Blinkered politicians

2008-11-26 00:00

It is a measure of South Africa’s isolationist mentality that we are preparing for the most important general election of our democratic era against a backdrop of the worst global economic crisis in nearly 100 years, yet that forbidding factor is hardly featuring at all in our political debate.

Jacob Zuma, who is presumably going to be our national leader through the lean times that lie ahead, is literally racing around the country at 180 km/h in a 33-car cavalcade with blue lights flashing, telling the poor that they are going to get a better deal and big business that they need fear no radical changes, but explaining to neither how he intends delivering on his populist promises in the midst of a major economic recession.

President Kgalema Motlanthe is just back from a meeting of the G20 heads of government called to discussed the global crisis, but he has had nothing to tell the nation about it since his return.

Nor have the leaders of the new breakaway party, the Congress of the People (Cope). Its deputy chairman, Mbhazima Shilowa, addressed the Foreign Correspondence Association the other day but had nothing to say on this subject.

Only finance minister Trevor Manuel has been vocal on the subject, warning that the global crisis will indeed impact on this country, but offering the reassurance that his economic prudence will help cushion us against the worst of the storm.

For the rest the economic crisis, which dominated the recent United States presidential election to an extraordinary degree, is simply a non-subject in our political arena. This is disconcerting, for it gives the impression of a failure to understand what is happening in the rest of the world; a failure even to appreciate that we are part of the world and that what happens out there inevitably affects us.

The failure of leadership was highlighted the other day when an extraordinary attack on Manuel by key trade union leaders drew no admonition from Zuma, as president of the African National Congress, or Motlanthe, as head of the government.

Irvin Jim, the newly elected national general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), castigated the finance minister for sticking to the macroeconomic policies he has followed for the past nine years, and told him he should either toe the Zuma camp’s new leftward line or ship out and join the new Cope party.

Jim was supported by the general secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Zwelinzima Vavi. “Economic policies shifted at Polokwane,” Vavi said, “and all loyal members will have to implement those policies, and that includes the finance minister.”

Does Zuma, who keeps telling the business community that there will be no radical changes in economic policy, agree with these clear threats to Manuel’s position? Is he sanguine about the thought of Manuel maybe leaving the ANC and joining the new opposition party?

He shouldn’t be. For Zuma surely hasn’t forgotten how the rand fell 2,5% and the JSE Top-40 index more than 40% in an hour when Manuel briefly resigned his post after former president Thabo Mbeki’s dismissal last month, and how he had to be lured back in a hurry to stop the rot.

That in itself should have caused Zuma to be concerned that these attacks on his widely respected finance minister might again rattle the markets and cause more

foreign investment to fly out of the country. As it is, R52 billion has gone this year. But if such worries did occur to Zuma, he showed no sign of it.

Is he too wrapped up in his high-speed election campaigning to give a thought to the dangerous things some of his people are saying in this volatile economic climate?

In the event it was left to Manuel himself to respond, and he did so in a devastatingly elegant open letter to the upstart Jim. In tones of a professor lecturing first-year students in a course called Globalisation 101, he noted that the members of Jim’s union work in what is perhaps the world’s most globally integrated industry.

“So when consumers in the U.S. stop buying cars,” Manuel said, “the three car manufacturers in Detroit find themselves in trouble and, as a consequence, your members at plants that manufacture catalytic converters may find themselves on short time too.”

Likewise, if the world demand for steel dropped, Numsa members at steel plants in Pretoria, Vanderbijlpark, Middelburg and Saldanha would be affected. Moreover, cars manufactured in South Africa were being driven all over the world, while others manufactured in Mexico and Germany were travelling on roads here. The overall lesson being that there is no way a South African steel industry could survive if its sources of inputs and its markets were confined to one country. So Jim and his fellow workers are dependent on globalisation for their survival.

“I cannot imagine you,” Manuel went on, “as the Numsa general secretary standing before a shop stewards’ council, chanting ‘phantsi nge globalisation’ (away with globalisation) and demanding that shop stewards assist in shutting the plants where they are employed. Nor can I imagine you writing to the large steel producers who operate in South Africa and asking them to leave the country because your members are tired of all this globalisation stuff.”

Manuel might have gone further and pointed out that if the big three Detroit manufacturers do go under, which may well happen, it will throw some three million people out of work in those plants and the service industries that supply them. Three million consumers whose loss of earnings will further shrink overall consumer demand in the U.S., throwing yet others out of work. And as U.S. consumption shrinks in this way China, as the U.S.’s biggest supplier of consumer goods, will also undergo an economic downturn and will therefore buy less of our resource materials, so that we will suffer too.

It beats me that we have politicians aspiring to lead this country who seem oblivious to these self-evident truths, who are still locked into the same old mind-set with the same old dogmas and debates of the last century and the one before it, arguing over such abstruse issues as which should come first, the national democratic revolution or the socialist revolution, while their blinkered vision cannot see the obvious in the here and now.

What is obvious is that you can’t create thousands of new jobs with a declining growth rate, and the highly regarded Bureau of Economic Research at Stellenbosch University predicts our growth rate may shrink to 1,9% next year.

Zuma should slow down his speeding cavalcade, take a deep breath, and start looking reality in the face. Instead of bamboozling the people with false promises to buy their votes, he should start telling them instead how to prepare for the hard times that lie ahead — and what his government can realistically do to help them.

Some people find it hard to tell truth to power, but sometimes it is harder still for power to tell truth to the people.

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