Time of disillusionment

2008-10-17 00:00

It is a time of disillusionment. That the economic bubble has burst is a telling factor, especially for those companies, individual investors and property traders who often overlook the reality that a boom is a windfall and not a reflection of a normal economic environment. Someone made the point recently that the downturn (that’s a euphemism if ever there was one) is an unprecedented experience for young investors and business people who have no experience of traumatic market vagaries. Of course, older hands will more readily appreciate that the quite lengthy period of unusually strong market improvement was in itself a vagary.

George W. Bush has announced a plan by which the United States government will buy shares in U.S. banks to save them from disaster. This is the ultimate disillusionment for those who have clung to a belief in free market efficacy. Imagine — banks being partially nationalised to save them from the excesses of free market complacency. Iraj Abedian commented that this required a fresh look at the prevailing ideology and intimated that the World Bank and the IMF had toyed with doing so but had prevaricated in the belief that there was no urgency. He spoke of “ideological tyranny” which is dramatically highlighted by our world of rapid and unconventional change.

At home, our political leaders are certainly not victims of ideological tyranny. They are, in fact, archetypical pragmatists who find no shame in contradicting themselves from one day to the next. Two rival factions are each claiming to be the custodians of ANC traditions and the anointed protectors of the Freedom Charter. Each accuses the other of undermining the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary. Each denigrates the other for some particular breach of acceptability and then does precisely the same thing itself. Each attempts to seize the moral high ground; and neither, by virtue of their actions and words, has any right to it. Each accuses the other of being counter-revolutionary when I thought we had a flourishing democracy in which there was no revolution. It is difficult to imagine how disillusioned many stalwart members of the ANC must be while their leaders posture and pout. The fact that politicians in other countries are no less susceptible to these patterns of behaviour, does not make them seemly.

In Zimbabwe there is chaos while the political parties argue over what are called “key” cabinet posts. Considering the welfare of a country, I would have thought that all cabinet positions are equally key. While there might be those whose profile has some international flavour and might therefore be considered “senior”, the others are no less important for the person in the street. For pensioners and others who rely on grants to care for their children, for example, the Ministry of Social Welfare is surely the one most appropriately called “key”. The real issue is that some ministries are more easily manipulated to the benefit of the ruling party and its determination to hold on to power. If one thought for a minute that the exercise of forming a cabinet is about placing the most competent people in the most appropriate positions, one would be seriously disillusioned, although some of our recent cabinet appointments seem to have shown some trend in the desired direction.

The Chambers of Commerce and Industry South Africa (Chamsa) appears now to have expired. Constituted five years ago as the national representative body of the chamber movement, it has failed to make any tangible and positive difference to the welfare of the business community, to the country’s economy or, more significantly, to the unification of the chamber movement. Despite the constituents’ (four national associations representing chambers in the country) initial commitments to a unitary constitution in three years, the federal structure facilitated, ironically, the strengthening of individual identity and the slow realisation that we would not have a single national chamber to which individual chambers could affiliate. The Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB), which was established following a unity process which has substantiated the belief of the negotiators that a new, united body would be stronger than any of its antecedent entities, is particularly disillusioned by the failure of organised business, of all the country’s sectors, to unify in common purpose. Our own national body, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI), has had to reinvent itself and rebuild its former capacity, much of which was sacrificed in the common interest of the promised Chamsa unity.

Two last thoughts: the much-maligned National Credit Act may well have saved our economy and the hardest disillusionment to bear is that, no doubt, we shall remain disillusioned.

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