By Alec Hogg
South African comedian Trevor Noah famously says his homeland likes doing things it own way. When the world turns right, he offers, SA tends to head left. And true to form, it’s happening again. Political correctness is under attack everywhere in the world, citizens having tired of its obvious hypocrisy. But in SA the fires of self-righteous indignation rage stronger than ever.
Fearless former journalist turned political powerhouse Helen Zille put her foot in it yesterday by tweeting that “not everything” from the colonial era was wrong. Outrage swiftly followed. Zille quickly apologised, but the PC police were having none of it. Her one-time protégé and successor as DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that Zille, the Western Cape Premier, has been summonsed to appear before a disciplinary committee on a crime of “defending colonialism.” Seriously.
Even worse has been the hysterical attack on Net1. The Nasdaq-listed, Joburg-grown business operates a world class social grant system, flawlessly serving 10m people monthly in mostly rural areas. Its unique biometrics save the State billions by ensuring the right beneficiaries actually get paid. But Net1 stands accused of anything from paying bribes to get the contract through to fleecing grant recipients by offering these unbankable people access to financial services.
Few stop to reflect that being US-headquartered, Net1 is subject to US law which means any corrupt behaviour anywhere on earth will put its executives into jail. Or that accusations of bribery has become rather common in SA. Consider the suspension of Eskom’s coal scientists, accused of trying to elicit a bribe – immediately after they turned away sub-standard Gupta-supplied coal.
The whispered accusations against Net1 resulted in the company being investigated by the SEC, the US Justice Department and the Hawks, all of which found nothing untoward. But the reputational damage was so severe Net1 refused to re-apply for the now expired tender. But it gets castigated for agreeing to temporarily assist, in effect bailing out SA Government incompetence.
Issues like this are creating ripples far away from the epicentre. At a breakfast meeting in London yesterday I listened to top level influencers raising concerns about what is going on in SA. They worry about the absence of any cogent plan to revive a stagnant economy and perilously high unemployment, plus evidence of expanding plundering by the politically connected.
My retort that important institutions have not yielded under continuous stress testing didn’t really resonate. Nor did a view that competitive politics will bring unexpected benefits. I was left with the understanding that global capital isn’t waiting for SA’s young democracy to grow up. Investors have alternatives, including in Sub Saharan Africa, where pathways have fewer landmines. Until rationality takes hold, SA’s depressing drift is sure to continue.