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Mon Jun 27 05:59:47 SAST 2016

The Big Read: No happy new year unless we make the right resolutions

Tony Leon | 07 January, 2016 00:06
Tony Leon. File photo

The year got off to a most rancorous start, far removed from the peace and goodwill dividend which, with the hangover, usually accompanies us into the new year.

Step forward an estate agent from the KZN South Coast.

According to Encyclo.co.uk, "sparrow brain" is British slang for an idiot. In human form, the hapless Ms Penny Sparrow fits the bill perfectly.

Doubtless she was unaware of the equally ruined Ms Justine Sacco, an ex-South African who flew in here three Christmases ago from New York and tweeted about Aids and saw her future unravel in just 24 hours.

No end of lessons then about the perils of social media and the instant ruin it provides to thoughtless users.

Exhibit two in the gallery, though his utterances were far less provocative and racist, is the usually thoughtful, but now suspended, Standard Bank economist Chris Hart. Whatever his intentions in describing our country as consisting of victims with a strong sense of entitlement, he chose the wrong 24-hour news cycle in which to make it.

We don't know how the Hart matter will be resolved. But our constitution provides for free speech provided it is not hateful and does not lead to incitement. It does not, however, provide an inoculation against a lack of common sense, though there is often a fine, blurred line between what passes and does not.

One prominent economist used to refer disparagingly to the "Hindu rate of growth" in reference to India's growth-crushing policies before its liberalisation in the 1990s.

Then again, the fact that Raj Krishna was both Indian and a Hindu probably allowed his term to enter our lexicon without much harm to his reputation.

Hart, with all the disadvantages and disqualifications that his race and background apparently preclude him from doing, was pointing to the problems South Africa faces in its current low growth trap.

I certainly think his remark was over the top but censuring him will not stop the inquiry of why our country is in its worst state economically since democracy arrived here in 1994.

I also don't agree with him that victimology is to blame for our current woes. I think we can refer back to President Jacob Zuma's infamous remark in November when he also gave conscious expression to a deeply politically incorrect, if not blatantly unconstitutional, thought: The party comes before the country.

It is difficult to conceive the days of madness that followed the remark: three finance ministers in a week and the rand plunging 25% against the dollar in a year.

How could this actually be the work of someone who has the interests of his party at heart? It was an act of spectacular economic vandalism, one that hardly befits a party that is about to celebrate 104 years of existence.

On the subject of historic landmarks, it is chilling as 2016 commences to recall that just a few years back, South Africa's accession into the big time league of emerging nations, Brics, seemed to herald our arrival in the pound seats. Yet with the stand-out exception of India, having shrugged off the so-called Hindu rate of growth, Russia, China and especially Brazil bring to mind the famous remark of Leo Tolstoy in his novel Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Actually, four of the five Brics countries (China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa) have their own economic reasons for their current financial travails, but do have this in common: not making fundamental reforms to their economies during the years of growth and allowing corruption and cronyism to metastasise across their body politics.

But only Brazil and South Africa have any sort of competitive electoral politics that will allow a renewal to emerge from outside the confines of the dominant ruling party, if indeed it is to happen at all.

A recent and baleful review of South Africa's current travails in the Christmas edition of The Economist pointed to a central fault in our much admired, though much battered, constitution. It vests far too much power in the president.

The article quotes Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille wistfully recalling from her time as a PAC negotiator at Codesa that "when we wrote the constitution we had in mind figures like Mandela".

Times and presidents change. De Lille and I are now on the same side of the political fence and we have Zuma and not Mandela as president.

While it is fashionable these days to bash America, it is worth recalling that their constitution was designed to tame power by curbing its uses and abuses, precisely because its founding ideal was a deep suspicion of unbridled authority.

We instead chose a model which while in parts modern, also rested on an assumption from the French Revolution: in effect, the people are supreme and their will is expressed in the head of state. Since the people cannot be wrong, neither can the president.

Joe Slovo was fond of saying that "hindsight is the most perfect and irritating of all sciences". We can't go back to fix from here what was unaddressed at Codesa.

But we can imagine a future when decisions are not the whims of one man, but sensible choices reflecting the diverse needs of the whole country. A unity of common goods based on inclusive growth. That's incidentally embedded in the seemingly forgotten National Development Plan.

A pipe dream perhaps, but a happy new year thought despite the sour background notes on which it began.

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