Thoko Didiza and the locusts

ANTHONY BUTLER: Swarm of ageing ANC women points to Didiza to deputise

ANTHONY BUTLER

First published in BusinessLive

19 May 2022

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first term has been punctuated by plague, riot, drought, fire and flood. It was little surprise to discover last September that enormous swarms of brown locusts had descended on the country.

After such biblical turmoil the re-election of the once theologically-inclined Ramaphosa to a second term as ANC president seems inevitable.

However, speculation is growing over who will take on the role of deputy president. David “The Cat” Mabuza, the incumbent, is as dead as a dodo. His health is ropey and the delegate pool for his old province, Mpumalanga, is shrinking and unreliable.

What are the requirements for would-be new applicants for the job? First, Ramaphosa cannot freely impose a deputy of his choice. If party chair Gwede Mantashe or treasurer-general Paul Mashatile kindly offer to be his deputy, he will probably have to say no, because they bring too few fresh delegate votes.

Second, Ramaphosa has a KwaZulu-Natal problem. Retired health minister Zweli Mkhize is likely to dominate the province in December. Although he will not secure the presidency, he might lever his support to bargain. Better — indeed essential — for Ramaphosa to fill the KwaZulu-Natal vacuum directly and pre-emptively.

Third, the prophet Isaiah famously lamented, “O My people! Their oppressors are children, and women rule over them” (Isaiah 3:12). However, since the ANC is not explicitly guided by a general principle that women should not lead, Ramaphosa will look for a credible female deputy.

The outcome of the 2017 national executive committee (NEC) elections tell us something about this particular candidate pool. The top ranked women, Reginah Mhaule and Violet Siwela, are Mabuza apparatchiks who are unlikely to return.

The once highly rated Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma enjoys appeal in KwaZulu-Natal and AU-acquired seniority, but she is already 73 years old. She could quite possibly lose the ANC the 2024 elections, even in the deputy role, and her Zuma branding is no longer alluring. Ageing scions of great ANC dynasties such as Lindiwe Sisulu and Naledi Pandor are also too advanced in years to hold out the tantalising hint of presidential succession that the position requires.

Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane and Tina Joemat-Pettersson have suffered lapses of judgment that have come too much to the attention of the good ladies and gentlemen of the press. Working-class treasure Zingiswa Losi is a perfect fit for deputy secretary-general, but certainly not for the deputy presidency.

Intellectual giants such as Ayanda Dlodlo, Neva Makgetla and Gwen Ramokgopa, who populate the very bottom of the NEC list, were drafted in not to lead but respectively to read, count and keep an eye on the other two NEC intellectuals.

A trawl of the current NEC pool therefore throws up just two compelling female candidates: defence minister Thandi Modise and agriculture minister Thoko Didiza. Much has been written about the Modise, a former North West premier, formidable parliamentarian, so-so pig farmer and capable government minister.

But Modise only came in 35th in the 2017 NEC elections while the younger Didiza was elected at 21, served successfully as a minister as long ago as Mandela’s government, and made a remarkable comeback after she was kicked off the NEC at Polokwane.

Didiza nominally hails from KwaZulu-Natal, and she is helpfully a steadfast loyalist of the recently rehabilitated former Supreme Being and/or Higher Power Thabo Mbeki, and a long-standing board member of his presidential foundation.

What of the determinedly hungry plague of locusts that has spread across much of the countryside? Didiza has taken a characteristically robust attitude: ground teams and helicopter crews armed with insecticide and spray pumps have been deployed to wipe them out.

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

The strengths of democracy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Autocracies, unlike democracies, cannot correct leaders’ errors

First published in BusinessLive

05 MAY 2022 – 15:25

Despite burgeoning international literature on the threats confronting liberal democracy it is surprisingly difficult to assess any democracy’s vulnerability to authoritarian rule.

There is rightly concern that electoral participation in SA has slumped, to the point where fewer eligible electors now vote for the ANC than stay at home. Opinion surveys, unreliable though they can be, offer further alarming insights into the citizen body’s views about democratic government.

At first glance the 2021 Afrobarometer surveys provide modest reassurance. Two thirds of respondents rejected one party or military rule. Just a quarter of South Africans believed parliament should be abolished and the president should rule alone — a suggestion former president Jacob Zuma once touted as a potential solution to the country’s troubles.

While four out of 10 respondents think democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, a fifth venture that a nondemocratic government is sometimes better. Up to 37% of respondents — perhaps despondents — reflect that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”.

While a narrow majority agree that accountability to the people should never be sacrificed, even if slows government down, a full 45% intriguingly believe that “it is more important to have a government that can get things done, even if we have no influence over what it does”. It is perhaps here that democracy’s recent vulnerability lies. The generation of global “strongmen” leaders, in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere, trade heavily on their ostensible effectiveness. The Chinese system’s greatest attraction lies in that country’s practical accomplishments.

However, recent global events are eroding the “performance legitimacy” on which many autocrats depend. Few people doubt that Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been frankly disastrous for the Russian people, and for the economy on which they depend for their prosperity. Equally few, whatever their wider sympathies, fail to recognise that it is autocratic rule that has disabled the mechanisms of intelligence gathering and collective reflection that provide essential safeguards against major leadership blunders.

The invasion has also rejuvenated a flagging alliance of avowedly democratic states, which now includes a partially remilitarised Germany, a refocused EU, a relegitimised Nato, and a rapprochement — unfortunately largely on American terms — between the Anglosphere and its once faltering allies across Europe and Asia.

Of course, it is China rather than Russia’s declining kleptocracy that is the key to the emerging international order. Yet Putin’s adventurism has galvanised opposition to China’s own divide and rule strategies, and to its territorial and maritime expansionism.

Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping’s own performance legitimacy, and that of his party, have been thrown into doubt by his personal insistence on a “Zero Covid” strategy that has left more than 300-million people under lockdown.

Democracies, most notably the US, have endured a devastating death toll during the pandemic, but this has not rocked the foundations of their political systems. Moreover, the relatively open systems of knowledge creation that democracies maintain have also proved markedly superior to autocracies in generating scientific advances — not least among which have been highly effective vaccines.

Beyond government performance, we do not have to look far afield to understand the nature of what the Chinese call “the bad emperor problem”. Many citizens in SA are sharply aware that Thabo Mbeki’s pursuit of the life presidency of the ANC in 2007, and the Zuma faction’s craving for perpetual access to state resources a decade later, were averted only by the imperfect forms of democracy that exist in the ANC and the wider political system.

For all its limitations, democracy provides what may be an indispensable mechanism for averting the catastrophic errors of judgment to which autocratic leaders are prone.

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

The trouble with social compacts

ANTHONY BUTLER: Cyril Ramaphosa’s compacts damage the social fabric

Business and labour incumbents are entrenched at a huge cost to the economy

 BL PREMIUM

21 APRIL 2022 – 15:29

President Cyril Ramaphosa raised eyebrows in his state of the nation address in February when he announced that a “comprehensive social compact to grow our economy, create jobs and combat hunger” would be finalised in 100 days.

This suggests a grand agreement will be struck on or before May 21, though presidential spin doctors may push this back to the start of July by insisting only weekdays should be counted because social partners need to rest at weekends.

Ramaphosa’s commitment to a grand social compact should be taken with a pinch of salt. When the National Economic Development & Labour Council was launched in 1995 it resembled a European-style corporatist body nominally entitled to scrutinise social and economic policy proposals. It quickly became clear trade union and business inputs would be ignored.

Capital and labour are deeply fragmented in SA, and quite unable to sustain binding deals. They each exercise power directly — through the “tripartite alliance” mechanism of the ANC on the unions’ part, or through BEE co-option and party funding transactions on the side of business.

Ramaphosa knows business and labour well; he is fully aware that there is no institutional basis in this country for a sustainable and benign grand social compact. Current corporatist mechanisms are built on shaky foundations; they exclude non-unionised labour, small business and the unemployed, and they damage the welfare of the wider citizen body.

Ramaphosa likes to describe pretty much anything that has worked in the past as a social compact. In 2016 he reflected that, “by adopting a new democratic constitution nearly 20 years ago, South Africans from all walks of life entered into a social compact to build a new nation”.

Later that year he told a trade union conference in Boksburg that even the Freedom Charter was a “social compact to create a more human society that protects the most vulnerable among us”. At Davos in December 2018 he argued that “the Reconstruction & Development Plan … was a social compact, because a number of people participated in it”.

Sent by Jacob Zuma to troubled Western Cape farms in October 2014, the then deputy president called for a “farm social compact” that included a “moratorium” on farmworker evictions. Equally pragmatically, he campaigned for a restroom social compact, describing the Sanitation Appropriate for Education (SAFE) initiative to build decent school toilets as “a social compact that is greater than the sum of its parts … Let us act in solidarity with the children of this country.”

Though the president today deploys the language of social pacting primarily in the context of solving specific problems, the good works of presidential advisory councils, and summits for jobs and investment, his usage is far from harmless.

Existing social compacts in SA today have been struck over decades between big business and big labour. New “sectoral master plans” and localisation deals will continue to benefit these incumbents at huge cost to the wider economy, to non-unionised workers and to small businesses that will never grow — or even be born.

Ramaphosa has touted various valuable social compacting reforms — reduced red tape for small business, long overdue changes to labour laws, and an end to the bargaining council system — but current big “stakeholders” are being invited to veto these reforms if they choose.

Other issues Ramaphosa wants addressed in the social compact framework, such as income support for the unemployed, are matters about which an elected government should take a decision in the national interest.

The idea of social compacting unfortunately perpetuates the veto that vested interests have long enjoyed. Worse still, it encourages Ramaphosa’s personal tendency to prevaricate and avoid hard decisions.

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

Foreign policy after Ukraine

ANTHONY BUTLER: Two different ideas in their heads as SA intellectuals reflect on Ukraine war

Putin took an appalling and morally unjustifiable decision to go to war – one that was far from compelled by external circumstances

First published in BusinessLive 7 April 2022

Dramatic differences of opinion in SA about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have recently shown signs of abating.

Many local intellectuals initially blamed events on “aggression” by the US, Nato and the EU, which were castigated for provoking a Russian reaction. Determined to root out Western hypocrisy, analysts recalled numerous US deployments of force against sovereign states.

An equally broad range of commentators insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin was engaged in a naked act of aggression, in violation of both international law and the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people. Moves to join Nato and the EU, these sympathisers noted, were sovereign decisions based on legitimate aspirations for security and economic development.

Those from both camps have now mostly learned to entertain two ideas in their minds simultaneously. Western missteps and arrogance over the past 20 years (call it “Western imperialism” if you like) did indeed create many of the preconditions for a Russian reaction. Putin nevertheless took an appalling and morally unjustifiable decision to go to war – one that was far from compelled by external circumstances.

Early observations that Western public opinion showered (white) Ukrainians with a compassion denied to the (black) victims of conflicts elsewhere in the world have meanwhile been partly supplanted by a recognition that Ukrainians are human beings too. Despite this happy convergence, SA’s foreign policy elite faces wider and deeper policy challenges that will be hard to resolve.

For three decades this country has steered a meandering path between East and West. On the one hand, SA has castigated international capitalism, condemned American imperialism, and celebrated the Chinese Communist Party. On the other, it has remained overwhelmingly dependent on the eurozone, the UK and Japan as export markets and sources of investment.

Putin’s adventure may result in the return of global power blocs, with the “West” redefined as a realm of democratic states, now including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, that are battling autocracies. 

Pretoria’s position has meanwhile become very sensitive to China, SA’s second-biggest trading partner even if it is a country that scarcely invests here. China’s longstanding support for national sovereignty and territorial integrity (the basis for its claims on Taiwan) are apparently being weighed against the potential benefits of support for a beleaguered Putin – or even a pact to create a broader Chinese-Russian Eurasia.

The efforts of a new generation of African leaders, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, to secure the continent’s fundamental economic interests through pragmatic economic diplomacy may fall foul of the politics of any new Cold War. SA’s economically essential duty-free access to the US, provided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, could provide an early indicator of where the country stands.

We have also seen the emergence of new diplomatic instruments from both nascent blocs. US President Joe Biden has described economic sanctions as “a new kind of economic statecraft with the power to inflict damage that rivals military might”. It is not necessary to cut a country off from the American financial system or the Swift payment mechanism to impose unbearable costs on developing countries. Russia, for its part, has shown a willingness to interfere in internal party politics and national electoral campaigns.

SA’s foreign policy establishment seems poorly equipped to cope with this fast-changing world. Conflicting positions emanating from the department of international relations & co-operation and the presidency in the early days of the conflict have been replaced by a steady obfuscation.

This might be a prudent strategy, of course, in which decision-makers are waiting for other key actors – notably China – to make their positions clearer. Alternatively, however, it may simply reflect a general disarray in which competing government departments, the presidency and the ANC’s international relations committee all vie for influence.

The liberation movement’s preference for party-to-party deals, behind closed doors, is a recipe for confusion and miscalculation in this increasingly fluid international environment.

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

Crises close in

ANTHONY BUTLER: An incoherent welfare state focused on the next ANC conference

That long-range thinking is increasingly absent from SA political life is a cause for worry

First published in BusinessLive

10 MARCH 2022 – 15:45

The economist Rudiger Dornbusch used to offer a cautionary analysis about the onset of economic cataclysm in the contemporary world: “The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.” In this he echoed an Ernest Hemingway character in the 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises who famously responded to the question “How did you go bankrupt?” with, “Two ways, gradually and then suddenly”.

There would seem to be a greater than usual trepidation in SA today about the significance of partially interrelated crises that singly concern unemployment and poverty, ethnic and xenophobic tensions, fiscal sustainability and conflict-ridden politics.

Although it is never sensible to rush to conclusions about the trajectory of this notoriously resilient society, it is a matter for concern that long-range thinking is increasingly absent from SA political life. Immediate imperatives exhaust the time and energies of political and business elites. One interpretation is that the ANC is now preoccupied with — and close to being overwhelmed by — the manifestations of unattended long-range problems.

The telescoping of time horizons is most evident with the ANC itself. For almost three decades it served as a stabilising force in post-apartheid SA. It used its dominant position to curtail political conflict and defend unpopular but necessary economic policy positions. As electoral competition has intensified, however, xenophobia, race and economic populism have become instruments of party mobilisation.

Scholar and activist Neville Alexander once observed that policy change is often unavoidably long-term. To improve a basic education system, for example, you need to begin with early childhood development and then nurture a child in fresh ways across all 12 grades of their education. The short term in education policy is a decade. The medium term is a generation.

The ANC still likes to talk long term about policy, but its leaders’ eyes are locked — at best — on the next ANC conference. Its broad governing philosophy ostensibly revolves around an extended but indefinite “national democratic revolution”, but its focus is increasingly shaped by the demands of constituencies seeking consumption spending today.

A decade ago, the creation of the National Planning Commission marked an apparent recommitment to thinking long term, with its promise of diverting consumption spending into investment. In practice, the national plan sits on the shelf, and expenditures on salaries in the public sector and parastatals continue to squeeze investment. A nascent developmental state has been supplanted by an incoherent welfare state.

Meanwhile, the government is reacting with panic to long-range challenges requiring sustained action, apparently unable to negotiate the trade-offs required for energy regime transition. A water system crisis identified two decades ago will soon be upon us. Despite the enormous damage wrought by numerous parastatal debacles, we are trapped in a cycle of short-term bailouts and recapitalisations linked to quickly ditched turnaround plans.

If crisis becomes perpetual and then overwhelming, it will not do so in a linear fashion. SA’s past nondecisions will catch up with its ANC government all of a sudden.

In 1939, Quo Tai-Chi, one of the greatest 20th-century diplomats then serving as the Republic of China’s ambassador to London, gazed at the bright stars above a blacked-out wartime city. Responding to a comment that the sky would soon be dark with enemy bombers, Quo responded, “The sky is already dark with the wings of chickens coming home to roost.”

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Ca

Ukraine

ANTHONY BUTLER: SACP romance with Russia blind to its colonial project

Ambivalence about Vladimir Putin in SA fails to recognise decolonial struggles in the region

First published in BusinessLive

24 FEBRUARY 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has elicited a wide variety of reactions within SA. Many citizens insist that such egregious violations of international law should be unequivocally condemned. In contrast, SA Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande endorses Russia’s justifications for its actions.

For its part, the department of international relations & co-operation has expressed “concern” and urged “all parties” to pursue diplomatic solutions. Like many SA intellectuals and political activists, it appears uncertain about how to respond to these extraordinary events.

This is curious. While it remains unclear precisely which goals Russian leader Vladimir Putin is pursuing, these clearly go well beyond pressuring Ukraine to accept the federalisation of its eastern provinces. Instead, it would appear Moscow is determined to “decapitate” the state and install a puppet government.

Putin’s self-indulgent speech on February 21 marshalled a century of evidence about the purported victimisation of the Russia people. He also identified missteps by the country’s own leaders that had allowed the break-up of various iterations of the Russian empire.

He lamented the loss of Finland and the Baltic states when the Russian empire partially broke up after World War 1, and also the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Populous republics such as Ukraine (40-million population), Uzbekistan (35-million), Kazakhstan (19-million) and many smaller states were allowed to secure the status of sovereign republics. This was accompanied by the dissipation of Russian influence across Central and Eastern Europe.

The trouble for Nzimande, and others who are keen to take Putin at his word, is that post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe contains thriving and increasingly democratic societies that do not intend to return to the Russian empire.

As in the other “colour revolutions” that so threaten the repressive Moscow autarky, Ukraine’s imperfect democracy was the product of an explicit popular revolt against Russian claims of legitimate domination over an otherwise “masterless” Ukranian people.

Russia is meanwhile a resources economy in secular economic decline, with virtually no trade and investment links with SA. The relationship between the two countries has been dominated by the increasingly incoherent Brics formation, and the attempt by the Russian regime to sell redundant nuclear technology to SA in the Zuma era has left strained relationships and dissipated trust.

The wider ambivalence in SA about how to view the conflict between Russia and Ukraine results in part from a failure to see Ukraine — and other post-Soviet states — for what they are: sites of decolonisation. In Ukraine, the former colonial power enjoys support almost exclusively from 8-million or so ethnic Russian settlers who amount to fewer than one in six of the population.

The collapse of the Russian empire in the early 1990s resulted in Ukraine rediscovering and elaborating national historical and cultural narratives, re-centring indigenous languages and religion, and dismantling the broader apparatus of Russian imperialism.

This decolonial struggle has sometimes been unattractively enthno-nationalist in character, but its broad outlines are familiar to decolonial movements in Africa. It has involved the dismantling of imposed Soviet systems of economic planning and control, the banning of Russian imperialist statues, flags and monuments, and the renaming of more than 50,000 streets and 20 cities.

Thousands of busts of Lenin — as familiar across the former Russian empire as Cecil Rhodes is in Southern Africa — have been removed, and sometimes with humour: in October 2015 a bust of Lenin in Odessa was converted into a statue of Darth Vader.

As the nature of Putin’s regime is progressively unveiled in the crisis to come, even the SACP will eventually have to recognise that the legitimacy of a decolonial project does not depend on our historical sympathies for the settler population — or on the continent in which the colonised people are trying build their collective national projects.

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

It’s the SOEs, stupid

ANTHONY BUTLER: Politicians, take note: It’s the SOEs, stupid

Business Live 10 February 2022 and Business Day 11 February 2022

Amid SA’s plethora of urgent and important challenges, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The wellbeing of communities and the fate of the economy alike depend on functional utilities and network industries. Load-shedding, price rises that destroy private businesses, collapsing transport systems and congested ports are merely the visible faces of the SOE crisis.

The fiscal framework cannot survive repeated bailouts and recapitalisations, enormous unexpected expenditures or further exposure to huge contingent liabilities.

The importance of SOEs has been underlined by a recently published paper on macroeconomic risk from Ricardo Hausmann and others at Harvard’s Growth Lab. The paper explores SA’s post-2009 combination of slow growth and rapidly rising debt.

Hausmann first debunks a comforting account that blames external factors, especially declining mineral prices after 2008. The resource sector’s limited contributions to growth and tax revenues make it merely a contributory factor.

He then punctures cherished macrowaffle from both right and left, including say that high government spending significantly crowded out private investment, or that Treasury fiscal consolidation was self-defeating. Macroeconomic policy choices didn’t reverse the slowdown, but they didn’t cause it either.

Instead, Hausmann and his colleagues show that only microeconomic accounts of the growth slowdown fit the facts. “The last decade has seen a worsening of the performance of state-owned enterprises,” Hausmann observes, “which are key to the performance of network industries such as power and transportation.” Misguided and corrupt investment and procurement decisions ultimately lie behind rising tariffs and debt.

Declining productivity in energy, transport and mining sectors created a drag on productivity across the economy, reducing productive investment and growth. Hausmann backs the joint Treasury-presidency Operation Vulindlela initiative that is pursuing urgent structural reforms in key network industries. Government needs to rein in contingent liabilities, and exercise tighter fiscal control and oversight over SOEs. All this requires financial, structural, and also governance reforms.

The Growth Lab is merely the latest of many domestic and international critics of our SOE governance. Even the state capture commission recently ventured that political interference in board and executive appointments must be stopped.

Rafael Leite, a researcher at the Government & Public Policy think-tank, has observed that we have copious analyses of SOE governance failings, and many strategies for rectifying them, but no implementation of these remedies. The key question is why.

The broadly political impediments to addressing the unfolding SOE governance disaster are becoming clearer by the day. There are specific interests, for example organised workers, whose vulnerability to change needs to be understood and accommodated.

Intellectual or ideological disagreements about the proper role of the state and private sector in the economy need to be negotiated less dogmatically.

More intractably, SOEs sit at the centre of the ANC’s broad black empowerment framework, linking enterprise creation, the building of a black bourgeoisie and employment equity. The current iteration of that framework makes reform virtually impossible.

Other stubborn problems flow from ANC dependence on parastatals and their supply chains for party donations and high income patronage jobs. Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile debacles can be traced back to party funding front vehicles in the Thabo Mbeki era. A recently leaked recording of President Cyril Ramaphosa speaking at the ANC’s national executive committee confirmed that SOEs still fill campaign war chests for internal factional contests.

Meanwhile, as recently released minutes reveal, the ANC’s national deployment committee really has no idea of the damage it is doing.

The time has come to update James Carville’s famous campaign epigram, coined during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and to plant it on our politicians desks: “It’s the SOEs, stupid.”

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

The future of SOEs

ANTHONY BUTLER: If only Telkom rebound could pave way for ailing SOEs

First published in Business Day

28 JANUARY 2022

The career of former Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko, who stepped down at the end of last year after nine successful years at the helm, raises interesting questions about the future of our state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Maseko’s leadership has been presented as a model to be followed. But does it really offer a guide to a better future?

In the early 2000s Sizwe Nxasana led Telkom to profitability and a partial listing on the stock exchange. It then fell on difficult times, with one failing CEO after another. The company’s bloated staff complement, exploitation of its monopoly position and technological backwardness all marked it out as a typical SOE.

Maseko joined Telkom in 2013 alongside incoming chair the late Jabu Mabuza. A turnaround strategy was drawn up and implemented. The company caught up with its rivals in mobile telephony, information technology and fibre. A smooth transition plan means these advances will continue into the future. Or so we hope.

Can the Telkom rejuvenation experience be repeated now that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new dawn has broken? Most SOEs still veer from one crisis to another, raising the costs of basic goods and services to the detriment of citizens. They destroy small businesses, obstruct infrastructure investment and threaten the fiscus.

One fear must be that Telkom’s recent past may simply be an aberration. The broad alignment between Mabuza and Maseko was crucial in providing the CEO space to develop and then implement a turnaround strategy. They enjoyed considerable insulation from political interference because the state was merely a minority shareholder. Telkom did not have to traverse the regulatory labyrinth that makes investment so complex for fully state-owned entities.

We have seen a reshuffling of utility boards and CEOs since Ramaphosa became president in February 2018, but little progress with structural reforms. Impediments include the role of parastatal supply chains in formal and informal political funding; the power of “privatisation” resistant trade unions; and an ideological predisposition towards state-driven development.

These forces are bound together and operationalised by the ANC’s continued interference in the appointment of senior executives and board members.

The recent trajectory of the SA Post Office (Sapo) suggests a quite different vision for the future to Telkom. Sapo had also become a technological laggard, gradually losing its core revenue stream of mail delivery. Banker Mark Barnes was appointed CEO in 2015, and launched a fresh strategy to exploit Sapo’s huge client base and physical infrastructure, deliver social security grants and offer financial services to the poorest South Africans.

Like Maseko, Barnes enjoyed the broad support of his board, and the parastatal was recapitalised by the state to enable its rejuvenation. However, he resigned a little more than two years ago as a result of a disagreement about the full integration of Postbank and Sapo. At the time he claimed Sapo had “turned a corner”, and insisted his comprehensive overhaul of the executive team had put in place a firm foundation for continued success.

But it wasn’t long before a familiar litany of problems recurred: dubious suspensions of senior executives, repeated acting appointments to key positions and collapsing operations.

The relentless decline of SA’s major transport, logistics and defence parastatals has been depressing. More disheartening still, however, are the SOEs that have undergone complex, painful and costly restructuring exercises and begun to operate as orthodox enterprises: Telkom and Sapo, but also SAA and the SABC.

With no change in the underlying approach of the ANC to deployment, and no intellectual shift with regard to the role of the state, the experience of Sapo, rather than that of Telkom, may be our best guide to the future of our SOE sector. And that, I am afraid, includes Eskom.

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

Lindiwe Sisulu’s presidential bid

ANTHONY BUTLER: Why we should pay attention to Sisulu’s ambitions

Though her chances of becoming ANC president are slim, the terrain she has chosen to fight on is significant

First published in BusinessLive 13 January 2022

Lindiwe Sisulu’s supposed presidential leadership bid should be taken seriously, not because she might win — she won’t — but because of the terrain on which she has chosen to fight.

It is a tall order to evict an incumbent president after a single term in office. This requires a nationwide coalition and huge financial and political resources. There are not many countries in the world in which a minister of tourism can launch a campaign for the highest office in the land.

The odds lengthen still further when Sisulu’s age is considered. She is no spring chicken: in May 2024, when she hopes to be sworn in as president for the first time, she will turn 70.

With age, it might be argued, comes experience. But, as the wisest Marxist of all (Groucho) once observed, “anyone can get old … all you have to do is live long enough”.

Daughter of ANC giants Walter and Albertina Sisulu, she has often been accused of exile elite arrogance, most notably when she asked in 2017, of then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, “Where was he when we were fighting for this freedom in exile and in jail?”

The high point of her career thus far has been an unsuccessful 2017 challenge for the deputy presidency of the ANC. This came after an abortive campaign for the top job, fought on the basis that the time for a woman president had come.

Her popularity among some of the party faithful should not be underestimated though. After her defeat to David Mabuza in 2017 she came second in the elections for the national executive committee.

Sisulu may once again settle for a shot at a lesser position, such as deputy president, as the 2022 conference draws near. It is more likely she already senses that she will be cast onto the scrapheap of history and would rather go down fighting — if not for something she believes in, then at least as a grandiose pseudo-revolutionary gesture.

It is for this reason that her choice of the terrain of battle — the law — is so significant. A rambling piece to which she put her name last week described the constitution as a “palliative”  and decried “the co-option and invitation of political power-brokers to the dinner table, whose job is to keep the masses quiet in their sufferance while they dine on caviar with colonised capital”.

The writers of the piece also complained that our most senior judges are “mentally colonised” Africans, “confused by foreign belief systems”, and “happy to lick the spittle of those who falsely claim superiority”.

These contentions have drawn predictable calls for Sisulu to be sacked, which was presumably her intention. After all, it is virtually impossible to be demoted from the humble tourism portfolio to which Ramaphosa humiliatingly appointed her in August.

The fear must be that Sisulu and her advisers are merely “useful idiots”, manipulated by others with a wider political strategy. After all, they have drawn acting chief justice Raymond Zondo, figurehead of the state capture inquiry, into a regrettable — and arguably political — public condemnation.

This comes at a difficult time for the judiciary, with attempts by the ANC’s national deployment committee to interfere in the appointment of judges recently revealed in minutes of Luthuli House meetings.

Hostility towards liberal constitutionalism is not motivated solely by the kind of miscreants whose conduct has been documented by the Zondo inquiry. There is also a close relationship between those who decry the rule of law as a foreign imposition, and those who may refuse to accept the outcomes of properly conducted national and provincial elections such as those that will be held in SA in 2024.

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

We still need Santa

ANTHONY BUTLER: If we stop believing in Santa, he will vanish

Father Christmas better not disappoint the boys and girls

First published in BL Premium

9 December 2021

Ho ho ho! We have reached that point in the year when all the little children dream about an overweight man in a red suit bearing a sack filled with Christmas gifts.

Santa has a tough job. He has to hire the reindeer who pull his sleigh, manage the elves’ workshop in which the toys are made, and deliver thousands of presents to a demanding schedule.

Eric Harvey’s handy management text, The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus, famously advises Santa to “choose his reindeer wisely … hiring tough so you can manage easy”. But Santa Cyril’s ministerial reindeer have made a weakly team.

As the University of Alaska’s equally lucid Reindeer Health Aide Manual observes, the animals are vulnerable to warble flies, nasal bots, roundworms, tapeworms, and lungworms. They may not all be parasites themselves, in other words, but parasites often drain them of their energy.

The toy workshop itself is in great disarray. The elves complain that the head reindeer, Ebrahim “pointy ears” Patel, has made manufacture all but impossible. Gifts such as short-sleeved knit tops must be delivered with cardigans and knitwear. Crop bottoms must be packaged with boots and leggings.

Meanwhile, the venerable Pravin Goblin has kept Santa’s Aviation Authority (SAA) in the air — or rather on the ground. “We have a new pandemic business model,” he recently told investors. “So long as nobody is allowed to fly, the airline has plenty of capacity to meet demand.”

On another positive note, the goblin observed that the Passenger Rail Authority for Santa (Prasa) “now has no liabilities, such as tracks, electric cables, or trains. This means it will be far easier to operate at 100% capacity — within network constraints.”

There is also good news at Santa’s Automatic Reserve Bank (SARB), where egghead economists have with great fanfare announced a “nominal target for present delivery”. According to SARB modelling, this will by itself result in the delivery of more presents on December 25.

Meanwhile, renowned “alternative boffins”, including Gilad the Gnome and Mr Coleman’s Mustard, have released an Excel sheet ostensibly proving beyond doubt that “Santa is a sovereign issuer of presents”, and that he therefore faces no constraints whatsoever on his ability to deliver gifts to little boys and girls.

Unfortunately, almost everybody has forgotten about the little children themselves. Red Tellytubby Julius, and his cute friend Floydinia, got out their crayons many months ago, and asked “Doc” Mbuyiseni to write out their present lists. “We want the land! We want the land!”, they exclaimed, somewhat single-mindedly. But, in the end, it turned out they didn’t. What they really want is a blue light sleigh convoy — and a new Venda Piggy Bank (VBS) from which to borrow.

Will Santa Cyril stay on? You better hope so. Notorious political agitator “Herman the Hairman” insists that he should be Santa instead: “I got an overwhelming majority of 16% in the City of Gold,” he correctly observed, “so I should be in charge!”

As for Santa Cyril’s more serious rivals, a series of unfortunate events seem to have befallen all of them. Digital Zweli, Red DD, The Princess, and Perfect Paul: they have all been eating a lot, and for a long time, but they are still far too skinny to be Santa — even if Vlad the Impaler were to decide to befriend one of them.

Leadership Secrets reminds us that Santa exists because the little children say he does. If Father Christmas lets them down, the boys and girls across the land will stop believing in him, and he will simply vanish. Without a Good Santa, Christmas will come early every year, as it did this July in the magical kingdom by the sea. Then we will all be sorry.

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