🔒 Premium – RW Johnson: A modest proposal – time for CEOs to step up to the plate

By RW Johnson

As political analysts ponder South Africa’s future they come up with a series of alarming scenarios: a failed state, a mafia state, an ANC-EFF coalition, secession or a simple descent into chaos. 

Why all these dark futures ? After all, there is wide general agreement that the ANC has failed completely. By 2024 it will have had 30 years in which to produce the “better life for all” which it promised in 1994, but all it has actually produced is corruption, power cuts, water shortages, mountainous unemployment, falling real incomes, greater inequality, crime waves and decaying infrastructure. Seldom has a governing party failed so entirely and comprehensively, so in any normal democracy the answer would be clear: throw out the rascals and put in a government willing and able to sort out the mess. 

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But that is the problem. Partly because South African politics has been so tethered to race and ideology, it is extremely difficult to put together a non-ANC (and non-EFF) majority. It is this situation in which the country is crying out for an alternative but in which it is also so difficult to generate that alternative which creates all these dark scenarios. Yet in a democracy it ought not to be so.    

But hang on: the polls reveal that there is a large majority that wants change, is indeed so desperate for it that it would even forgo democracy to get it. For the polls show that more than 60% of South Africans declare themselves to be disappointed with democracy. And, indeed, 72% of voters say they would be willing to forgo democracy is only they could have a government which would deliver jobs, housing and law and order. Let us call that 72% “the pragmatic majority”. If only they could see a party which they thought was focused on these bread and butter issues and which was capable of delivering, they say they’d vote for that. 

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Now, in theory the DA under John Steenhuisen is pursuing this target of a non-ANC majority with its “moonshot pact”. But this initiative has its problems. Experience elsewhere suggests that it takes several years to put together such an alliance. That is to say, it’s been started far too late for 2024.  It requires a good deal of sensitivity, sophistication and subtlety to coax a number of competing parties together. Not common qualities among South African politicians, but very necessary. There is always a history of past grievances, personal animosities and suspicions as to who will dominate such an alliance and who will benefit most thereby. 

Overcoming that requires a great deal of tact, and of riding the punches, of being so committed to the end goal that you frequently have to swallow hard when you don’t want to. In France, where there is quite a history of popular fronts, they talk of the need for a grand rassembleur – someone with all the finesse and people skills to pull it off. Francois Mitterrand was wonderful in that role, always keeping his eye on the goal of unity but also a genius with words who could capture the aims and spirit of the thing in a way that inspired a mass audience. Mitterrand could write like an angel, always took himself most seriously as a writer, and it showed.

Thus far the DA-IFP alliance in KwaZulu-Natal looks promising but elsewhere the moonshot pact doesn’t look as if it’s working too well. And  anyone less suited to the role of grand rassembleur than John Steenhuisen is actually quite hard to imagine. On top of which the DA, however unfairly, triggers adverse reactions as, allegedly, a white party committed to neoliberalism. 

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However, in the recent period we have seen a virtual procession of CEOs of major companies stepping up to warn the government in unusually forthright tones that it is right on the edge of a complete collapse. Ramaphosa has responded by pulling them in to help. Sadly, this won’t really work. Ramaphosa is a broken reed and all the best laid plans will crumble on his hopeless leadership and the usual non-implementation. 

The solution, though, is obvious. Black and white CEOs of distinction need to come together, perhaps adding a few prominent sporting and media personalities, and announce that they are setting up a National Salvation Front, whose sole aim is to save South Africa from its multiple crises. They would simultaneously make it clear that almost none of them have any political ambitions and that they see their initiative as non-political, open to all men and women of good will. 

They would add that they have no wish to attack the government or to criticise any political party. What they are about – and all that they are about – is drawing up a plan to save the country, to go flat out for economic growth, which means producing far more jobs, building more houses, repairing infrastructure and simply making South Africa work again. To that end the NSF will seek the support of as many parties as possible willing to support these aims in the hope that a new majority can be generated for Growth and National Salvation. 

This would have many advantages over a DA-led effort. Business has great prestige as can-do people and because they are both multi-racial and have no political history they do not trigger the same negative reactions that the DA (and all other parties) do. They would also stick rigorously to not criticising the government or any party. Instead they would concentrate on putting forward a positive programme of what needs to be done and what that would make possible. Thus, for example, the privatisation of the ports and railways would greatly increase South African exports and would create more jobs in mining, agriculture and, indeed, in the half-dead ports and railways themselves. A similar programme for energy would soon rid the country of power cuts. And so on.  

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Putting forward such a programme would doubtless provoke hostile reactions from the ANC and EFF. To which the NSF would merely reply that they were focused on positive goals only and were interested only in what would work. And, that if they could generate a majority for such a programme they would turn to all parties, the ANC and EFF included, and invite any of their members who genuinely wanted to help South Africa to work again to join in their common effort. No matter how negative the attacks on them the NSF would always come back with positives. 

Almost certainly more Opposition parties would be willing to join such a broad front than would ever join a moonshot pact. But it would be important that the NSF also put up its own electoral list to ensure that it could still act as the grand rassembleur in Parliament after the election. Its message to the pragmatic majority of 72% would simply be: we can give you all the things you want and we can avoid the country collapsing or splitting up, but there’s no need to give up on democracy. We can, and we must, keep that too.  

Such an initiative would have a real chance of success and, amidst all our gloom and negativity, it would offer hope, positivity and future. It is by far our best chance. But it needs to start now.

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