Is SA re­ally be­com­ing a banana repub­lic?

CityPress - - Business - Muzi Kuzwayo busi­ness@city­press.co.za

So what is a banana repub­lic? This is im­por­tant to me be­cause I like ba­nanas. Yes, I was one of those well-raised chil­dren who be­lieved ev­ery­thing that par­ents said. “Aero­plane!” I shouted ev­ery time I saw one, “bring us chips, sweets and a baby.”

I re­mem­ber my shock when my friend, the late Me­shack Masilela, and I saw a preg­nant woman and he teas­ingly said: “She ate a banana.” He put me off ba­nanas for a long time.

I had a banana in my bag when I heard my good friend Bra Paul re­fer­ring to South Africa as a banana repub­lic. This was af­ter the in­fa­mous Gupta plane had landed at Air Force Base Waterk­loof.

The term ‘banana repub­lic’ was coined by the Amer­i­can au­thor O Henry in his book called Cab­bages and Kings. Banana Repub­lic is a fic­ti­tious repub­lic of Anchuria, but it is based on his real ex­pe­ri­ences in Hon­duras while he was hid­ing from the US au­thor­i­ties for em­bez­zle­ment.

The banana is the food that nour­ished the fast-grow­ing Amer­i­can econ­omy. Cheap and nu­tri­tious, it fed the vo­ra­cious ap­petites of hard-work­ing rail­road labour­ers. So it was only nat­u­ral for rail­road in­vestor Mi­nor C Keith to plant banana plantations along the rail­roads he was lay­ing. So he planted and trans­ported ba­nanas, and this gave him the mo­nop­oly on im­port­ing ba­nanas to the US with his com­pany, which was called the United Fruit Com­pany, the pre­de­ces­sor of Chiq­uita Brands In­ter­na­tional.

Mo­nop­o­lies are bad for con­sumers be­cause they can keep the prices high, but three Si­cil­ian brothers – Joseph, Felix and Luca Vac­caro – got into Hon­duras and started ex­port­ing ba­nanas to ri­val United Fruit Com­pany.

The only way to keep the prices low in the US was for the banana com­pa­nies to ma­nip­u­late the land prices of the pro­ducer na­tions. So the rail­road com­pa­nies de­manded 500 hectares of land for ev­ery kilo­me­tre of rail­way laid, and soon they con­trolled the whole trans­port in­fra­struc­ture of Hon­duras, in­clud­ing roads and ports. To pro­tect their in­vest­ment, they con­trolled na­tional pol­i­tics as well, some­times vi­o­lently over­throw­ing elected gov­ern­ments. The Cuyamel Fruit Com­pany, also a US firm, was ac­cused of hav­ing sup­plied the merce­nary army as well as the weapons that over­threw the govern­ment of Hon­duras in 1911.

A banana repub­lic is a coun­try in which for­eign com­pa­nies have un­due in­flu­ence on the govern­ment. It has grown to mean a mon­key coun­try, where the vin­dic­tively pow­er­ful are the law, and the fool­ish do as they please, such as the sack­ing of a govern­ment min­is­ter with­out due process.

Some peo­ple feared that ar­rest­ing Fi­nance Min­is­ter Pravin Gord­han would turn us into one.

While Na­tional Di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tions Shaun Abra­hams was droop­ing like a cap­tured sol­dier as his case un­rav­elled, the fi­nance min­is­ter of Saudi Ara­bia, Ibrahim al-As­saf, was sacked by royal de­cree.

When the manag­ing di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, Do­minique Strauss-Kahn, an­nounced that he would be run­ning for pres­i­dent in his na­tive France against Ni­co­las Sarkozy, he was charged with sex­u­ally as­sault­ing a house­keep­ing staff mem­ber at a ho­tel in New York. The charges were later dropped, but Strauss-Kahn was fin­ished.

Last week, as Hil­lary Clinton was open­ing a wide gap against Don­ald Trump in the US elec­tion race, the di­rec­tor of the FBI, James Comey, re­vealed in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion about fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tions into her email saga. Trump has since nar­rowed the gap.

Is South Africa a banana repub­lic? In other words, are the Gup­tas (who­ever they are) the new El Pulpo – oc­to­pus – that has cap­tured the coun­try? Per­haps not. We are learn­ing that democ­racy can be as un­ap­peal­ing as an over­ripe banana, and as un­palat­able for dic­ta­tors.

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