The Big Read: A game of Russian roulette - Times LIVE
   
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Fri Mar 24 04:04:00 SAST 2017

The Big Read: A game of Russian roulette

Tony Leon | 2017-02-22 07:36:42.0
PLAYING WITH DANGER: President Jacob Zuma and his pal Russian President Vladimir Putin
Image by: SASHA MORDOVETS/GETTY IMAGES

Sailing around the "uttermost part of the earth", to borrow a description of Tierra del Fuego, en route to the Antarctic is, midst the roaring oceans, helpful to develop a bracing perspective on the world and its frontiers.

I did not, though, reckon on receiving from the bottom of the world a stunning analogy for South Africa's economic woes which Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan will doubtless confirm when he paints on his budget canvas this afternoon in parliament.

Doubtless to pass the time and provide some intellectual sustenance in addition to the sumptuous food aboard the luxury liner on which we are cruising, the ship arranges lectures and debates. Hence, near the rounding of Cape Horn, I found myself sharing the stage to discuss current matters in our uncertain world with one of the smartest people I have met and certainly one of the most articulate.

General Michael Hayden is a four-star US Air Force general who has served four presidents of his country in the highest echelons of its national intelligence, culminating in his tenure as director of the CIA from 2006 until 2009.

Unlike the blowhards who populate the Donald Trump administration, Hayden is a person of rectitude and piercing intelligence, who chooses his words very carefully.

So when our ocean-board discussion commenced with views about Russia and Jacob Zuma's pal Vladimir Putin I paid very close attention.

Hayden does not rate Russia as a first-rate power or even a particularly significant one. He noted that a country highly dependent on the price of oil, which has halved in the past few years, with a creaking and unreformed economy and a population that is literally dying young is not exactly lifting itself up into the Premier League of nations.

But, as Hayden suggested, this does not mean that Putin is simply going to accept his diminished place in the world. Instead, economic statistics, demographic projections and increasing poverty and declining democracy suggest Russia's true place is at the "kiddies table" of also-ran countries. But Putin is busy sawing off the legs of the "adult table" of top nations in order to bring the world down to the level to which he has sunk Russia.

If you accept this analysis, Putin's cyber-plays into the US election and military forays into the Ukraine and Syria are consistent with his determination to project diminishing power on the world stage, though logic would suggest that he has his work cut out for him at home. An object lesson then in playing a bad hand from a weak seat which you fix by diminishing everyone else's seats on the world stage as well.

Fascinating as I found this analysis of Russia, it also provided a light-bulb moment as to where our poor finance minister finds himself this afternoon in parliament as he tries valiantly to make the proverbial silk purse out of the sow's ear of our awful public finances.

A preview of the dreadful figures was provided on Monday by DA spokesman David Maynier when he unveiled his own budget review: R28-billion in new taxes is needed to plug the hole in the budget and our "fiscal slippage" - or inability to live within our means - sees the ballooning of our national debt to R2.6-trillion, which equates to just under half of the total economic wealth in the country.

But there was another figure buried in the detail, which stood out as the crushing failure of Jacob Zuma's ill-starred tenure as president. A whopping R46-billion of public money has been misspent in "irregular expenditure" or outside the prescripts required by legislation and regulation.

Just pause here for a minute: if the government and its officials simply obeyed their own laws and did not indulge in unauthorised spending, then it would have more than twice the amount of funds it needs to now pillage from the taxpayers via new taxes.

This is where Zuma borrows from the Putin playbook: he does not man up to the failures of his government. He ignores the sound counsel of former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, whom he fired with a bald lie of sending him to a job which did not exist. But that in part was because Nene stood by the maxim he articulated, to wit: "Without economic growth, revenue will not increase, without revenue growth, expenditure cannot increase."

This afternoon, even the most optimistic forecast of the finance minister will suggest growth barely crawling along at 1%, one-fifth of the growth rate mandated by the National Development Plan.

Little wonder then that Zuma needs to change the subject from these crashing failures on his watch. He has brought in the ethically hobbled Brian Molefe, who not so much personifies "state capture" as being emblematic of a willing accomplice of the Guptas.

So Molefe speaks of the "monster of white monopoly capital" and Zuma rehashes the need for "radical socioeconomic transformation" and other phantasms.

All of this is, of course, like Putin's foreign forays and cyber mischief, a desperate attempt to turn attention away from the core function of government.

Actually, the ANC once had a neat slogan for its noble intentions: "A better life for all". That is gathering dust while a feeding frenzy of crony enrichment gathers speed.

And as we were once universally admired for our constitutional compromises and pro-growth policies, we are now known for our fierce determination to level everything down to the lowest common denominator of unauthorised expenditure, fiscal slippage and a decade of low growth. Zuma insiders are on record demanding the constitution itself be junked.

This downward cycle is, of course, reversible. But it's unlikely to happen here any time soon. The best description of Putin's Russia and its foreign adventurism was provided by an old Moscow insider. He said it was all of a piece with Russian leadership: "When you don't know what to do, you do what you know."

Zuma has no idea what to do about the economy, so he does what he knows best. And that is not reassuring.

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