Red carpet must wait: political reality bites Ramaphosa

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Red carpet must wait: political reality bites Ramaphosa

Mahikeng is a reminder that his road to reform is littered with party-political obstacles

Columnist

It ranks as a great cosmic irony. Cyril Ramaphosa’s debut on the world stage as president is interrupted by the suppurating standoff in the far northwestern corner of his local empire.
No doubt Ramaphosa would have preferred to have hobnobbed with the Queen and the Commonwealth heads of government in London. But he had to rush home to  ensure, again and a century later, what the British empire once proclaimed: “Mafikeng has been relieved.”
Of course, in today’s South Africa, the name of the town is Mahikeng – and the relief being sought is not from the Boers, but from the corrupt rule of local ANC strongman Premier Supra Mahumapelo.
Most politicians, government and opposition alike, have degrees of addiction to the narcotic of foreign travel and the flummeries of red carpets and international summits. But Ramaphosa’s early exit from London last week was a rude reminder of a fundamental political truth.Years ago, in 1932, Tip O’Neill – who in the 1980s earned fame as Speaker of the US House of Representatives – lost his first  election. He wrote of this only defeat in a multi-decade, storied political career as hugely valuable in one key respect.
“I learnt that all politics is local.” In other words, however lofty your ambitions and international your reach, the first political lesson is to get elected and to stay in office.
Doubtless, Ramaphosa is aware of the danger of the flames of Mahikeng spreading elsewhere in his political world. Indeed the more corrupt the province and its leadership, the worse the delivery of services. So, what starts in North West can spread to the Free State and the Eastern Cape. And the political  firefighting in one region simply suggests to a fed-up citizenry that the only way to command headlines and attention is to follow suit.
But when Ramaphosa was not being tripped by the failures of his provincial barons, his vaunting ambition for the country was on recent display.
He announced his plan to generate an extra R1.2-trillion in extra investment over the next five years and to boost sclerotic local growth levels to around 4%.
But this target is to be achieved, apparently, via investment summits and through trade ambassadors.But, of course, that is the easy stuff. If talk shops and private sector emissaries were the solutions to the hard job of adding a million new jobs to the economy, then we could spend the next few months simply talking and travelling.
But true economic reform is really hard. Just ask French President Emmanuel Macron or Argentinian head of state Mauricio Macri. Both are trying to change two of the most change-resistant economies in the world. Places where trade unions and public sector workers enjoy massive entitlements and the state is burdened with the populist pledges from the past which trip up the new hope leadership elected in both places.
In France, Macron confronts the state-owned train operator, SNCF, currently paralysing his country with strikes and disruptions. Macron and his prime minister are trying to force it to become more efficient and open its monopoly to competition. And as one analyst noted: “Critically, he will end the sacrosanct status of rail workers: new recruits will no longer enjoy job security, automatic pay rises, early retirement and generous pension provisions that have been fixed in law for more than a century.”
In Argentina, Macri knows he has to contain public sector wages to tame runaway inflation and reduce his budget deficit.
Of some fascination here would be the chaotic state of public education in a country that, decades back, provided the best levels of learning in South America.
Yet in the country’s largest province, Buenos Aires, governor Maria Eugenia Vidal notes that 40% of junior and high school pupils cannot pass exams in reading comprehension or basic mathematics. Part of the blame in her view: “Last year only 30% of teachers went to work every day.”In South Africa the education metrics are far worse than Argentina’s and our state workers here are not being confronted by the harsh realities of competitive practices a la France.
But these are the necessary steps, beyond summits and appointing investment ambassadors, to uprate skills, reduce the deficit, promote investment and herald change.
There is a fundamental difference between Macron and Macri on the one hand, and Ramaphosa on the other.
While this trio all assumed presidential office on the back of deep dissatisfaction with their respective predecessors, the political machines that propelled them to their presidencies were completely different.
In France and Argentina, the new presidents kicked over the traces of the older political order. In both cases they broke the old system and created political parties in their own images. Their paths to reform might be hard, but both Macron and Macri can walk this road to renewal unencumbered by the weight of party commitments and old debts, and not hostage to vested interests.
Back in South Africa, Ramaphosa enjoys no such leeway. His road to reform, if he  genuinely is prepared to walk it, requires first that he reform his party before he can change his country. As simple, and as complicated, as that.

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