Conspiracy theories

ANTHONY BUTLER: It’s a conspiracy theory, but it might just be true

First published in BL PREMIUM

19 NOVEMBER 2020

It is tempting to laugh at the QAnon conspiracy theory. Millions of advocates of this fairy-tale, mostly in the US, believe that Satan-worshipping elites — including liberal Hollywood actors, paedophile Democratic Party politicians, and blood-sucking business tycoons — run a ruthless global child sex-trafficking ring.

It is likewise hard to stifle amusement at the surprisingly widely held notion that a flesh-eating extraterrestrial elite is trying to enslave the human race to access a ready supply of human blood. The most prominent member of this race of lizards is apparently Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

However, we really shouldn’t mock others. After all, SA is a world leader when it comes to conspiracy theories.

The enemies within — conspirators who allegedly threaten to tear us apart — have frequently been subjected to death by fire over the past three or four decades in our townships and villages. Sometimes they have been called witches or informers; other times they have just been foreigners.

Two postapartheid presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, once believed that HIV/Aids was an invention of global capital, designed primarily to benefit multinational drug companies. (I haven’t noticed them admitting they were wrong.)

A deputy defence minister, Kebby Maphatsoe, memorably suggested in 2014 that public protector Thuli Madonsela was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. This warrior chief’s revelation was built on an ANC principle much beloved of Jacob Zuma: any competent cadre must be a spy — how else can they be so much more capable than us?

Even today, a very large proportion of the active membership of the EFF and the ANC believe “white monopoly capital” lies behind all the key decisions of government.

Such projections of an elusive but powerful enemy are common among the purveyors of conspiracy theories everywhere.

It is not clear what can be done to deal with this problem. The human mind embraces theories that create connections between events that are unrelated, because this helps us to impose meaning or order on a bewildering world. One example is Marxism. Another slightly different case concerns the doctrines of the Enlightened Christian Gathering of Shepherd Bushiri.

We need to pay attention to our theories, to the sources of our beliefs, and to the robustness of the evidence that supports them. But it is a mistake to let the cry “conspiracy theorist” deter us from questioning conventional wisdom.

After all, the outlandish claim that President Richard Nixon’s administration broke into the Democratic National Party’s Washington offices in 1972, bugged political opponents, ordered unwarranted investigations of political activists, told federal officials to deflect investigations, and tried to cover up all of the above, was once dubbed a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Now it is called investigative journalism.

The “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” movements, whose claims were once labelled illusory, have exposed widespread conspiracies of silence and denial. Sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have shown that conspiracy theories about the abuse of power are far from always based on delusion.

What can we do? It would seem to be a good starting point to act in good faith, and not to circulate or perpetuate conspiracy theories that we most certainly do not believe to be true.

When it comes to other matters — selective prosecutions for corruption, the appointment of justices to presidential commissions of inquiry, the existence of God, or the activity of “rogue units” in government agencies — we should keep an open mind, and simply keep on interrogating the evidence. To adapt a justly famous saying about paranoia, just because it is a conspiracy theory, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

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

Losing his Mojo or just losing his mind?

ANTHONY BUTLER: ANC internal democracy at stake as cadres mull authoritarian rule

Group suggests that since the ANC is going to lose next year’s municipal elections, it should prevent the poll from taking place


US President Donald Trump’s proposal on Wednesday was brilliant in its simplicity. Observing his lead eroding as the votes were tallied, he suggested the supreme court should simply suspend the count.

This idea is also popular in parts of the ANC. A self-styled “ANC Cadres” group, led by retired defence intelligence head Maomela “Mojo” Motau, has circulated a document grandly entitled “ANC Turnaround Strategy 2025: Changing the Course of History”. 

Peering ahead to next year’s municipal elections, the cadres observe that the outcome might be “much more humiliating than we think. The battering can actually spell the end of the ANC as a major political party.” They recommend the Trumpian remedy. Since the ANC is going to lose, it should prevent the elections from taking place. Democracy should be replaced by rule through the diktat of unelected committees.

The authors also want “closer ties” to China, Russia and Southern African liberation movements. In other words, they want authoritarian foreign regimes to help them run SA, because they have no idea how to do it themselves. The group is perhaps not drawn from the more intellectually gifted ranks of the ANC. Threatening to ditch elections is not a good strategy, unless you can make it permanent.ADVERTISING

It is true SA citizens are a bit fed up with democracy. Fewer than half of eligible electors voted in 2019. A 2018 Afrobarometer survey found that more than two-thirds of young people were willing to give up elections for a government that could provide jobs, housing and security.

In reality, however, the cadres’ proposed form of authoritarian rule would not work. It depends on ruthlessly efficient committees of ANC activists running government affairs. Control enforced by the defence force would stand little chance if taxi bosses or Cape Flats gangs took up arms and even ADT, also known as the military wing of the DA, enjoys logistical superiority over the state.

The fact that the ANC is even entertaining the cadres’ anti-democratic proposals could buoy opposition parties, which are already far better placed than most observers recognise. The DA has cut its losses after its experiment in accelerating black leadership. This will cap, but not much reduce, its vote share. The EFF will be boosted by the likely criminal prosecution of some of the current leadership. 

Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA is now a real contender in the three metros in the north of the country. This party, seriously underestimated by our complacent incumbent cartel, is targeting education policy. President Cyril Ramaphosa is hamstrung by the SA Democratic Teachers Union, and the DA is mesmerised by former model-C schools. Yet there are 9-million children in dysfunctional public schools, creating a huge voter pool on which Mashaba can draw.

ActionSA also wants to “clamp down on the influx of undocumented migrants through our porous borders”. According to Afrobarometer data from 2018, about half of SA citizens oppose political asylum, believe foreigners should not be allowed to work in the country, and favour placing refugees in internment camps. Covid-related economic impacts are likely to deepen these vote-drawing, if reprehensible, sentiments.

The ANC cadres are not really threatening that ageing major generals and rear admirals will invade the Union Buildings, perhaps propelled by Zimmer frames or armoured wheelchairs. It is also hard to imagine that the curiously youthful “culinary detachment” of the Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans will engage in such a dashing military manoeuvre.

No, the democracy the ageing ANC Cadres really want to hijack is the residual internal democracy of the liberation movement. If the ANC’s legitimate leadership cannot firmly put down these tin-pot internal rebels, the real electors outside will notice. It will be another nail in the electoral coffin of the liberation movement the cadres falsely claim to represent.

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

Paul Mashatile’s presidential ambitions

ANTHONY BUTLER: Carcerophobia epidemic may lead to Ramaphosa’s downfall

 Business Day and BusinessLive

23 OCTOBER 2020

Will President Cyril Ramaphosa serve a second term as ANC leader? It is hard to evict an incumbent ANC president after just five years. Indeed the problem, as the careers of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma demonstrate, is that it is hard to get rid of them even after 10 years.

To remove an entire incumbent faction requires a nationwide coalition and financial and political resources. But what if the challenge comes from within the ANC’s dominant faction itself? There are circumstances in which party leaders might be tempted to replace their president with a younger, less tarnished version who seems more decisive.

SA’s epidemic of carcerophobia — fear of prison — may also play a role. Prosecutions of a few corrupt ANC leaders are essential if electors are to regain faith in the party before 2021’s local government elections. But a small number of scapegoats — such as ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and former minerals minister Mosebenzi Zwane — may not suffice.

However, if arrests go too far, and especially if they target provincial and regional leaders, the power brokers who manipulate conference votes may start looking for a more sympathetic president. Meanwhile, painful fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, and the failure of economic reform programmes launched by Ramaphosa, could easily drain the leader’s credibility.

If this results in a local election disaster next year, activists could be tempted to blame Ramaphosa and to look for a fresh start before national and provincial elections. It is here where ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile steps into the picture. So far he has done a poor job of denying leadership ambitions.

When the Sunday Times recently asked him if he was plotting with deputy president David Mabuza to oust Ramaphosa, he replied: “We will see when the time comes.” ANC observers accustomed to more circumlocutory comments will take that as a “yes”. Mashatile also ventured rather impertinently that Ramaphosa “has never said to me he wants a second term”.

Mashatile might appear a logical choice. His long-term political ally and friend David Mabuza, the obvious alternative, has been in general ill-health, suffering in particular from the incurable medical condition of moral attention deficit disorder. As a former provincial chair, the treasurer-general is sympathetic to how the ANC actually functions on the ground, and he is correspondingly forgiving of corruption.

Mashatile has reached out to trade unions in recent years, and appealed to the “radical economic transformation” crowd by advocating the diversion of public sector pension funds into parastatals. Best of all, he has the same broad power base as Ramaphosa and even served as co-chair of the president’s campaign committee in advance of the Nasrec party elections. Without disturbing their common political coalition, the decisive, younger and more appealing Mashatile could simply jump into Ramaphosa’s shoes.

That’s what his supporters say, in any event, though others have their doubts. He has not performed well as treasurer-general, in which role he has clumsily proposed that the state should pick up the tab for funding parties. He has also reversed his position on prescribed assets in recent weeks, and back-tracked on the idea that the SA Reserve Bank should be nationalised.

Dubbed the “don of the Alex mafia” by the media more than a decade ago, Mashatile’s history as a provincial chair leaves him vulnerable to renewed media scrutiny. The biggest obstacle to the presidential hopeful’s ambitions is startlingly basic. Mashatile and Mabuza together were the great victors at Nasrec, each securing far stronger support from conference delegates than Ramaphosa.

However, the two allies who worked together so effectively are now after the same job. They cannot both be president. This almost certainly means neither of them will be.

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

Time for a Cabinet reshuffle

ANTHONY BUTLER: Paranoia in the cabinet signals a reshuffle is on the cards

With ministers resorting to self-promotion and backstabbing, Cyril Ramaphosa needs to enrol competent recruits

 First published in BusinessLive

08 OCTOBER 2020

A cabinet reshuffle is an important political instrument for any national leader. In a fully presidential system the head of state is constrained by the need to secure ratification from the legislature. In a parliamentary system like ours, in contrast, the president has a pretty free hand in removing and installing ministers.

Shuffles allow a leader to change the public image of the government, to kick out the insolent or incompetent, and to reward political allies. But a leader is also obliged to balance factions, ideological blocs, age and gender profiles and regional interests. Such multidimensional reconfiguration puzzles do not have one correct resolution: a president’s political judgment is key.

Former president Thabo Mbeki mostly opted for continuity, even when his ministers were physically unwell or psychologically unhinged. He instead used loyalist deputy ministers and sympathetic directors-general to help him centralise power.

Jacob Zuma, by contrast, used frequent cabinet reshuffles to disorient his enemies and secure personal advantage. He even made Malusi Gigaba finance minister, an appointment memorably described by Julius Malema as “placing a rat in charge of the cheese”.

Ramaphosa’s approach is closer to Mbeki’s than Zuma’s. In 2019 he kicked out Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane but retained ideological diversity in senior portfolios such as finance, public enterprises, and trade & industry.

Events are pushing Ramaphosa towards a fresh reconfiguration. Heavyweight ministers such as Tito Mboweni and Pravin Gordhan have signalled a desire to step down. When such senior ministers go the vacancies cascade down the cabinet system as lesser souls are promoted.

Meanwhile, Gwede Mantashe, who has not flourished at mineral resources & energy — perhaps primarily as a result of being too close to vested interests — may be obliged to return to Luthuli House when the current secretary-general’s duties are reallocated.

Ramaphosa faces unprecedented challenges in managing the economic fallout from Covid-19. A patronage cabinet that merely placates diverse constituencies will result quite rapidly in a fiscal crisis, intervention by international financial institutions and a loss of national economic sovereignty.

Any successful recovery plan will require a reallocation of resources, and so unavoidable cuts to big programmes. These will be met by consolidated resistance from politically powerful actors as diverse as teachers, social grant recipients and beneficiaries of the Eskom coal supply chain.

Ramaphosa’s cabinet will therefore need to be committed to serving a reform programme — once there is one — rather than powerful interest groups in the ANC and the wider society.

This means further centralisation of power in the presidency. It also requires more ministerial focus on collective goals, and nothing motivates career politicians better than fear of dismissal.

One sign that a reshuffle is on the way is a recent upsurge in mutual ministerial back-stabbing. Politicians who have received a slap on the wrist for relatively minor indiscretions, such as social development minister Lindiwe Zulu or defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula have been chalked up as impending casualties.

But the clearest indicator that a reshuffle is coming is an uptick in self-promotion by the incompetent. At a press conference on Tuesday communications & digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams launched an extended defence of her record in office. (Nobody was asking.) She insisted that allegations of her interference in the management of the Post Office and other entities had been “baseless, unfounded and devoid of any truth … I am Ndabeni-Abrahams at the end of the day. I’ve always been challenged and attacked.”

Such victimology and paranoia suggest that fears of a shake-up are building. How the next reshuffle unfolds will provide a major insight into Ramaphosa’s determination to chart a distinctive course for the country’s future.

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

Keeping the president healthy

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa getting into the pound seats, in kilograms too

The president is steadfastly accumulating power, but concern over his health is not misplaced



In the middle of an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, it is prudent to worry about your president’s health.

This week Cyril Ramaphosa postponed a meeting with the leader of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union. Minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu caused consternation when he attributed the cancellation to the president being “really sick”. The announcement confirmed for observers that Ramaphosa is a leader both ailing and besieged.

This misapprehension will probably undergo revision over the next seven or eight weeks. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma both taught us that control can be secured over time by a determined politician who is willing to use presidential prerogatives to the full. Ramaphosa has already laid much of the groundwork for his ascendancy by weeding out old-order legacies and accumulating control over the levers of state power.

The pandemic-related crisis has now predictably empowered him further. A need for dialogue between state, business and labour, and the tendency of crisis-hit populations to listen to their national leader, have bolstered Ramaphosa’s authority. Moreover, much of the crisis response is being realised at the level of international institutions, where domestic power brokers have no access.

The pandemic has also given Ramaphosa space for a cabinet reshuffle. A rising political tide lifts all of the cabinet boats. Now the tide has gone out, and ministers swimming naked have been cruelly exposed.

August’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting demonstrated Ramaphosa’s growing command of the ANC. Corruption prosecutions are on the way shortly. It is not hard to see the force of the NEC’s associated resolution that cadres “formally charged for corruption or other serious crimes must immediately step aside from all leadership positions in the ANC, legislatures or other government structures pending the finalisation of their cases”.

Finally, local government elections are coming, and a big shift of voter sentiment is on the cards. As the pandemic’s economic effects mount, the ANC’s dependence on persisting popular support for Ramaphosa will redouble.

None of this means that concern about the president’s workload — or his health — is misplaced. Ramaphosa is not as young as he used to be. Reports suggest he is a firm ex-smoker, plays a variety of golf, and drinks rooibos tea rather than alcohol to unwind. Like the minister for mineral resources & energy, however, he has not fully embraced the global scientific consensus that excessive weight is a key factor in chronic disease.

Larger problem

A larger problem may be Ramaphosa’s approach to work. In the mid-1980s he decentralised the fast-growing National Union of Mineworkers to reduce the administrative burdens on the head office. In reality, however, representatives from the regions and branches were still allowed to flow freely through the national office to personally petition Ramaphosa.

A leadership style that depends on time-consuming personal engagement and pact-building can be psychologically and physically draining. One analysis of “overwork” by Sarah Green Carmichael, in Harvard Business Review, suggests it can cause impaired sleep and memory, heart disease and depression. It can also undermine critical political skills, such as interpersonal communication, judgment and the ability to manage emotions.

Carmichael would approve of finance minister Tito Mboweni’s ability to disengage from the office and head for the kitchen — even if some of his culinary creations could be classified as injurious to health by the World Health Organisation.

That a leader such as Ramaphosa enjoys working too hard does not stop him from making more mistakes in consequence. Overworkers can lose sight of the big picture; soon they cannot see the wood for the trees. “Keep overworking,” Carmichael observes, “and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”

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

Mashaba’s ActionSA and the DA are natural coalition partners

ANTHONY BUTLER: The DA and Action SA: unnatural born partners

First published in Business Day.


The rebirth of the DA was not a natural event. It was a caesarean section, in which the scalpels were wielded by the “independent review panel” that diagnosed the DA’s 2019 election debacle.

The panellists — party strategist Ryan Coetzee, former leader Tony Leon and funder Michiel Le Roux — complained in October 2019 of “a failure of effective leadership” on the part of Mmusi Maimane, “a lack of clarity about the party’s vision and direction”, and a “failure to produce a credible policy platform”.

Pain relief at last weekend’s aptly named “virtual policy conference” was provided by party policy chief Gwen Ngwenya. Her documents provided a powerful intellectual anaesthetic for party activists unsure about just what they were bringing into the world.

In truth, there is little new in the very long list of “core values” that will ostensibly underlie DA policy positions. Replacing the black economic empowerment (BEE) scorecard with a “sustainable development goal index” that will track companies’ environmental, social and governance behaviour is, moreover, the stuff of nightmares.ADVERTISING

But now the party at least has an abstract vision to guide — or perhaps rationalise — its policy choices. The abandonment of race as a proxy for disadvantage may yet serve the DA well in the turbulent times ahead.

SA’s unprecedented economic crisis spells trouble for all political parties. The ANC has scripted a new season of its Can the ANC Reform Itself? soap opera, with Cyril Ramaphosa retaining his starring role.

For its part, the EFF has developed a rudimentary strategy to capitalise on citizens’ economic misery. Their policy prescriptions are, however, increasingly laughable. This week’s gem, amid strong competition, was to “allocate sufficient resources to Denel to expand massive industrial capacity to produce health equipment, including ventilators”.

The EFF and ANC will no doubt do a deal once circumstances mean such a pact is in the interests of both parties’ leaders. The “new and principled” DA will probably avoid further pacts with the EFF because past entanglements have corroded the party’s brand. But Herman Mashaba’s recently launched — and dreadfully named — Action SA fits neatly into the DA’s plans.

The values and policy positions of Action SA and the DA are strikingly similar — hardly surprising, since both have been drafted by DA-groomed policy wonks and organisers.

The reborn DA, with the language of race now suppressed, will find it easier to mobilise white and coloured voters and to harvest their votes.

As the review panel noted, Maimane’s ANC-lite approach failed to garner significant black support. But Mashaba is well placed to rally liberal — or just disaffected — black voters who cannot stomach the “nonracial” DA.

“The reason I left the DA,” the entrepreneur observed this week, “was that they can’t see and recognise us as black people. We will have redress policies and black people are going to be the beneficiaries. But it must be the kind of redress that promotes entrepreneurship in black people and not the one pushed by the ANC that creates cronyism.”

Mashaba has repeatedly stated that he will not do a deal with the ANC. He is already falling out with the EFF, moreover, bewailing the red-tops’ intimidation of workers and damage to property at Clicks stores this week. “These actions by ridiculous and radical minorities,” he observed, “hurt the majority of reasonable, law-abiding and good people of our country.”

The EFF remains an external faction of the ANC, its leaders waiting to trade seats for power and money. In the DA and Action SA, meanwhile, we may be seeing the emergence of another pair of natural coalition partners, each using a distinct racial or nonracial strategy to maximise its voter support.

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

Ramaphosa’s empty letter to ANC cadres

ANTHONY BUTLER: Ramaphosa extends theme of Good ANC v Bad ANC

Party’s national executive committee meets this week to discuss president’s recent comments on corruption

 BusinessLive 28 AUGUST 2020


The ANC’s national executive committee will convene this weekend to solemnly contemplate President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent lamentations about the scourge of corruption.

This latest bemoaning of the forces of darkness took the form of a letter to the ordinary cadres of the movement last Sunday. The president bewailed pandemic tender corruption, and fancifully told the nonexistent little people — sadly they are mostly just “ghost members” purchased by local barons — that “it is you who chooses the leadership, who sets the policies and who implements the programmes of our organisation”.

Extending his implicit 2019 campaign theme that the good ANC can defeat the bad ANC, he listed recent advances by the forces of goodness: squeaky-clean appointments in the criminal justice system; revenue service and pension fund commissioners who were probably not summoned up from beyond the grave; and parastatal boards partially freed from the grip of Guptoid zombies.

What he left out was telling. The party-enabled looting of state-owned enterprises is to continue. The exchange of influence for money through the Progressive Business Forum will go on. So too will abuses of the spirit of black empowerment policy that shower political insiders with undeserved wealth. Real change would require taking on ANC turkeys that simply will not vote for Christmas.

Ramaphosa’s initiative has more modest goals. The first is to rebut critics who have complained about the president’s own alleged indecisiveness. “Now is the time for action,” he rather decisively observes in his letter. Just to be sure we have got it, he reiterates that, “we now need to draw a line in the sand. We need to act urgently, we need to be decisive and we need to demonstrate a clear political will.”

The ANC is also concerned about next year’s local government elections. Due to an ANC oversight our electoral commissioners have not yet been sent for technical retraining in an “advanced democracy” such as China, that is our real friend. The commission has therefore wrongly insisted that elections should continue as scheduled. This means public perceptions of corruption must be changed in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the salaries of parastatal executives need to be paid and deprived entrepreneurs in the Eskom supply chain supported. More precisely, Cosatu members must engage in these charitable acts by sacrificing their pension funds for the greater good of ANC-led transformation.

On Wednesday, however, the Cosatu central executive committee stated that, “a corrupt government that pushes antiworker and antipoor policies cannot automatically count on the unconditional support of workers when it comes to the use of their pensions.

“Before the government talks about workers’ pensions” the committee clarified, “we demand to see real change in fighting corruption”. This means some politicians and managers — not too many — must be sent to prison if Cosatu bosses are to separate workers from their own savings.

Another objective is to focus further attention on ANC secretary- general Ace Magashule, the sacrificial lamb whose political death will apparently cleanse the movement’s stain of guilt. Finally, there is an underlying matter of contested presidential leadership. If nothing tangible comes of this latest public relations initiative the ANC’s two-term gamble on Ramaphosa may begin to lose some of its appeal.

There is no longer a “Zuma faction” to remove the ANC president. It would be electoral suicide to elevate a crook from a maize-growing province, who might appear to be next in line as leader. But it could yet be tempting to put fresh lipstick on the ANC pig, by turning to a quiet former premier who knows how the ANC works, perhaps from Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal, to front yet another political rebirth for a senescent movement.

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

Blaming Ace Magashule

ANTHONY BUTLER: After his rise, Ace Magashule is unlikely to fall too far

Businesslive 24 August 2020

South Africans should be feeling quite sorry for ANC secretary-general Elias Sekgobelo Magashule.

The Tumahole schoolboy earned the nickname “Ace” for his skills on the soccer pitch, where he was reportedly a midfield terrier. This brave young man risked his life to battle the injustices of apartheid. In 1985, he served nine months in solitary confinement under the Internal Security Act.

He became chair of the Free State ANC in 1998, but the exile-dominated leadership determined that he should never become provincial premier. After the Polokwane revolution of 2007, however, Magashule became both premier and party chair, for what was a highly controversial decade.

We should be forgiving: all too often great struggle heroes, or even less great struggle heroes, have been drawn into shady dealings. Very rarely, in those days at least, did they start out with criminal tendencies.

What is a premier and party chair to do in an informal tender committee when presented with a deserving list of party donors or factional stalwarts?

Any party chair who is not steeped in the dark arts of procedural manipulation, membership fiddling and vote-buying will soon be displaced by those who are. Any premier who cannot centralise and extract rents, plough them back into his organisational machinery and deploy a quantum of intimidation will soon be political toast.

Magashule thrived in the murky Darwinian swamp of Free State patronage politics. But the Free State is a stagnant backwater. Among the leaders of the ANC’s “premier league”, Magashule ranked a poor third behind Mpumalanga’s more robust David Mabuza and the North West’s more charismatic Supra “Black Jesus” Mahumapelo.

In 2017 Ace was nevertheless elected secretary-general of the ANC and so became the public face of a great liberation movement. Like Alfred Nzo, the snoozing incumbent between 1969 and 1991, he was elected because he would not lead the organisation in any new direction, rather than because he would.

Unlike previous secretaries-general Cyril Ramaphosa, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, Magashule could not lay even a spurious claim to be the voice of the workers or the disseminator of the great ideological tenets of the national democratic revolution.

He got the position because he had votes to sell and he had long-standing links to the Gupta family. His skeletons were connected to cows, gas stations, asbestos and consultancies for his children. He was always smallanyana fry.

He talked big, nonetheless, telling his nonexistent supporters to wait five years for the Zuma faction’s return. Now he is in Luthuli House, surrounded by those clowns of the Zuma era who were too pitiful even to secure parliamentary committee chairs.

Nobody wants poor Ace to have real power. Everybody wants Tumahole’s onetime leading schoolboy actor to play a new starring role.

The ANC won the 2019 elections on the basis that the “good ANC” would soon defeat the “bad ANC”. The good ANC is apparently Ramaphosa — but the list rather quickly depletes after that. The bad ANC, in contrast, seems to comprise a far more bountiful list of individuals.

Though stealing money set aside for Nelson Mandela’s funeral was once viewed as the height of reprehensible behaviour, the corruption that has surrounded Covid-19 procurement has more fully crystallised discontent with the ANC’s approach to public ethics.

What the ANC needs is a “senior member” who can be dragged through the courts and humiliated. It needs a “visible face” of corruption who can be slapped in chains — or at least slapped down in public.

But Magashule should not worry. Like Tony Yengeni, the chosen public face of the “arms deal” saga, it won’t be long before he is a hero of the liberation struggle all over again.

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

A full IMF bailout before the 2024 elections?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Predictions not rosy about SA in a post-Covid world

Economic crisis will weaken Cyril Ramaphosa’s position ahead of ANC 2022 elective conference


Predicting the future is a hazardous business at the best of times. However, a growing number of futurologists see the IMF playing a major role in SA in the years ahead.

The trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic remains uncertain. The world economy has suffered a unique combination of supply and demand shocks, leading the IMF to anticipate a 3% global contraction over the course of the year.

Here at home, Covid-19 has accelerated SA’s previously leisurely journey towards the fiscal cliff. Heated debate about monetary policy options, and anger about the commitments made by the National Treasury and Reserve Bank to the IMF to secure a $4.2bn rapid finance instrument loan, reflect a lack of consensus about how the country should respond.

Can SA’s conflict-ridden political parties somehow steer the country towards a sustainable economic strategy through normal democratic processes?

Despite recent proposals, originating with the ANC and EFF, to postpone local elections, merge local with provincial and national elections and institute direct central rule over municipal governments, electoral politics will most likely continue normally over the next three years.

This means municipal polls in 2021, between August 4 and November 1. Devastating job losses in hospitality, fitness, tourism, beverages and other related industries will be directly traced to government interventions. Finance minister Tito Mboweni’s emergency Covid-19 budget anticipates sharp cuts to municipal expenditure, while revenues from business and residential rates are likely to be decimated.

The ANC vote will drop sharply in metropolitan areas. In the pivotal province of Gauteng, one surprise factor may be Herman Mashaba, whose new party will be well positioned to cash in on xenophobia and exploit the envy and resentment that hard times bring in their wake.

The new DA is not in a good space to contest these elections. “White business” will be condemned for shedding labour, “white banks” for hoarding capital, and “white households” for firing domestic workers.

A year after this ugly contest, the ANC will hold its 2022 elective conference. Cyril Ramaphosa’s position will be weakened by the economic crisis.

The policy proposals of the anti-incumbency faction are already clear. We must have money printing and prescribed assets, radical economic transformation and accelerated land reform. Public sector workers must be protected at all costs and a tiny basic income grant provided for the poor.

Ramaphosa has shirked responsibility for concrete policy choices, delegating these to his ministers. When these choices have been lockdown related, they have been the fault of ministers such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Ebrahim Patel. When they have concerned fiscal or monetary policy, they have been the responsibility of the finance minister and the Reserve Bank governor. The cabinet, it seems, supports any and all policy choices, even when they are inconsistent with one another.

A Ramaphosa second term is almost inevitable but it will not come with a credible programme of reform. Unproductive public servants, tender abuses and politically linked parastatal supply chains are just too central to the ANC’s own operational survival.

Yet public hostility to the abuses of the party will become equally central to politics in a post-Covid world, in which jobs are scarce and improved living standards have been pushed back by a decade.

Predictions? It is possible to predict that we will have parastatals unable to pay salaries, strikes over public sector remuneration, and a crisis in issuance of new government debt — and that all this will occur before the national and provincial elections in 2024.

We can also anticipate that national debate will revolve not around how to remake the national economy, but rather around who is to blame for a fully conditional IMF structural reform programme that can no longer be avoided.

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

Basic income grant rises from the political grave

ANTHONY BUTLER: A BIG mistake to save an unaffordable minister’s job?

Estimates of the proposed grant’s cost are about R200bn a year


The basic income grant, sometimes referred to as BIG, is a superficially attractive idea, but one that obviously won’t be realised any time soon. How should we interpret urgent demands for its immediate introduction?

Social development minister Lindiwe Zulu made the surprise announcement of government’s ostensible basic income grant plans at a government social cluster briefing on Monday. “We already have categorical grants for children, older persons and persons with disabilities,” Zulu said. “The basic income grant will be an income support grant for the population aged 18 to 59.” 

International networks of NGOs and academics have long promoted the concept as a lever for human capital development. In 2018, the SA Human Rights Commission indulged its notorious mission creep to produce a report on the modalities of basic income grants in the real world.

Debates about the displacement of human labour in an ostensible “fourth industrial revolution” — and the consequent need to keep the poor fed and quiescent — have made the grant popular among Davos types. Our own Colin Coleman, former sub-Saharan Africa CEO of Goldman Sachs, the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, touted the grant in a virtual lecture on Wednesday.

The grant promises a simple panacea for problems that are complex. Its proponents predictably seized on evidence from a National Income Dynamics Survey (NIDS) report released this week, which suggests that “since February this year 3-million South Africans lost their jobs, and 4,5-million people lost their incomes”. The NIDS report in reality provides no support for basic income grants, showing instead that targeted interventions, such as the child support grant top-up, were broadly successful, while the proto-basic income grant , the social relief of distress grant, comprehensively failed. As researchers noted, “these findings suggest that, as the pandemic unfolds in SA, current interventions need to be … far better targeted at informal workers, in general, and women informal workers in particular”. The key word is targeted.

The basic income grant is obviously unaffordable. Estimates of the cost are in the region of R200bn — every year, recurrently, because this is not a parastatal bail-out. Our context, as the economist Charles Simkins has observed, is one in which “we should be behaving as if we were about 8% poorer than in 2014. That is not austerity as a policy. It is decline as a fact.”

The basic income grant is a symbolic policy proposal that is designed to impart political messages to various audiences, rather than a substantive policy intervention. It offers an opportunity for virtue signalling: support for it shows you are on the side of the poor — even the DA has been a sporadic proponent. It displaces attention from the demands of powerful interest groups, such as the public servants who consume 60% of tax revenue, are protected from unemployment and yet still want pay rises in the middle of a global crisis.

Symbolic policies are also handy political tools. The supporters of “MMT” — which may mean modern monetary theory or magical money trees, two largely overlapping categories — want to take huge risks with the national economy. They represent established interests, such as state employees, rentiers and the beneficiaries of our state-owned entity supply chains. They are happier to use “help for the poor” as cover for their conservative positions than to initiate painful reforms and build a credible fiscal position.

Even individual politicians can use symbolic policies to protect their own interests, often at great cost to their country, as former president Jacob Zuma so ably demonstrated. A minister who believes she is shortly to be fired, perhaps in a much-needed cabinet reshuffle, can quite easily lay down a “radical” policy proposal. When the minister is removed, she can then claim it was the radical proposal, rather than her personal incompetence or other demerit, that was to blame.

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