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Anyone who follows me on Facebook will know that I am a bit of a foodie. I read voraciously about food and am now rereading Michael Steinberg’s Au Revoir To All That — Food, Wine and the End of France. It’s a fabulous book.
Among much else, Steinberg writes about the concern many had that Francois Mitterrand, onetime socialist president of France, would on his ascendancy to the presidency have forsaken the time-honoured tradition of plying his guests with luxurious food and fine wine in favour of a more proletarian diet.
The disquiet turned out to be unfounded, and as Steinberg noted: Mitterrand proved to be one of the great champagne socialists and an ardent champion of the culinary arts. Steinberg goes on to say: “While Mitterrand’s gustatory exploits were impressive, his leadership was not.”
Steinberg was spot on: Mitterrand, having inherited an ailing economy, believed France could spend its way to recovery. He increased government spending by 27% by 1981. Among the main beneficiaries of this largesse was social security, which went up 20%. The minimum wage increased 40% and government housing subsidies rose 40%. The civil service was bloated like a foie gras goose fattened by gavage, and generous pensions and benefits were added to further engorge the liver, as it were. Sound familiar?
Mitterrand’s promised “rupture with capitalism” was on the march. The minimum wage was increased, the work week cut down, labour laws were revised to make it more difficult to fire people, severance pay increased, workers received a fifth week of paid vacation, the retirement age was lowered and banking and other key industries nationalised. Needless to say, it spelt disaster for the economy of France and much of this legacy — hard to undo — still bedevils successive governments.
It sounds just like the ANC without the seigneurial quality that defined the French presidency’s pomp and extravagance — a noblesse oblige of sorts — dressed up in the mantle of the National Democratic Revolution, which as Joe Slovo wrote in 1988 is “the strategic goal of establishing a socialist republic and the more immediate aim of winning the objectives of the national democratic revolution, which is inseparably linked to it”.
By the time Nicolas Sarkozy ascended to the presidency in 2007 on a centre-right ticket it was estimated that France had between 500,000 and 1-million more civil servants than it needed. Still, many in France, as Steinberg says, “rather than admitting that France’s problems were mostly home-grown ...claimed that international trade and American turbo capitalism were the culprits ... the constant refrain was that France was a victim of forces beyond her control”. Again its sounds just like the ANC, blaming Covid and Jan van Riebeeck instead of the folly of failed profligate policies served with a healthy dollop of corruption custard.
Key people, among them those who had ambition and drive and formed the backbone of the French restaurant businesses, weighed down by stifling bureaucracy, rigid employment laws, shrinking wallets, onerous taxes, rolling red tape and burgeoning bribery, fled to other shores, resulting in the emergence of Spain and London as Europe’s new culinary capitals.
There’s a lesson in all of this for SA — specifically with regard to the hospitality industry and generally as a prescient catch-all metaphor for the capricious ANC government. In France it resulted in a generation that was happy to gobble a sandwich, some chips or a McDonalds burger rather than go to a restaurant. As Steinberg says, “they have the most sophisticated kinds of mobile telephones but they have no idea what a courgette is.” The jewel in the fifth republic’s firmament was almost irreparably tarnished and the parallels with the ANC government are plain, if slightly different.
The ANC’s profligacy, red tape, cadre deployment and the fostering of bloated civil servants, who thrive on state-funded greasy and gastronomically substandard buffets, has all but destroyed SA’s restaurant and hospitality industry with onerous Covid measures, while capricious bureaucrats siphon off large amounts of money for themselves. It conjures up uniquely SA images of apparatchik fat cats eating vast quantities of culinarily crass food while proffering vetkoek to the marginalised masses.
Will those in power ever learn, build and nurture, instead of continuing to embark on a journey characterised by excess, wanton and imprudent extravagance in the face of empty coffers? Who knows, but if they don’t do so, to paraphrase Tacitus, they’ll make it a dessert and call it a feast.
• Cachalia, a DA MP, is shadow public enterprises minister.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.