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History waiting to be written

Aug 26 2019 12:17
David McKay

Mcebisi Jonas looks a tad frazzled by the media regimen his publisher is putting him through. He’s already done the rounds on radio and TV to publicise his book After Dawn. Now it’s the turn of the press.

Naturally, the attention is on Jonas’ much poured-over narrative from 2016 when he finally spilled the beans on the R600m bribe offered to him by the Gupta brothers. The book, though, hardly touches on the matter: It dispenses with the fact in its very first sentence as if to rouse the reader from the nightmare.

Hence the title, which recognises the passing of the moment while turning to the latent future; the history waiting to be written. After Dawn takes its cue from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s New Dawn declaration following his appointment as ANC president, later given the imprimatur of the nation in the May national elections the ANC won.

It wasn’t a comfortable victory though, and as pointed out by Jonas in his book, the continued failure to address the fault lines in the ANC will lead to a realignment of politics in the next election, currently presaged by the wave of populism, as well as an apathy among the youth.

The antidote to the populist voice, Jonas argues, is to be clear about the problem, and articulate about its solutions. “I guess that’s just one of the reasons I was thinking of when I was writing.”

The other idea that comes through is that South Africa is running short of options.

“I’m cautiously optimistic because in one part I think the ANC has no choice. If the ANC fails to deal with some of these issues in the next five years, we’re getting into a complete political realignment. Look at all the political parties now: They are actually racially based at the moment and historical as a movement.”

As such, After Dawn is an existential deep-dive of the ANC and SA politics in general. But it is also personal retrospection and a re-framing of political affiliation. Jonas says at one point in the book that he wanted to excise all trace of biography, but as an active ANC member since aged 14, some 45 years of service, how possible is this aim?

“I wrote something around 2013, but I didn’t touch that paper,” says Jonas of the book’s provenance. “It was a kind of critique of what the challenges [in the ANC] were, what the issues were. I was already thinking then there was something that we did so wrong and that we needed to change.”

Jonas thinks the ANC has done “a lot right”. Monetary policy, for instance, has been well marshalled and, until recently, the tax collection expertise built in Sars. But the post-1994 compact that expediently fused the interests of the historical and black elite with those of the labour movement and the poor quickly disintegrated despite “a few good years” of economic growth.

A lack of economic transformation combined with the 2008 world financial crisis, as well as provincial government hostility towards state building at the centre, created the conditions in to which former president, Jacob Zuma stepped.

Jonas spends a good deal of time sketching the context for the Zuma years. Earlier this year he warned against obsessing with individuals. After Dawn makes the case even more clearly that to place Zuma at the forefront of SA’s ills would be to fail to see him as symptom of deeper, structural causes.

Zuma’s evisceration of the state through his network of patronage was a refinement of a process already underway, according to Jonas. In the absence of economic transformation, the state had become a mini-economy.

“It was a difficult time: You had to manage the markets in a particular way and Zuma had no understanding of that so he kind of focused on what he only understood: the state,” says Jonas.

It’s why, for instance, the government of the time reversed a decision to liberalise the energy market. Having previously decided to introduce more private production of energy, it now elected to make Eskom an employer, Jonas argues. It’s from this point, around 2008, that the current electricity deficit was coded.

Eskom had relinquished its project management skills, but now was required to put into motion the energy projects that became the heavily mis-managed Medupi and Kusile power stations. The government’s remit, initially, was that Eskom wouldn’t be doing this work.

What needs to be done?

The second half of the book is about ‘the changes’ required. In this regard, After Dawn has the essence of Jonas’ early 2013 draft insofar as it reads like an academic paper; a thesis itemising a host of policy corrections, ideological turnarounds, and practical (and spoken like a true former banker) monetary and fiscal innovations necessary to bring about change for his chief, number-one concern: jobs and inequality.

But in his proposed resolutions to the national crisis of inequality and job building, Jonas also adopts the language of capital, talking about the need for the replacement of deployment, especially at the director-general level of key government departments, by technocracy and meritocracy.

And in dwelling on the notion of inclusive growth, a requirement that government do more to encourage business through fiscal incentives. Less charters and more tax incentives as per the relatively successful Employment Tax Incentive Scheme, which has created new jobs.

Secular, and nuanced economic solutions are expressed, not ideological determinism. That might be the short-form explanation.

Take Eskom for instance. The debate over the future shape of the organisation is befuddled by “contestation over ideological clatter”, says Jonas. This is illustrated by the argument over whether Eskom ought to be privatised or stay under the management of state?

According to Jonas, given that the interests of the utility and society are so strongly interwoven, the question should not be about who owns it, but how best the private sector and Eskom might cooperate to achieve business outcomes.

This is not a new nuance. Private-public partnership has been consistently raised by finance minister Tito Mboweni, who has called on government to look with different eyes on private capital.

Similarly, there’s the question of whether the Reserve Bank ought to be nationalised. Wrong question, says Jonas. “My attitude is that sometimes we make this a big debate when, in fact, it’s really a non-debate. Were I in government, we would be applying our minds to bank regulations. I think lending, credit creation is something we should be applying our minds to.”

He wants to dispense with the rigidity of the Anglo-Saxon credit model in favour of more proactive lending to SA’s entrepreneurial sector where the energy, growth and job creation sits. Quite how credit liberalisation will work following Ramaphosa’s promulgation of a debt relief bill which occurred subsequent to this interview, is still to be worked through.

Meanwhile, standing close by and morphing almost indivisibly with government is the ruling party, which is not as reformed as Jonas would like. Zuma allies abound; the stain of corruption is still about, and there’s fear in the party, says Jonas, of prosecution of jail terms.

“Cyril’s success might mean jail terms for others; that’s the fear, but again, what we cannot sustain as a country, and I make the point, that you don’t want the state presidents to be party bosses.

“The biggest test for President Ramaphosa is going to be if he is able to navigate between the two (government and the ruling party). It’s probably his biggest test. My assumption is that at some point, he will have to realise that actually it’s better for the ANC if he addresses some of the challenges in the economy,” says Jonas.

This article originally appeared in the 29 August edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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