Glimmers of hope amid the gloom

Posted on December 16, 2017


Whether the much debated five-day ANC elective conference at Johannesburg’s Nasrec conference centre — it started today, ten hours late — ends prematurely or in calumny or consensus, life in South Africa should go on much the same as before. Depending on the outcome, the exchange rate value of the rand may weaken or strengthen as the money market gamblers win or lose their bets. And, with an increase in the price of electricity looming, the trajectory of tougher times for many will continue.

The only darker cloud hanging over this ANC event is the prospect of a state of emergency being declared should there be an upsurge of unrest, perhaps linked to the conference. This could be manipulated, encouraged or spontaneous and is something I raised as a possibility some four years ago and elevated to a probability 18 months back.

It may not happen and I certainly hope it will not. However, if it is declared and carried by the ANC majority in parliament, all bets are off. Only a fool would attempt to forecast what the outcome might be.

But, especially given the level of fragmentation within the governing party, sense should prevail among the majority of politicians, the military and police. Even among the private paramilitary elements parading as veterans of the ANC’s former guerrilla force, MK.

And so life will go on, with the lot of the already battered majority of the population unlikely to improve. But despite the gloom, there are flickers of hope; evidence of a growing fightback.

None more so than in the example of independence and the application of unambiguous jurisprudence in the two judgements handed down on Wednesday by the North Gauteng High Court in the matter concerning President Jacob Zuma and state capture. There will doubtless be appeals, but a light has been lit.

Civic groups are also starting to coalesce and to demand at least changes to a corrupt system that continues to favour the rich at the expense of the poor. Even the much publicised collapse of the Steinhoff business empire may aid this.

Because Steinhoff provides a classic illustration of what this column has long maintained: that stock exchanges are merely gambling dens that are only slightly more tightly regulated than casinos; that this has been the case every since the advent of limited liability in 1856. Limited liability still means that corporate bosses can “embark in trade with a limited chance of loss, but with an unlimited chance of gain”.

The Steinhoff collapse should, therefore, be a reality check, especially for a labour movement that is increasingly concerned about the fate of worker pension funds, in who invests them and how. The Steinhoff empire — Pep stores etc — is valuable, but not as valuable as the share price indicated. So the losses recorded are not real: they are based on the speculation of what the company was worth.

Steinhoff, with the “Midas touch” of Markus Jooste at the helm, presented the image of a veritable cornucopia: seemingly great assets that were making a great deal of profit. This encouraged investors, including those responsible for the money of pensioners, to buy shares in Steinhoff.

Earlier this year the Government Employee Pension Fund held Steinhoff shares valued at R12 billion more than they are now worth. However much the government-owned Public Investment Corporation paid for them, the pension fund has definitely been harmed. And it is not for the first time that this sort of thing has happened: there is a long — not often openly debated — history.

How many people, for example, are aware that Adam Smith, the “father” of laissez faire (neo-liberal) capitalism opposed such shareholder companies because of their propensity to corruption? Or that the British parliament effectively banned “joint stock” companies for the best part of a century from 1720?

What still holds true for me is the satire of corporations in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1893 comic opera, Utopia:

Though a Rothschild you may be, in your own capacity/
As a company you’ve come to utter sorrow/
But the liquidators say, “Never mind — you needn’t pay/
So you start another company tomorrow.

Hopefully, the current debates surrounding Steinhoff have opened the eyes of many people to this all too often hidden reality of the system. The debates certainly seem to have strengthened the resolve of the public sector unions, headed by PSA, to act to have workers take greater charge about how their money is used.

This provides a glimmer of hope in an otherwise fairly gloomy outlook. But there are also other hopeful developments. Earlier this week, for example, moves toward pan African labour movement links were forged in Cape Town when 30 representatives from 14 countries gathered under the aegis of the IndustriALL global union.

These are small beginnings, small glimmers of light and, like the continued independence of the judiciary and the growth of civic movements for change, they can — and must — be built on and supported to create a movement for justice for all. On the basis, perhaps, of that old slogan: The people, united, can never be defeated.

That, in any event, is my hope as I wish everyone the best for the festive season and a more corruption free and just new year.