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 home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

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

Of testicles and tigers

President Cyril Ramaphosa was beleaguered this week. A manufactured army of protesters demanded that he strip public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and his department of control of the Eskom reform process.

Direct attacks on the leadership capabilities of the president also escalated, some of them from erstwhile allies. In an example of an organisation discovering it had testicles at just the wrong moment, Business Unity SA chair Sipho Pityana railed this week against “summits, conferences and lekgotlas”. He demanded “credible, single-minded, resolute and decisive leadership that sets the tone, determines direction and pulls the nation with it”.

Both sets of critics are likely to be disappointed. Ramaphosa is unlikely to be transformed overnight into a conviction politician. But it is also improbable that he will sacrifice Gordhan as a result of political pressure.

Pityana’s pointed comments certainly raise legitimate questions about Ramaphosa’s presidency. Do the president’s problems flow from personal psychological or intellectual limitations? Or are they a product of fundamental clashes of interests that make leadership almost impossible?

In common with many national leaders, Ramaphosa has realised his lifetime’s ambition to become state president. He would not be the first to discover that the qualities that got him the job are not the ones he needs to succeed at it.

But the president is learning that lines in the sand can work. During last year’s SA Reserve Bank “crisis”, in which the proxy issue of public ownership was deployed to destabilise his administration, Ramaphosa’s decision to reappoint the Bank governor to a second term brought a whipped-up political storm to an abrupt close.

He probably knows he will soon have to make a clear statement of a nonnegotiable Eskom reform pathway and timeline. This is a prerequisite for maintaining any kind of coalition behind him.

The bigger issue is that Ramaphosa faces a deep and almost unmanageable clash of interests. At Eskom, an unholy alliance has been forged between unions representing the workers in the coal-energy complex and beneficiaries of the parastatal’s coal and diesel supply chains. These vested interests have direct influence within the ANC through the tripartite alliance and as party (and lifestyle) funders.

Some critics complain that Ramaphosa simply does not know what he is doing. His backgrounds in black consciousness politics, trade unions and business pull him this way and that. He has no clear intellectual or moral framework, they argue, and so he simply cannot decide what to do.

This is improbable. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s detached approach has many merits. He has surrounded himself with a concentric circle of economy cluster ministers who represent distinct approaches to the way forward.

Novelist F Scott Fitzgerald once observed that a test of intelligence is “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. In this complex situation Ramaphosa is probably right not to rely on his own immediate instincts.

What does this imply about the future of Pravin Gordhan? Gordhan is a target because he sat for almost two decades at the top of the most important informal intelligence network in SA. Relentless attacks on him over the past decade, from captured institutions, the public protector and the EFF, testify to fear of Gordhan and his network: perhaps a decade of criminal activity is finally going to result in prosecutions.

Gordhan is also custodian of the only Eskom plan we have. Passing the job on to Gwede Mantashe and his ramshackle department would mean a resurgent coal lobby, no single market operator and prescribed assets to keep the leaky vessel afloat. Will Ramaphosa abdicate his presidential responsibilities because Mantashe is his friend and closest political ally? I would bet not.


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

Santa column. Last one

Ho ho ho! We have reached that time in the year when the little boys and girls across the land look forward to a visit by a fat man in a red suit carrying a sack of shiny presents.

Santa has the hardest job in the world. He runs the workshop where the toys are made, oversees the elves who do the work, and trains the reindeer that pull his sleigh. He has to deliver millions of gifts to almost impossible deadlines.

Recently the little children have been very sad. Grumpy Santa Thabo didn’t like giving gifts at all, and Santa Jacob gave all the best presents to his friends and relatives. Nerthus (“mother earth”) Dlamini-Zuma rode a sleigh all the way from Addis to save us, but somehow we got Chinese Santa Cyrildene instead.

Father Christmas has to be very round and jolly, and silly folk once said Cyril was too thin to do the job. He always used to stand next to Gwede “Low Centre of Gravity” Mantashe, the Reindeer Not Responsible For Energy After All. Because of the so-called “moon illusion”, Mantashe appeared gigantic when he was close to the horizon, which made Cyril look skinny by comparison. But now Uncle Gwede has got stuck in the chimney while trying to fix the Medupi generator Cyril’s supposed rivals, such as Lindiwe “I’m a real Princess” Sisulu, and the three skinny dwarves, “DD”, Paul and Zweli, are all much too thin to be real Santas.

Santa Zuma’s friends have been sent to a correctional facility by the sea, called “Bosasa Parliamentary Precinct”. Bongani “big bottom” Bongo, Faith Mutant, Mostbendy Zany and Tina “Swedish Moneybags” Pettersson have become “committee chairpersons”. This means they sit on chairs all day long and aren’t allowed to do anything. Ho ho ho!

The little boys and girls are likely to be disappointed once again this year. Their favourite uncle or aunt, Mbaks “Zandile Gumede” Mbalula, doesn’t love them any more.

The gender-balanced children’s leadership, Julius and Floydinia, wrote a manifesto with their crayons that turned out to be political correctness gone mad!

Now they have a new “Top Six”: themselves plus four little boys and girls nobody has ever heard of, called Poppy, Omphy, Marshy and Veronica. Everyone with more than 100 Twitter followers has been sacked. Like “Doc” the Ice Boy, all the little children now have to kneel down before Big Julius. But what will they all do when the Top Two go to jail?

Santa Cyril’s biggest problem is getting the job done. The old factory management dwarf, Rob “pointy ears” Davies, has retired (to the 1970s). But Santa has replaced him with Ebrahim “pointy ears” Patel, who has just the same ears, and ideas.

The new Reindeerial Handbook hasn’t really cut the cost of sleighs, and the National Development McPlan Meal has gone cold. Meanwhile, the elves are growing restless. Since last Christmas, Santa has been paying them the Very Minimal Wage to make unemployment go down, but amazingly this has not worked! Now the crazy elves want Santa to raid their own piggy bank, the Piggies Investment Corporation, to keep the Goblin Run Enterprises going.

But Pravin Goblin, the previous Keeper of the Golden Chest, still does not know how to fix the generator. In fact, Snoozy Zondo’s Cover-Up Commission, fuelled by gazillions in lawyers’ fees, has produced far more hot air.

Santa exists only because the little children believe that he does. If he doesn’t get a move on and set the generator, the factory and the reindeer in motion, little boys and girls across the land will at long last stop believing in him. Then Santa, and the magical movement that he leads, will simply disappear into thin air.

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

The great parastatal scandal

Politicians are not very good at running state-owned enterprises (SOEs). But they do have a different, and highly developed, skill-set: blaming other people for the things they have screwed up.

On the face of it, the catastrophe at SAA would appear to be the fault of the ANC. After all, it was the ANC’s own fundraising committee that fired the starting pistol that set the SOE parasites crawling, when it decided the ANC-aligned Chancellor House investment vehicle should begin looting Eskom during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki.

Under Jacob Zuma, in a “state-led development” strategy that was applauded by the ANC’s alliance partners, union federation Cosatu and the SACP, a whole swathe of parastatals were opened up to the swindlers.

SAA’s corrupt procurement spend, and its evergreen contracts for politically connected suppliers, are not the fault of people working in the airline industry, or caused by sector-specific challenges. They are part of a wider and conscious political strategy that generated wealth and highly remunerated employment for countless party activists, their relatives, and their political networks.

In turn, the parastatal supply chain barons have generously bankrolled the liberation movement. This strategy could not have been sustained without the extension of hundreds of billions of rand in Treasury loan guarantees to SOEs, in full knowledge that these were very likely to be called in by creditors.

Almost all of the actors in play today at SAA were a part of this great parastatal stitch-up: the ministers, the unions that supported the “developmental parastatal” fantasy, the deployee-rich boards, and those who are still feeding off company supply chains.

Today the airline has no financial runway only because the fiscus is dry. Business rescue was evidently forced on the board and the shareholder, not because it was recognised as right but because it became inevitable.

At best, the outcome will be a much-needed restructuring of the airline and its associated group of companies. At worst — and it is much worse — we will see a less orderly liquidation of the airline in fairly short order.

The professional politicians have responded in the way they know best: by blaming everybody else. The department of public enterprises agreed a 6% pay rise before blaming the unions for damaging the “credibility” of the airline’s turnaround strategy.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) blamed the SAA board and corrupt managers for a failure to turn the company around. The board criticised the banks for not lending billions more without Treasury guarantees. The finance minister was blamed for refusing to extend such guarantees.

President Cyril Ramaphosa managed not to have an opinion one way or the other. Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan implied that all patriotic citizens would buy uninsured tickets from the bankrupt airline. DA shadow finance minister Geordin Hill-Lewis countered that “the most patriotic thing South Africans can do is to help shut down SAA”. We can shortly expect the DA to be blamed for SAA’s demise.

The next culpable agent will be the business rescue practitioner, who is legally answerable solely to the court, but ANC politicians will doubtless publicly second-guess its decisions. Ultimately it too will be a guilty party.

The trouble with all this blame-shifting is that the ANC does not seem to have learned any lessons from its SAA experience. There has been no admission of responsibility or error from the ANC about the great parastatal scandal.

The airline is a little flea in the corner of our parastatal disaster casualty ward. Eskom, the great elephant in the room, is still munching through what is left of the fiscus.

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

Assuming the position

New Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS

New Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter. Picture: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS



Observers were perplexed this week by the process that led to Andre de Ruyter’s appointment as Eskom CEO. Unexpectedly, the public enterprises minister, rather than the president, made the announcement.

Pravin Gordhan has a hint of Churchill’s Russia about him: he is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Even by his mystifying standards, however, the press release was deeply baffling. It explained that 142 candidates for Eskom CEO were identified in a head-hunting process. Seventeen were short-listed, eight withdrew, the Eskom board interviewed six, four were asked to undergo competency tests, and a “final interview process was undertaken”, after which “the panel ranked three candidates”.

This “final” interview process was followed by “further interviews” which resulted in (the same?) “list of three candidates, with the indication of a preferred candidate”. The president then “appointed a team of cabinet ministers to consider the board’s recommendations”.

This column can exclusively reveal that Eskom’s human resources (HR) department was involved in the board interviews and “competency tests”. Several techniques are used by such HR professionals.

A “structured interview” reveals a candidate’s presentation and communication skills and their “fit” with the organisation’s work culture. Every candidate is asked the same questions to ensure fairness and comparability. The short-listed candidates were reportedly probed with these questions (correct guide answers supplied):

  • Is there a role for nuclear in the generation mix? (Yes, Mr Putin, sir.)
  • Can the Eskom crisis be blamed solely on “state capture”, or can it also be blamed on a former finance minister, Mr P Gordhan, who approved massive loan guarantees for the parastatal? (The former only.)
  • Do you remember a party fund-raising vehicle called Chancellor House that profited from the debacles at Medupi and Kusile? (Never heard of it.)
  • Where do you see yourself five years from now? (Unemployed, most probably.)

Eskom employment law experts advised that Skype should be used only to make preliminary assessments, and cannot substitute for a face-to-face interview, unless the candidate’s surname begins with “C”.

Recruitment professionals also recommend the use of an in-tray test. This is designed to simulate regular tasks associated with the position and allow direct observation of individual behaviour in the context of a job-relevant problem situation. For example, a candidate can be asked to take a series of coal supply chain contracts from his in-tray and immediately sign them at the bottom of the page without reading them.

Another widely used HR technique is the “leaderless group discussion”. Here a group of participants is told to discuss a topic for a specific period of time. No-one is appointed leader, and the assessors observe and rate the leadership, coaching, and teamwork capabilities of each candidate. This leaderless discussion technique is also known as the “national executive committee” method.

Mystery surrounds the ultimately decisive “ministerial team”. It appears to have consisted of Gordhan, trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel, mineral resources & energy minister Gwede “Tiger Brand” Mantashe, and the agriculture, land reform & rural development minister, Thoko Didiza. The latter’s presence may flow from the “too many men” HR problem, or from fear of the “Indian cabal” public relations nightmare. Or perhaps the three line ministers simply cannot agree on anything on their own — which helps to explain the Eskom crisis.

The ministers apparently “concurred with the board’s recommendation”. What precisely it is that the board recommended was, however, not revealed.

The successful candidate “assumes the position” in January 2020. To provide a timeous recruitment service, Eskom’s HR department has undertaken an advanced statistical analysis of De Ruyter’s likely period of employment. The data they have collected from previous CEOs’ tenures are as follows: Tshediso Matona (2014-15), Brian Molefe (2015-2016), Matshela Koko (2016-17), Johnny Dladla (2017-18), Phakamani Hadebe (2018-19), and Jabu Mabuza (2019-20). A fresh job advertisement will be in the papers first thing next week.


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

Sport in Schools

Siya Kolisi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Siya Kolisi. Picture: GALLO IMAGES



The EFF’s commissar for communications, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, posted a controversial Tweet in the aftermath of the Springboks’ World Cup victory: “Congratulations to [Springbok captain] #SiyaKolisi … the rest go get your congratulations from Prince Harry.”

There was some sympathy for Ndlozi’s implied question: why on earth was Prince Harry ushered into the Springboks’ dressing room after the match? If this was not an egregious demonstration of colonial privilege, the English will no doubt invite a son of King Goodwill Zwelithini into their dressing room next time their team win a tournament (should such an eventuality ever arise).

Many South Africans were more deeply angered by Ndlozi’s later elaboration: “Telling us the rugby victory means victory over racial division is utterly false.” As the wonderful euphoria fades, however, the question of what has actually been accomplished will return: have the Springboks conjured an extraordinary success out of thin air, without any underlying change in the mass base of sport in the country?

The advance of SA’s best black rugby players still seems to require good fortune as well as talent. Players from Eastern Cape such as Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am benefited from now crisis-ridden Border Bulldogs structures. Elton Jantjies attended Hoërskool Florida in Roodeport, a school renowned for academic achievement but also for sporting prowess. Sbu Nkosi attended Jeppe High School for Boys, and Trevor Nyakane Ben Vorster High School in Tzaneen. Cheslin Kolbe played rugby at primary school with his sluggish distant cousin Wayde van Niekerk (who can only run in straight lines) before moving to the well-resourced Brackenfell High School.

Team captain Siya Kolisi grew up in Zwide township outside Port Elizabeth. As a 12-year-old he so impressed talent scouts that he won a scholarship to Grey Junior in Port Elizabeth and then to Grey High School. This institution’s deep sporting tradition and excellent facilities were crucial to Kolisi’s development.

This school should not be confused with Grey College, SA’s top rugby school, which has produced 22 Springboks since 1996, all of them white. Yet Grey and other top rugby schools — Paul Roos, Paarl Gimnasium and Paarl Boys’ High — field overwhelmingly white first XVs. The Grey College rugby programme has corporate sponsors that include Puma, Powerade, Xerox, KFC and Standard Bank. Why is not clear: black rugby schools in the Eastern Cape — Dale, Queen’s and Selborne — are hugely less well-resourced.

It seems almost churlish to carp. In a validation of much-maligned transformation policies, the pressures on sporting codes to change racial representation at the highest levels have borne much fruit. This is no mean achievement: elite schools, sports academies, and concentrated coaching resources are crucial to top-tier success.

But the result has been a narrow funnel of success. A few schools are destined to continue to generate SA’s elite players, a majority of them white and a minority of them black. Critics can complain that, with the exception of Durban-based Glenwood, we do not have racially integrated elite rugby teams in schools.

Worse yet, there are still few broad-based programmes across the country’s schools as a whole, in which a wider pool of extraordinary talents can be nurtured.

Who is to blame? Only one institution has a network of 24,000 institutions housing 12-million young people: the state.

The government agrees that sport is good for you. After all, there is an annual National Public Servants Sports and Cultural Events tournament at which public servants engage in aerobics, darts, Zumba dancing, and many other activities.

The department of basic education has many priorities: plenty of schools, after all, still lack functional buildings, sanitation, electricity, and water. Nevertheless, a meaningful legacy of the World Cup would be a renewed focus on creating an ambitious sports programme — embracing pupils, teachers and parents — across the public school system as a whole.

Sport builds fitness, social cohesion, and mental health. Above all, it creates the support structures young people need if they are to avoid social pathologies such as drug-taking, alcohol abuse, risky sex, and membership of the EFF.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

“Independent” panel clears the way for Steenhuisen?

What do you get when you combine a “reputation manager”, a political adviser and a banker? The crisis in the DA started with an “independent review” commissioned by party leader Mmusi Maimane after the disappointing May 2019 election result. Maimane asked former DA electoral strategist Ryan Coetzee to chair the panel, and persuaded former party leader Tony Leon and banker Michiel le Roux to make up a three-man panel.

The panel’s report is clear and decisive. Readers of the full document may, however, have concern about the panel’s composition and how it reached its conclusions. Coetzee and Leon enjoyed remarkable electoral success, at least among white and coloured voters. Leon now chairs a lobbying and “reputation-management” outfit. Ominously for Maimane, its website promises that “we change people’s minds about you”.

Le Roux is a founder of Capitec Bank, and Forbes puts his net wealth at $1.3bn (R19bn). It can be assumed that he is a significant donor to the DA. Given recent party funding legislation and the rise of a business-friendly Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency, the loyalty of donors has become a crucial challenge.

The panel focuses on the DA’s recent electoral performance, ignoring the successes under Maimane in the 2016 local government elections and gnashing their teeth over the small decline in the DA’s vote in May’s national elections, from 22.2% in 2014 to 20.7% in 2019.

This was scarcely a disaster in the context of Ramaphosa’s arrival, and the DA crucially continued to build support among black South Africans. The significance of the loss of some white voters is easily overstated because parties to the right remain natural DA coalition partners.

Why Maimane is to blame, meanwhile, is not explained. The report posits various factors outside his control: Helen Zille’s “colonialism” tweets, the shenanigans of Patricia de Lille, the water crisis in Cape Town and the Schweizer-Reneke controversy.

Instead the panel forefronts criticism of the party’s leadership drawn from 200 voluntary submissions and meetings with party activists. On the basis of these materials, its report concludes that Maimane was indecisive, inconsistent and conflict averse. These personal deficiencies resulted in confusion, disunity, and a lack of vision or direction.

Much of this confusion and disharmony, the report notes, arose on the issue of race. This manifested itself in incoherent “philosophical” views. At one point the panel helpfully provides what appears to be an advanced undergraduate essay on concepts such as “the individual”, nonracialism, redress, diversity and representivity.

There is strong criticism of the DA’s muddled economic and social policies with a demand for “a well-structured policy development programme to give effect to its vision for SA, that it is both values driven and evidence based”.

If race is such a problematic issue in internal DA politics, it would surely have been sensible to appoint a more diverse panel to investigate the many dimensions of the problem, and to elicit the genuine views of party activists and officials, black and white, women and men? “Diversity”, after all, is one of the DA’s ostensible core values.

Moreover, the DA’s constitution hamstrings the federal leader, and denies him the right to express views on policy. The leader can speak only when a matter is “urgent” and the federal congress, federal council and federal executive are not in session.

His comments must be consistent with the DA’s labyrinthine framework of values and principles and its wishy-washy programme of action. The obstacles to clear thinking on race and policy are actually built into the DA’s constitution.

The report argues that “those ultimately responsible for the leadership and management of the party — the leader, chair of federal council and CEO — [should] step down and make way for new leadership.”

CEO Paul Boughey gamely resigned, and had praise heaped on him by the panel. Chief whip John Steenhuisen was curiously exempted from the resignation call. James Selfe, chair of the federal council, had already decided to step down and take on a fresh role. The result was to leave Maimane stranded.

Then along came Zille: the best-laid plans of mice and DA men often go awry.

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

Entrenched interests at Eskom

Members of the economic advisory council. Front row (L-R): Khensani Kubayi, Wandile Sihlobo, Renosi Mokate, David Mabuza, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trudy Makhaya and Alan Hirsch. 2nd Row (L-R) Mampho Modise, Busani Ngcaweni, Imraan Valodia, Tania Ajam, Mamello Matikinca-Ngwenya, Fiona Tregenna, Ayabonga Cawe. 3rd Row (L-R) Mzukisi Qobo, Liberty Mncube, Kenneth Creamer, Gwede Mantashe, Thabi Leoka, Haroon Bhorat, Grové Steyn. Back Row (L-R): Pravin Gordhan, Ebrahim Patel, David Masondo, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and Tito Mboweni. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

Members of the economic advisory council. Front row (L-R): Khensani Kubayi, Wandile Sihlobo, Renosi Mokate, David Mabuza, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trudy Makhaya and Alan Hirsch. 2nd Row (L-R) Mampho Modise, Busani Ngcaweni, Imraan Valodia, Tania Ajam, Mamello Matikinca-Ngwenya, Fiona Tregenna, Ayabonga Cawe. 3rd Row (L-R) Mzukisi Qobo, Liberty Mncube, Kenneth Creamer, Gwede Mantashe, Thabi Leoka, Haroon Bhorat, Grové Steyn. Back Row (L-R): Pravin Gordhan, Ebrahim Patel, David Masondo, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and Tito Mboweni. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

A little over a decade ago, shortly after SAA had received a R1.6bn cash injection, then Treasury director-general Lesetja Kganyago told a media briefing that dealing with SAA was like negotiating with a drunk. The guy was always claiming to be in a state of rehabilitation, but the following day you met him in the pub.

It is less easy to laugh about the latest bailouts for Eskom. Given the scale of these commitments it is little wonder that the ideas in finance minister Tito Mboweni’s economic growth strategy document have fallen on enthusiastic ears.

Some observers have suggested Mboweni’s proposals — selling off coal-fired power stations and rapidly expanding private power generation using renewables — should be scrutinised by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new “economics brains trust”.

This new 18-member presidential economic advisory council assembled this week for the first time. In his launch address, Ramaphosa reminded listeners that he will shortly launch an investment advisory council and a state-owned enterprise council.

Ramaphosa may soon need an advisory council on advisory councils to help him steer a course between their conflicting diagnoses, but there is a good deal of merit to the president’s approach. Properly constituted deliberative bodies can rule out the worst ideas and narrow down a menu of technically feasible possibilities.

Moreover, the economic advisory panel is not constituted by top-flight economists who are interested in resolving problems in economic theory. While most members have some economic background, many are veterans of government policy battles from inside the machine.

This is sensible. After all, the value of social scientific ideas does not turn on how interesting they may be to scholars. Most luminous ideas that explain anomalies in the theoretical literature are entirely inapplicable in practice.

What the government can do depends in crucial ways on the character of the state and its parastatals: the experiences and perceptions of officials, and their administrative and technical capabilities. Ramaphosa has chosen experienced policy specialists who understand the challenges confronting the state as it actually exists, including its officials’ conflicting and entrenched intellectual assumptions.

But all this will only take Ramaphosa a short distance. The material interests of powerful actors in society will have far more bearing on his prospects of success than the coherence or persuasiveness of his ideas.

Trade unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA will find it almost impossible to reconstitute themselves in a fast-changing energy sector, so they will block change.

Meanwhile, Eskom’s “elite” managerial tier accounts for the lion’s share of the increased remuneration bill. Employee numbers have increased from 33,000 a decade ago to about 47,000 today. The political costs of cutting this elite welfare system will be steep.

More important still is the coal supply chain, which accounts for about a third of Eskom’s overall costs. Though overall coal usage has remained about the same, costs have risen from about R10bn a year to about R60bn. Courtesy of ANC meddling in board and managerial appointments, the coal supply chain is a veritable roll-call of politically connected rentiers.

The largest obstacle to a comprehensive restructuring of Eskom remains the ANC itself. The parastatal’s problems did not start with state capture under Jacob Zuma, but can be traced to Chancellor House’s involvement in the investment programmes at Medupi and Kusile.

This all began as a party funding wheeze, but it gave a green light to other politically connected businesses to commence their own parastatal plundering. Of course, easy profits are quickly followed by generous donations to party coffers. It will take more than ideas to persuade the ANC to let this system go.

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

Beware Boris

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minster faced MPs in the Commons and said the Supreme Court was wrong to block his suspension of parliament. Picture: CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / GETTY IMAGES

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on September 26, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minster faced MPs in the Commons and said the Supreme Court was wrong to block his suspension of parliament. Picture: CHRIS J RATCLIFFE / GETTY IMAGES

A polite hush fell among the assembled diplomats at the UN on Tuesday night as British prime minister Boris Johnson walked to the podium to deliver his inaugural address to the General Assembly.

It is difficult to convey the audacity of the speech that followed. Johnson ranged widely, reflecting on the transformative power of “great scientific revolutions of the past”: print, the steam engine, aviation, and atomic energy.

Such technological revolutions, Johnson argued, saw the creation of powerful new instruments, but ones over which human beings ultimately had control. The digital age, however, is different.

Johnson breathlessly issued a series of warnings: “Your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach, like some silent butler … Your mattress will monitor your nightmares; your fridge will beep for more cheese …”.

“Smart cities,” he blusterated, “will pullulate with sensors, all joined together by the internet of things. Bollards communing invisibly with lamp posts … so there is always a parking space for your electric car”. But technology, he warned, could also be used “to place citizens (under) relentless state surveillance”.

Will artificial intelligence take the form of robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or do we instead face “pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race”? Will synthetic biology “restore our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues”? Or will it “bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”

Habitually poker-faced diplomats struggled to suppress their laughter. Even the UK delegation chuckled quietly behind their hands. Foreign and commonwealth office mandarins did not write Johnson’s speech. Such master rhetoricians can glide smoothly over the institutionalised hypocrisies of Britain’s “democracy promoting” foreign policy. After all, the world’s second largest arms trader does 80% of its business with authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

This speech was instead penned by Johnson’s coterie of abrasive Downing Street advisers, who are preoccupied with a quite different and more immediate matter: an impending general election. We cannot take seriously Johnson’s claim to be befuddled about the rise of mass surveillance technologies. As recently as 2016, the UK parliament passed an Investigatory Powers Act that in effect legalised the illegal mass surveillance conducted by the British state over the previous two decades. It also enabled its expansion, essentially unchecked, into the future.

The prime minister’s superficially infantile, but carefully scripted, ramblings about the potential abuses of social media in democratic politics must also be understood in the context of the coming election. It was not by chance that Johnson observed: “You may keep secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor — even your personal trainer — but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.”

Johnson’s Downing Street advisers include acknowledged pioneers of the new dark arts of campaigning. This February, the House of Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport select committee produced an insightful report on “Disinformation and Fake News” that detailed the vulnerabilities of the UK’s electoral system to new campaign techniques.

Johnson’s senior-most political advisor is a guru of “microtargeting”. By mining “big data” sets assembled from our routine social media activities, it is now possible to build individual personality profiles together with groups of “hot button” issues for each voter. Campaigners can now target customized messages, through direct mailing and social media marketing, crafted around our individual preoccupations and prejudices.

The select committee noted that the UK’s electoral law is outdated, leaving the country vulnerable to the abuse of such techniques in campaigns. Moreover, the regulation of social media companies is woefully inadequate given their new capabilities.

The issue of how a campaign can legitimately be conducted is certain to become a campaign issue in itself. Johnson, true to type, will bluster, blather and lie. He will remind British citizens that he has been trying to figure out the convoluted significance of new technologies and of the digital age, but it’s all been far too complicated for him to understand.

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

CR’s support in government

We are not short of explanations for the seeming drift of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration. The legacies of Jacob Zuma’s decade of destruction are more damaging than we could have imagined. Regional barons who campaigned on Ramaphosa’s coattails are insisting on business as usual. The alliance partners Ramaphosa relied on to become president, the SA Communist Party and Cosatu, now circumscribe his policy options. Business is unwilling to invest because policy reform and clean government have not yet been entrenched.

More curiously, Ramaphosa’s leadership is constantly portrayed as under threat from a Zuma-aligned “fightback” crew. Yet the alleged rebels invariably turn out to be insubstantial has-beens, already exposed crooks or political weaklings destined for prison or the backbenches of parliament. How do we explain this apparent paradox?

One possibility is that it is not the fightback crew but rather Ramaphosa’s supposed political backers — and a wider pro-Ramaphosa citizenry — who are unable fully to commit to his success. Prominent figures in the party have plainly not rallied behind their new leader in times of difficulty. Cabinet ministers the president has only recently appointed have refused to stick their necks out, even when their own portfolios have been involved. Senior officials in mission-critical posts at the top of the state have been hedging their bets.

In the face of surely fanciful rumours about a “recall” conspiracy linked to the ANC’s toothless national general council next year, Ramaphosa has insisted he is going nowhere. This should be unnecessary: the ANC is incapable of holding a leadership election between conferences, and there is no consensus for deputy ANC president David Mabuza, treasurer-general Paul Mashatile or health minister Zweli Mkhize.

There are ways in which Ramaphosa could establish a sense of inevitability about his own continued leadership. The possibility that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma might step in for an ousted Ramaphosa needs to be decisively ruled out: too many hangers-on of Mkhize, Mashatile and Mabuza see this as their last hope of a run at the ANC presidency in 2022.

Meanwhile, no president can stand up in front of a troubled country and take the flak alone. Ramaphosa can bring his ministers and officials to heel only if it is clear what the government stands for. It is a career skill of politicians to take credit for good times and hide when things are bad. This is why the government needs to have a collective “line” on every key issue and controversy. Endless negotiations with Luthuli House to find a compromise cannot work.

Ministers should repeat the government line loudly and clearly, and not duck and dive while emitting evasive tweets.

If ministers are unable or unwilling to defend the government’s positions, Ramaphosa should remove them and replace them with younger ministers who want his project to succeed.

SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande has been virtually alone in coming out in support of Ramaphosa. Even this has been a minimal effort, however, given the undeserved array of cabinet positions granted to the party that formerly monopolised the colour red.

Much the same is true of Cosatu. Ramaphosa delivered the minimum wage, while Cosatu has delivered little but intransigence, threats of violence and economic disruption. Fixing Eskom and reforming the basic education system are surely non-negotiable, and the government must be the driving force behind change.

There is a wider ambivalence among opinion formers in the media and ordinary people in the society at large about Ramaphosa’s project. This extends to many who deep down have really wanted him to succeed. The tension that built up among pro-Ramaphosa citizens in the run-up to the 2017 Nasrec conference of the ANC was followed by a powerful sense of relief — and hope — after the “Thuma Mina” state of the nation address.

It was perhaps inevitable that a sense of disappointment would follow given the reality that the country’s fundamental problems have not changed. As every football fan knows, it’s the hope that kills you.


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

The EFF’s growth trap


Political leaders cannot take the expansion — or even the survival — of their parties for granted. It is little wonder members of the EFF are reflecting on the “growth trap” in which their party seems to be caught.

The initial takeaway from the provincial and national elections in May was that the EFF is still a growing party. Nationally, it secured a little over 10% of the vote, up from 8% in 2016 and 6% in 2014.

It scaled some new heights: 13.5% in traditional stronghold Gauteng, 17% in the North West and 13% in Limpopo. It also achieved nationwide appeal for the first time, with major inroads in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape. In the former, an EFF vote of 1.9% in 2014 was converted into a remarkable 10% in 2019.

This achievement rested in part on investments in party branch and regional infrastructure in hitherto underperforming provinces, which in turn reflected a determination to escape the regional and ethnic confines of its early supporter profile.

Set against these gains, however, the elections also revealed significant limitations. Moving from 8% to 10% is significantly less impressive than rising from 6% to 8%.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the EFF benefited from disaffection among Jacob Zuma’s devotees and made headway in the urban south. It also benefited from anti-Indian and anti-white racism, which ultimately repels as well as attracts voters.

Communications commissar Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was indispensable to the KwaZulu-Natal campaign. Most regrettably, there is only one Dr Ndlozi, and his popularity so threatens the senior most leadership that the “ice boy” has been obliged to adopt a deferential demeanour whenever party royalty are present.

Nationally, the EFF should have harvested a far greater catch of first- and second-time voters. As Collette Schulz-Herzenberg observes in a recently published volume Election 2019, there are now almost 12-million potential voters between 19 and 29 years of age, compared with just 6-million in their 30s and the same number in their 40s.

Just under half of the “voting age population” as a whole — those entitled to register and vote — actually cast a ballot in 2019, down from 86% in 1999. But only a third of those aged between 20 and 29 did so. This contrasts with 77%-78% participation of citizens in their 50s and 60s, who continue to vote strongly for the ANC and DA.

This poses a dilemma for the EFF. Its leader’s populist diatribes — decrying established institutions and rubbishing conventional parliamentary politics — keep its existing base mobilised but discourage the registration and turnout the party needs to grow.

While the EFF has set the political agenda in fields such as youth unemployment and land reform, its uncosted manifesto pledges remain largely symbolic. The rather sweet invocation of Thomas Sankara and Frantz Fanon in party documents reveals the middle-class intellectual cocoon in which the leadership’s ideas were incubated.

The party’s support base is disproportionately male, which is an ongoing handicap when it comes to longer-term electoral success. As Benjamin Roberts notes in Election 2019, despite formal “gender parity” in party structures, only two members of the central command are women. The EFF continues to be plagued by sexual harassment allegations and by the patriarchal and militaristic culture personified by some of its senior leaders.

The EFF has few jobs or contracts to dispense and its programme does not appeal to “established business”. Resultant money shortages have encouraged dalliances with alleged cigarette smugglers and bank looters, political liabilities worsened by the conspicuous consumption of the less intellectually gifted members of the central command team.

The result of all this is a growth trap. The EFF’s current mobilisation strategy depends on the person of Julius Malema, appeals to the youth, bookish policy utopianism, self-indulgent masculinity, and a devil-may-care attitude to funders.

To secure enough votes to govern cities or provinces, the party needs disruptive and discomfiting internal change: consistent support for constitutional norms and political institutions, more transparent funding, less unrealistic policy proposals, and a retreat from militarism and patriarchy.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. ‘Election 2019’ is edited by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg and Roger Southall and published by Jacana Media.