If SA is to live, its leaders must stop feasting on dead ideas
If SA is to live, its leaders must stop feasting on dead ideas
There are several reasons why Venezuelan polymath Moises Naim claims the attention of posterity.
He served as the minister of trade and industry in his homeland when that country was the richest in South America. Afterward, he edited prestigious journal Foreign Affairs and along the way was an executive director of the World Bank. In 2013, the UK magazine Prospect listed Naim as one of the world’s leading thinkers. Today he is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.
Beyond the sparkling resumé and garland of awards, Naim also is a gifted wordsmith with a rare gift for prophecy.
Just how prescient and pithy his writing proved is to be found in an article he penned way back in February 2016 in The Atlantic entitled “What is Ideological Necrophilia?” He presaged the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency at a time when the real estate magnate was still jostling in a crowded field for the Republican party nomination.
The answer he gave to the question posed in his headline was: “Ideological necrophilia is the blind fixation with dead ideas. It turns out this pathology is more common in the political rather than the sexual form (sexual attraction to cadavers). Turn on your TV tonight and I bet you will see some politician passionately in love with an idea that has already been tried and failed or defending beliefs that have been proven false by incontrovertible evidence.”
SA has an oversupply of ideological necrophiliacs. Start with our president, Cyril Ramaphosa. If you turned on your TV at the weekend you might have caught a clip of his Friday evening address to the dinner of the Black Management Forum.
El Presidente proclaimed the “rebuilt economy”’ must be “blacker and better” going forward, and that “the enemies of progress and those opposed to transformation must be defeated”.
There are several claims wrapped up in this one item of incendiary rhetoric. One is an attack, by the person entrusted by our constitution with safeguarding the rule of law, on two civil society groups (Solidarity and AfriForum) that have had the temerity to adjudicate in court whether the Covid Tourism Equity Fund that excludes nonblack claimants from its coffers is discriminating based on race. And this under a constitution the founding provision of which is a democratic state that values of “nonracialism and nonsexism”.
The second is the president’s wilful blindness to how the pursuit of the very policies he trumpeted again on Friday evening landed the economy in the deep ditch in which it now rests. Just take the unemployment figures released shortly before the Ramaphosa speech. Among the “eye-watering” statistics published in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey last week, 74.7% of young people under the age of 24 (including those who have given up the search for work) are now unemployed. Yet the person presiding over this catastrophe, worse than any other country in the world, simply doubles down on the same policy prescriptions that in some measure have led to this devastating employment dead end.
Perhaps the most basic supply side condition for any job creating or retaining business is reliable electricity and water and decent roads to transport goods from factory to market.
This did not receive any attention in the Ramaphosa speech, though he has often enough previously claimed infrastructure will be fixed. But fixed from what? one could gently ask. From the failed hand of dead policies, would be one answer.
One company not waiting around for the fixing is Clover dairies. It has shut its big cheese factory in Lichtenburg, North West, citing the impossibility of running an enterprise in the absence of water and electricity, which the local municipality has been unable or unwilling to supply. Though the same local government has gifted its residents and businesses with an oversupply of impassably potholed roads. In fact most municipalities in the province are in varying stages of collapse and crisis. Ironically, some are only able to function due to the interventions of AfriForum, cited by Ramaphosa as an “enemy”, and the ubiquitous largesse of Gift of the Givers.
The Muslim-based Gift of the Givers has a national relief effort that includes supplying water to residents of Makhanda, which led one despairing taxpayer to tweet this week: “I would like to pay my taxes to Gift of the Givers and not to the corrupt government.”
Meanwhile, on the subject of the “blind fixation with dead ideas”, the president’s preoccupations have many adherents further down the political food chain.
The Competition Commission is the latest entrant into this overcrowded field. Its recent decision to nix black-empowered group Grand Parade from offloading its Burger Chain asset to a US company, so as to be able to pay dividends to the thousands of people in the Cape Flats who are its shareholders, was done in the name of “black empowerment”. The fact that the decision will have the opposite effect of its stated intention proves simply that perverse outcomes are very often the consequence of ideological myopia and rigidity. Or morbidity in the effect this will have on foreign investment, desperately needed to breathe some life into our economy.
Then there is Ebrahim Patel, who not only bestrides the Competition Commission but is in fact the tsar (despite his communism) of all economic thought and policy in the government, from his 100 black industrialist programme to his protectionist “localisation” frolic and his command and control obsessions.
You can apply the ideological necrophiliac test to practically every remit of state activity – from bankrupt SOEs, to the department of health with its fantastical NHI scheme on the back of broken and unlit hospitals, to the department of sport and recreation, which has a draft bill planning to oversee private gyms. The long list of dead ideas and failed policies is relentless – and growing.
Moises Naim wrote with much authority on his home continent of South America, the birthplace of modern populism. His gaze in his benchmark article on ideological necrophilia fell on Argentina and Venezuela, in their times – now long passed – the economic powerhouses of the entire region.
Venezuela famously has the largest oil reserves in the world. Today it imports petrol while its starving population is forced to kill domestic pets to stay alive.
So why persist on the proven path of failure? One answer for the endurance of bad ideas is it helps to avert the gaze of disaffected citizens from the root cause of their misery, and it conjures up enemies, promises change in the future, and places the blame on the past and not on the present for which you are accountable.
And, of course, it is a lot rhetorically grander than bothering to fix broken roads, repair water fittings and maintain electricity. Or provide seven out of ten young South Africans with any prospect of work.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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