Political Risk Reloaded

President Jacob Zuma survived the latest vote of no confidence in him despite the ballot being held in secret. Opposition parties had hoped the secret ballot would mean more MPs from the governing ANC party siding with them against the president. The motion, called amid repeated allegations of corruption, was defeated by 198 votes to 177. Picture: Henk Kruger

The outcry to the latest cabinet reshuffle reminded me of the response of President Thabo Mbeki to comments made by Tony Trahar, then chief executive officer of Anglo-American, in 2004 on the “political risk” in South Africa. Mbeki relayed how the ANC and the government at the time had been told that multi-corporations, such as Anglo, wanted to expand their capital markets and hence they wanted to de-list from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and go to London instead.  

Mbeki’s impression was that, together with the global economy, the South African economy had not seen better days before and so the “political-risk” comment, by Trahar, came as a shock. What is this political risk, demanded Mbeki. Black government voted into power by Black people? Was this the political risk? 

Anglo, of course, did not view apartheid South Africa as a “political risk”, Mbeki went on, but now that the country had developed into a fully-fledged member of the global economy and a matured democracy, suddenly there was political risk which came to pose as a threat for business in South Africa. 

Those who condemn last week’s cabinet reshuffle and who call for a shutdown want the rest of us to believe that there is a political risk in South Africa. Having made their money through BEE deals, they find the cabinet reshuffle “unacceptable”, distance themselves from it or even worse pump lots of money into mobilising civil society to  “Save South Africa”. Save us from what? Political risk?

As the chattering class, we therefore sit with the very real conundrum of this group of fellow compatriots portraying themselves as the defenders of our Constitution yet undermining the constitutional prerogative of the head of the national executive to appoint anyone he or she deems fit to appoint, from the members of the National Assembly (NA). This opposition to other members of the NA being appointed to a certain portfolio leads one to asking the very important question about whether there are members of the NA deemed fit to serve in that chamber but not fit enough to serve on the national executive. At the same time, is the Ministry of Finance, long criticised as a de facto premiership, a more senior cabinet position than that of others.

Surely, members of the African National Congress, especially the Secretary General’s Office who heads deployment, should not be deploying ANC members to the NA if they are not deemed fit to serve in the cabinet? Or are some more equal than others? Yet, as in the case of the cabinet where the president appoints who he sees fit, so the SGO also deploys its people to Parliament.

However, the practice of the President of the ANC appointing members of his cabinet without consulting Luthuli House is not new. While it must be praised that the President of the ANC sees it fit to consult at most the national officials of the ANC and in the least has the Secretary-General present when ministers are appointed, it does somewhat chip away at the understanding that it is ultimately he or she, as head of the national executive, who appoints men and women from the NA to serve in cabinet.

Disappointingly our Constitution defenders cite instability as the reason why they need to speak up: political risk. Democratic institutions, barring the president’s prerogative of course, are being eroded, this lot suggests. Yet, the reality is that they are more worried about the effect on their own personal wealth and direct beneficiation of deals deals than on democratic institutions. Primarily this is what happens in a uber liberal democracy, suddenly we are beholden to the vagaries of the market, as the alpha and omega of our future. It is not democratic institutions, such as president’s prerogative, which become preeminent, the reaction of the market and what the rating agencies announce rather is what becomes supreme. 

Little wonder that the most ardent of these supposed defenders our democracy are the very ones that have been underpinning market economics post-1994.  The leaders of the “Save South Africa’ are fundamentally from the Black establishment; those who have benefitted explicitly and handsomely from policies such as Black Economic Empowerment, notice one deliberately does not say Broad-Based Black Economic Employment, and employment equity.

What we are therefore witnessing is the expansion of the rejection of a government and organisation whose policies created this group of middle class in the first instance. The current outcry by the middle class is an extension of the narrative which suggests that the Black middle class in South Africa is coming to reject the very organisation which created or expanded them. While this expansion of the middle class is not a bad thing for democracy, the denunciation by this Black middle class of the organisation, and its grassroots democracy, and a government which remains fundamentally democratic is worrisome.   

The fact that this middle class, which is Black, is leading in spheres of business, media, civil society, the church and even labour could be appreciated. Within the setting of a liberal democracy, this advancement by, what Fanon calls the sermonizers, counsellors and “confusion mongers”, will of course protect their own interests at all costs. Gramsci in particular is critical of civil society precisely because it advances the hegemonic culture of the ruling class rather than being more representative of the interests of the people. Let us recall on whose side the hierarchy of the church was, for example, during the French Revolution or in the struggles for liberty in Latin America. 

Therefore, it is really the affect that these democratic changes have on their pockets, as was the case with Trahar and Anglo who then had to contend with protected labour conditions among others, that is of concern to this group of people. We are made to believe, for example, that the Rand is doing so much worse after this cabinet reshuffle and after the so-called Nenegate episode. Yet the reality of the global currency markets paint a different picture.

Against the US Dollar, Pound/Sterling has depreciated by 12 percent in the last year whereas the Euro depreciated by 6 percent. The worse performing is the Russian Ruble which depreciated by 18 percent while even the Indian Rupee depreciated by 2 percentage points. The Brazilian Real depreciated by 13 percent while the Rand depreciated by a mere 8 percent compared to these other major currencies. Given that China is the only BRICS country not to have had a depreciated currency over the past year, does lead one to believe that there is a concerted effort to manipulate BRICS currency. 

In fact, we may suggest a strong link between the regime change trajectory in Brazil and the possible use of that country’s currency to underpin that regime change. It should therefore come as no surprise that our own home grown regime change advocates would use the fluctuation of the Rand, intrinsically dependant on international currencies, to underscore their political risk narrative.

No doubt, it is about the economy. Yet what kind of economy are our champions of the Rand protecting? They preach that our economy is safer in the hands of a particular person as the minister of finance. An economy that has an unemployment rate of 26 percent. An economy that rates at over 11 thousand US Dollars GDP per capita yet we know that the majority of South Africans come nowhere near to this figure per annum. An economy which has the highest Gini coefficient in the world.

Mbeki was good to remind Trahar that it was “…the poor and the despised who worked for Anglo American and other companies that made it during the years of white minority rule, paid a pittance for their labour, [that] are today’s voters…” 

Wesley Seale teaches Politics & International Studies at Rhodes University