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

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.

Slates are not dead

ANTHONY BUTLER: Slate politics still rules, throwing a lifeline to Ramaphosa’s reform projects

The conclusion that free-for-all alliances are leading the party towards continuing leadership incoherence and internal conflict has been disproved

First published in BusinessLive

17 OCTOBER 2022

In recent weeks it has been difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for the ANC’s December elective conference, or for the jostling for leadership positions that has long been under way.

A consensus was emerging among leading political commentators that “slate politics” was dead, and that any reform project for Cyril Ramaphosa’s second term as ANC president would therefore be stillborn.

The dismaying expectations of analysts included a belief that treasurer-general Paul Mashatile was a shoo-in for the position of ANC deputy president, the notion that a range of provincial has-beens were his only real competitors, and the conclusion that free-for-all politics was leading the party towards continuing leadership incoherence and internal conflict.

In the space of a few days these assumptions may all have been turned on their head. First, there was the entertaining and logic-defying suicide pact between tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu and co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. After both candidates for high office were resoundingly snubbed by branch delegates, the pair in effect declared that if you won’t nominate us singly we will team up and insist that you support both of us together.

Second, a relatively minor public relations effort on the part of Ramaphosa’s allies in the CR22 campaign exposed the limitations of some recent hopefuls. As an early tide of enthusiasm from the Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces ebbed, it quickly became clear that supposed contenders Oscar Mabuyane and Stanley Mathabatha were not wearing swimming trunks.

Some provincial activists joked they simply wanted to kick the old people upstairs to Luthuli House. Many more conceded that the Eastern Cape cannot have both Mabuyane and Gwede Mantashe in the top six, and Limpopo cannot have both Mathabatha and Ramaphosa.

Third, the underlying risks of Mashatile’s personal project have suddenly become crystal clear. For far too long generous activists have tolerated his dogged pursuit of any and all personal routes to the top. This time round he has expressed willingness to partner Ramaphosa, but also to partner with Mkhize, as long as he can take over the reins in 2027.

But Mashatile also threatens to destroy any possibility of ANC renewal in a democratic society. His greatest appeal derives from the  fantasy that the ANC can, without cost, team up with the EFF to nullify an anti-ANC outcome in the 2024 national and provincial elections.

To plan for such an eventuality may be prudent in a world of coalition politics. But hawking the idea on the campaign trail, like a salesman, encourages the corrupt and self-absorbed in the ANC to treat such a coalition as inevitable. Many of them are pricing it — and so their ongoing malfeasance — into their calculations. The Ramaphosa camp may also suspect such a coalition will provide a pretext for throwing out the Buffalo in the middle of his second term.

Finally, the Ramaphosa caucus’s suggestion that water affairs minister Senzo Mchunu should be elected to the deputy presidency recognises that keeping KwaZulu-Natal fully integrated into the ANC and state should be a priority for all national political leaders.

A revised top-six balloting procedure proposed for the conference is likely to result in the president, secretary-general, treasurer and chair being elected in a first round of voting — and none of the successful candidates is likely to come from KwaZulu-Natal.

In the vote for the deputy president that follows, Mchunu would come up against Mashatile, inconsequential minnows such as the justice and human settlements ministers, and failed presidential candidates who manage to get nominated from the floor. Under such circumstances Mchunu would probably draw delegate support from the Ramaphosa camp, with a significant body of delegates from KwaZulu-Natal.

There is a long way to go to the conference. But the idea of a Ramaphosa reform slate still has life left in it.

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

Kings, Queens and Presidents

ANTHONY BUTLER: Watch the politics behind the eccentricities of state visits

First published in BusinessLive, 6 October, 2022

The announcement that President Cyril Ramaphosa will undertake a state visit to the UK from November 22-24 brought an immediate deluge of snarky commentary from political journalists, newspaper columnists and the lower orders of society more generally.

This is unfair. The pomp and ceremony may be ridiculous, but such jaunts should also be taken seriously. Every country has its own corny protocols for visiting dignitaries. In the US visitors disembark to a “flight line ceremony” at Joint Base Andrews. They are then greeted on the south lawn of the White House, where they endure a 21-gun salute. After munching their way through a state dinner — possibly pizza and chips under Bill Clinton — they are obliged to listen to a washed-out crooner such as Frank Sinatra.

In the Russian Federation heads of state are greeted at Vnukovo International Airport, enjoy a grim welcome at St George’s Hall in the Kremlin, sit for hours on end in the “Czar’s box” at the Bolshoi. They then wander around Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before enjoying a state banquet — perhaps followed by a relaxing massage in the presidential suite of the Russian leader’s official hotel.

Britain’s offerings are no less eccentric. A ceremonial welcome on Horse Guards Parade from inappropriately dressed soldiers. A trip in a horse-drawn carriage to the palace (especially useful during a transport workers’ strike). Twenty-one-gun salutes (106-gun if you are China’s president Xi Jinping). And a state banquet that requires a dozen pieces of cutlery to transfer the rubber chicken from plate to mouth, probably served with an obligatory SA wine — but not Chateau Libertas.

While such flummery may appeal to insecure politicians, the invitations originate in the murky depths of the foreign, commonwealth & development office, and one can generally discern some rationale behind them.

Then US president Donald Trump’s visit in 2019 was apparently designed to reignite the “special relationship” between the two countries, given reasonable doubts about its existence. Xi’s trip in 2015 was part of a major effort on the part of the opium dealer to recast relationships with its nonconsenting former user.

What does Britain want from Ramaphosa’s SA? While the eurozone and China now eclipse the UK as trading partners, the UK remains an active and important investor. Beyond business-oriented meetings there is much to discuss with regard to climate change, emerging blocs in international power politics, and access to the mineral resources of the postcarbon global energy regime.

Most striking of all, however, are the carefully crafted and personalised elements of such a visit, most of which take place outside the full glare of publicity. The new monarch will probably take Ramaphosa around a specially curated exhibition of items from the royal collection at Buckingham Palace — many of them unfortunately stolen from former colonies — which reflect the enduring and complex relationship between the two countries.

Jacob Zuma visited the house in north London from which Oliver Tambo led the ANC’s diplomatic campaign against apartheid for 30 years. He expressed more sadness than nostalgia: “Some of us used to come here to give reports and bring messages. It does bring back those days when we could not speculate about when would be the day of freedom.”

Ramaphosa has his own memories and personal relationships in the UK, from business dealings to the Northern Ireland peace process, and above all from the politics of international labour union solidarity. It will be interesting to see where his royal and diplomatic hosts decide to take him. It will be more fascinating still if Ramaphosa uses these interactions to set out his own agenda for the future relationships between these two states.

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

What kind of ANC collective leadership does Ramaphosa want?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Expressions of support for Cyril Ramaphosa may or may not herald a second term

First published in BusinessLive

22 SEPTEMBER 2022

The run-up to the ANC elective conference in December isn’t following familiar plotlines. In the Thabo Mbeki period, we had endless scheming and backroom deals. In 2007, Jacob Zuma brought zero-sum slate politics to the ANC, his faction sweeping aside the entire Mbeki top six at Polokwane.

In 2012, Kgalema Motlanthe’s phantom pregnancy delivered Cyril Ramaphosa as a surprise baby deputy president. The 2017, Nasrec “billionrand election” elevated Ramaphosa to the presidency, but surrounded him with dubious characters such as secretary-general Ace Magashule and deputy president David Mabuza.

What can we expect this time? A once dominant KwaZulu-Natal will still have nearly 900 delegates, but Eastern Cape will have almost 700 and Limpopo more than 600. Premature ejaculations of support for Ramaphosa, from Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, promise a second term. Paul Mashatile’s campaign for deputy president has also overstimulated many provincial executive members.

However, the overall pattern of results is tantalisingly difficult to predict. KwaZulu-Natal remains a province apart. Ramaphosa’s surprisingly strong 2017 support in the province has evaporated, but Zweli Mkhize and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma have little hope of national success.

The ANC deputy presidency has received a flood of declarations from inappropriate suitors. Oscar Mabuyane, Lindiwe Sisulu and Ronald Lamola would be sent packing by any responsible parent. Treasurer-general Paul Mashatile is the frontrunner at this stage. However, unlike Mabuza in 2017, he does not control delegates Ramaphosa has not already banked.

Meanwhile, the president has been big on gender talk, but short on action. There are well-qualified female candidates for office: Thoko Didiza for deputy president; Gwen Ramokgopa for secretary-general; and Febe Potgieter-Gqubule or Zingiswa Losi for deputy secretary-general.

Finally, there is the problem of the EFF. This external faction of the ANC was always coming back to its beloved mother body. If the ANC falls below 50% in the 2024 national and provincial elections the EFF’s moment of maximum leverage will have arrived: jobs, blue light convoys, contracts and pseudo-socialism can all be realised together — if only the ANC will play ball.

EFF leader Julius Malema has already expressed a preference for Mashatile as ANC leader for just this reason. The two might as well stand up together in front of a large crowd, hold hands, and declare that if the ANC falls below 50% in 2024 they will remove Ramaphosa, form a coalition government and institute an epoch of justice and harmony for all.

Ramaphosa needs to have a reasonably coherent team behind him in Luthuli House, and this means making clear what exactly he wants, and why. Is Mabuyane really going to ally with Zweli Mkhize if he does not enjoy Ramaphosa’s support for the position of secretary-general? Can Mashatile actually form a common front with Mkhize if his immediate ambitions are thwarted? Obviously not. Does Gwede Mantashe really need to occupy the office of ANC chair, a senior position that could be promised to powerful ANC regional or provincial leaders who add something to Ramaphosa’s slate?

Meanwhile, Mashatile should be forced to clarify his position on future alliances with opposition parties, and be asked to take on a serious government role before running for the highest office in the land. Ramaphosa also needs to be clear if he really values gender balance in the leadership and to set out the role he sees for KwaZulu-Natal in the future of the ANC.

Does he believe the role of deputy president — one Mashatile has appropriated for himself — should instead go to a strong candidate from KwaZulu-Natal such as Thoko Didiza — who brings generational change and executive competence — or Dlamini-Zuma, who has unparallelled experience and has been a model of servant leadership after her 2017 defeat?

What remains absent at this stage is Ramaphosa’s voice, and any public expression of his own conception of what a coherent ANC top leadership might look like in his second term.

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

Thabo Mbeki’s mixed legacy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mbeki belongs in a council of elders, but after reflecting on his presidency

First published in BusinessLive

08 SEPTEMBER 2022

Former ANC and state president Thabo Mbeki turned 80 in 2022. His public engagements in recent months have generated nostalgia and controversy.

This sprightly elder statesman of liberation movement politics has continued to be a prominent figure even in his twilight years. Surely a national council of the elders could be created to draw on the experience of such widely respected veterans?

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Mbeki’s rival in the bitter battle to succeed Nelson Mandela more than 25 years ago, offered a seemingly generous tribute on Mbeki’s birthday in June. Mischievously likening Mbeki to an oak tree — “strong, enduring and wise” — Ramaphosa described it as a “personal comfort … to know we continue to rely on your honesty when we are not living up to the expectations of our people”.

Mbeki demonstrated just such frankness the same month at the memorial service for ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, lambasting Ramaphosa for tardy and ineffective leadership. “There is no national plan to address these challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality … Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa when he delivered his state of the nation address in February … said in 100 days there must be an agreed social compact to address these matters. Nothing has happened. Nothing.”

Mbeki also took the opportunity to rehearse a long-discredited theory from political science, famously advocated by his brother Moeletsi in 2011, that SA would face a “Tunisia moment” as economic reversals and unaffordable social grant programmes precipitate a popular uprising. “One of these days”, the former president claimed, “it is going to explode.”

Such commentary has attracted both praise and scorn. Demands for Ramaphosa to “crack the whip” with underperforming ministers certainly struck a chord. But many citizens have found it difficult to know how to treat Mbeki’s recent interventions.

Most societies show some respect for the wisdom of their ageing members. Neurologist and psychiatrist Prof Dilip Jeste, director of a “health ageing” institute at the University of California, San Diego, suggests older people develop capabilities for controlling their emotions, expressing compassion and using pattern recognition to take better decisions.

However, it is noteworthy that retired people can become embittered and bad tempered — even insufferable — in old age. Decreasing testosterone and variable blood sugar levels result in mood swings. The deterioration of eyesight and hearing, and pain from arthritis and other age-related ailments, may lead to outbursts of anger.

Perhaps more importantly, many old people find their memory fails them, feel their legacy is misunderstood, and sense they are reviled where once they were beloved.

Certainly, some critics of Mbeki bewail the unresolved and unexplained legacies of his long political career: his approach to HIV/Aids; his decisions with regard to former justice system officials such as Vusi Pikoli and Jacki Selebi; corruption at PetroSA and in the arms sector; the apparent failure of SA’s Zimbabwe policy; paranoia about the media; attacks on internal democracy in the ANC; the pursuit of a third term as ANC president; and kick-starting the collapse of Eskom and wider parastatal looting through the Chancellor House investment vehicle.

These are just a few of the controversies Mbeki has had plenty of opportunity to explain. But he has chosen not to do so.

There are many attractions to the idea of a council of the elders in which luminaries of the past, such as Mbeki, Inkatha founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi and DA veteran Helen Zille could reflect together and then advise the current leaders of the nation. However, a degree of prior reflection and the ability of members to learn from and admit to their mistakes would seem to be obvious preconditions for success.

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

Time to ditch the lump of labour fallacy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Labour and hospitals do not come in heaps and lumps

Immigrants add opportunities for employment and their taxes help the state extend services

First published in BusinessLive

25 AUGUST 2022

In difficult times, it is little wonder that people believe that the opportunities of others come at the cost of their own exclusion.

When we are under stress, we imagine a fixed stock of hospital beds, subsidised houses, and school places. When others occupy them, surely we are denied what we deserve?

The most consequential manifestation of such thinking in SA today concerns jobs. The “lump of labour” fallacy, first diagnosed more than 100 years ago, refers to the notion that there is a fixed amount of work in the economy. If someone else takes a job, surely it is denied to me, and to people like me?

This fallacy has driven decades of misguided policy experiments around the world. Once governments wrongly accept there is a fixed amount of work to be done, it seems reducing the hours of currently employed workers will create space for the unemployed to step in.

Why not push older people into retirement, in the hope that this will allow unemployed young people to access the supposed lump of work? Or encourage whites to emigrate, thus freeing up their positions for local blacks? Or encourage blacks to emigrate, thus freeing up their jobs for native whites?

Such initiatives typically fail. Hiring, training, and managing additional workers cost money and reduce average worker productivity. An economy grows through the skills and productivity of its workers and entrepreneurs and the capabilities of its regulatory systems.

Removing productive workers, chucking out those who create and sustain enterprises, and disempowering effective government officials, are all immensely counterproductive for the economy as a whole.

The worst manifestations of the lump of labour fallacy in SA today concern anti-immigrant sentiment. Lump of labour advocates think that immigrants reduce available jobs for the native-born. Throw them out and locals will have work.

It is true that an immigrant may secure a position a citizen wanted. But the number of jobs is not fixed. Working immigrants mostly spend their incomes in the economy, creating fresh demand, and so creating new jobs. As migrants expand the population, the number of jobs grows.

Conversely, when a country pushes established migrants back to their country of origin, this creates immediate vacancies but it is likely to worsen the unemployment crisis. The spending power of foreigners is lost, foreigner-created businesses close and let go their local workers, and migrants’ skills often cannot be economically replaced. Established businesses will often simply invest less when migrants, and their skills, depart.

Immigrants tend to be younger and more skilled than locals, especially unemployed locals. This creates a recipe for potential social conflict. But they are also likely to create businesses, improve productivity, and contribute to overall tax revenues. The most successful large countries in the world, notably the US, have shown that immigration can be a key motor for prosperity.

Of course, although migrants tend to bolster productivity, expand an economy, and build the tax base, there are certain preconditions for reaping such rewards. A functional government is needed to maximise the benefits, and minimise the perceived injustice of competition for public services. Where migrants settle and pay taxes, resources must go towards reducing competition with locals for school places and hospital beds. Short-term untaxed and unregulated migrancy, with earnings remitted home, will fail to bolster the host economy much.

There may also be deeper political choices to be made. Some countries, such as China and Japan, enjoy a broad domestic consensus that ethnic homogeneity is desirable, even if this comes at the risk of economic and cultural stagnation. This is their choice. Given SA’s history, it is difficult to see how such a position could be sustainable here. It would also be economically ruinous.

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

How “independents” bolster existing parties

ANTHONY BUTLER: Independents could bring out the worst in politics

Personalised politics is likely to unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates

First published in BusinessLive

11 AUGUST 2022

“Independents” sound like the very best of our politicians. They might turn out to be the very worst.

This group of political hopefuls was championed by the Constitutional Court in a June 2020 ruling. Candidates for high office, the eminent judges maintained, should not be forced to join or form a political party. Instead, they insisted, the Electoral Act must be amended to allow such independents into national and provincial legislatures.

Independence is an attractive idea. It suggests freedom from external control and possession of an uncorralled mind. Surely it would unleash free agents who could transcend the muck and division of corrupt party machines?

Furthermore, independent candidates ostensibly appeal to “independent voters”, a group of citizens who believe their policy preferences are determined by their own upstanding personal moral values and their enormous cognitive capabilities.

However, personalised politics, uncontained by the discipline of party programmes, brings with it some obvious drawbacks. It would probably unleash a swarm of malevolent single-issue candidates. For instance, where there are many immigrants, xenophobia could be a route to success.

Where the boundaries of apartheid tribalism still divide citizens, independents could mobilise around fantasies of ethnic oppression. Where one racial group fears another, racial “swamping” would be the dog whistle an independent could blow.

Less widely understood is the way supposedly independent candidates could protect rather than challenge SA’s big political parties. If the drafters of the Electoral Amendment Bill have their way, independent candidates will have to assemble 12,000 signatures to get their names on the ballot paper. This achievement requires hard political organisation rather than benign intent.

Once in the race they will not get far without a campaign machinery that informs and mobilises voters. They will need researchers, communications teams, transport budgets, manifestos, documents and foot soldiers to interact with potential electors. Even independent candidates need to be represented by party agents at counting and voting stations to ensure elections are fair.

The structures and systems that allow success in elections are mostly found in existing political parties. The problems such mechanisms bring do not go away simply because they are not called parties.

Parliament has concluded that no cooling-off period is required before party members who have lost internal battles can run as independents. This will help parties solve a problem that has bedevilled them: how to manage internal factionalism and competition for positions and resources.

In the ANC, competitors for candidate or leadership positions resort to intimidation or even murder. When they lose, protest and disruption follow. In the DA, ambitious politicians denied advancement have opted for the nonviolent, but also disruptive, theatre of defection.

The creation of new splinter parties — such as the EFF or ActionSA — has provided a home for disgruntled factions of the ANC and the DA. Party processes are no longer a zero-sum game. Such formations run as distinct parties, but they remain natural coalition partners of their mother bodies.

Independents will be a fresh and equally useful instrument of party management. Losing factional leaders can run for election anyway, with the possibility of securing a legislative job. They can bring their hangers-on and organisers with them, all hopeful that their candidate may yet secure office and so access opportunities and resources through the politics of coalition government.

The activities of campaigning independents still cost money, even if the money is now circulating in “movements”, foundations and think-tanks that surround a candidate, rather than in a formal party. The consequent reliance on donors recreates the dependencies and malign influences that have discredited existing political parties.

Independents may not, in fact, be independent.

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