Cees Bruggemans: What if Zuma refuses to go?

Picture: Leanne Stander
Picture: Leanne Stander

Independent economist Cees Bruggemans has no problem going where others fear to tread. He does so again here. Leaders in business, academia and the professions are starting to wonder whether the Burundi example will be repeated in South Africa when time is officially called on its deeply flawed incumbent President Jacob Zuma. Such is Zuma’s hold over the levers of power that most his critics have virtually given up on fighting him, biding their time until his second term expires in 2019. But what if he refuses to go? The Zuma Administration flouted the Judiciary in the al-Bashir debacle. So what is to stop Team Msholozi insisting their man stays on after 2019? Bruggemans applies his mind and, as ever, comes to some interesting if rather chilling conclusions. – Alec Hogg   

By Cees Bruggemans

What if He won’t go when the time comes? What if many are already acting on the supposition that He won’t go?

Some 20 years ago, one favourite question frequently asked, as much by locals as foreign visitors, was “what happens when Mandela goes (dies)?”, with one analysis being that chaos & destruction would follow, even putting Zim far in the shade.

I was a young chief economist at the time working for a bank. My stock answer then, and ever since, was that “there will be a magnificent state funeral”. I still think my view offered the better prediction. Only the funeral could have been more magnificent when it eventually took place in 2013.

The question at the time wasn’t of course original, echoing a much earlier question, posed by Keppel-Jones in 1946, about what happens “when Smuts goes”. He, too, foresaw chaos & destruction which also didn’t happen (except for the many caught by the ideological fervour that then followed).

Back to 20 years ago. One of Van Zyl-Slabbert’s favourite anecdotes was the poser to Mandela. What if you as President call in your (still) white generals and tell them to do your bidding, and they tell you they won’t….?

It wasn’t a theoretical question. It essentially queried whether we did have a functioning constitution or a banana state in which the Praetorian Guard decided who is head of state and in control and whose instructions to follow.

In the event, the foreseen crisis never occurred, the white generals prettily clicked their heels, saluted the flag and marched into the sunset, as befitted a constitutional state, and we could rest easy for a while longer.

But fast forward to today, and a new question has come into focus, namely “what if He doesn’t want to go?” Fair enough, given the way power seemingly has been consolidated. Do we still reside in a constitutional state or has it already been displaced by an old-fashioned fiefdom?

An Old South African who made good in London breezed back into Johannesburg for a brief visit recently, and afterwards wrote up his rather sunny observations.

To him it appeared as if longer term SA still had three good things going for it, namely free speech, ordinary people & their projects, and an independent judiciary.

Okay, that’s nice, but what will an independent judiciary do for you if the power structure has been thoroughly infiltrated and stocked with impis ready to do the bidding, not of the constitution but of some inner voice offering directions?

In other words, many may still think we live in a constitutional state but what if that ceased to be a reality some time ago, only it hasn’t been stress tested yet?

As with the Van Zyl-Slabbert anecdote to Mandela, it may all be terribly hypothetical. The imagined Mafiosi power impi isn’t actually one at all, but those in key positions still very much in allegiance, not to some individual, but to the state via the sworn constitution.

And when the moment comes, four years from now at the latest, power will pass, and it will do so legitimately, democratically tested, within constitutional-vested structures. And even if an impi were to take over then for the duration of the next stage, it would be because a majority of good people had decided so, and not some power cabal.

And the superficial observations of the returning South African visitor turned out to have been correct, about the underlying independent judiciary, and the implied ongoing, surviving, true constitutionalism of our dispensation.

But what if there are people out there who simply “believe” that reality has already shifted, and daily act on those beliefs?

Not the odd one or two, but many? Making personal investment decisions, business decisions, where to send the children & the family silver?

Would that matter if many already accepted such thinking as established fact, and had started to act along these lines, like monied Greeks taking to the hills, and not those of Athens’ either, but much farther afield (Bavaria for instance, or like our South African Old Boy, good old London)?

Their anxiety and uncertainties may be of a quality that disables, creating crippling disincentives to new ventures, instead calling forth the most fundamental defensive responses.

It implies at best a becalmed growth engine, at worst a growth engine going into reverse, reducing forward momentum to below stall speed, after which it is steadily downhill. Not only because of actual policy shortcomings, wasted capital allocations and miscast cadre deployments inviting disastrous turns in output, but also because private initiative wilts away, and with it not only the effective state but also the private market economy, and all our modernity so very hard-won over many generations and wrested from the purest wilderness that was still the SA countryside reality a mere 150 years ago.

These musings may be hypothetical, like the Van Zyl-Slabbert poser of old, but if enough people have in fact been acting on such suppositions for some time already, our modernity has been under siege longer than imagined.

The BER produces many fascinating pictures, but one of the best is a simple question posed as part of quarterly manufacturing business surveys, namely whether the political climate is a constraint on business?

That graph in recent years has turned into a revelation that is making these hypothetical anecdotes come to live. For today, and already for some time, it is a steadily rising tide of a majority of business respondents who finger the political climate as a distinct business constraint.

However interpreted as to its exact meaning, within that larger body of serious minded respondents there may reside many who sense we are no longer quite living by the constitutional rules we imagined were agreed and put into place as part of the Rainbow Deal.

Instead, fiefdoms have come into being under quite different rules, with this to be still fully acknowledged, but a mere minor detail when the moment comes?

One hopes that such thoughts & impressions are wrong. That the superficial visiting London view is still the true reality, that constitutionalism prevails and is safe in an agreed system of checks & balances free of power impis & other assorted Mafiosi. That political succession will occur orderly, according to understood democratic rules, whether rural or urban enforced being an entirely different matter, one of economic development & political maturity, and not will-of-the-wisp individualism.

The fact that such conversations occur, such beliefs exist, such fears & anxieties are apparently widespread among middle class people, should be enough of a concern. Like an illness in the body of society, it saps the will to go on, erodes performance, like a drowning person to the point of eventually sliding gradually beneath the waves.

This may be realistic. It is also self-defeating. Yet what future should one prepare for? These are scary times, as any Greek will tell you.


Arthur Keppel-Jones “When Smuts Goes” Shuter & Shooter 1947

Bureau for Economic Research (BER), quarterly Manufacturing Survey, “percentage rating general political climate a constraint”, 1Q2015, Stellenbosch

E.A. Ritter “Shaka Zulu” Longmans Green 1955

Frederik van Zyl-Slabbert “The Other Side of History: An Anecdotal Reflection” Jonathan Ball 2006

Lester Venter “When Mandela Goes” Doubleday 1997

Michael Skapinker “Three reasons to remain cheerful about South Africa” Financial Times 2 July 2015

* Cees Bruggemans is consultant economist at Bruggemans & Associates. Read more on his website at www.bruggemans.co.za or email hom via economics@bruggemans.co.za

* For more in-depth business news, visit biznews.com or simply sign up for the daily newsletter.

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