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Zuma wallowing in the shallows

Politicians, business and the media have been squabbling among themselves the whole of the past week. Yes it’s right, no it’s wrong. It’s so unfair, no it’s not.

All this fretful introspection was triggered by the cover story in the Economist, headed “Cry The Beloved Country: South Africa’s sad decline”. It argued that South Africa, once the continent’s bright hope, now lags behind other African nations, which are generally on the uptick.

The presidency issued an immediate rebuttal, while the South African Institute of Race Relations hurried out a press release concurring with the magazine. Commentators lined up predictably: the Afro-optimists to debunk and excoriate, while the afro-pessimists taking perverse pleasure in the Economist’s flagellation.

As paroxysms of indignation often do, all this somewhat misses the point. We don’t need a magazine to alert us that we have a problem.

The Economist, as is the wont of good journalism, believes it has discerned a phenomenon that it identifies to the potential benefit of its readers. Being one of the world’s leading publications doesn’t, of its own, make the magazine’s conclusions accurate. Indeed, the Economist a decade ago infamously dismissed Africa as “the hopeless continent”, which it with blushing contriteness corrected recently under an “Africa rising” cover.

While the Economist’s assessment of South Africa might give pause to some investors, it will be treated sceptically by others. Opinion is just opinion. It only shapes national destiny if it accords roughly with the true lie of the land.

The trouble – hence the fury of some local reaction – is that South Africa undoubtedly is floundering, albeit not yet at a tipping point. The ANC inherited a toxic potage of social deprivation and psychological damage, but nevertheless made steady initial progress. Under President Jacob Zuma, however, it is wallowing listlessly in the shallows.

We don’t need the Economist to tell us that. Nor the Financial Times, or the BBC, or The Christian Science Monitor, or the array of media with a history of reporting authoritatively on South Africa, who have all recently sounded similar warnings. It’s not a secret. It’s apparent to anyone not wilfully blind.

Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus knows it. Referring to recent outflows of foreign capital, Marcus talks about a huge ‘deficit of confidence’ and an outlook that is deteriorating rapidly. SA must address the concerns of the international ratings agencies over the government appearing to have a “diminished capacity” to handle political and economic challenges.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan knows it. Instead of railing, as Zuma has, against an “unfair” and “negative” media and opposition who “talk the country down”, Gordhan warned the ANC’s national executive about the need to handle political affairs in a manner that benefits the country’s image.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, delivering the OR Tambo memorial lecture at Fort Hare University, knows it. Breaking a self-imposed silence dating back to his recall in 2008, this was vintage Mbeki – a speech steeped in literary allusion and ideological illusion, with the barbs cannily concealed in the philosophical shrubbery.

He spoke of a need for leadership, of being “deeply troubled by a feeling of great unease” over a looming “costly disaster of protracted and endemic general crisis”. There was a “dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift”, about he which knew not what to do.

Following the events at Marikana and in the face of a growing economic storm – figures released this week showed foreign investment flows to South Africa dropped by 43.6% in the past year – Zuma seems lost and way out of his depth. While the ANC is not about to ask Mbeki to saddle up and come to the rescue, and Zuma will very likely prevail at Mangaung, don’t bet on him being at the helm all the way through to 2019.