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

Economic diplomacy rules

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa brings international relations to a new level

Foreign policy is harnessed for the first time in decades to build trust and secure SA’s economic interests

First published in Business Day

26 November 2021

Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta concluded his visit to SA this week without any fanfare. He and President Cyril Ramaphosa reportedly reached tentative agreements about modest infrastructure and trade partnerships, and how to patch up this country’s dysfunctional visa regime.

Should we yearn for the supposed “glory days” of SA foreign policy, when Nelson Mandela was a global icon, Thabo Mbeki created new institutions to bring about a united Africa, and Jacob Zuma launched us into the dizzying firmament of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA (Brics) grouping?

In retrospect, these leaders’ grandiose initiatives were almost all counterproductive. What we need today is a prudent foreign policy president who places economic diplomacy at the forefront of all of his international interventions. Mandela tried to place human rights at the centre of foreign policy, but he alienated potential allies across the continent and created an albatross of unrealisable expectations among do-gooders in the West.

Mbeki championed conflict resolution and institution-building across Africa, but the resources needed for SA’s anticipated role were never available. His pet project, the African Peer Review Mechanism, became a tick-box exercise. The only country now fearful of its judgments is SA itself.

Mbeki must be credited for helping to create an India, Brazil, SA Dialogue Forum (Ibsa), which brought together middle-income democratic states. But he also made possible SA’s Zuma-era participation in Brics. 

What did Brics add to Ibsa? Two authoritarian partners who are the world’s most aggressive salesmen for nuclear generators. Nuclear power procurement is a magnet for corruption, taking place behind a smoke screen of vendor financing and under a national security secrecy blanket.

This was not the worst of Zuma. The SA government battled to secure the position of chair of the AU Commission in July 2012 for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a role from which large countries have been excluded by convention. Disgracefully, all this was simply to build Dlamini-Zuma’s political “seniority”, so that she could run for the ANC’s presidency in 2017. Little wonder the country is viewed with distrust.

Ramaphosa is well-equipped to be a foreign policy president with his history as a trade unionist, co-chair of the Commonwealth Business Corporation, a mediator in peace processes and a former director of SA’s most international bank, Standard Bank.

In the past he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the global great and good as much as any politician. Today, however, SA foreign policy is harnessed for the first time in decades for building trust and securing the country’s fundamental economic interests.

Ramaphosa has appointed a serious and independent-minded foreign minister in Naledi Pandor. As AU chair last year he focused efforts on the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.

He remains alert to the importance of SA’s second-biggest trading partner, China, and continues to promote a role for SA banks facilitating trade between Asia and Africa and providing financial services to Chinese companies operating on the continent.

At the same time, he is aware that duty-free access to the US provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act is due to expire in 2025, and that this programme has contributed significantly to export-led job creation in agriculture and vehicle manufacture.

SA’s complex climate diplomacy recently achieved some provisional successes in Glasgow. Similar complexity — and now also urgency — surround a fast-approaching global shift towards electric vehicle manufacture.

Finding ways to move forward in these sectors seems for the first time to be occupying centre stage in SA foreign policy. Ramaphosa’s government has remained pragmatic with regard to its potential international partners. Moralising, posturing and grandiose national exceptionalism are nowhere to be seen.

When it comes to foreign policy we should all hope that Ramaphosa has an equally focused — and unexciting — second term as SA president.

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

Will the ANC finally lose in 2024


Having just lost an outright majority nationally for the first time, it is entirely possible that the ANC could lose the country in 2024. But having got to this point, there are a number of possible futures for the country — and some of them are quite scary

First published in Financial Mail and BusinessLive


11 NOVEMBER 2021 – 05:00
ANTHONY BUTLER

The November 1 local government elections were the second of just two “watershed moments” in SA’s recent history, says the Sunday Times.

The first was the 1994 elections, “when, for the first time, all South Africans, irrespective of race, voted together for a common government”. This second watershed saw “the post-apartheid mould of one-party dominance … to all intents and purposes, broken”.

It’s a bold assessment — but perhaps a little hasty. More cautious observers believe a real epochal shift will not come until 2024, if at all. There is a long and perilous journey between a fading dominant-party regime and a competitive multiparty system.

After all, the ANC has been drinking in the last-chance electoral saloon for almost a decade. The party’s Gauteng result in May 2014 (54%, from 64% in 2009), and its disastrous performance in the 2016 local government elections (54% nationally, from 62% in 2011), made this long-term decline evident. It was obscured only temporarily by support for the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

However, what does mark out this result as special is the breaching of the 50% threshold, with the ANC securing just 46% of the vote overall.

A paltry 36% in Gauteng, further losses in Joburg and Tshwane, the failure to turn back the tide in Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay, and the loss of eThekwini confirm the movement’s decline. The party’s once-professional campaign machinery was a shambles: little money, no message, strikes at Luthuli House, and pitiful excuses for defeat.

But it is too soon to write the ANC’s obituary, or to describe it as a party of the former bantustans and rural areas. It remains the biggest party in 161 municipalities.

Far from storming the gates, the major opposition parties have failed to capitalise on the ANC’s vulnerability.

The fact is, the DA secured around 1,400 seats, against the 1,800 it won in 2016. The botched removal of former party boss Mmusi Maimane has contributed to a collapse of black support for the party, and support from coloured voters has shrunk badly (see page 25).

While the DA may have stemmed the growth of the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), it has failed to recapture lost support among white Afrikaners. As a result, its support in the Western Cape fell to 54%, and it lost strongholds such as Cape Agulhas and Breede Valley.

Perhaps party leader John Steenhuisen is pleased that the party got voters out at all, in an election where the genial Cyril Ramaphosa, rather than the Zuma bogey-man, served as leader of the governing party. And the party does have opportunities for anti-ANC coalitions thanks to the fragmentation created by the rise of the FF Plus, ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance.

Julius Malema’s EFF secured 10% overall. Over the past decade, the party has transformed itself from a regional and ethnic formation to an organisation with a national footprint. It has continued to perform well in Gauteng, Limpopo and the North West, but it also has a substantial presence in KZN and now, for the first time, in the Eastern Cape, where it secured 8% of the vote.

ActionSA’s targeted Gauteng campaigns brought it 16% of the vote in Joburg and 7% in the province’s other metros, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni. In KZN, the IFP secured 27%.

While these and other smaller parties campaigned strongly, and will have some leverage in specific municipalities, the three big parties will dominate coalition politics.

Maturing coalition politics

Coalitions or governance agreements are unlikely to be finalised until we approach the 14-day post-election deadline for councils to meet, in a week’s time.

But it will be tricky. In 2016 there were just 27 hung councils. Today we have 66.

The bigger parties have taken coalitions seriously and considered the permutations and scenarios. They have identified “red lines” and set out “principles” that they claim will govern deal-making.

The DA appears to be the party with the most straightforward strategy, summarised by Steenhuisen as: “No unstable coalitions!”

After a weekend of deliberation, the party has reiterated that it will not work with the EFF, but also that it is now not interested in doing any deal — formal coalition or co-operation agreement — with the ANC.

This shows it learnt from 2016, when it co-operated with the EFF and others. It was a confusing mess that tarnished the party’s image, and cost it votes.

With its clear intention to govern only where it is in control, DA leaders seem happy to act as official opposition watchdogs rather than as direct participants in local governance.
This suggests their focus is squarely on the 2024 national and provincial elections, when the party hopes the ANC will again fall below 50% of the vote nationally — and in several of the provinces. The DA is also clearly harbouring resurgent hopes that the ANC may contrive to explode, or split, as a result of continued turmoil in government and divisions between internal factions.

It’s a risky strategy for the DA, as voters might punish the party for sitting on its hands, rather than responding to Ramaphosa’s call — echoed by some DA benefactors — for all parties to work together to rescue municipalities from collapse.

But Steenhuisen’s leadership is almost certainly right that these risks are dwarfed by the dangers of participation in unruly coalitions, especially with an unreformed ANC.

The EFF’s position is equally complex. One trouble for the EFF is that many opposition parties, including the DA and the IFP, have said firmly they will not work with the red berets.

This limits its ability to play suitors off against each other.

Still, there is clearly hunger for power and patronage appointments, with EFF secretary-general Marshall Dlamini angling for control of Tshwane and stating that “we are not playing around this time”.

The EFF has set the bar for coalition or co-operation agreements very high, however, by including demands for national policy shifts — specifically, land expropriation and the creation of a state bank — that seem unrealistic. This suggests the EFF, too, would ideally prefer to wait for 2024, when it hopes to use its leverage to secure major policy concessions and ministerial appointments from a floundering ANC.

Voters queue outside in Macassar, Khayelitsha to cast their vote during the 2021 Local Government Election. Picture: Esa Alexander
Voters queue outside in Macassar, Khayelitsha to cast their vote during the 2021 Local Government Election. Picture: Esa Alexander
The ANC, for its part, is in the most difficult position. As soon as the results were announced, Ramaphosa called on party leaders to work together.

“If we are to make this a new and better era, we as leaders must put aside our differences and work together in a spirit of partnership, of co-operation, of collaboration and common purpose in the interests of the people,” he said.

From the ANC’s point of view, agreements with the DA could bring stability to the hung metros, while parallel pacts with other parties, including the EFF, could reduce factional outrage about such deals with the official opposition.

In other words, responsibility for the ongoing chaos in municipal government would then be spread among all the ANC’s major competitors.

Yet the messages about potential partners from those involved in ANC coalition planning (including acting secretary-general Jessie Duarte, treasurer Paul Mashatile and policy head Jeff Radebe) have been inconsistent.

But the DA’s refusal to play ball makes it hard for the ANC to avoid deal-making with the EFF — especially when it comes to major centres such as Ekurhuleni and eThekwini, that it desperately wants to control.

Three possible futures

The era of ANC dominance has been drawing to a close over many years.

One-party control brought many positive consequences, as the ANC was able to take some unpopular economic policy decisions, keep a lid on ethnic and racial mobilisation, promote gender parity, and entrench the institutional preconditions for democracy and constitutionalism.

But these gains always co-existed with negative features of party dominance: the blurring of party-state boundaries, the looting of state and parastatal resources for party and personal gain, and arrogance based on leaders’ ability to ignore electors.

In the end, these negative features began to decisively outweigh the positive and, indeed, to undermine the gains of the first decade of ANC rule.

As its dominance began to fade, the ANC tried to listen to voters more attentively, and where other parties gained power, it began to restore the lines between party and state.

Equally, the end of ANC dominance will come at a cost. This may include the rise of populist economic and social policies (as the ANC tries to retain supporters), racial and ethnic mobilisation as the party fragments, and increasing chaos in its system.

None of these changes is inexorable or pre-ordained, however.

We tend to believe one-party dominance is an abnormal product of the politics of liberation. Many assume it will follow a well-trodden pathway through corruption, intolerance of opposition and economic imprudence, only to collapse into factionalism and recrimination, and replacement by a “normal” multiparty system.

The rosiest scenarios envisage the emergence of a centre-right party — perhaps a merger between the DA and “respectable” elements of the ANC — together with a centre-left party that brings together the proponents of redistribution, state-driven development and liberation ideals. These parties could then alternate happily in power.

But there are three alternative pathways into the future.

First, it is a mistake in today’s world to rule out the possibility of authoritarian rule.

Democracy is in retreat, and many in the ANC find more inspiration in the Chinese party-state than in the liberal and social democracies of Europe, Asia and the Americas. The continued fall in electoral turnout is a matter of pressing concern. Of 39-million eligible electors, just 26-million registered to vote, and 12-million actually cast a ballot. When people do not vote, they stop fighting for the free media and effective electoral institutions that democracy requires.

Second, the reality is that dominant parties in middle-income countries rarely disappear when they fall below 50% of the vote. They typically survive, and sometimes they thrive, in more competitive party systems.

Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled from 1929 to 2000, when it inadvertently lost a presidential election. By 2012 it was able to recapture the presidency, and has since gone back into opposition.

The United Malays National Organisation, similar to the ANC in its empowerment ideals, dominated the Barisan Nasional coalition that ran Malaysia from 1957 to 2018. It was ousted by its own former leader, Mahathir Mohamad, in 2018, after major corruption scandals unfolded — but it returned to power again in 2021.

Parties — even once-dominant parties — can lose and then win again. Though large organisations find it hard to change because of entrenched interests, they can also be shocked into reform — and it is electoral defeat that is the most common precipitant.

It will be interesting to see if Ramaphosa uses his window of opportunity for internal party reform at, and after, next December’s ANC conference.

Third, a “secret” ANC fallback position has always been to embrace the return of the EFF to the mother body after a national election defeat. With the ANC down to, say, 40%, and the EFF on 15% — and the rest of the opposition itching to bring the ANC down — the red berets would have unprecedented leverage. Jobs and patronage could be shared, and the liberation project would live on for another day.

Perhaps the most important outcome of these local government elections may be that most opposition parties are refusing to deal with either the ANC or the EFF. In this way, they are driving those two parties together before they are ready.

Much depends on who voters will punish in 2024 for whatever now follows.

Method in Mantashe’s madness

ANTHONY BUTLER: There is method in Gwede Mantashe’s mineral ‘madness’

The energy minister is treading a fine line between constituencies while taking flak for the president

First published in BL PREMIUM, 11 NOVEMBER 2021

Have we been underestimating mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe?

This supposed “policy dinosaur” was lambasted in recent days for his contributions at the Africa Energy Week conference in Cape Town, where he called for African solidarity in the face of a Western drive for a renewable energy transition. “We are being pressured, even compelled,” he claimed, “to move away from all forms of fossil fuels, including resources such as gas, which have been regarded as key resources for industrialisation.”

This is the latest episode in Mantashe’s long-running climate change soap opera. In June, when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a liberalisation of the licensing regime for private generation of power, Mantashe made a great show of having been coerced into signing on the dotted line.

Two months later, when Eskom CEO André de Ruyter floated a plan to secure international concessional finance in exchange for the accelerated retirement of coal-fired plants, Mantashe told parliament that SA is, “a strange country that is so keen to commit economic suicide … China is building 15 coal-fired power stations today, as we sit here”.

In October Mantashe declined to meet climate envoys from the UK, US, Germany, France and the EU, who flew to SA to discuss concessional loans and grants. He also refused to attend the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, arguing that “many people will be frightened” or even ask why a “coal fundamentalist” is there.

Yet Mantashe is not a climate denialist and he shows full awareness that the carbon intensity of SA’s economy threatens our debt servicing and our access to crucial international markets. There are four possible contributions he may be making to the government’s overall negotiating strategy.

First, he has been designated to deliver rude, or at least uncomfortable, truths to ostensible international benefactors. In particular he has flagged developed countries’ failure to honour previous multibillion-dollar commitments to fund energy transitions. African countries, he has noted, should not be condemned for failing to dump coal generation when developed countries “keep postponing the deadlines of when they will shut down their coal mines and oil and gas industries”.

Second, Mantashe has steered a careful path between the positions of international allies. His words have quite closely shadowed the policy positions of SA’s diplomatic partners in the Brics group of countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — pointing repeatedly to the legacies and obligations of the historical beneficiaries of carbon-driven industrialisation, primarily in the West.

Third, the minister’s avowed stance on a just transition showcases the government’s claim to be heeding the voices of the tens of thousands of workers in the energy sector who depend directly on the coal economy. In this way he is taking political bullets that would otherwise hit Ramaphosa. He is also gradually winning over labour and union audiences to the need for a transition, by showing he is their advocate and not simply a poodle of business or wealthy Western countries.

Finally, the presidential climate commission has set out a realistic pathway towards an energy transition. Hopefully, this shows international audiences that SA is not simply crazy. In the deal recently announced at COP26, rich northern countries have agreed to source $8.5bn to support SA’s move away from coal, and to help accelerate the transition to a lower-emission economy.

Northern donors might understandably feel environment, forestry & fisheries minister Barbara Creecy could not look such a gift horse in the mouth. However, Mantashe invariably forefronts the strong domestic political resistance that may obstruct any such deal. In this way he makes it clear to international partners that more limited conditionality — and additional concessional funding — will be required to smooth the way to a just transition.

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

Reasons for mandate hesitancy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Compulsion without legitimacy always fails

Persuasion must be the primary driver of compliance in vaccination drive

First published in BusinessLive

28 OCTOBER 2021

At first sight, the case for immediate mandatory vaccination against Covid-19 is strong. Vaccines protect against hospitalisation and death, and reduce the emergence of new variants. The risk of adverse effects is small.

The health-care system is in dire straits, and lockdowns have brought huge economic and social costs. With fewer than 20% of adults fully vaccinated, surely we are justified in using every available lever to increase uptake?

The trouble is that most mandate proponents view them as an alternative to participation in a well-designed and inclusive public health programme, rather than as a supplement to it.

When indoor smoking was banned, no smoking police were needed because the argument about passive smoking had already been won. To see what can go wrong with compulsion, when such legitimacy is absent, look at Gauteng’s road tolling system, with its payment rate of less than 30%.

We have domestic violence laws, but they have not been much enforced because police officers do not believe in them. The vaccine shy can buy a fake Covid-19 vaccine certificate for R5,000 — a potential danger to the credibility of hoped-for international passport schemes.

The classic vaccine mandates were simple and they applied to all the people who would together benefit from them. Children have been vaccinated against tuberculosis for decades. Compulsory vaccination for all front-line health and care workers, sensitively applied, has been introduced in many parts of the world, and there is a case for it in SA today.

An argument could also be made for mandatory vaccination for all over-60s: they are by far the most vulnerable to severe illness and death, half are fully vaccinated, and they will continue to overwhelm the health system at the peak of infection waves.

Even in such cases it is necessary to respect rights and religious beliefs, and to treat persuasion as the primary driver of compliance. A piece of paper is not a substitute for the hard work of providing access to vaccines, combating misinformation, and changing people’s minds.

Most of the vaccine mandates under consideration in SA take a different form. They relate to the employees of private companies, staff and students at educational institutions, and people attending hospitality venues. Excluding unvaccinated people from commercial premises, restaurants, gyms, or shopping malls is certain to prove divisive.

The resources expended on compulsion will be diverted from more productive uses. Mandates’ complex legal process bring high levels of conflict, distracts managers, and reduces trust. The main beneficiaries will be the lawyers.

Indeed, such narrow mandates are likely to be counterproductive because they could well result in a lower level of vaccination than would have been achieved in their absence.

Quite unlike the classic mandates for smallpox or tuberculosis, or a compulsory post-60 Covid-19 vaccine, these are not in any sense “universal”: they are targeted at small groups of people who enjoy formal employment, are mostly well-educated, already enjoy easy vaccine access, study in universities or attend cultural events.

Turning such “insider” institutions into long-term zones of compulsory vaccination will undermine any broader vaccination drive. Consider how elite schools worsen the performance of failing public schools, by recruiting the best teachers and poaching the activist parents who can hold teachers to account.

Citizens with private health-care absorb the services of the majority of doctors, but they also disengage from the problems of the wider public health system. Private security guards make wealthy insiders feel safer, but displace crime to areas that do not enjoy their protection.

Broad mandates can sometimes work, but we need persuasion before, and then alongside, the compliance they help to secure. As vaccine boosters become normal, mandates that reinforce and then cement the insider advantages of small groups could easily undermine the wider national vaccination project.

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

More problems with BIG

ANTHONY BUTLER: The big problem with BIGs: loan sharks and vampire firms love them

Large social grants have become collateral for debt, a Black Sash report has shown

First published in BusinessLive 14 October 2021

Social grants are not really a local government issue, even if the ANC manifesto celebrates 18-million social grants per month. The basic income grant (BIG) has not been a central part of the election campaign for any party.

A recent report by consultancy Intellidex pointed to a failure by BIG advocates to deal with the implications of the tax increases necessary to fund it. But fiscal probity is unlikely to be the real reason for parties’ BIG-hesitancy during the campaign.

Some retired businesspeople and bankers have recently described social grants as unconditional benefits for their recipients. Their brothers on the left, in the same vein, see BIG as a cure-all that can relieve poverty, spur investment and enhance human freedom.

For electors themselves, however, grants are legitimate, but they are far from being a panacea. In 2020 Afrobarometer reported that 76% of SA respondents support government social protection for the poor. But a majority also believe people should work for their payments.

Grants create problems as well as solving them. In particular, as the Black Sash explained in 2020 in a report on “reckless lending” in SA, there is a troubling relationship between social grants and indebtedness.

On the face of it, when you give people grants they have more money to spend, so their debt should fall. The trouble is that grants also attract predatory lenders.

How does this happen? Unemployed adults who survive on casual work are vulnerable and “congregate” around grant recipients, including grant-receiving mothers or grandmothers. Despite receiving a grant, beneficiaries are almost invariably required to borrow, because they support up to a dozen people in multigenerational households.

The idea that grants will be used as a “developmental tool” is great in theory. In practice, as the Black Sash observes, “we found … no cases of people borrowing to fund investment in small enterprises, and no-one we met was able to repay their loans from a successful business … almost all grantees were using credit merely for immediate consumption needs or emergencies.”

Moreover, grant recipients remain poor, and they face challenges for which they cannot reliably set aside monies: school and university fees, illness, disability, job losses, or family deaths. Worse still, the failures of the state — such as inadequate public health care or late payment of university bursaries — force people to borrow multiples of their available resources without warning.

When people must borrow, a steady state-guaranteed income attracts predators beyond the usual purveyors of store cards, furniture and insurance policies. Neighbourhood moneylenders and loan sharks love the prospect of reliable repayment, especially where they can relieve clients of their ATM cards and PIN numbers.

After 2012 the SA Social Security Agency’s contract with Cash Paymaster Services made more than 10-million grant recipients sitting ducks for shady financiers marketing their products to social grant recipients. The sharks used debit orders to deduct repayments directly from recipients’ accounts.

Illegal practices continue, despite the move of most grant recipients to “special disbursement accounts”. Beneficiaries are still forced to seek credit on unfavourable terms and they still end up in interminable debt enslavement.

The Black Sash points to the paradox this poses: “SA has a large social grant system meant to provide resources to poor people, but these grants have become collateral for debt. Grantees need extra money to smooth consumption and cope with shocks, but the credit available to them often has exploitative terms and conditions.”

The disheartening implication is that “the very social grant meant to provide support for vulnerable people is eaten up in high interest rates, fraudulent repayments and bank charges”.

A poorly designed BIG could simply result in a feeding frenzy for the great vampire squids of SA’s formal and informal financial systems.

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

Mantashe’s reminder about ANC clientelism

ANTHONY BUTLER: Clean streets, coalitions and impenetrable polls

First published in BusinessLive

30 SEPTEMBER 2021

Guessing the outcome of elections is always a mug’s game. But the results of this year’s local government elections are the hardest to predict in recent times.

We have endured two years of Covid-19 lockdown troubles and human tragedies. Each of the big parties seems to be on its own slow-motion suicide mission.

The electorate is tiring of the notion that the Good ANC needs voters’ support if the Bad ANC is to be vanquished. Municipal services are worsening in full view of voters.

The DA has a good story to tell about local governance. It can point to cleanish streets and only mildly stagnant waters in the Western Cape and Midvaal. Its plan to Eskom-proof six Western Cape municipalities is quite clever.

But failed experiments in coalition government in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay are still fresh in voters’ minds. The bungled removal of party leader Mmusi Maimane left residues of scepticism.

The EFF, flush with cash, might capitalise on the anger of pandemic times. But has their macho posturing softened enough to tap the 55% of registered voters who are women?

When the realities of coalition politics kick in after the election the ANC has the ultimate conciliator, Cyril Ramaphosa, as its dealmaker. Chastened by post-2016 coalition experiences, the DA wants prenuptial agreements with potential suitors that will be hard to strike.

The ANC has natural if unreliable coalition partners, including the externalised faction of the movement labelled EFF. The red berets’ “radical policy” will reap some votes the ANC has lost. When push comes to shove, the EFF’s commissars will trade votes for power.

The DA has adopted a similar strategy, with external factions free to harvest the rewards of identity politics that a liberal party cannot openly champion. The Cape Independence Party is apparently punting a restoration of coloured and white labour preference policies. The Freedom Front Plus, fielding candidates in more than 3,000 wards, will likewise suck in former DA voters and deliver their mandates to John Steenhuisen’s formidable coalition machine.

In Gauteng, ActionSA’s human dynamo, Hermann Mashaba, has a cut-and-paste DA manifesto. His strategy, however, is “DA Plus”, the plus being an open xenophobia that will deliver voters that liberals cannot openly pursue.

However, the real key to the election was revealed by the ANC’s venerable chair, Gwede Mantashe, in his superficially incoherent and rambling remarks at the manifesto launch of the liberation movement in Pretoria’s Church Square on Monday evening.

Ramaphosa had already made a number of dull commitments, including a promise that the ANC would promote “the unrestricted development of urban and pavement gardens where crops can be planted to increase food security”. The president also sincerely expressed his hopes that former president Jacob Zuma would enjoy a speedy recovery from his medical ailments, a sentiment all citizens no doubt share.

But it was Mantashe who offered a pellucid analysis of the situation facing ordinary voters. “You don’t vote DA to power and insult the ANC”, he observed. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Politics in SA involves an exchange of goods for political support — and it is only the ANC that can deliver those goods across almost all of the country. Only those who vote for the liberation movement, Mantashe claimed, “acquire the right to insult and shout at the ANC at the height of your voice”. Citizens who do not “vote correctly” will never be heard.

The outcome of the election will turn, in large measure, on how many ANC voters will still accept the terms of this unholy contract, in which loyalty provides the only prospect of political voice and access to public resources.

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

The problem with symbolic policies

ANTHONY BUTLER: Symbolic policy is the last resort of the shambolic minister

First published in BusinessLive 2 September 2021

Observers of SA politics have become sadly accustomed to symbolic policies. These ostensible proposals are designed to make ministers look good, even when they aren’t actually doing anything.

Fikile Mbalula is one master of the art. In 2015 the then sports minister launched a bid for SA to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban. This was explicitly framed as a stepping stone to a 2024 Olympic Games.

The Soccer World Cup had been a financial disaster, of course, but SA had gotten it done: the officials, players and fans were distributed around the country in various white elephant stadiums, connected to now stranded transport infrastructure.

Multidiscipline events such as the Olympics, in contrast, are monsters: they place almost impossible demands on a single host city, and can drain a national fiscus for decades.

The purpose of Mbalula’s Commonwealth bid was certainly not to secure the right to host the Games, and later the Olympics. Heaven forbid! Its goal was to place the minister himself in a role he craved: friend of the new ANC elite in KwaZulu-Natal, and potential disburser of local pork and patronage, all of it sourced from the national fiscus.

Recent debate over a basic income grant (BIG) has also been primarily symbolic. Given the lack of BIG experiments in other countries and the technical character of social protection policy, casting moral aspersions on opponents has been the order of the day. Some BIG proponents have suggested those opposing the “policy proposal” are simply heartless, or fail to understand the real lives and experiences of the poor.

Incoming finance minister Enoch Godongwana, meanwhile, castigated BIG supporters as “white liberals who think that every kid or black person must be kept in perpetual dependence through grants”. Understandably, one upper middle class white liberal social activist, Neil Coleman, responded in an agitated manner on social media, contending that BIG is indeed a good idea and providing hard evidence that his list of people in favour of the policy is far longer than his list of people opposing it.

The recent “flash-card” green paper on social assistance, briefly waved about and then withdrawn by social development minister Lindiwe Zulu, was a cut-and-paste document symbolically showcasing the minister’s dedication to the interests of the poor. If she had been sacked in the recent cabinet reshuffle, it would have been used as evidence that she would never bow to the dictates of white monopoly capital.

Mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s decision to embark on the procurement of 2,500MW of nuclear energy also has all the hallmarks of symbolic policy. Nobody believes the power plants will actually be built, and analysts have been left scratching their heads. Is this about the coal lobby, or perhaps a Russian microchip implanted in deputy president David Mabuza’s skull? Or does it just reflect the “commission fees” associated with this anachronistic industry?

Watching our political leaders play the symbolic policy game can be entertaining, but the endless fakery carries real costs. Democratic politics is damaged when ministers continue to advance policies when — or even because — they know they will not be implemented.

Moreover, when impractical policy dreams fail to materialise it isn’t the politicians who catch the flack: it is the Treasury. Mbalula’s Commonwealth dream — and no doubt his little heart — were shattered by the Treasury’s refusal to sign open-ended funding guarantees. It will be the same story, we can be sure, when it comes to BIG, social security programmes and nuclear procurement.

Worst of all, the fact that so many policies are duds, and deliberately so, means real policy reforms lose credibility. So, there is a new policy on self-generation of electricity. But is there really? 

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

We need more trust and better communications for vaccine rollout success

ANTHONY BUTLER: A new apartheid along the vaccination divide looms

Politicians must come on board the campaign using Limpopo as example

First published in BL PREMIUM 19 AUGUST 2021

The cabinet’s decision to approve the Covid-19 vaccination of 18-year-olds may have lifted the spirits of some younger people. In truth it is a sign of serious problems in the vaccination programme. Daily jabs have slumped far below the 300,000 per day target. More than half of over-60s have had full or partial vaccination, but the upward momentum has gone. As the government dropped through the age ranges, fresh take-up was disappointing.

The age-based approach was sensible, targeting those most likely to fall seriously ill and rectifying some of the inequality of access that typifies the allocation of scarce health resources. After all, this virus cannot be managed by granting privileged vaccine access to the rich, skilled workers or powerful public sector employees alone.

The poor, the less educated, those living in rural areas and the old need to be reached, not just for their personal wellbeing but because society as a whole depends on high and broad uptake to control the pandemic. Workplace vaccinations, in factories, offices, farms and mines, will drive up overall numbers, but considerations of age-based vulnerability and broader equity cannot be allowed to disappear.

Bringing down access ages boosts numbers for a week or two, but the government needs to do something new to achieve sustainable growth in the reach and efficacy of the programme. Private sector sites are attracting vaccine recipients, but their commitment in principle to free and open access for all needs to be translated into actual vaccinations in practice for non-medical aid scheme members.

Government officials have proved quite innovative when it comes to logistical and infrastructure challenges, and they may soon bring mobile vaccination units to social grant payment centres and local government offices. However, the key problems concern matters of public persuasion and trust, rather than those of delivery infrastructure.

As the wealthy, educated and powerful have become vaccinated, their perceptions of the unvaccinated have become increasingly hostile. Drawing their lessons from countries with very high levels of vaccine uptake in North America and the EU, they have begun to castigate the unvaccinated, describing them as self-excluding or as vaccine resisters.

The wealthy exhibit an alarming tendency to view their own good fortune as a well-deserved reward for intrinsic merit. Unless stopped some of them will try to secure legal mandates for new forms of social exclusion, including “vaccine passports” for shopping malls, restaurants, entertainment venues and transport systems. Such compulsion would not be welcome in a society already marked by widespread marginalisation, and it would further reduce the resource of public trust on which government will depend in the years ahead.

We can instead learn from the frontrunners in the persuasion stakes. Limpopo has apparently engaged traditional leaders, health practitioners and religious figures successfully, to sway public opinion in favour of vaccination. In urban areas, a wider range of sporting and cultural leaders and other role models can surely be brought on board. We still do not have clear and simple messages widely and repeatedly expressed in all of the country’s languages.

The Government Communications and Information Service has brought together civil society coalitions, communications professionals, business groups and labour organisations for weekly meetings in an attempt to forge a more successful vaccine communications strategy. This is a good start.

Given the unfortunate disappearance of the department of health’s ear-marked funding for this purpose, a modest fresh budget allocation would help. Equally important, however, is the fuller engagement of our most senior political leaders. They should apply themselves to the vaccine campaign as if it were an election campaign on which their personal political futures depended.

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

Enough conspiracy theories

ANTHONY BUTLER: Politicians abuse our tendency to assume that big events have big causes

Loosely co-ordinated violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng does not equal an insurrection

First published in BusinessLive Premium 5 August 2021.

Ten years ago this week a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham Hale, north London. In the days that followed civil unrest spread to various London boroughs and then engulfed cities as far afield as Bristol, Coventry, Liverpool and Manchester.

Looters posed for pictures with toasters and hairdryers. Community protection groups defended shops with baseball bats. When the smoke cleared five people were dead, 2,500 businesses had been looted, and property damage totalled more than £200m.

Shock was replaced by a yearning to know why these events unfolded. It is human, though incorrect, to assume that big events have big causes. People wanted somebody to blame. Leftists blamed government austerity and heavy-handed policing. The prime minister of the day opted for criminality, “pure and simple”. The Right fingered gangs and anarchist groups for spreading unrest from city to city.

The scale of recent events in SA dwarfs anything seen in England a decade ago, and an even stronger yearning for a compelling narrative exists. The hot air we have been subjected to — about insurrection, counterrevolution and plotting — is a symptom of our disorientation.

There is no doubt that a range of actors promoted violence, arson and theft. They included construction mafias, extortion rackets run by pseudo-military veterans, “business forums”, criminal gangs and politicians facing corruption charges. 

Numerous events also exhibited planning: warehouse break-ins, looter transport, co-ordinated arterial road blockages and targeted social media drives. Whether strategic points and critical infrastructure were also scheduled for attack, as the security cluster maintains, remains unclear.

One cognitive ability — and disability — of our species is pattern recognition. We take distinct actions and events and link them up into a single story of causes and effects. We are often wrong.

During the unrest, groups loosely co-ordinated their actions, especially once disturbances were under way. But we do not have evidence of “an insurrection”, still less of any “ultimate objective”, such as the attempted overthrow of democracy or removal of the president.

Imitation and opportunism drove the widespread looting, without which we would not even be considering these events today. Were there 12 “instigators” or 12 “masterminds”, as politicians and journalists have claimed?

Did 12 Twitter accounts really “instigate the violence”? Of course not. This is theological mumbo-jumbo that belongs alongside the 12 cakes in the Tabernacle or the 12 fruits borne by the Tree of Life.

To the degree that actors and objectives came together, they did so in the broad tent that is the ANC of KwaZulu-Natal. Politicians, mafias and organised criminals in that province have long since disproved former US president Lyndon B Johnson’s maxim: they are all inside the tent but they are still pissing.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa is not especially popular in KwaZulu-Natal, the provincial ANC did not vote on ethnic lines at Nasrec in 2017. The Zulu royal house defended the constitutional order. 

The terminology of “tribalism”, like that of instigators and insurrectionists, grows out of conspiracy thinking. The idea that events result from a plot by sinister groups is most often an act of faith that helps us cope with uncertainty.

The best reporters cognitively process information about many actors and events, their minds searching for connections and conspiracies. When our newshounds’ theories are proved correct — which they often are — this becomes known as investigative journalism.

Business people likewise abhor uncertainty and pay risk consultants to translate possibilities into probabilities, and uncertainties into priceable risks. Sometimes they would be better off consulting astrologers.

The real problem, of course, is politicians. They seek personal and partisan advantage, playing on our cognitive deficiencies to shape who we praise and who we blame. We shouldn’t let them.

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