One of South Africa’s diminishing band of the super-rich, Rob Hersov, set tongues a-wagging and feathers a-ruffling last week with his comments about the depressing state of the country, and his, ahhh, perspectives on what has brought it to this point. ‘Corrupt clowns, criminals … Cyril’s clown Cabinet,’ he declaimed. Some in this circus are older, some younger, ‘but all of them are incompetent.’ The President – dare one say Ringmaster to all this? – was a ‘useless, spinless failure’.
That’s some ‘robust’ language right there…
And if the cabinet had failed to show spine on the direction of the country (even though it’s, like, their job and stuff), it discovered a spine in response to Hersov’s acidic words. Gwede Mantashe (a gentleman who’s become something of a lightning rod for criticism) flashed out this message: ‘We have noted with concern the mischievous remarks by Rob Hersov on the South African government. We urge him & the business sector to work with government in the reconstruction & recovery of our economy, rather than working against us. If they work against us, we will all fail.’
His colleague Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi added that she’d reached out to Hersov: ‘I said to him tell me what it is that makes you so angry with this government? I have never received a letter from him or a phone call, unlike other businesspeople who do reach out to us. So, standing on the other side and insulting this country, is not helpful. He is talking down the country. As an investor, you can’t damage the brand and think the brand is going to give you value. And this is where the problem is: we have to work together to uphold Brand SA. You can’t bully us to do things you want.’
Ah. Concern. Urging. Work with us. Not helpful. A lexicon of cliches that we hear like a round of lyrics on a scratched record (remember them?). And a dose of self-pity, cos Hersov is a complete meaneypants bully – and he won’t get what he wants.
Is he a bully? I dunno. I probably wouldn’t have put it in those terms at a Biznews conference, but that’s an aesthetic judgement rather than an evaluation of the substance.
Okay. Business Day, meanwhile, opened up last week Monday with an editorial about how President Ramaphosa was gripped by a ‘crisis of inertia’. It tried to be generous – he’s achieved a lot and outfoxed some of the more insane ideas, like the Expropriation without Compensation boondoggle – but ultimately had to declare that his incumbency was plagued by missed opportunities. Too much deference to his party. ‘Like his predecessors, he has shown incredible tolerance for incompetence.’ Same old same old.
Actually, there is an eery symmetry between what our present-day ministers are saying now and what was being said from the same quarters two decades back. In 2004, Tony Trahar who was then CEO of Anglo-American had made the rather milquetoast observation that ‘I think the South African political-risk issue is starting to diminish – although I am not saying it has gone.’
Then President Thabo Mbeki went full Game of Thrones on him, and that was before GoT was a thing. Sallying forth atop the party’s weekly newsletter, he seethed: ‘When foreign business people have told us about South African business people ”bad mouthing” our country, was this what they were talking about?’
Well, kyk hoe lyk ons nou. Mbeki didn’t sit comfortably on the Iron Throne for that much longer. The intervening years showed just how vulnerable to political risk South Africa was. Hell, last year we saw the bawdy outcomes of all this when the state became effectively irrelevant as rioting and looting spread across parts of the country. An official enquiry made it clear that a lot of what was going on was about internal workings (‘workings’ might perhaps not be the greatest word…) of the ruling party.
And from the overconfident and undercapacitated ANC we got a correspondingly overconfident and undercapacitated state. Cadre deployment in common parlance. This poisonous little game helped create a situation where the state is one of the biggest burdens to business. Okay, YOU try sending YOUR contract documents through the Post Office. Or keeping YOUR furnace fired with Eskom power. Or… well, you get the picture. If you live in South Africa, of course you do.
Actually, Kubayi says one thing that resonates. ‘Bullying’ the government in which she serves would be fruitless. The South African state does not concede in the face of bullying (though maybe an exception can be made if it’s the Chinese doing it).
It is hardly known for its responsiveness to business concerns. Or responsiveness in general. Peter Bruce, once an enthusiastic acolyte of the Ramessiah, recently penned a frustrated column entitled ‘Stand by for another outpouring of absolute drivel’. You can probably work out the tenor if not the content. The subject was the social compact that the President has been punting as a solution. ‘Work together’, remember. And conveniently, making a good many problems created by one of the partners the responsibility of the others to solve. That’s actually quite clever, in its own way.
Working together, you can achieve more for me…
Bruce nailed it: ‘So you get the intent here of this “pact”. Ramaphosa’s administration has run out of tax revenue and it now wants business to fund its ideological programme going forward. But take the knee now and business may as well never stand up again. On Friday all the parties started afresh, but to what end? The whole purpose of a social pact is political, to save a political career, in this case Ramaphosa’s. Business should not help him. He has been too slow, too negligent, too smug or cynical, too careless, too soft and too indifferent for going on five years in office to warrant our empathy or support now.’
Just so, sadly. And I mean that. Bruce notes that business exerted itself on the Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Programme, and not much came of that.
Useless, spineless and all the rest. Is this accurate? I dunno that either. Business (and the rest of us) can see the dysfunction for itself. No upbeat verbiage or faux ‘working together’ is going to change that. And there’s something positively surreal about decrying the words of a businessman while a discordant theatre of the absurd unfolds around us. As though reality, to misquote Thomas Sowell, is optional.
Sigh. Maybe reality is optional. And maybe it’s just unpalatable.