Saturday, May 31, 2008

Grit and bear it

Sadly, it now looks obvious why everyone is calling for President Thabo Mbeki to step down.

No one has presented a more compelling argument for the case than the man himself, limping from blunder to blunder somewhere off in the wings of our national life.

We all knew that Mbeki viewed the battle for the leadership of the African National Congress as a definitive struggle over his project for the country and the continent, and it's clear that many of the people who backed his third-term bid have been shattered by its failure.

But none of us anticipated that the nature of the battle with Jacob Zuma, and Mbeki's complete defeat, would so utterly erode the president's personal stature and his apparent willingness to lead the country.

It is as if he thinks that, having rejected him and his vision, we no longer deserve him. He may be right -- but not for the reasons he has in mind.

Mbeki is sulking in his tent at the worst possible time.

Since Polokwane we have suffered the electricity crisis, a series of price and interest-rate shocks and the descent of Zimbabwe into an increasingly bloody post-election stalemate.

To the extent that he has offered any action on these issues, it has done more harm than good, culminating in his ludicrous hand-holding with Robert Mugabe and his blithe profession that there is no crisis in that country. He has been driving away international friends too, snubbing the Britain's Gordon Brown, and persists in holding an inexplicably contrarian position at the United Nations.

But it is in his absence that he does the most damage. He made a fine speech about xenophobia at the safe remove of a television studio. But it took him two weeks. Not until nearly 50 were dead and 30 000 displaced did he favour us with fine words about our place in Africa.

It is maddening, and inexplicable, that someone who has placed South African lives, prestige and treasure on the line in pursuit of peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire and the Central African Republic and even Zimbabwe, should trot off overseas at a time when his people are butchering African refugees and migrants.

So, should members of the National Assembly push him out of office?

On the face of it, there is every reason to do so. We are adrift and anxious, desperate for the current interregnum to end. Surely new leadership would help us to get back on course?

Probably not. If Mbeki were to go, who would replace him?

That person must be an MP, which means the obvious answer is Kgalema Motlanthe, recently sworn in to the National Assembly, and well ensconced in the ANC's new top leadership structures. But that would really move Motlanthe into pole position to keep the presidency after next year's elections, and, as such, represent a setback for Zuma. It would probably spark a fresh round of jockeying for position within the ANC.

Even if it did not, how would a temporary president run his Cabinet? Loyalty to Mbeki may have dramatically diminished at the apex of government, but there are important pockets of resistance.

Would anything really get done?

So, reluctantly, we agree with Cosatu - that axing Mbeki now would create more problems than it would solve. We'll simply have to grit our teeth, lower our expectations and wait out the year. Anyone who feels in need of leadership until then is advised, quite simply, to look elsewhere.

A small matter of R2,5bn.

The violence of the past fortnight has shown us in very stark terms just what the real consequences of failed delivery to the poor can be. There are many reasons for that failure, not least, a weak civil service. But money is crucial too. Those who are able to make a good living in our grossly unequal society have to give up a bit of it so the government can help those who are worse off. There is the small matter, too, of funding all the expensive things that underpin a modern state, where the making of money is possible. It is a simple social contract, enforced by a moderate set of tax laws.

Because more and more people are obeying those laws, the proportion of our income that we fork over to Pravin Gordhan has declined steeply, even as he rakes in ever more cash for the fiscus.

All between 1998 and 2001, when the government, seriously strapped for cash, felt forced to implement tough fiscal restraints under the Gear programme in order to get the national balance sheet in order.

Tax morality is not simply a matter of doing what you are told. It goes to the heart of the kind of society we are trying to build. The merits of the case may be complex, but we can't help siding with the taxman on this one. Houses and toilets are more important than dubiously acquired Falcon jets and wine farms, and we hope that any proceeds flow swiftly to where they are needed most -- the strife-torn streets of our poorest areas.

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