Nene dispute hides a profound SA malady: the economy
The absence of a true reform agenda is as depressing as witnessing a good man wrestle with his conscience
Nearly 100 years ago Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr wrote: “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may be another profound truth.”
These past five days in SA, and the swirling controversy around Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, have provided an updated example of Bohr’s original observation.
On Tuesday afternoon Nene was dropped from his post by President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose default speed of slow-moving caution and crablike decision making was ill-tuned to the hyper-speed of international markets, which in his four-day indecision found another reason to pummel the rand.
The falsehood part of the Bohr philosophical equation is easy to demonstrate in the case of the beleaguered finance minister. He confessed to lying about his proximity to the infamous Guptas and his frequency of visits to their notorious Saxonwold compound.
He was perhaps harassed into this confession by the kompromat which the leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters threatened to expose. Doubtless it is galling to be threatened by the EFF on matters of personal ethics and financial probity, given that some of its key leaders would fail a personal ethics test, but such is the hypocrisy of politics and its abased standards here and everywhere these days.
The ex-finance minister did not, doubtless, wish to lie under oath to the Zondo commission. Anyway the slot of the perjurious-liar-as-cabinet-minister is already occupied by Malusi Gigaba. And there is no shortage of other claimants in the cabinet circle for pole position in the rogues gallery: Bathabile Dlamini, ordered by the Constitutional Court to be investigated by the Hawks for possible perjury; and then there is Nomvula Mokonyane – of “we will pick up the rand” fame – being investigated by parliament for criminal charges over an unauthorised R2.9bn overdraft she authorised as minister of water and sanitation.
The profound truths now tumbling daily out of the Zondo commission is likely to do to the ANC on the corruption front what the Truth Commission, over two decades ago, did to the National Party on human rights: rip off the mask and expose the sewer of malfeasance and criminality erected at the heart of the state.
But the result of the self-exposure of Nene is not a universal call for his dismissal. The contra-view was well expressed by leading business maven Magda Wierzycka, who did much during the depravity of the Zuma years to shine a light on its darkness. She tweeted on Monday: “He [Nene] stood up to Zuma and stopped the nuclear deal, oh, and met the Guptas (yes, panicked and lied about it when cornered as many would). Come on, let’s get some perspective! How many did them favours. How many are falling on their swords?”
Her defence is what a philosopher like Bohr would identify as “moral relativism”: Nene did a bad thing but he did many good, brave things and, anyway, the others are far worse.
Perhaps the slowness in Ramaphosa’s actions was precisely identified by Wierzycka’s robust defence of Nene. If he dismisses the finance minister, how can he keep the others? And, anyway, where was Ramaphosa when all this happened? The nuclear deal sign-off; the visitations of his cabinet colleagues to the Gupta compound; the firing of Nene by Zuma. To coin the old question asked by law enforcement officials: “What did you know, when did you know it, and what did you do about it?”
But whatever caused the pause button to be released, Ramaphosa decided, finally, to recall to the cabinet my old friend Tito Mboweni. He has a wealth of experience and bucket loads of self-confidence and a keen intelligence; whether he is market friendly and reassures the credit rating agencies, two key constituencies outside the control of the ANC, remains to be seen.
In this sense the phenomenon of Nene and the exquisite dilemma his case presents is indicative of the morass or swamp into which the Zuma administration and its accomplices plunged SA. It is fair to ask, however, whether the people who placed us into that fetid swamp are best positioned to drain it as well.
Long before the advent of post-truth politics and the loudest and most important normaliser of false statements as facts, namely President Donald Trump, SA received an ethics lesson-in-reverse 10 years before Zuma became president.
Thabo Mbeki had just been inaugurated as president in June 1999. He defended former apartheid apparatchik Ndaweni Mahlangu, who for some inexplicable reason Mbeki had appointed premier of Mpumalanga. His first public utterance (and the province even then, long before DD Mabuza took its helm, was riddled with corruption) was to defend a proven liar’s appointment in his administration. Mahlangu’s defence was way ahead of its time but it set the standard for the mendacity of mediocrity soon to become the norm.
“It is permissible for politicians to lie in public,” was the soundbite to posterity Mahlangu provided. No contrition or remorse from him back then (unlike Nene now).
When I suggested to Mbeki he could set a golden example to illustrate his government’s standards in fighting corruption, the president declined. Not only would he not do so, but he branded me and my political cause “peddlers of a soulless theology, homegrown Tories, who define some races as subhuman and believe in the survival of the fittest”.
With adaption and slight tweaks, this became and continues as the standard defence of the indefensible, but it certainly predates Zuma, though he took us down into new lows.
While Nene’s fate hangs in the balance on the ethics front, there is no argument that he is a thoughtful and careful steward of our public finances. But that is part of an even larger problem.
While Nene commendably placed wax in his ears to the more outrageous demands of Zuma and the siren calls of extreme populism, or “the macro-populists” as Trevor Manuel dubbed them, standing still is simply not enough to kick some life into our failing economy.
On Tuesday the Centre for Risk Analysis (CRA) of the Institute of Race Relations released an alarming report: SA is in the longest downward business cycle since 1945 and there is “relatively little life across any of the 10 major sectors of the economy tracked by the CRA”.
Yet across the Atlantic, Trump – who makes Mahlangu or Nene seem a rank amateur in the truth stakes (according to the Washington Post, he has uttered over 3,000 verifiable untruths since his election in 2016) – has created an extraordinarily different economic picture.
Data released on Friday indicated the US unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1969, underlining the country’s sky-high growth, indicated by US Treasury yields reaching new highs along with a surging stock exchange.
Of course some of this is correlation, not Trump-causation, but his trillion-dollar tax cut and bonfire of regulations undoubtedly helped power his country’s economy.
Neither Nene nor his credible successor has such fires to light under the embers of our weak economy. The absence of a true reform agenda is almost as depressing as witnessing a good man like Nene wrestle with his conscience. That’s a profound truth, not a demonstrable falsehood.