SA 2016 - Welcome to the Idiocracy [Opinion]

- Article by Bruce Whitfield, EWN (2015)

Bruce Whitfield

South Africa's democracy has carried many labels over the years. It's gone from democracy to mediocracy to kleptocracy, and I would submit, has now moved into a fourth phase: idiocracy.

The first phase was during the post 1994 honeymoon. Everyone wanted to get along, the economy was coming right. There was a sense of optimism. Tough decisions were being taken for the long term well-being of the country. The power and influence of markets was understood.

Gradually, the most capable of the early stage politicians found themselves drawn into BEE deals and left public service for the private sector. Some of their replacements were solid and hard working, others distinctly mediocre, taking South Africa from a foundation of hope and optimism to a stage where institutions frayed at the edges and we entered a mediocracy.

Things gradually became more sinister and as the Zuma-era dawned and the label 'kleptocracy' became prevalent as widespread corruption became the norm. It became the new normal. Even the noise around Nkandla has calmed to an irritated simmer. As a society we simply learned to live in a mire of bad news.

Some of you will find the 'idiocracy' label insulting. Hear me out.

It is where a governing party wilfully and deliberately takes decisions it should know are flawed, but goes ahead anyway. It's when party is put before people and short-term self-interest overwhelms the public good. It's when a decision of the magnitude of firing a performing finance minister is taken with scant regard for the fact that it will have economic consequences that will directly afflict the people whom governments around the world exist to protect.

President Jacob Zuma has his back to the wall. The ANC comes first. He said it. Then there was the suggestion that he'd been misunderstood. But then he reaffirmed it.

His decision this week to fire Nene is beyond logic.

The risk of a downgrade to 'junk' status where many foreign investment funds would be obliged by law to disinvest is a looming and very present threat. Currency and bond markets are predicting a version of financial Armageddon. Not since the global financial crisis of 2008 has sentiment against South African banks been this negative. For the likes of FirstRand and Barclays Africa to collapse 15% in one day after a single, avoidable news event shows that 20 years of goodwill have been eroded at the stroke of a pen.

This is Zuma's Rubicon moment.

The laws of physics apply to markets too. Newton taught that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Do something so phenomenally unpredictable as fire the keeper of the national purse who was valiantly seeking to restrain public sector excess and you send the signal that you do not give a damn about the consequences.

Or perhaps you simply do not comprehend them.

If the quote drawn from a Politicsweb story this week is anything to go by, then I am not certain which prospect is more frightening.

"I am not a businessman or professor," he is quoted as saying. "But I am rebelling against (the idea that) what determines the value of a commodity is the law of supply and demand. I am against this definition. The value of a commodity is the labour time taken in production of that commodity. That's what determines the value of a commodity."

Will the next president of South Africa please step up, and do so in a hurry.

South Africa is headed for a fiscal precipice of its own making. You can either bide your time for the inevitable implosion and self-destruction of a Zuma clique in the heart of government, or you can intervene.

You have to step up to the plate right now and become accountable for the actions of the present government.

Left to fester, things will only get worse and the mess you will be obliged to clean up.

The longer you leave it, the harder it will be.

- Article by Bruce Whitfield, EWN (2015)