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

SA’s hopeful revolutionaries

ANTHONY BUTLER: A happy and revolutionary long weekend, comrade

It is easy to confuse a profoundly unjust society for a country ripe for revolution

 First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

17 MARCH 2023

Will 2023 be the year in which the EFF finally unleashes revolutionary change in SA? 

It is true that Eskom at last faces real competition in its struggle to bring all economic and social activity to a halt. In contrast to the parastatal, though, the EFF has merely pledged to stop all commercial and academic activity in the country for one day, on Monday. 

The EFF’s demand that workers and students stay at home has been backed up by direct threats of violence. Party leader Julius Malema has described the protests as the start of a revolution and predicted that opponents of the EFF would “meet their maker”.  

Malema told party members last October that “at some point there must be killing because the killing is part of a revolutionary act”. It is difficult, however, to see threats of violence as elements of a wider revolutionary upheaval. 

Revolutions that have transformed both economic and political structures have often, by necessity, involved violence. But this has not always been the case, as the largely peaceful and revolutionary transformations of post-Soviet East and Central Europe demonstrate.

All manner of violent uprisings and revolts have meanwhile taken place throughout human history, and almost all have failed radically to change the underlying systems of power. 

The EFF’s involvement in violent rebellion has in any event so far been largely confined to welfare state revolutions. For example, its “ground forces” on university campuses have lobbed bricks at poorly paid private security guards, who have been instructed to avoid retaliation.  

Such protests have occasionally created inconvenience outside the tertiary education sector, for example with the littering of streets close to campuses or the build-up of traffic congestion close to university access roads, but this scarcely qualifies as revolutionary upheaval. The EFF has in fact been exceptionally unsuccessful at linking its nominal agenda of revolutionary change to potential agents of political upheaval, for example in organised labour. 

Like the ANC from which it emerged, the EFF has become wedded to revolutionary rhetoric in a society in which revolutionary change is more or less impossible. It is easy to confuse a profoundly unjust society for a country ripe for revolution.  

Moeletsi Mbeki once famously predicted a “Tunisia moment”, in which the social grants that have come with an expanding SA welfare state will suddenly be withdrawn as the result of a fiscal crisis, generating an intolerable shortfall between popular expectations and realities. At this point — at least according to the “J-curve hypothesis” first advanced by sociologist James Davies more than  six decades ago — individuals will rise up and engage in collective revolutionary activity.  

The trouble with Davies’ theory — and with Mbeki’s derivative amateur sociology — is that empirical evidence simply does not support it. Most societies across human history have been far more brutal and unjust than SA is today, but inequality and oppression have typically produced subservience, coping mechanisms and fear rather than revolutionary sentiment. 

There are some revolutionary Marxists in SA, but there are many more deeply conservative Christians. The ANC wisely embodies both traditions — sometimes in the same person. It is striking, for example, that excitable scholars have expended a good deal of energy on the implications of Nelson Mandela’s brief membership of the ostensibly revolutionary Communist Party of SA, but far less on what writer Dennis Cruywagen describes as “the spiritual side of Mandela … and his wish to be buried as a Methodist”. 

We can anticipate that the EFF’s national shutdown will be a partial success. Since Tuesday is a public holiday, pupils, students, many workers and much of the middle class will be taking the day off on Monday anyway. SA remains a world leader in the revolutionary long weekend. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

A new deputy president for 2024?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Malema as deputy president looms large

First published in BusinessLive

03 MARCH 2023

Does SA face the prospect of EFF leader Julius Malema as deputy president even though his party usually garners only about 10% support from the electorate? The writer argues it is a possibility. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi

Veteran political commentator Prince Mashele generated a great deal of excitement this week with his prediction that EFF leader Julius Malema will move to the Union Buildings as deputy president in 2024. This claim, made on SABC current affairs programme The Watchdog is hardly new, but it is now catching the political imagination of many observers.

It is realistic to suppose that the load-shedding crisis will not have been resolved by the time national and provincial elections take place in mid-2024. In consequence, the ANC is likely to receive a drubbing. By blaming assorted reactionary and neoliberal elements, and by keeping the power on in the weeks ahead of the polls, the ANC should avoid dropping below 40% — Mashele suggests 42% is plausible. Meanwhile, the EFF will probably achieve its now customary 10%.

With such an outcome the ANC could not easily cobble together a majority for President Cyril Ramaphosa to be re-elected in the National Assembly. The other small parties would be too small, and a growing band of up-and-coming ANC leaders, most prominently Gauteng chair and premier Panyaza Lesufi, insist it would be unacceptable to negotiate with the DA.

The EFF has deliberately turned its guns on Ramaphosa, while simultaneously courting ANC leaders in the provinces. Moreover, the red berets have maintained friendly relations with Malema’s old mentors, ANC deputy president Paul Mashatile and secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. What could be more natural than for Mashatile to offer to serve the nation by stepping into Ramaphosa’s presidential shoes and negotiate a deal with the EFF? In exchange for EFF votes, Malema would be asked to serve his country as Mashatile’s deputy.

Of course, EFF leaders continue to live in an oppositional fantasy land and have made no attempt to engage with realistic public policy options. Policy incoherence would bring investor panic and a rapid acceleration of SA’s downward economic spiral.

EFF electors would doubtless feel deeply betrayed by the self-serving deal-making of the party’s leaders, and conservative ANC voters might react with abhorrence to Mashatile bringing Malema into the government. But the next elections would be a long way off.

It is the terrifying quality of Mashele’s scenario that makes it so compelling. But whether events will actually unfold in the predicted manner is dependent on a variety of contingencies. The ANC might do better than expected in 2024 and the EFF might do worse. While a coalition between the ANC and the DA seems implausible, a government of national unity, or an architecture of informal agreements between multiple parties, could be concocted.

Ramaphosa might decide he is unwilling to abandon the office of state president. Given that he was recently re-elected ANC leader he cannot simply be recalled, even if a majority of the party’s national executive committee favoured such a move. A special conference would have to be called by a majority of ANC provinces, and it is unclear whether such an unscheduled event is politically or logistically possible.

There is a huge dose of Gauteng arrogance in narratives about Mashatile’s rise. The proposed coalition partner, the EFF, is unpopular across much of SA. The ANC has remained stable over the years by rotating leadership between provinces, from the Eastern Cape’s Thabo Mbeki to KwaZulu-Natal’s Jacob Zuma, and now Gauteng’s Ramaphosa. It would be understandable if the ANC in Eastern Cape or KwaZulu-Natal pushed back against the idea of yet another Gauteng politician taking up residence in the Union Buildings.

Mashatile’s Gauteng commands few ANC conference delegates. Moreover, his province is heading for an absolutely devastating defeat in the provincial elections, and this will call into question the basis for his sense of entitlement about his future role.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Watch out for vote rigging

ANTHONY BUTLER: With vote riggers on tap, complacency is not an option

First published in BusinessLive

17 FEBRUARY 2023

Many South Africans don’t respond well to the idea that democracy could be under threat. Some get very angry, and insist they will never allow the democracy they fought for to die. More often they adopt the predator-avoidance strategy falsely attributed to ostriches, by burying their heads in the sand.

However, as political scientists Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas remind us in their grimly entertaining 2017 book How to Rig an Election, we are faced with a global phenomenon: “An increasing number of authoritarian leaders are contesting multiparty elections, but are unwilling to put their fate in the hands of voters … more elections are being held, but more elections are also being rigged.”

Cheeseman and Klaas note that our image of rigged elections tends to be lurid: in Madagascar, an opposition leader’s aeroplane is refused the right to land so he simply cannot contest; in Liberia there are 17 times more votes than voters; in Pakistan the most prominent opposition leader is killed; and in Equatorial Guinea “an election official [was] forced to sign off on an official result while a pistol was held to his head”.

Such crude interventions are in reality the last resort of power-hungry incumbents — it is far better to sew up the result subtly, and far in advance.

Some democratic vulnerabilities these authors analyse will be uncomfortably familiar to South Africans. Unnecessary hurdles to voter registration can selectively discriminate against anti-incumbent electors in growing urban areas. Vote buying can be widespread, with electors photographing their ballots to prove which way they have voted. Politicians may dole out public funds and development projects immediately in advance of elections — only to communities that have shown “loyalty” to the party of government.

Unaccountable electoral commissions can become dominated by incumbent appointees and selectively enforce the rules to the disadvantage of opposition parties. There may be limited access to politically compromised private media, and opaque governance in influential public broadcasters.

Equally importantly, there are new challenges related to technological change. Politicians’ personal data can be hacked to provide a basis for smear campaigns. Rapid-response bot armies can shape political narratives and spread manufactured disinformation. In many countries electoral infrastructure is vulnerable to the manipulation of voters’ rolls, voting machines and vote tabulation.

Such manipulations often make ballot box stuffing redundant. However, if it is needed, supposedly independent electoral commissions can be compromised and their members intimidated, making possible multiple and fake votes, and tampered counting processes.

Such threats to the integrity of elections can be countered by closely interrogating electoral commissions, reminding citizens that their ballot is secret, and using social media to increase awareness of vote-rigging techniques. Parallel voter surveys can be used to double-check election tallies.

Newly competitive electoral conditions in SA mean the incentives to rig elections are growing. Myriad unexploited opportunities already exist to obstruct free political activity, stifle editorial independence and curtail political freedoms. New technologies — and malign international consultancies happy to help rig elections — are on tap.

Meanwhile, the ANC has been allowed to get away with its claim that constitutional democracy is subordinate to its incoherent and anachronistic “national democratic revolution”. In recent years it has more consistently sought to normalise Chinese and Russian autocracy.

It is true that the ANC also hosts great defenders of democracy. However, an informal coalition between the ANC and the EFF under a new ANC president may be just around the corner. This would represent a betrayal of electors’ intentions and could make election-rigging a requirement for political survival.

Those who think our emerging political elites would baulk at such a strategy have perhaps not been paying sufficient attention. The biggest threat to democracy in SA is complacency.

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

The talents of Fikile Mbalula

ANTHONY BUTLER: A polarising figure with a narrative for all occasions

What matters about Fikile Mbalula is not his ministerial performance or colourful personal life but his parallel ANC career as talented fixer, spin doctor, organiser and campaigner

First published in BusinessLive

3 February 2023

Recently elected ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula is a polarising figure. To his critics he is a clown who messed up his cabinet portfolios. To his champions he is an organisational genius and a breath of fresh air in a political world short on charisma.

Now 52, Mbalula rose through ANC youth politics in Botshabelo, Free State, in the late 1980s and early 90s. He emerged at the start of the democratic era as a provincial youth league secretary before rising to the league’s presidency.

A protégé of firebrand and Thabo Mbeki loyalist Peter Mokaba, “Mbaks”, as he was widely known, switched sides to join the coalition that swept Jacob Zuma into power at Polokwane. Bequeathing his youth league leadership to Julius Malema, he rose rapidly to deputy police minister and then sports & recreation minister from 2010 to 2017. In this role he rebranded himself as “Razzmatazz” and energetically pursued the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

He fared less well after 2017 in the more consequential roles of police and then transport minister. Rebranding himself as “Mr Fearfokol”, Mbalula seemed wedded to government by tweet, even in sensitive positions where this was inappropriate.

Meanwhile, across his ministerial career he starred in comic sideshows that kept him in the public eye. He was famously “kidnapped” by fellow ANC leaders Tony Yengeni, Nyami Booi and Mcebisi Skwatsha in 2008, and forced to undergo ritual circumcision in the undergrowth of Philippi in the Cape.

After a brief affair that resulted in a pregnancy, Mbalula, a public champion of safe sex, regaled the nation with unhappily detailed accounts of exploding condoms. A former special adviser to Mbalula also made startling claims about the then police minister’s alleged involvement in efforts to procure eavesdropping “signal grabbers” in advance of the ANC’s December 2017 conference. 

However, Mbalula’s significance does not derive from his ministerial performance or his colourful personal life. What matters about Mbaks is his parallel career inside the ANC, as a talented fixer, spin doctor, organiser and campaigner.

The “state of disaster” narratives that emerged from the ANC’s national executive lekgotla on Monday bore Mbalula’s imprimatur. As the ANC starts on its year-long election campaign its strategy, directed by Mbalula and deputy secretary-general Nomvula Mokonyane, is going to be a multi-pronged attempt to deflect blame for the power crisis.

He has portrayed Eskom’s “code red” status as something unexpected, like a natural weather event. He insisted that under a state of disaster “experts” will be in charge, not ministers — meaning these same experts will be the ones to castigate when the lights stay off. Best of all, he has implied, with just a grain of truth, that a key problem has been too many Treasury regulations that prevent political leaders from implementing their turnaround visions.

The secretary-general also promised no power outages by “the end of the year”, which we can take as a decision that maintenance will take second place to ANC popularity in the run-up to next year’s elections.

Cyril Ramaphosa may well be dependent on Mbalula’s political capabilities if he wishes to remain SA president in 2024. At the same time, the secretary-general has been a Mbeki supporter and a Zuma loyalist, and he will quickly become an advocate for the merits of a Paul Mashatile presidency if circumstances require this.

If the ANC decides it needs to work with the EFF next year, Mbalula will be the key facilitator with his old friend Malema. If the liberation movement decides it wants to get rid of Ramaphosa along the way, Mbalula will be on hand to trash his record, while conjuring up a fresh narrative for the new leadership.

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

The ANC’s electoral prospects in 2024

ANTHONY BUTLER: Opposition hoping Eskom crisis will dislodge ANC

First published in BusinessLive and Business Day

20 JANUARY 2023

For opponents of the ANC, the unfolding Eskom crisis is a bittersweet experience. The costs of rolling blackouts have been enormous for the country. But opposition leaders can at least hope citizens will never forgive the ANC — especially since rolling blackouts will continue to be a feature of daily life up to and beyond the 2024 elections.

Sadly for such critics, it is far too early to assume the ANC has done enough to lose at the polls. Behind its tired and demoralised façade it still knows how to target important segments of the electorate. Many of its leaders possess a strong intuitive understanding of what needs to be done to win.

As a party of government, its record with regard to jobs, crime, transport and many other important issues has been poor for more than a decade. At least since the initial onset of the global economic crisis in 2008 the ANC has presided over economic stagnation and joblessness that electors have consistently identified as the main challenges facing the country. Yet it has survived as the majority party at national level.

The movement has also long demonstrated a capacity to shape narratives about issues that might seem destined to bury it, such as the HIV/Aids policy debacles of the Thabo Mbeki period. It consistently tailors messaging to the economically vulnerable or those in precarious employment, deploying scaremongering about a loss of social grants or job-destroying economic restructuring.

The ANC is equally expert at using geographic and ethnic segmentation. Over the past two decades the top leadership has rotated between a nominally Eastern Cape leader, Thabo Mbeki, a KwaZulu-Natal based faction around Jacob Zuma, and the hitherto marginalised northern provinces purportedly championed by Cyril Ramaphosa. This has brought fresh waves of ANC support, most notably in KwaZulu-Natal under Zuma, but also lasting gains for a movement that can claim to belong to the people of SA as a whole.

Messages about the historical legacies of the ANC have little appeal among the young, but they continue to have resonance among older citizens, who are more likely to register and vote. The ANC can still dominate “get out the vote” operations in rural areas and townships where, despite its travails, it has an unrivalled footprint.

Rolling blackouts pose a stiff test for ANC campaigners, but they are rising to this challenge on the back of the coal lobby’s already strenuous social media lobbying. Many of their narratives — concerning “baseload”, “clean coal”, and the imprudence of decarbonisation — have been borrowed from vested carbon interests elsewhere around the world.

Specialised local spin has included the idea that “white monopoly capital” is destabilising Eskom so as to buy it up cheaply, or that black excellence in the coal sector and parastatals is being deliberately trashed by apartheid apologists.

Already ANC backbench MPs and senior ministers are groping for a new narrative about “sabotage” — against Eskom or, better still, by the parastatal against the great liberation movement. It is sadly predictable that what former minister Alec Erwin called the “human instrumentalities” involved will soon be linked to Western imperialism.

The ANC’s ability to veto power cuts that might have affected its conference last December points to another obvious stratagem: a tame board and CEO can evidently be persuaded to suspend blackouts in the immediate run up to the 2024 elections.

If things get really bad, the ANC always has its classic fallback of “renewal”. We should not be surprised to find ourselves faced with a new “good ANC”, perhaps headed by an allegedly dynamic Paul Mashatile. He could ask the people for one last chance to govern, while apologising for the failures of the “bad ANC” — that led by an indecisive former president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

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

Time for a reform-oriented energy minister

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa must stop talking out of both sides of his mouth on energy reform

This game of pretence cannot continue: SA needs a reform-orientated energy minister

First published in BusinessLive

13 JANUARY 2023

President Cyril Ramaphosa should be riding high, having been re-elected by a healthy margin at the recent ANC conference. The trouble is, he has to deal with a national disaster called Eskom, and that means resolving tension between changing international realities and powerful domestic vested interests. And he also has to understand cyanide poisoning.

Despite adaptive capacities businesses and consumers have displayed — and these have been considerable — “Stage 6” blackouts mean sewage and water treatment plants begin to collapse, hospitals and schools can no longer function, and productivity continues to stagnate. Relentless power cuts also pose the biggest threat to the ANC’s ability to secure majority support in the 2024 elections.

Some in the ANC have predictably boiled the problem down to a revision of organograms. There is certainly some rationale for downsizing the department of public enterprises and transferring state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including Eskom, to line departments. It would also make sense to reverse the merger between the energy and minerals departments, because this has bolstered unholy alliances between vested interests.

But Ramaphosa also needs to lead from the front on the substantive reform programme itself. He has so far talked out of both sides of his mouth on energy reform, using mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe as his domestic body shield.

Ramaphosa, we are supposed to believe, has been pushing for an energy transition. Mantashe has purportedly been blocking him. This would be credible only if the minister did not serve at the president’s pleasure — and if Mantashe was not Ramaphosa’s closest and longest-standing ally in government and the ANC.

This game of pretence cannot continue: SA now needs a reform-orientated energy minister. Narratives that were fading five years ago — about “base load”, Western double standards, nuclear generation and the possibility of “clean coal” — have made a resurgence. The energy “common sense” in the ANC is largely nonsense.

This has been much to the advantage of what we might call the “coal lobby”, a disparate grouping of narrow interests with allies of convenience in the ANC party funding machine, among padded employees of SOEs, and in labour unions fearful of an energy transition that might damage them.

Reform proposals that would benefit the population in general are being thwarted by these narrow beneficiaries. Ramaphosa himself needs to champion his ostensible programme at home, and not rebut coal fundamentalists only in overseas forums.

The president faces an equally deep challenge with regard to the leadership of Eskom. The long anticipated departure of André de Ruyter was greeted with enthusiasm by an overwhelming majority of senior ANC politicians, who appeared keen to focus on his race, to transfer blame to him for broader government failures, and to reverse the clear reform agenda De Ruyter, and nominally the president, were pursuing.

It is difficult to believe there was a serious attempt to kill the CEO — surely the capabilities of the broad coal lobby, and associated mafias, are relatively well developed in the field of assassination? The president will have to judge whether the poisoning bid was instead a signal that was designed to discourage any credible candidate from applying for the role. It would certainly appear that the only people who would currently accept the job would be candidates totally unsuited to carry it out.

In other words, the coal lobby already has candidates they control who would reliably protect their immediate interests at the expense of those of the wider society. Will Ramaphosa simply fold? Or will he insist on a genuine search for a CEO who can drive the reform agenda he claims to champion? And will he offer them, and the programme, the real personal backing he has so far withheld? Only the president can decide.

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

Mashatile, Mkhize and Ramaphosa

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mashatile in the wings should Ramaphosa fall

With Ramaphosa’s chances drastically curtailed by the Phala Phala report, the race has been thrown wide open

First published in Business Day

02 DECEMBER 2022

Consternation has followed the release of the findings of a parliamentary panel headed by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, which has asserted that President Cyril Ramaphosa may have violated both the constitution and the laws governing corrupt activities.

In consequence, the presidential prospects of the current ANC treasurer-general and acting secretary-general, Paul Mashatile, have greatly improved. But the shock findings have also revitalised the floundering campaign of former health minister Zweli Mkhize.

To see why this is so we need to explore the possible political dynamics over the next two weeks, and the electoral processes that have been put in place for the December conference.

It is likely, though not certain, that Ramaphosa will resist calls for him to step aside, on the basis that the panel’s report is inconclusive in its language and likely to be vulnerable to legal challenge on a number of grounds.

However, Mashatile has already highlighted the potential political threat that a second term by a tarnished Ramaphosa could pose for the ANC, most immediately in the 2024 national and provincial elections.

An unexpectedly damaging aspect of the panel’s report was the incredulity with which its members greeted the account offered by Ramaphosa. Particularly telling was their observation that the ostensible buyer of the cattle had not, as yet, come forward to take ownership of the animals he had reportedly purchased.

Given that the president has now had a long time to assemble a persuasive narrative, there will be speculation that a more convincing and credible version has simply proven impossible to construct. If so, this means Ramaphosa will be vulnerable to impeachment proceedings and media revelations that drag on for months or years, all the while exposing in excruciating detail the implausibility of his narrative of events.

This would suggest, for some activists at least, that a new leadership should be put in place immediately. And we all know who Mashatile believes would be the ideal solution to this leadership dilemma.

He may or may not be able to accomplish Ramaphosa’s removal through the national executive committee’s nominal power of “recall”. It is more likely, though, that he will capitalise on growing disaffection to seek nomination as a presidential candidate from the floor of the conference, which is now little more than two weeks away.

Nomination from the floor is unusual. In the most famous instance, at the Mafikeng conference in December 1997, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was nominated to contest the deputy presidency against Jacob Zuma. In the event, her nomination was seconded by only a handful of conference delegates, falling far short of the required 25% threshold. While the raised hands were being counted, Madikizela-Mandela evidently saw which way the wind was blowing and declined the nomination.

At Polokwane in 2007 floor nominations took place under the control of the powerful Zuma faction. Tokyo Sexwale had been expected to secure the position of chair. Ostensibly to advance the “empowerment of women”, he withdrew in favour of Baleka Mbete, who had to be nominated from the floor. Thandi Modise was then similarly nominated to fill Mbete’s shoes as deputy secretary-general.

The principle and process of floor nomination are therefore both well-established, but a good deal of organisation is required to reach the necessary threshold of support. Many ANC insiders believe Mashatile is quite capable of this political and organisational feat. However, Ramaphosa might well dig in his heels and refuse to stand aside, even in the event of such a floor nomination.

Since Ramaphosa and Mashatile are fishing in broadly the same pool of support, they could easily split their own faction’s vote in half. This could leave the door open for Mkhize to secure the presidency with the support of just 40% of conference delegates.

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

Is a Mashatile presidency on the cards?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mashatile more than a long shot for the ANC presidency

The treasurer-general is seen to be amenable to a coalition with the EFF, a vision among some of the party’s youth

First published in BusinessLive

17 NOVEMBER 2022

We are now less than a month away from the ANC’s elective conference. Three sets of considerations suggest the outcome of the top six leadership election remains remarkably open.

The first, and most significant, clue to potential surprises came in ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile’s interview with Business Day earlier this week (“Ramaphosa and Mkhize scandals are not good for the ANC, says Mashatile”, November 16).

Mashatile claimed malfeasance allegations against the two probable nominees for the presidency — incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa and former health minister Zweli Mkhize — represent a dire threat to the party in the 2024 national and provincial elections.

Allegations certainly continue to swirl around Ramaphosa regarding the Phala Phala game farm incident. While the two-week extension granted to the “independent panel” conducting an investigation on parliament’s behalf makes it unlikely that any devastating findings will be made before the conference, anxiety about the longer-term implications is playing on activists’ nerves.

The same may be true of the fallout from the Digital Vibes contract scandal. Although criminal charges do not appear imminent, the matter will continue to cast a shadow over Mkhize, and weaken his claims on the leadership of the ANC.

Unofficial slates of the top six candidates from the Ramaphosa camp have not commonly featured Mkhize — or even his nominal factional ally Mashatile. This has encouraged speculation that the two shunned aspirants might work together in an anti-Ramaphosa slate, although it has become impolite to describe such collaboration in those terms.

The implication of Mashatile’s remarks about the cloud of scandals might be that he, and not Mkhize, should be the senior partner — the appropriate presidential nominee — in such a partnership.

The second clue to potential events concerns the widespread belief among ANC activists that the movement will need, sooner rather than later, to enter into a coalition agreement with the EFF. Younger activists tend to view such a coalition favourably, or even keenly to hope for the reabsorption of the red berets into the mother body.

It is widely assumed that Mashatile is amenable to such a deal, and that Ramaphosa and Mkhize are less so — another reason, in their eyes, for the younger man’s elevation to the top job.

Third, one can imagine that Mashatile had a wry smile on his face when, as acting secretary-general, he assembled the catalogue of proposed constitutional amendments to be tabled at the movement’s elective conference in December. The list included the exclusion of candidates older than 65 years from competition for leadership positions.

There is no chance of such a proposal being adopted, but it is a marker of intent that should be taken seriously. After all, it suggests that Ramaphosa, who turned 70 this week, should not run for another term. It also indicates that 66-year-old Mkhize is over the hill. Of course, at 61 Mashatile is no spring chicken, but all wise people know youth is relative.

Keen-eyed observers will object that Ramaphosa and Mkhize are both certain to be nominated for the presidency by the provinces and leagues, whereas Mashatile enjoys open support only for the position of deputy president.

But in these uncertain times we should be alert to the possibility that there could be nominations from the floor of the conference in December. According to the electoral rules anyone with the support of 25% of the delegates is added to the ballot.

Because there is now a two-stage ballot, with the deputy president elected later than the president, Mkhize could even withdraw from the presidential contest, throwing his weight behind Mashatile. A newly elected president Mashatile could then support Mkhize’s nomination from the floor as his deputy.

The odds are very much against such a deal being successful. But we cannot exclude the possibility that there is a third serious challenger for the ANC presidency: Paul Shipokosa Mashatile.

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

Political deployment cycles and SOE bailouts

ANTHONY BUTLER: SOEs are like alcoholics who can’t settle for one free drink

Bailouts and transfers in the medium-term budget may just make things worse

First published in BusinessLive

03 NOVEMBER 2022

Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago can be a very funny man. A decade ago, as director-general of the National Treasury, he told parliament’s finance committee that he was fed up with answering for the sins of SAA: “They must answer for themselves.”

Sceptical about “tough love” conditions for bailouts, he said state-owned enterprises (SOEs) resemble heavy drinkers looking for a fix. Give them something today and they may go away for a while, but “I have been long enough in the Treasury to know that they will come again for more”.

Kganyago’s insight remains pertinent given the government’s commitments in the medium- term budget policy statement, to disburse R33bn to Transnet, the SA National Roads Agency and Denel.

It has been less controversial that the finance minister has decided to absorb more than R200bn of Eskom’s contingent liabilities in the government’s balance sheet. After all, credit ratings agencies treat state-guaranteed parastatal debt as equivalent to government borrowing, and surely everyone wants SOE executives to focus on their core business rather than on debt management?

However, if Kganyago is right, such bailouts and transfers may both make the underlying problems worse. Of course, SOEs are not individuals afflicted with substance addiction. Nor, typically, are they run by them. But there are four reasons why, as organisations, they often resemble them.

First, bailouts ease symptoms rather than deal with causes, key among which is confusion about objectives. The shareholder claims it wants to create economic value, but it also wants to marginalise private partners, support politically connected suppliers, and rigidly apply procurement and equity targets.

There is nothing wrong with multiple policy goals, but they need to be costed and transparent. As things stand, parastatals are faced with a plethora of conflicting objectives; behind the mess the crooked and corrupt can thrive.

Second, Treasury conditionality can never succeed as a routine instrument for managing SOEs. The Treasury is allegedly finalising a funding framework, which will supposedly specify in detail the conditions — and preconditions — that must be met by supplicants.

Such an approach suggests wrongly that SOE boards and executives simply cannot be expected to run their own operations. Instead, it suggests, the Treasury is capable of running them all by itself. This is not so.

Third, the current parastatal architecture concentrates economic hazards in too-important-to-fail boardrooms. Almost every major SOE serves some essential function in the economy, and bailout approaches simply perpetuate the debilitating insecurity this generates.

For example, SA’s energy security cannot be reliably guaranteed without diversifying energy sources and ending the tyranny of Eskom’s vertical monopoly. The same is true in the fields of transportation and logistics.

Finally, party deployment explains why parastatal boards so often resemble drunkards hoping for one more drink. When parastatals are flush with cash the ANC can deploy looters and loyalists, with questionable business skills, to generate wealth for themselves, for their political networks, and for the liberation movement’s always-depleting coffers. When crisis strikes, such deployees can simply bail out and return to postparastatal life, typically landing gently, courtesy of a golden parachute.

We then get some soberly dressed fixers. Hitherto passed over by deployment apparatchiks, these upstanding business persons, of good character, promise to dispose of noncore assets, undertake operational reviews, and finally draw up “turnaround plans”. But once the money is in they become disposable themselves, and the looters push their way back to the head of the deployment queue.

The problems at SOEs are not essentially financial or managerial. They are political, and they require political solutions. It is still not clear that President Cyril Ramaphosa and the broader ANC leadership are willing, or able, to accept that fact.

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

Not all slates are the same

ANTHONY BUTLER: The ABC slate spells disaster for SA

First published in BusinessLive

20 October 2022

A slate of “top six” candidates for the December conference of the ANC was widely circulated, and endorsed earlier this week as “the team”, by one of Cyril Ramaphosa’s “CR22” campaign managers, Derek Hanekom.

Water affairs minister Senzo Mchunu would make an excellent deputy president. Gwen Ramokgopa would be a capable treasurer-general. Political strategist and campaigner Fikile Mbalula is an unusual choice for secretary-general, to be sure, but even his sternest critics concede it would be good for the country to get him out of the cabinet.

In any event, Febe Potgieter will be on hand as his deputy, to carry out essential reading and writing tasks at Luthuli House. These people will try very hard, as best they can, not to destroy the country.

Some citizens have affected a weary response, complaining that it does not matter who wins key leadership positions. The ANC will remain corrupt, and no action will be taken to reverse the deterioration in the country’s fortunes no matter which ANC cadres are in charge.

A significant group of citizens goes further, insisting a terrible ANC leadership is desirable. The worse the ANC leadership becomes, in their view, the more surely the liberation movement will be removed from power in the 2024 general elections. This is almost certainly a misjudgment.

Consider the Anyone But Cyril (ABC) slate that is likely to emerge in the days ahead. It may include former health minister Zweli Mkhize, who earlier this week saved the criminal justice system time and money by clearing himself of malfeasance in the Digital Vibes matter.

Paul Mashatile, former don of the Alex Mafia — “mafia” in a nice sense, he has explained — will surely play a part. Struggle heritage princess Lindiwe Sisulu, Nkosazana “he didn’t tell me to run” Dlamini-Zuma, and David “I didn’t do it” Mabuza are also likely participants.

Would it really be good for the country to have this team as the senior ANC leadership? Perhaps it is true that they would bring electoral problems for the ANC, but there are three drawbacks.

First, they represent bizarre economic policy tendencies, even by the standards of today’s ANC. They would bring nonreversible policy errors, the permanent destruction of productive capacity, and the exit of skills and capital. The spectacle of incompetent populist policy-makers being destroyed by financial markets in other places may sometimes be entertaining, but it is not to be wished on your own country.

Second, the national constitution is in play. The nascent ABC slate has got into many tangles with our zealous legal and criminal watchdogs — little wonder they do not much like the law. In January Sisulu described the constitution as a “palliative” and complained that our “mentally colonised” judges are “confused by foreign belief systems”.

Finally, there is the problem of actually removing the liberation movement through the 2024 or 2029 national and provincial elections. Supporters of the ABC slate already assume the desirability of ANC reunification with the EFF. A poor election showing is just what the ABC group wants, because it will create conditions in which the embrace of the red berets by the blue light brigade becomes inescapable.

These three dimensions of politics are interrelated. The conjoined decline of constitutional government, damaging economic populism and a refusal to accept the outcomes of properly conducted national and provincial elections together will be immeasurably destructive.

It will be far better to have a fair electoral contest, between the strongest coalition the opposition parties can assemble and the most coherent leadership the ANC can muster. That, right now, is Ramaphosa’s team.

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