Spin, myths and The Market

Posted on December 19, 2015


Outrageous political satire seems to be a South African speciality. Only it is mostly produced by politicians rather than penned by satirists. Comedians such as Pieter-Dirk Uys long ago realised this fact, as did cartoonists such as Zapiro.

But, over the past week, we have had a bumper dose of ridiculous official level behaviour followed by spin that, without any irony or intent, revealed the sheer inanity of the financial and economic system. It also illustrated quite how illusory is our democracy.

All of this will doubtless provide a wealth of material for comics, but will be no laughing matter for most of the population since the effects of last week’s mini economic meltdown will be felt for months. It will come mainly in the form of rising prices, and the major sufferers will be the poorest of the poor and the majority of workers whether in formal or informal employment, unionised or not.

While responsibility for triggering the recent debacle by unilaterally sacking finance minister Nhlanhla Nene rests with one man, President Jacob Zuma, the underlying malaise runs much deeper; deeper even than the bloated cabinet and burgeoning national debt that is now equal to every man, woman and child in South Africa owing more than R13 000.

Yet it was the labouring masses — the majority of the population — that the newly reappointed finance ministers Pravin Gordhan on Monday credited with having brought him back into office. More specifically for having removed his predecessor David Douglas Des van Rooyen after only four days in the top finance post. It was a claim reiterated by ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte on Monday.

According to Gordhan, this was an example of democracy in action: the people objected to the appointment, the president listened and change followed. This claim of democracy in action was news to the clear majority that has protested vainly about issues such as e-tolls or the demand to pay back the money on Nkandla.

But Gordhan’s and Duarte’s comments were spin, not statements of fact. And spin is the polite term used for when those in authority lie to us.

But sometimes spin slips out of control. Take for example, the admission by minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe on Friday that not even cabinet had been aware that hours after their meeting, Nhlanhla Nene would be sacked. “There was no way we could have predicted, because we are not sangomas,” he said.

But, by Monday, with Radebe seated at the press conference table, Duarte assured the country that there had been full consultation; it was the ANC way. Also present at the table to add union gravitas was Cosatu president, S’dumo Dlamini.

The spin about democracy was obviously calculated to calm the trade unions and other restive masses. But this was also a votive offering at the altar of The Market, an assurance to the masters that all would be well.

This was seen as essential following the collapse in the exchange rate value of the rand, a fall in the national debt rating and as the share prices of major banks slithered downwards.

When this happened, mainstream pundits promptly informed the country: The Market has spoken. It was if they were saying that gods from on high had ordered a plague of financial punishments on a sinning nation.

The government duly took notice. However, this financial market is not some sort of Olympian divinity, handing down immutable laws that must be followed on pain of holy retribution. The market is, in fact, an anarchic collection of gamblers and manipulators whose sole aim is to make as much money as quickly as possible.

And these gamblers become concerned about erratic behaviour on the part of political managers of what is, essentially, their feeding trough, because this leads to unpredictable outcomes. At the same time, there is little collusion, but since similar computer algorithms are increasingly used, common action is often the result.

The economic crunch of last week was a classic example. And it provided a clear insight into the workings of the system and the limits of “people’s power”. So there were hurried government meetings behind the scenes including, apparently, concerns expressed by Dlamini about the damage to workers’ lives and future ANC electoral prospects.

There was, however, no attempt to look seriously at alternatives, nor any intention to do so. The clearly expressed hope was that, despite the dislocation and the suffering, it would all be “business as usual”. Whether such a tactic will succeed, time alone will tell.