President Cyril Ramaphosa was this week lavishly praised by a British peer and a Chinese diplomat.
Ramaphosa is the “last hope of this country”, Lin Songtian, the Chinese ambassador to SA, said in an interview. In similarly flattering vein, Lord Peter Hain said the international community was baffled by the “vilification” of Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.
“It bewilders international investors that the ‘good guys’ are being attacked,” Hain said. If the president had to “watch his back” instead of focusing on solving the country’s “massive challenges”, the distraction would damage SA.
Although our embattled leader is no doubt grateful for any help he can get, being the object of foreign veneration is not good. When the leader of a country starts getting from abroad support against rival factions, it’s a sure indication he is deep in the political smelly stuff.
Hain was quick to blame all SA’s woes on Ramaphosa’s internal opponents, whom he does not name but are clearly the clique rallied around former president Jacob Zuma. “What astonishes me about the faction that tries to drag Ramaphosa back and tries to get the opportunity to climb on the gravy train again is that they seem to have no regard at all for the plight of the country,” said Hain.
Hain’s exoneration of Ramaphosa is ludicrously generous and also misguided. At this moment, what is most holding back SA is not the danger posed by the Zuma-ites, but the inexplicable timidity of the president.
Unemployment has just hit 29% for the past quarter, with youth unemployment almost double that. Yet Ramaphosa’s choice as labour minister, Thulas Nxesi, continues to insist well-paid work remains the primary goal: “As South Africans, we are not going back to those dark days – certainly not under the watch of this government.”
Such a purist, ideological approach may find favour with old struggle stalwarts like Hain. Less so with the pragmatic Chinese. Explaining the absence of the kind of major infrastructure projects that the Chinese have implemented elsewhere in Africa, Lin was forthright.
“Why? Because we don’t only need the concept of a project” and the projects suggested by SA authorities “lacked feasibility studies capable of reassuring the Chinese government and banks of their profitability and sustainability”.
Lin was similarly unambiguous about Eskom. “Eskom is a debt trap. China gave loans before and now they become very cautious.”
Even if we put the blame for all our woes at the foot of the Zuma faction, it doesn’t explain why one of the obvious causes of fiscal strain, gross levels of overmanning in the SOEs and government, is not being tackled.
Eskom is estimated to be 66% overstaffed, but the unions have flatly rejected any retrenchments and Ramaphosa has meekly backed down. And last week, National Treasury director-general Dondo Mogajane said “Treasury’s box is empty” and the best way to plug the gaping hole may be for all state employees to take a 10% cut in salaries and wages.
That’s not going to happen. It’s inconceivable that Ramaphosa, who has backed off 30,000 retrenchments of public servants because of union opposition, will now dare to cut pay.
It is probably true, as Hain and Lin assert, that Ramaphosa is the only person in government who could save SA. Unfortunately, he also appears to lack the courage to do so.