Contemplating a different kind of billionaire in higher office in Africa

Too many African states have been governed by the wrong kind of millionaires and even billionaires – those who have “earned” their money while being in office, extracting resources from the state in various ways. Indeed, one of the challenges for African political development has been that state office has too often been seen as the only viable road to personal enrichment in the context of quite limited market opportunities.

But as followers of South African politics now know, billionaire (in terms of South African currency at least) Cyril Ramaphosa was just elected deputy president of the ANC. Ramaphosa was a founding member of the National Union of Mineworkers, and his leadership of the 1980s strikes contributed to the fall of apartheid. His trajectory is reminiscent of Brazil’s “Lula,” a former union leader, who served two successful terms as state president after a few failed bids for office. And yet, Cyril largely stayed on the fringes of politics for more than a decade to join the brave new world of black empowerment, through various holding companies and corporate leadership positions.

cyril_r

So what does a guy do when he’s worth, according to Forbes, over $600 million (more than 5 billion South African Rand)? He found himself elected to the number two spot of the somewhat embattled, but still extremely dominant ANC. As pointed out in today’s Mail and Guardian, this does not necessarily mean he will become the next deputy president of government (though re-elected party president Jacob Zuma surely will take another turn as state president), but either way, he has now reached a new level of political power that had seemed his destiny at the dusk of apartheid government.

What might it mean to have a guy in office who really doesn’t need the spoils of corruption? Unfortunately, of course, “need” can vary, and for some, 600 million might not seem like enough. But since I live in a city that’s been governed pretty darn well by a billionaire, I’d like to contemplate the optimistic scenario that Ramaphosa could help the ANC to chart a better course, serving the public interest in ways that have become increasingly rare. (Hopefully, he won’t push too hard on downsizing the size of soft drinks…) In fact, too many of the ANC’s moral and good governance core, including Desmond Tutu, Trevor Manuel, and many others, have chosen the exit option. Ramaphosa could inject some new ideas about process and efficiency, and quality service delivery; including the South African private sector’s desperate need for a better educated and better trained workforce. Most important, all of that money in the bank just might help him push back against the increasingly pervasive practice of self-enrichment through sweetheart deals, and private perks from the public purse.

Cyril had a shining profile at the dawn of post-apartheid government. Today, he is viewed as a serious businessman, who still retains some liberation movement credentials, albeit somewhat tainted by concerns about his role in the Lonmin strike violence. And of course, one has to wonder, can a guy with so much money, who has been hanging out in corporate board rooms for more than a decade, still be viewed as a man of the people? Moreover, it would be quite a stretch to consider him a “self-made” tycoon, in the sense that he didn’t exactly build any businesses from the ground up. He was in the right places at the right times, and has managed to leverage opportunities afforded at transition into something of a corporate empire. Certainly, he has used power and connections to be successful, but I have yet to see any real accusations of illegal activity. He seems to be a pretty honest and hard-working guy.

As John Campbell points out, Cyril actually won more votes than Zuma at the ANC party conference. No doubt, this could feel threatening to Zuma, who, like his predecessor, could always be recalled mid-term should the party decide to remove him from office.

These caveats notwithstanding, I gently advance the notion that in this case, a billionaire in a position of power might do South Africa some good.

Commemorating a famous South African protest with new protests

South African president Jacob Zuma spoke yesterday in Kliptown, Soweto in commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacres — an infamous event, during which peaceful protests against the South African pass law turned into a police killing of 69 people. In an attempt to put an affirming spin on this horrible but political watershed event, the anniversary has been renamed, “Human Rights Day.”

According to Business Day, protests erupted in Sharpeville on Tuesday when the news circulated that the speech would take place in Kliptown and not in Sharpeville. And in turn, a series of “service delivery” protests followed in other areas — a term I put in quotes only because some analysts, such as Steven Friedman, have argued that these protests have tended to be motivated by broader political agendas rather than specific gripes about service under-provision. The modern Sharpeville protest suggests the centrality of the politics of dignity.

And with respect to the subject of human rights, various South African news outlets have been highlighting the contradiction between Zuma’s discussion of the importance of the constitution and the bill of rights on the one hand; alongside recent his administration’s recent moves to curtail free information, to review the constitution, and to question the integrity of the judiciary.

In short, the question of which services and protections ought to be aspirations, and which ought to be rights remain the subject of active political conflict in the South African polity.

And as part of that political struggle, protest remains a powerful and important citizen tool for voicing discontent, especially when the electoral system seems to offer little recourse. But I’m torn: Will today’s protests bring about stronger and more responsive democratic governance? Perhaps. But it also might backfire if such protests are organized at too low of a threshold, and if active engagement falls by the wayside as a strategy for realizing human rights and promoting better service delivery. My point is not to blame the protesters, but to wonder why the ANC continues to alienate its base, rather than drafting the citizenry as partners?

South Africa won’t nationalize mines

The specter of Zimbabwe’s failed state often looms large for (white) South Africans. Fears of nationalization of productive industries, land takeovers, etc. came to the fore especially after the election of Jacob Zuma.

Well, this week, the mineral resources minister reiterated that the ANC has no plans to nationalize the mines, and will maintain pragmatic policies for the benefit of the economy. Rather, and I think quite correctly, the government is interested in regulation of safety issues, especially in the wake of several recent fatalities.

from BuaNews

If the ANC is able to hold the line, resisting populist pressures to nationalize — for example, as expressed by the recently ousted youth leader, Julius Malema — it will have taken a major step in the direction of good governance.

Governments tend to be judged for what they do, but in this case, what they are not doing seems to be more important.