Things are very bad and a lot bet­ter

Sunday Times - - Opinion - TONY LEON Leon is a for­mer leader of the op­po­si­tion and for­mer am­bas­sador to Ar­gentina

The Ramaphosa pres­i­dency is an in­fant: four months old, and — vot­ers, party, and health will­ing — still with around 4 000 days to go.

Hans Rosling, an ac­claimed Swedish statis­ti­cian and pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional health who died last year, wrote Fact­ful­ness, a book that ob­jec­tively seeks to re­but global pes­simism on the world con­di­tion.

Rosling de­scribes to­day’s world in terms that could ap­ply to the New Dawn South African pres­i­dency, buf­feted only this week by a crash­ing cur­rency, a ca­pit­u­la­tion to the unions at Eskom and fac­tion­al­ism in three prov­inces (and counting).

He writes: “Think of the world as a very sick pre­ma­ture baby in an in­cu­ba­tor. Af­ter a week she is im­prov­ing, but she has to stay in an in­cu­ba­tor be­cause her health is crit­i­cal. Does it make sense to say the sit­u­a­tion is bad? Yes.”

Rosling then cites the per­ils around us — cli­mate change, war, vi­o­lence and inequal­ity. Next he piv­ots: “Does it make sense to say the in­fant’s sit­u­a­tion is im­prov­ing? Yes it does.”

He gives a wel­ter of sta­tis­tics prov­ing how more lit­er­acy, less poverty and greater ac­cess to wa­ter and elec­tric­ity has in re­cent years up­lifted more peo­ple more rapidly than at any other point in hu­man his­tory.

He then pro­vides a rhetor­i­cal Venn di­a­gram of how the neg­a­tives and pos­i­tives in­ter­sect: “Does say­ing things are im­prov­ing im­ply that ev­ery­thing is fine, and we should not worry? Not at all: it is both bad and bet­ter. That is how we must think about the cur­rent state of the world.”

My brother Pe­ter, a min­ing lawyer, has not yet read the book but he used al­most its pre­cise lan­guage in com­ment­ing on the new­est ver­sion of the Min­ing Char­ter. “Bet­ter but still bad” is his view.

Un­like the ver­sion of­fered by ra­pa­cious Gupta dop­pel­gänger Mosebenzi Zwane, the of­fer­ing from Min­is­ter of Mineral Re­sources Gwede Man­tashe did not wipe out R50­bil­lion of the mar­ket value of min­ing shares on the JSE. He ad­dressed some key con­cerns on own­er­ship and time lines and ben­e­fi­ci­a­tion. That’s the “bet­ter” part.

But if the new ad­min­is­tra­tion is in its in­fancy, the min­ing in­dus­try is in scle­rotic de­cline, and so to the char­ter’s “bad” part: ramp­ing up racial re­quire­ments for board mem­ber­ship, com­pul­sory share trans­fers of 30% and the de­lights of what is termed a “trickle div­i­dend”.

Cur­rent mine own­ers have lit­tle choice but to com­ply. But in terms of at­tract­ing new in­vestors, an in­ter­na­tional min­ing maven of my ac­quain­tance reprised the ri­poste of TV an­ti­hero Tony So­prano: “Fuhged­dabou­dit.”

The think­ing be­hind this min­ing shake­down and a dis­like for mar­ket forces so em­bed­ded in the ide­ol­ogy be­hind this “bet­ter but still bad” ver­sion of the char­ter — and the en­tire para­pher­na­lia of New Dawn eco­nomic think­ing — was re­but­ted in a sin­gle re­cent tweet.

I as­sume “Siphamandla”, whose Twit­ter ac­count de­scribes him as a Chris­tian, con­ser­va­tive South African econ­o­mist and be­liever in cap­i­tal­ism, is a real live per­son, not a Rus­sian bot. Ei­ther way, he homes in on the essence of what keeps the Ramaphosa pres­i­dency on eco­nomic life sup­port at a time of global un­cer­tainty and dire do­mes­tic con­di­tions.

“The ANC is ob­sessed with wealth re­dis­tri­bu­tion, in­stead of wealth cre­ation. The re­sult is the for­ma­tion of a costly large ad­min­is­tra­tive work­ing class and ten­der­preneur sys­tem. More money on these work­ers and ten­ders and less money for de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Siphamandla also de­scribes him­self as a fol­lower of Thomas Sow­ell, the US econ­o­mist, icon­o­clast, and ad­vo­cate for free en­ter­prise eco­nom­ics. Early in his ca­reer, Sow­ell opined on the per­ils of surf­ing against the cur­rents of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness: “Truth has a hard swim in these wa­ters.”

Ramaphosa and his min­is­ters can keep the coun­try in an in­cu­ba­tor, ail­ing but bet­ter than un­der Ja­cob Zuma. Or they could try a dif­fer­ent med­i­cal regime. It might just shock the pa­tient into a healthy and long life.

‘The ANC is ob­sessed with wealth re­dis­tri­bu­tion, in­stead of wealth cre­ation’

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