Opinion

Things are very bad and a lot better

24 June 2018 - 00:00

The Ramaphosa presidency is an infant: four months old, and - voters, party, and health willing - still with around 4000 days to go.
Hans Rosling, an acclaimed Swedish statistician and professor of international health who died last year, wroteFactfulness, 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 R50-billion 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.
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition and former ambassador to Argentina

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