own United Front of left-wing groups, including unions, with a view to forming a Labour Party to challenge the ANC.
Now, predictably, Numsa has been expelled from Cosatu for moving in that direction. No surprise there either.
So, some time next year, we shall almost certainly have a Labour Party to add to the EFF on the left flank of our political spectrum.
In the course of this break-up, at least some, if not all, of the seven Cosatu affiliate unions that have so far sided with Numsa may join its United Front and support the new Labour Party.
Cosatu itself will be greatly diminished, reduced to a federation of mainly public sector unions, while the alliance will effectively be ripped apart. And a weakened ANC will find itself under dual attack from this new challenger on its left and the steadily growing DA on its right.
That in itself is not a bad prospect. It would mean a more logical line-up along ideological lines, rather than the present gridlock of conflicting ideologies within the ruling alliance which has brought the country to a discordant standstill.
But it is the interaction of the economic crisis on this break-up of the political alliance that poses the danger. As long as there is political turmoil, there can be no economic growth. And as long as there is no growth, there will be more unemployment, social frustration, protests, crime, strikes and general unrest, particularly among the disillusioned and angry youth.
All of these point to a further downgrading by the ratings agencies next year, which will have yet further knock-on effects.
Such a downward spiral is a truly alarming prospect. That is when, in the words of WB Yeats, the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.
There is already one alarming sign of things falling apart at the very heart of our democracy. In Parliament itself. Last week, the National Assembly was again the scene of chaotic disorder, beginning with a filibuster carried out by all opposition parties, and culminating in riot police storming into the Chamber after Parliament’s own security refused forcibly to remove an EFF member whom the Speaker Baleka Mbete had ordered out.
Something is indeed rotten in the state of South Africa when the very symbol of our democracy can be subjected to such action, with legislators being punched, manhandled and knocked to the floor. And it is time the national executive committee of the ANC recognised that it is President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma who is the root cause of the rot.
The ANC blames the EFF party members for the misbehaviour, and they are indeed a raucous lot. But they are also a symptom of a growing sense of outrage across the nation at the way our democratic institutions, from the National Prosecuting Authority to the public protector and now, Parliament itself, are being abused to protect the president from the ever-lengthening list of corruption allegations against him.
It is an outrage that Parliament appointed an ANC-dominated ad hoc committee specifically to whitewash Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s findings about how Zuma had benefited from the R246 million expenditure to upgrade his Nkandla home.
The public protector’s role is entrenched in our constitution, and every MP swore an oath to defend and uphold that constitution.
It is an outrage that the committee expects us, the citizens and taxpayers of this country, to accept its finding that Zuma himself knew nothing about these upgrades, despite his frequent visits there. That he never noticed the sudden appearance of a swimming pool or an amphitheatre, a cattle kraal, a chicken run or extensive landscaping of the Nkandla grounds… that these things simply materialised on his property without his awareness of them.
It is an outrage to expect us to believe that he never asked his private architect, whom he insisted take charge of the security upgrades on behalf of the State, any questions about all this. And that he never approved of any of it.
It is an outrage that Speaker Mbete, who is supposed to be even-handed in controlling debates in the House, has shown such bias in trying to restrict debates about the Nkandla debacle, that the opposition parties have called for her removal. That being after 20 years of really good ANC Speakers, highly respected by the opposition.
It is an outrage that last Thursday’s intrusion of riot police into the National Assembly to manhandle opposition members was obviously pre-planned. And that ANC parliamentarians openly applauded their action.
Above all, it is an outrage that the government, instead of focusing its undivided attention on the twin crises now facing the country, is massively preoccupied with trying to protect a dysfunctional president from the consequences of his own follies.
There is only one way to rectify the deplorable state we are in, and it surely cannot be long before the stalwarts of the ANC come to recognise and act upon it. Zuma should be asked to step down, even if that requires granting him a blanket amnesty and allowing him to go and enjoy Nkandla. The country and the ANC itself can no longer afford him.
His interim successor should then form a government of national unity drawn from all sectors of society, to get the country back on track ahead of the 2019 elections.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed hereare not necessarily those of Independent Media.