Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The picture on the home page was taken during the 2016 local government election campaign. ANC leaders have fortunately since stopped wearing horizontal stripes.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler

Finance ministers under fire

Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene’s testimony to the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture was certainly gripping.

Nene testified that he repeatedly refused to sign a letter committing SA to a Russian nuclear build programme. He detailed how the finance ministry denied government guarantees to PetroSA that would have enabled the parastatal to purchase assets from Malaysian giant Petronas. He also explained that his veto over former SAA chair Dudu Myeni’s proposals to manipulate an Airbus contract deeply antogonised then president Jacob Zuma.

Nevertheless, despite the impression Nene’s testimony has created, the embattled situation of the National Treasury is more or less a permanent condition. It is true that Zuma helped the Gupta family climb to the top of SA’s dung heap of corruption and rent-seeking. But the dung pile itself predates — and will certainly postdate — his presidency.

The Treasury has always been a target for hostility. It denies politicians opportunities to boost their personal patronage powers. It engages in bilateral wars of attrition with departments that leave a residue of bitterness. Critics on the left love to take potshots at Treasury policy priorities such as fiscal and monetary stability.

Long before the Zuptarian revolution, finance ministers were obliged to engage in endless political horse trading. Under one former finance minister, Trevor Manuel, the Treasury was awarded top prize in the International Budget Partnership’s open budget index for its transparency. Despite such international acclaim, however, the ostensible legal strictures that prevented Nene from signing off on a nuclear deal did not deter Manuel from adding his signature to the strategic arms procurement package.

Links between the fundraising machine in Luthuli House, ANC-aligned business vehicle Chancellor House and huge investments in coal generation plant would surely not have escaped the finance minister’s attention.

Manuel’s successor, Pravin Gordhan, was another public servant of exceptional intelligence and integrity. On his watch, however, the cost of Transnet’s Johannesburg to Durban pipeline escalated from R10bn to R25bn in the space of two years. Hundreds of billions were committed to rail rolling stock and port infrastructure.

In the face of such parastatal extravagence, Gordhan approved the extension of loan guarantees of R350bn to Eskom in October 2011. SA’s high level of contingent liabilities has since contributed to ratings downgrades and escalating borrowing costs. The guarantee framework subordinated the rights of the government to those of all other creditors.

Gordhan and the Eskom board were predictably swept aside. The rot quickly spread from secretive construction contracts at Kusile, Medupi and Ingula to inflated operational expenditures, most notably in the coal supply chain. These disastrous outcomes were not initiated by Zuma or the Gupta family. Indeed, they had roots in well-intended ANC policy documents, such as the New Growth Path, which portrayed state-owned enterprises as the key to state-led growth.

In 2010, newly appointed public enterprises minister Malusi Gigaba told the presidential commission of inquiry into state-owned enterprises — another waste of time and money — that massive loans and guarantees to such enterprises would “double the rate of economic growth”.

The Guptas were not the first entrepreneurs to try to “capture” government and parastatal procurement, to subordinate financial intelligence and revenue services, to access the funds managed by the Public Investment Corporation or to secure state loan guarantees for huge and opaque expenditures. Nor will they be the last.

Nene is the latest in a line of capable finance ministers who have been as honest and forthcoming as their circumstances allow. The predicament of Nene’s successors will not be resolved by shining a spotlight on a single president or by demonising one adroit and opportunistic family.

 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

SA needs accountability to citizens

As “public service month” drags unnoticed to its dismal close, the post-apartheid state bureaucracy remains troubled. The strain on the fiscus imposed by 2-million public service and parastatal employees is widely remarked.

But public sector unions are powerful, the public service is a key driver of the creation of a black middle class, and pay or employment freezes antagonise key frontline workers. The government probably has to focus on improving public servants’ performance rather than on reducing their number.

The post-apartheid bureaucracy was built on the twin foundations of a white supremacist state and a set of corrupt and tribalist Bantustan bureaucracies. Little wonder it is not working well. Efforts to improve performance have enjoyed only partial success.

The public service code of conduct extols virtue but provides little disincentive to vice. Recently amended public service regulations have not stopped public servants’ private companies from doing business with the state.

Since 1994, the governing ANC has placed too much faith in accountability mechanisms within the state: cadre-bureaucrats keeping an eye on other cadre-bureaucrats. This has largely failed. Alongside these top-down instruments of control, government has insisted that the “batho pele” principles introduced by president Nelson Mandela in 1997 should continue to guide the conduct of SA’s public servants.

Batho pele (“people first”) ostensibly instils favourable dispositions in officials: they must consult with citizens, treat them courteously, provide accurate information, operate openly and transparently, pursue high standards, and secure value for money.

Incoming President Cyril Ramaphosa granted fresh life to this wishful thinking in his February state of the nation address, when he enjoined civil servants to “put our people first”.

Sentimentalists now enjoin government employees to “care”. Hence public service month has laboured under a theme of multifaceted implausibility: “Thuma Mina — Taking Public Service to the People: Batho Pele: We Belong, We Care, We Serve.” Rather than celebrating the 21st birthday of batho pele next month, the government should ditch it and put in its place a combination of hard skills development and citizen accountability.

We need analytically accomplished graduates, many of them engineers and scientists, at the top of the service, in career paths that are prestigious and well remunerated. A back-to-basics approach to municipal appointments in engineering and finance departments should be complemented by schemes to train personnel. Above all, what the public service needs is more exposure to people power.

State-centred accountability mechanisms work poorly on their own. Ordinary people are often those best placed to judge what has gone wrong. Citizens should be told how nurses, teachers and municipal officials are legally obliged to act. They should also be informed how local schools, clinics and municipal offices actually perform. In public “league tables”, data about the performance of almost all public agencies can be made available to citizen users.

Cellphone apps can meanwhile help citizens to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with public services in real time.

Citizen scorecards are relatively cheap to set up and can be adapted for use in schools, clinics and government offices. They can be designed to ring alarm bells in management before citizens turn to violence. They can also place immediate pressure on underperforming or corrupt government officials.

SA is a democracy and it does not need an army of spies to oversee citizen grievances, identify antiparty agitators or arrest dissenters. Nevertheless, no state can afford to trust government officials to regulate their own behaviour.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

SA’s unsavoury investment partners

SA’s descent into a technical recession has come as a blow to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic hopes. Given limited fiscal space, heavily indebted parastatals and a nervous private sector, Ramaphosa will now need to make good on his promises with regard to foreign direct investment.

He will come under heavy pressure to conjure up some good news at the investment conference scheduled for October. Ramaphosa initially claimed the tidy sum of about $100bn in new investment would be raised over five years.

The investment drive has become the signature theme of Ramaphosa’s tenure in the Union Buildings. He has sought out investment partners on the African continent, in the Middle East, across the global South, and among the countries of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.

This week he has been in China, where opaque energy sector loans have already been promised for the ailing Eskom. SA is now also pursuing Chinese funds for infrastructure investment and for the creation of special economic zones.

Earlier in the year the president celebrated investment accords in the Middle East, including two ostensible $10bn commitments from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. These deals were controversial, not least because little detail was provided about their substance.

It seems likely the key area for collaboration is defence and security. A February 2017 memorandum of understanding between umbrella organisations in SA and the UAE suggests that troubled state-owned enterprise Denel, and Paramount Group, Africa’s largest private sector defence contractor, are SA’s coveted players.

Paramount sells not just weapons systems but also “solutions”. Yet SA pledged in the aftermath of apartheid not to supply weapons to foreign parties that might use them systematically to violate human rights. It is difficult to see the current behaviour of Saudi Arabia and UAE in Yemen as conforming to this promise.

Bellingcat, an international non-profit organisation, has noted that the Hodeidah hospital attack in Yemen on August 2, which claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, was probably the result of a mortar strike from Saudi or UAE forces. According to Bellingcat, the munition fragments “appear to share characteristics with munitions manufactured by Rheinmetall Denel Munition”, a German-SA consortium-of-convenience that came to prominence last week as a result of a devastating explosion in its Somerset West plant.

In some eyes, even such unsavoury business partners are less unpalatable than the former colonial power, which inconveniently remains SA’s largest foreign investor. The UK is oozing fake humility as a result of the Brexit disaster: SA is a key pillar in the Conservative government’s strategy to forge ostensible post-European Union trading and investment relationships through a largely imaginary Commonwealth portal.

The residual EU is even more important for SA’s prospects. The eurozone – not China — is SA’s largest trading partner by far. It also contains major investors such as Germany, whose Mercedes-Benz confirmed in June that it would invest €600m in expanding its SA operations.

The commitments of international carmakers are precarious, however, dependent as they are on our costly motor industry support programme and on the Great Satan’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows tariff-free export of cars assembled in SA to the US.

These are difficult times indeed. Ramaphosa needs to seek out partners wherever they can be found. Pride, anticolonial sentiment and moral scruples will all have to wait for better days.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

 

Bellingcat analysis can be found at

Dangers of the Zondo Commission

 

Sceptics complain that the Zondo commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector is a waste of time and money. It could turn out to be much worse than that.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn narrative can be sustained only by portraying the new ANC as distinct from the old. Unfortunately, the party recently elected a national executive committee at least as questionable in its probity and moral integrity as its predecessor.

Given impending national and provincial elections, Luthuli House has fallen back on familiar theatrics. Parliamentarians have been woken from their slumbers to exhale moral hot air over selected officials. In their “oversight” committees, ANC MPs have suddenly discovered obvious but previously overlooked truths.

What does a commission of inquiry add? It allows the president and his allies to pass responsibility for politically costly decisions to a judicial body. It helps protect the ANC from popular anger by pushing back the “time of reckoning” to 2020, or even 2021, by which time the Gupta family will be a distant memory.

Commissions of inquiry also insulate powerful politicians against prosecution by justifying deferral of prosecutions. Justice delayed means a comfortable retirement for most miscreants. Worse still, crooks are forced by a commission to testify under oath that they and others are innocent. This makes it all but impossible to turn offenders into state witnesses, because perjurers cannot later present credible testimony.

With the passing of time, the prospects of prosecuting the big fish will fade. Officials further down the food chain — those who put their signatures to documents or wrote compromising e-mails at the behest of their political principals — will take the rap (on the knuckles).

There may be ministerial scapegoats too, for example three or four fired ministers who have been unnaturally quiet in recent months. But it takes work to pin down politicians as actors who were demonstrably responsible for voluntary actions that made corruption possible.

A commission of inquiry instead tends to dwell on the general background conditions to any event. The terminology employed in the Zondo commission’s terms of reference is especially infelicitous, because the idea of “state capture” is open to myriad interpretations.

At a theoretical level, state capture has been explored by scholars of governance over the past two decades. But it has not yet proved to be a very illuminating concept. Corruption involves directly breaking the law, whereas state capture involves the (often legal) shaping of laws, regulations and procurement decisions to the benefit of private actors.

Scholars view state capture as a systemic phenomenon, in which members of political and business elites appropriate certain state functions to access resources. Unlike a near-equivalent term, “crony capitalism”, which turns our minds towards exactly who the cronies were and what they did, state capture evokes “a system”.

In a line of analysis popular among many South African intellectuals, the capitalist state is “always captured” by business. And state capture is indeed often alarmingly hard to separate from lobbying.

The commission is ably staffed and led. Such talented legal practitioners’ extended reflections on post-apartheid history, the nature of global capitalism and the relationships between corruption and state capture, will no doubt be illuminating.

But many citizens will hope the commission will focus primarily on the corrupt actions of political principals, on urgent referrals for criminal investigation and on the imperative that the commission’s work does not unwittingly impose constraints on future prosecutions.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Disaffection with BEE on left and right alike

It has been another difficult week for the DA. This time, the party’s internal conflicts concern black economic empowerment. The DA’s federal council in July rubbished ANC empowerment policies.

The government has sought to increase ownership, management, and control of businesses by blacks, and to use preferential procurement to spread empowerment. But the costly and fronting-prone policy has satisfied neither black nor white businesspeople.

BEE has discouraged investment and decreased the efficiency of government expenditure. Empowerment has facilitated patronage relationships between party, state, and business. Ditching the ANC approach may be easy, but identifying a credible alternative is harder. The task fell to the DA’s newly appointed federal policy head, Gwen Ngwenya, a former Institute of Race Relations policy wonk.

Her reported preference for disadvantage — rather than race-targeted interventions — has apparently generated controversy in the party. A statement on Monday from Ngwenya and DA federal chair James Selfe quoted DA leader Mmusi Maimane: “We need … to move away from race-based policies that enable elite enrichment, towards policies that fundamentally break down the system of deprivation.”

But, beyond untested disadvantage-targeting, the policy proposals so far on offer have been limited to a national contributory pension scheme, a “black tax” credit for people supporting adult dependants, and employee share ownership programmes. The DA’s ideological opponents in the SACP have also been rethinking BEE. Recent issues of African Communist, the SACP’s forum for ostensibly Marxist-Leninist ideas, have dwelt on the limitations of BEE policy.

The SACP describes the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies as the “first phase of postapartheid primitive accumulation”, intended to “normalise” or “deracialise” the existing capitalist system.

The creation of a black “patriotic bourgeoisie” was to be accomplished by early BEE policies that used state regulatory power to extract encumbered (debt-financed) shares from businesses. This all formed part of an implicit deal between business and the ANC leadership, in which one side got investor-friendly policies and the other secured politically mediated access to economic opportunities. The SACP likes to describe black businesspeople involved in this trade-off as a “comprador bourgeoisie”.

The Party, as much as the DA, now recoils at the resources poured into such empowerment partnerships. A second process that also began under Mbeki was “petty-bourgeois primitive accumulation”, organised around state procurement.

Low-end political entrepreneurs made money from deals with municipalities and provinces, and then invested their gains back into party elections to secure further deals.

The SACP describes the black business people involved as a “parasitic bourgeoisie”. This does not seem to be a commendatory appellation. Under Jacob Zuma, patriotic and petty bourgeois accumulation continued, as new public sector procurement regulations, designed to support black-owned smaller businesses, in reality further empowered politically connected entrepreneurs.

Despite the vast ideological gulf that separates the DA and the SACP, there is a remarkable congruence in interpretation of the failings of ANC policy. Both parties condemn the milking of public resources by a parasitical business class. Communists and liberals alike are deeply sceptical that “elite enrichment”, or the building of a “comprador bourgeoisie”, are sustainable objectives. And there is concern that current policy frameworks have significantly worsened unemployment and poverty.

So the DA is not alone in its scepticism about BEE. But nor is it alone in its failure to advance a credible alternative vision.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The EFF’s troubles deepen

The EFF’s claims that its Commander in Chief, Julius Malema, fired a pop-gun at the party’s fifth anniversary rally in the Eastern Cape last weekend, captured the party’s overall predicament well. “It was not a real gun,” national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi insisted. “It was a simulation which collaborated with the fireworks … it was a toy.”

Critics have long denigrated the EFF as an army without any real soldiers. Some still claim it is an ANC Youth League faction that treasures its toy-telephone link to the real liberation movement.

There can be no dispute that the EFF has exercised influence in South African politics. It has placed land reform and youth unemployment at the top of the political agenda. It has rejuvenated Parliament, replacing the decorum of the Mbeki era with gripping political spectacle.

The EFF’s strategic dilemmas, however, were exposed by former president Jacob Zuma’s decision to take early retirement.

First, there is the problem of Malema himself. A youth movement with a charismatic leader can be palatable to electors for a few years; but a youth movement of the middle-aged, with an erratic commander for life, is quite another matter. Who among them has the capacity to contradict the commander, let alone supplant him?

Second, the EFF is divided about its approach to coalition politics. Is the EFF a political party in its own right, one that might seek allies anywhere? Or is it merely an ANC faction, waiting for an opportunity to return to the mother body on its own favourable terms?

Deputy leader Floyd Shivambu stated last week that the EFF’s days as “spectators” are over: the party will participate in government in 2019. This looks like wishful thinking. EFF leaders are running out of funders, their elected officials are fed up paying tithes to the party, and there are deep divisions about the relative merits of coalition partners.

 

Third, commentators have struggled to explain why the party has dumped its recently acquired anti-corruption credentials to launch pitiful rescue missions for board members of corrupt parastatals, suspended revenue service commissioners, and other Zuma-era gravy-trainers. Worse still, the party has attacked prominent Indians in government, many of whom once risked their lives against real rather than pop guns.

Citizens will inevitably conclude that such shameful attacks must have been precipitated in part by financial inducements. More important, however, these actions reflect the EFF’s failure to break out of an electoral prison.

In the 2014 national elections, the EFF attracted more than 10% support in Limpopo, Gauteng and the North West. In contrast, the party secured less than 3% in the Cape provinces. In KwaZulu-Natal, it recorded 1.85%.

Perhaps the EFF fears that it still remains a narrowly regional and ethnic party? Many of the EFF’s flip-flops on corruption, and its shameful ethnic slurs, seem to flow from a cynical effort to capture voters and funders from Zuma’s key provinces, and especially from KwaZulu-Natal. Such a strategy, if it exists, would be both cynical and misconceived.

Finally, the EFF is running aground because of a lack of credible policies and skills. It is fine to promise state control of everything, but electors begin to rethink the whole matter once you come close to reaching office. It would help if more EFF leaders had run something — even a student organisation — that had not collapsed.

Land reform may be the key policy issue in the election. Despite a good deal of media hyperventilation this week, notably when Caudillo Cyril Ramaphosa apparently parked his tanks on the lawns of the state broadcaster, the ANC has not changed its position on the process to initiate amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution.

The EFF is, meanwhile, stuck with the policy of “expropriation of everything”. In its world, citizens will apparently queue up, perhaps at expanded home affairs offices, to renew their land-use licences. This scenario probably can’t be sold to many electors, yet the EFF lacks the time, and the agility, to change it for something more credible in advance of the 2019 elections.

 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Ramaphosa’s foreign policy

The summit of the Brics nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA), which concludes on July 27, has offered tantalising glimpses into how foreign policy could evolve under President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It is intriguing to speculate what might have happened had Ramaphosa accepted then president Nelson Mandela’s invitation to him in 1994 to serve as foreign affairs minister, a consolation prize for being passed over for the deputy presidency. Ramaphosa declined that offer.

He was then on the left of the ANC, once spending days on a boat off the coast of Cuba waiting for an opportunity to pay homage to Fidel Castro.

Ramaphosa’s years in business remade his understanding of international affairs. As chairman of MTN he helped smooth the cellphone giant’s growth on the continent. His stake in Standard Bank immersed him in the complex politics of Chinese-South African economic co-operation. He went out of his way to interact with broader global elites, serving on the Commonwealth Business Council, the Coca-Cola advisory board, Unilever Africa advisory council, Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

He has mingled with the great and the (sometimes) good of our times: US diplomat Richard Holbrooke; former Mexican finance minister Ernesto Zedillo; Italy’s Renato Ruggiero; “Ben” Makihara, the legendary chairman of Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation; James Bolger, transformative prime minister of New Zealand; Petronas baron Tan Sri Dato’ Mohd Hassan Marican; space and gym entrepreneur Richard Branson; Lakshmi Mittal, chairman and CEO of Mittal Steel; and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Ramaphosa eschews conflict on the basis of ideology. His support for a “rules-based” international order — reiterated this week at the Brics summit — is fully consistent with his actions as union leader, political organiser and businessman.

SA’s trade relations are complex, with China and the eurozone key to our prospects. The US African Growth and Opportunity Act underpins major export industries.

Investment sources are equally differentiated. International investment targets Ramaphosa set this year — $100bn over five years — recognise the centrality of international investment to domestic prosperity. SA needs to maintain investment rates at 25% of GDP or higher. Only international investors can compensate for our low levels of domestic saving and provide access to new technologies, managerial capacity, financial markets and international distribution networks.

SA’s investment partners — whether in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China, the EU or the US — are not going to be uniformly appealing to every citizen. But a crisis-ridden medium-sized economy in a turbulent world cannot afford to shun partners, whoever they may be.

In the longer term, SA may be able to “punch above its weight” in international affairs or even adopt a foreign policy founded on moral values. But this will occur only if objective and remediable obstacles to doing business in SA — structural weaknesses, uneven infrastructure, unskilled and expensive labour, crime, corruption and a host of other impediments — are removed, and a dynamic economy becomes a magnet for investors.

Ramaphosa sent out one clear signal of intent. He flagged what might become his signature contribution to SA’s continental politics: the creation of an African Continental Free Trade Area to provide access for international investors to a market of 1-billion people plus. This is a deeply ambitious but potentially historic project.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Lost jobs in the North can be tourism’s gain in SA

The meeting of the alliance political council that concluded on Monday offered depressing insight into the anachronistic preoccupations of the trade union and communist partners of the ANC.

Discussion centred on the survival of jobs in sunset industries and how to “reverse” the damage that has been done to state-owned monoliths.

Only one forward-looking topic was touted for the agenda of an upcoming alliance economic summit: the “fourth industrial revolution” and the “future of work”.

Revolutionary new technologies are causing concern around the world. Industrial jobs are already being lost, and there is a growing threat to many occupations in service industries.

The disruption caused by the technological revolution is likely to be greatest in developing countries. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim suggested in 2017 that, “two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist in developing countries will be wiped out by automation”. The bank has observed that, “the winners will be those who encourage skill-upgrading so that all can benefit from digital opportunities”.

Rather than focusing exclusively on education, however, our policy makers need to consider how to maximise the potentially positive impacts of automation.

Technological change will generate new and often unexpected forms of work. The most important of these, for which SA can begin to prepare now, will flow from a greater scale and variety of “tourism”.

The global tourist industry already embraces more than a billion travellers annually; SA receives around 10-million of these. This number has grown fast as a result of the emergence of new middle classes in developing countries such as China and India, an upswing of travel among western millennials, and population growth in Africa.

One by-product of technological advance is likely to be a huge scaling-up of such recreational travel. The fortunate citizens of wealthy countries are increasingly freed from mundane activities, and enjoy ever-easier access to cultural and leisure global opportunities.

Even more importantly, as automation continues to transform employment patterns, perhaps a third of the working age population of wealthy societies may find themselves unable to secure work at a living wage. There is currently a debate raging in the global North about how such displaced workers can be accommodated.

Although some political leaders have argued for the development of guaranteed work for all citizens, a more realistic proposal is the provision of basic income grants or longer periods of state-funded absence from the labour market.

In tandem with growing life expectancy, this change has the potential to bring about a massive increase in the number of visitors — many of whom may arrive in the guise of students, conservation volunteers or retiree “knowledge tourists”.

Rather than the 10 days that tourists spend in SA on average, they may spend long periods in low-and middle-income countries. Here basic incomes can stretch further, and unemployment can be recast as meaningful cultural engagement.

A major change in the mind-set of politicians and labour leaders will be needed if SA is to adjust to the changes that a tourist economy requires.

Successful tourist nations are obliged to endure some immediate humiliation and to abandon preconceptions about the nature of dignified labour.

Contemplate contemporary Britain: the theme park character of its towns and villages, the vulgarisation of its traditional leaders (or “royals”), and the repackaging and commodification of all aspects of its culture. A dose of cultural discomfort, however, is a small price to pay for what might ultimately be an increase in income and employment.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

New player-manager is yet to prove himself

What a difference a year makes. The whole country is enjoying a new manager bounce.

This time last winter a David v Goliath contest began to unfold when sleeping giant Cyrildinho ventured into the zone of uncertainty.

Pundits claimed he would come a cropper against trophy-holder Jacob “The Elephant” Zumario, who had been almost unplayable in his day.

Zumario’s “Ewags” (ex-wife and girlfriends) dubbed the challenger a dead man walking, but in a long match they failed to put away the ball.

It was The Elephant who received his marching orders: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Crashing out of the competition in December, Zumario was forced to hang up his boots for good. With his clinical finishing, Cyrildinho had played a blinder.

It has been a baptism of fire, but possession is nine-tenths of the game. “CR”, as his fans call him, always reaches for the skies and never gives less than 110%.

The Brazil-influenced coach has brought veteran stylists Nenê and Gordhanio off the bench. He has slowed the flow of the game. Video assistant referee (VAR) Mogoengio Mogoengio has levelled the playing field in provincial red-card incidents.

Loyal to whoever is coach, head of elections Mbaks “Preservativo Explodindo” Mbalululio is a midfield terrier who covers literally every blade of grass on the pitch.

Fitness coach Gwede “Big Suits” Mantashio is running his socks off, using his notoriously low centre of gravity to deny “The Ace” control of the Luthuli Training Centre.

Form is temporary, while class is permanent. Cyrildinho is a playmaker who can control the pace of the game. If the team consistently deploys his ideological zonal marking system he could literally take the minnows to the cleaners in 2019.

The Blues and the Red Berets are in a relegation dogfight. Despite a giant-killer reputation, the Berets have been left red-faced by their travelling circus of hooligans. Julius Malemalario has proved to be a bit of a handful, but the young lion keeps pulling on his old team’s shorts. Spokesman Mbuyesenio Ndlozi insists that “we have had no bids for Malemalario … it would take silly money for him to leave”.

But locker-room gossip suggests the striker slammed a “derisory bid” from his old side, and the two clubs remain “miles apart” over the size of the fee.

The Blues have also been under the microscope.

“Dancing Queen” Helen Zilleria is as sick as a parrot.

Patricia de Lillio is back in the transfer zone after being frozen out by her team. There has been no shortage of suitors, with even the Red Berets mulling a bid. After going 2-0 up in the Western Cape High Court this week, she could be headed for the dreaded transfer limbo. She may have to start blowing her own vuvuzela once again.

If Cyrildinho lifts the Cup in 2019, the caretaker manager will start firing on all cylinders at last. Laggards will get the hairdrier treatment. There will be a flurry of yellow cards and a raft of substitutions. This time SA is literally in the last-chance saloon, but the fans will never stop believing. It’s always the hope that kills you.

Leading a team is a marathon and not a sprint. The new manager will have to grind out a result at whatever cost, and his fresh legs could help him go the distance. Cyrildinho certainly looks good on paper, but he will need to score to win.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

SA’s two school systems

On Saturday South Africans will celebrate Youth Day, a commemoration of the uprising that began in Soweto on June 16 1976. The uprising was triggered by the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction but it drew on deeper grievances about apartheid SA.

Are we likely to see a repeat of this historic rebellion against injustice? Many things have changed for the better. Education is now celebrated for its ability to unlock fundamental rights to health, liberty, security, and political participation. It can deepen self-understanding, enhance economic growth and help society to adjust to the unfolding revolutions in artificial intelligence and robotics. The trouble is that SA now has two fundamentally different school systems, only one of which is even minimally equipped to take on such tasks.

Three-quarters of SA’s 14-million pupils attend dysfunctional schools that consistently underperform when it comes to educational outcomes. In rural provinces and townships, schools have seen a significant increase in grade 9 completions over the past two decades, but educational quality remains poor. Children are going to school but they are not learning.

Too few preschool children access adequate nutrition or attend well-organised creches. Their families are poor and sometimes broken, in communities often riven by violence. Teachers are poorly qualified and motivated. The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union has been implicated in the sale of posts, interference in promotions and resistance to mandatory competency testing.

The uneven provision of learning materials, buildings and facilities disrupts even well-run schools. Rural provinces and their failing and corrupt administrations cannot cope with large student numbers.

Most schools do not have effective governing bodies through which parents and communities can hold school managers, principals and teachers to account. Precisely because parents and pupils are so comprehensively disempowered, however, these prisons of the poor are unlikely to be the centres of any rebellion against the state.

Perhaps surprisingly, formerly white and Indian schools are far more likely to become sites of protest. While rural and township schools remain mostly monoracial, urban and suburban schools have become multiracial over two decades.

The children of the black middle class are now sharing some of the benefits of inclusion in a formerly whites-only arena. However, much as these schools may celebrate “diversity” and “inclusion”, they continue to be dominated by suburban catchment areas, white majority intakes, quasi-European cultures and languages, and predominantly white teaching staffs.

Educationalist Jonathan Jansen has harshly observed that the “black elite” sends its children to these schools in a “class compact between privileged whites and the black elite to keep the schools their children attend as essentially white institutions”. If Jansen is right, this is a fragile compact indeed, and it will be neither possible nor desirable to sustain very far it into the future. It is easy to see how conflict could be triggered among the supposed beneficiaries of this race and class compromise. It is even easier to see how those excluded from it will tire of their children’s marginalisation.

This is one area in which the government needs to plan ahead rather than to wait for a crisis to force its hand. “White-dominant” schools remain crucial pipelines that feed maths-literate and analytically accomplished learners — black as well as white — into post-school education and employment. The whole project of transformation depends on government’s ability to bring about meaningful change while not disrupting this key conduit of skills and capabilities.

 Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.