The last time an SA head of state was so stupid, self-serving and reckless was in 1985, when President PW Botha made his infamous "Rubicon" speech. Botha’s speech had been promoted informally by his ministers as a statement of major, crisis-breaking reform. The townships were ablaze, there was a state of emergency and the war in Angola threatened to become SA’s Vietnam and worse.
Expectations were great — but Botha went off script, indulged his own personal anger and vanity, and in effect told the world to go to hell.
The consequences were grave. The currency collapsed, foreign banks declined to extend loans, and sanctions were tightened. Inflation, which had dogged SA in the 1970s and early 1980s, rocketed. Interest rates peaked at around 25%. The costs of servicing national debt rose to crippling levels. By the time the ANC was in a position to negotiate coming to power, its leaders were shocked when finance minister Derek Keys showed them that the fiscal cupboard was bare.
The only redeeming aspect of Botha’s rant was that personal monetary gain was not among his motivating factors. His increasingly autocratic rule ended a few years later when he tried to insist that, as president, he could place himself above his party and not be answerable to it.
It was a fatal error. His cabinet told him to his face that he had to go, and he did. He was replaced by FW de Klerk.
Could President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet summon the courage to do the same?
Whoever rules the country in the 2020s will inherit a broken economy, an impotent constitution and a looted state
The irony of Zuma’s decision to fire his widely respected ministerial finance team, Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas, is that it cannot be forgiven as a panicky response to a national crisis. Indeed, the reverse was the case.
The country was stable and slowly feeling its way to a national consensus on economic recovery. Various green shoots suggested that the worst of economic contraction was over. Co-operation between business, government and labour was bearing fruit.
All of that has been blown out of the water by the irrational cabinet changes, with the resultant ratings downgrade in effect picking off the survivors. If Zuma had been actively trying to sabotage his country, he could not have done a better job. He did not achieve a reshuffle; he threw away the pack of cards.
There can be no explanation, beyond Zuma’s own greedy self-interest, for the dismissal of Gordhan, one of the finest public servants this country has had.
Even less forgivable is his obvious lack of understanding (rather like Botha) of the impact on the economy of a downgrade. This was demonstrated by the timing of his announcement, which seems to have been calculated to cause maximum damage. Not only is the head of state venal and ignorant, he also appears to be beyond the influence of advisers. Zuma has indeed gone rogue. His attitudes and actions are the opposite of patriotic.
The consequences of the downgrade, as we explain elsewhere this week, will be serious, far-reaching and enduring. Everyone will be affected, especially those who have trusted the ANC to protect democracy, relieve poverty and create jobs.
If there is to be a silver lining to this entirely unnecessary disaster, it will be that the ANC is provoked finally to understand that it could lose power in 2019 if it does not move fast to expunge the poison that is killing it. And if it does not make that move, whoever rules the country in the 2020s will inherit a broken economy, an impotent constitution and a looted state.