If You Can Do It, You Can Do It

For years, I’ve been meaning to start a podcast series, and I finally got around to it last month when my son and I launched it with a feature on Brexit. To get it off the ground, I conducted an interview with my 91 year-old father, who you will hear is as sharp as he was at forty – having in fact been recently told by the doctor that he has the heart of a man that age (when I heard the news, I laughed it would be a difficult adjustment for my father to accept he was actually that old).

As you hear, the snippets of the interview I used dwell on the contrast in the 1950s between Britain, where he was born and raised, and Canada, to where he migrated. But in the course of our long conversation, most of which ended up on the metaphorical cutting-room floor, my father said another thing that stuck out for me. He said that in Canada, in the 1950s, ‘if you could do it, you could do it.’

What he meant was that provided you had the personal capacity and desire to do something, you could do it. He used the example of his mother, who came to live with us during the years that straddled my birth. Trained as a nurse in the old system, in which young women got their education on hospital wards, my grandmother picked up enough knowledge about nutrition that when she got to Canada, she successfully turned herself into a dietitian.

My father was quick to add that Canada today is no longer like that. Few Western countries are. Over the last few decades, there has been a steady expansion in what can be called policy-induced rents. This happens when a given interest group pressures the government to enact a policy that inflates the value of an asset they own, from real estate to a university degree. And so, for instance, if you want to become a dietitian today in Canada, you have to first go to university then register in a college.

Such occupational licensing has spread to many jobs in Canada, the result being to raise barriers to entry, limit the pool of entrants, and thereby inflate wages. Beneficiaries of such guild-like protections will say the added qualifications have raised their productivity, but there’s actually little evidence to back this up. The truth is that for most jobs, beyond a high-school education, the productivity-returns on each additional year of schooling diminish quickly. And so in Western countries, over the last half-century, incomes have risen more than productivity, in no small part because we’ve built in these rents.

Biggest of all may be the value of real estate. In the time since my parents moved to Canada in the 1950s, incomes have risen roughly four times over. House prices have done so ten times over. Why? Because government policies stimulate home-buying and inflate asset-values (just think of how central banks rush to cut interest rates each time there’s a sharp fall in home values). The effect is that we need more income just to stand still. And that goes for any new business venture.

I live in London, where my father was born. There, a two-bedroom flat will set you back so much that you’ll break your back just to make your rent payments. You want to set up a new business? Good luck with that – you’ll have to get off to a flying start just to make your first month’s rent. But, for example, if you move to Johannesburg – another city where I spend a lot of time – that same amount of rent will get you a four-bedroom home on a half-acre plot of land, complete with swimming pool, patio, upstairs terrace and a fully-equipped cottage. So if you want to open a small bookstore, you don’t have to move much volume to stay afloat. If you’re an artist who wants to devote your time to your craft, you can get a loft in a trendy part of town for a couple hundred pounds a month. And on it goes.

The result is that if you can do it, you can do it. Whereas the rate of new business formation has been declining in Western countries, in much of the developing world, it is picking up. Not surprisingly, venture capital has been reorienting itself away from the West, and particular the United States, and towards the developing world. I’ve written about this before, and shown how the future dynamism in the world economy will increasingly be found in the global South.

Go West, young man, Horace Greely famously advised ambitious young people to do after the Civil War. Today, someone with energy and high hopes might do better to  go south (and east). My father did well by migrating to Canada in the 1950s. But this generation might want to consider moving to more distant shores.


Image: The sun rises over the Indian Ocean, Durban


Zimbabwe after Mugabe: Old Wine in New Skins?

I get why Zimbabwe is in economic crisis the moment I land at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport (which sounds more impressive than it is: about the size of a small regional airport, its dim lighting leaves it looking as tired as its namesake). Drawing up to an immigration desk festooned with a large KFC advert, I reach into my wallet for the US$55 visa fee. I present my card. Asked if I have cash, I reply that strangely, having just come from Johannesburg – and before that, London – I don’t happen to have American money on me. ‘Rand?’ the agent then asks, grimacing when I hold up the 81 South African bucks I manage to dig from my pocket – hardly worth his trouble.

He sends me to another desk, where after a long pause, another agent pulls out a card reader. ‘It doesn’t take Mastercard’ he tells me when I offer my payment. I fish for the Visa debit card I happen to have on me, and he puts it in the machine, waits a long moment, then says ‘the machine isn’t working.’ I’m told to stand aside. After another long wait, a tall man comes over and, with a stern look of authority, asks me ‘What do you suggest we do?’ Finding myself suddenly thrust into the role of management-consultant to a Third-World airport, I reply ‘Um, if your country has a severe shortage of foreign currency, shouldn’t you make it easy for people to give you foreign currency?’ He doesn’t find this funny. He motions to a young man to come over, and tells him to sort out the card reader. Finally, it works.

Emerging afterwards into the blinding sunlight, under a vast dome of deep blue sky, I see that Zimbabwe is extraordinary in every way – its extreme maladministration mirrored by its dazzling beauty. Harare rises out of the Highveld plateau, magnificent trees towering over sprawling green lawns. The sky is big, blue, the air still, the day warm without being hot. And as I drive into the city, I discover it harbours the full extremes of humanity – poverty and decay, wealth and dynamism.

We arrive in the Mbare district, a vast dusty open-air market bordered by decrepit concrete housing blocks. Surrounded by beaten dry-earth yards through which garbage blows, these monotonous repetitive slabs are cramped places with smashed windows and soot-burned stairwells, shouting the desperate conditions in which Harare’s poor live. Turning to plunge deep into the market, we bump along a rutted dirt road, which becomes a bog in the rainy season. We inch alongside handcarts, informal taxis, minibuses and pedestrians as we pass small shops built from old packing-crates, rickety tables with all manner of wares imaginable, and low-ceilinged workshops in which craftsmen produce any household item, furnishing or building material a client needs. Spotting a white man in the car, some enterprising young men improvise a traffic jam – a minibus suddenly finding itself cornered by a taxi, unable to move. When my driver pulls a few coins from his pocket, they suddenly find a way to unclog the congestion. There are smiles all round: nothing personal, just doing his job.

On the ‘other side of town’, the city feels like a pocket-sized Johannesburg, with expansive open-air shopping centres in which white Zimbabweans mingle with the black bourgeoisie in trendy cafes and South African chain restaurants. The avenues here are broad, if occasionally potholed, and the lawns are mowed. Later, we get to Gotchie-gotchie paMerek (gotchie-gotchie translating loosely as ‘good times’), a row of barbecue pits surrounded by small shops. A group of hustlers, who make their money ‘doing things,’ idle by the back of a pickup truck and drink beer while behind them, children are lined up waiting their turn at a water pump. ‘Nobody has money’ they tell me when asked how business is going. ‘Nobody has money’ the women sitting behind a small wooden table with a few pieces of fruit say. ‘Nobody is buying’ remarks the butcher in one of the nearby shops.

But I look at the fresh selection of succulent-looking meat, at the plump and brilliant array of fruit in the markets, and I know: these people aren’t letting stuff rot, then restocking with new supply that will itself go bad. I nudge a little, and people smile sheepishly. Yes, they admit: money is around. But everyone’s waiting to see what happens in the upcoming election before opening their wallets for public view.

As I write this week in Foreign Affairs, Zimbabwe appears to be on the brink of an economic revolution. One of the remarkable things is how, after years of political mismanagement, the country remains so resilient. Its citizens, harassed by an incompetent and wasteful government, have taken to concealing their economic activity where it can’t be plundered. A people used to finding ways to improvise an existence amid economic implosion and hyperinflation could, if given the opportunity, transform their economy.

But first they need that a government, which desperately wants money but makes it hard for visitors to cough it up, stop blocking their progress.

Image: The Skyline of Harare

When the water runs out

I’ve lived through hurricanes. I know what it’s like to go for days without running water or power. And one thing I’ve learned in consequence is that you can adapt pretty quickly to life without electricity if you must. You eat tinned food, cook on a backyard fire, sit up and tell lots of stories by candlelight, and go to bed early. But after a day or two without water, you become miserable. Stretch it towards a week, and you grow desperate.

Life without power is uncomfortable – but without water, impossible. Literally. So when the stored water has run out, and you have to gather around a common pipe or run out with buckets when the water truck comes by, you see how thin the division between civilisation and the nightmares of a Mad-Max world actually is. So I well understand the contingency plans that Cape Town was making to put armed guards at water distribution points in the event ‘Day Zero’ arrived and the taps began spitting out air. Fortunately, the city hasn’t yet reached the point of civilisation-collapse. The lawns and gardens are all dead, cars go unwashed, taps in public buildings have been replaced with hand sanitisers, and in the restaurants everyone asks for bottled water, unsure of what they’ll get in a glass. But for now, there is enough water to sustain life and preserve minimal sanitation.

The proximate cause of the Cape’s water crisis is a prolonged drought, now in its third-year. By some estimates, a drought of such gravity and longevity should occur only once every few centuries, and it’s just the misfortune of Capetonians living today that it was their time. Although the research is so far inconclusive, there is some evidence that such droughts may be getting more frequent, and will continue doing so in the future. Equally, though we can’t be sure, it may be that climate change has aggravated the situation.

Drought and famine were a fact of life for our ancestors. Today, a crisis like the Western Cape’s has become mercifully rare for humanity. But that isn’t cause for complacency. On the contrary, such events are likely to multiply in the coming years, with cities from Marrakesh to Melbourne at serious risk. Several regions of the world are now critically water-scarce. Particularly in areas with weak political and security structures, the risk that water crises could unleash anarchy is real.

Industrialisation and urbanisation have put pressure on water sources. The political expense of infrastructure only compounds this. Take London’s water-distribution system, which was laid in Victorian times and is literally bursting at the seams. Politicians have known for decades that it desperately heeds an upgrade. But given that such investments cover their costs over decades, persuading electors to bear the expense so that their grandchildren won’t have to run around like War Dogs is a tough sell. We’ll cut taxes, build schools or raise the minimum wage – measures which pay immediate dividends. But sinking our money into an investment which will pay dividends only in generations: when’s the last time you heard a politician on the campaign trail say he’d put a chicken in every pot – just in another sixty years’ time? That calculus is bedevilling democratic societies.

Technology can help. It’s frustrating to watch, as you stand in the shower on a cold morning waiting for the stream to warm to a bearable temperature, as litre after litre of clean water runs down the drain and heads towards the sea. Equally, every time you flush a toilet, using the same water supply that was purified to reach your taps, you can’t help but wonder if that lost shower water could have been better used, being re-used.

Greater efficiencies around the house can make a dent in our water consumption. But so too can our general behaviour. The water we drink actually amounts to a very small share of what we consume. While much of it does go down the bath drain or toilet, most of it we never even see: it’s been used up in the process of growing the food we eat or making the goods we buy. I remember once standing outside a big-ass home belonging to a socially-conscious millionaire who boasted his house was environmentally sustainable. He was bewildered when I laughed and replied that his house consumed as much water as an African village. He hadn’t factored in the water used in the industrial processes that produced the building materials and furnishings inside.

So, unless you live in a ridiculously water-rich place like Canada, you’d be careless to assume that what’s happening in Cape Town couldn’t happen to you. For now, Capetonians are hoping this week’s showers augur an end to the drought. If the skies open and the torrents pour down, don’t be surprised if a few of them find religion of sorts in their gratitude.

Image: Western Cape, South Africa, April 2018

RIP Winnie

‘Mother of the Nation’ seems to be the most apt title that could possibly have been bestowed by her compatriots on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Because for millions of South Africans, that is probably the type of bond they felt to her.

Picture a family, huddling together in the church hall after a funeral is done. They reminisce about a woman who was so close to them, they knew all her foibles and recall every one of her aches, pains and bad days. Yes, she could be hard. She had a sharp tongue, and could reduce them to tears. At times she seemed fierce and unforgiving in the demands she placed on them. But then, after a pause, a deep sigh, the wipe of a tear, they all say how desperately they will miss her – her tender embraces when they came home exhausted, her seemingly limitless strength on those days they felt ready to give up, her steely strength that enabled her to break through every obstacle, showing them to what great things they too could aspire.

A stranger at the funeral overhears their conversation and joins in, making the mistake of agreeing with them when her failings come up. He will discover what a tight-knit and loyal family they are. You can criticise your own, but woe betide the outsider who does so. For you can imagine them angrily replying to their guest: ‘You watch as your husband is thrown into prison for doing the right thing. You get torn from your small children in the middle of the night, forced to abandon them without being allowed a moment to find someone who’ll look after them as you too are jailed, then spend months hoping to God that someone who would care for them came to rescue them; you go to funeral after funeral of innocent bystanders, you listen over and over to the hatred of the police who harass you, you comfort your children when they come home in tears, subjected to racist taunts; you suffer torture, get sent to exile in an isolated community, in a house with no electricity or water, unable to see more than one person at a time, left to raise your children entirely on your own, separated from your husband for nearly three decades; you do all that, and then come and tell me you never, ever felt the slightest hint of anger, you never lost your cool, and you not once did things you might later regret.’

Because for all that, Winnie remained above all an empathetic and caring person. You don’t have to go far in this country to find people who have encountered her, and time and again what they recall is her tremendous warmth and generosity of spirit. Even to the worst of her foes, the people who set out to make her life a living hell, the people who were on the wrong side of history and the moral divide but had the power to torment her, she could show remarkable tenderness – in one case, throwing her arms around a former apartheid-era minister and joking with him that in the bad old days, they had tried so hard to kill him. Yet here they were. If she could forgive them, say South Africans, they can surely forgive her.

That is the woman most South Africans remember – the family she loved and stood by until the end, never losing sight of her origins, never upgrading to a Sandton home when apartheid crumbled and she entered the corridors of power, but staying in Soweto close to those to whom she’d given her life. ‘I may have failed you at times,’ you can imagine her saying, ‘but I only ever meant well, and I never stopped loving you.’

Their father, torn from their midst and absent for most of their lives, returned as a conquering hero and assumed mythical proportions in death. They put him on a pedestal, enshrining him at his funeral and assigning him godlike qualities. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, more reverent. They’d seen their mother stumble and fail too often to be able to airbrush their picture of her: she was all too human. But they also knew that when they grew old and senile, their last remaining memories would be of her, standing over them and comforting them in their darkest hours, saying she was always with them, and that whatever the indignities and oppression they had suffered, they were great people who would rise up and shine bright one day.

Other nations have made heroes of people with far more ‘complicated’ histories than hers. South Africans aren’t even asking anyone to do that. They are just saying that if you haven’t walked the long road they did with her, you might never understand when they say that without the love and support of their mother, they might never have accomplished what they did. With her devotion, she earned a nation’s love.


Trump Can’t Win This Trade War

Watching Donald Trump fight a trade war is a bit like watching George Foreman’s 1974 title bout against Muhammad Ali. The pulverising power of the champion in the opening rounds is awe-inspiring, but against a wily and disciplined opponent who has the mental ability to absorb punishment, you know he’s setting himself up for that eighth-round knockout.

The Trump method, which he supposedly honed in the real-estate world, is to bully your way to a deal. You manoeuvre yourself into a position of overwhelming power, then you open negotiations. That’s why Trump wanted to smash the multilateral global order, cheering the breakup of Europe and undermining the World Trade Organization: divide and conquer.

When it comes to China, Trump is right that China stands to lose more than America from a trade war. Precisely because the US runs such a large deficit with China, China needs the US economy more than the US needs China’s. In the aggregate, China will suffer the most from a prolonged trade war. Thus it stands to reason that in a scrap, Beijing will be the first to cry uncle.

Except that aggregates don’t make decisions, at least not in China. The leadership does. And just in case Trump hasn’t noticed, the Communist leadership doesn’t spend hours each day watching Fox and Friends to see how they’re playing on Main Street. The Chinese leadership can’t willy-nilly ignore its citizens’ wishes indefinitely, but put simply, there are no mid-term elections looming in China.

Like Ali did in 1974, China can probably absorb a good deal of punishment in the early rounds, relying on its stamina to go the distance. Given that the US President has repeatedly cited the performance of the stock market as an indicator of his economic savvy, it’s hard to imagine plunges in the indices, of the sort we saw this past week, sliding off his back indefinitely. Meanwhile, if the idea of fighting for American jobs plays well among his base, it will be complicated by the fact that many other industries in which his supporters work will be negatively affected by a prolonged standoff. Given how little of a margin of error Trump has, with his approval ratings so low, he doesn’t have a lot left to burn. He needs a deal.

And yet, from an economic standpoint, he’s carried a knife to a gunfight. China engages in all sorts of unfair trade practices, and Trump has a reasonable point that they should be forced to open up more. But why choose steel for your ammunition? A big part of the reason the American steel industry is declining is that its competitiveness has been sliding for decades. Its plant is aging. This has depressed margins, which has limited the amounts available for re-investment and re-tooling. New entrants to the steel industry in the developing world, by installing state-of-the-art machinery, are able to operate with much healthier profit margins than those in the US.

In principle, therefore, Chinese producers can absorb more of the costs imposed by a trade war than American producers can. In the short term, American steelmakers may get a modest boost from the added protection, but it probably won’t change their margins enough to reverse long-term trends. Meanwhile, if the tariffs trigger a trade war, the damage will be absorbed by other industries which are competitive, and which could stand up well in a tussle.

The Trump administration’s divide-and-conquer strategy appears not to be working. Having enthusiastically welcomed the Brexit vote, in the hopes that it would unleash a populist tide across Europe, Trump has had to watch as Europe’s leaders effectively regrouped. The populist tide continues, but fears of a European break-up now look premature. On the contrary, Britain is slowly but surely moving itself back into the European column – would you want to bet the farm on a new trade deal with this bloke? Current betting is that Brexit, if it happens at all, will be almost in name only. Equally, when Trump walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he apparently calculated that without the US, the deal would collapse and everyone would petition the US separately for new deals. Instead, the TPP re-constituted itself.

Each time Trump fires an arrow that misses its target, his quiver empties. It’s conceivable that Beijing will make some kind of cosmetic concessions that will enable Trump to save face before his supporters, claiming a victory while hiding its Pyrrhic character. But it’s telling that Trump’s best hope is that Beijing throws him some kind of lifeline. His worst fear, by contrast, would have to be that Beijing decides to take this one the distance.

In that case, Trump may find himself reliving George Foreman’s seventh round. ‘I hit him hard to the jaw’ Foreman said years later, recalling the match. ‘He held me and whispered in my ear: “That all you got, George?” I realized that this ain’t what I thought it was.’


To readers in South Africa: I’ll be speaking about my new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, on 4 April at 4 pm at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, and on 11 April at 12:15 at Stellenbosch University.

Democracy Was Never All It Was Cut Out to Be Anyhow

Steven Pinker seems to have made it his mission to defend the values of the Enlightenment against what he sees as a resurgence of ignorance and superstition. His new book, Enlightenment Now, takes direct aim at the current populist wave and its call to make things great again. For Pinker, things are better than ever, and will get better yet, thanks to the triumph of science and reason over religion and belief.

It’s called the Whig interpretation of history, and it assumes that the Enlightenment put humanity on a march of progress towards higher states of being: constitutional democracy, capitalism, individual liberty. Pinker opens his book with an inventory of the Enlightenment’s gifts to us before warning ominously that ‘more than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense.’

I understand his anxiety. Recent studies have revealed that in Western societies, many young people are turning against democracy. Some, including the ‘fine people’ Donald Trump says turn up at torch-lit marches, look to strong leaders like him. However, I rather doubt that the solution is another book and lecture-tour by Professor Pinker, or any of today’s Cassandras, many of whom say we need to educate young people about the horrors of the communist and fascist regimes they never experienced the way we older, wiser people did, lest they succumb to the siren-songs of authoritarian populists.

Because let’s face it, not many of us really believe in democracy. We stick with it because it delivers the goods – at least, it has up to now. Yascha Mounk acknowledges this in his new book, but Walter Lippmann said it best a century ago in his classic Public Opinion. ‘Men do not long desire self-government for its own sake’ he then wrote. ‘They desire it for the sake of results.’

The recent shenanigans at #Facebook and #CambridgeAnalytica loom as threats to democracy, but this sort of micro-targeting has been going on for a long time. Voting is a transaction: we expect to get something for our vote just as we demand something for the money we spend. Data-scientists are just finding better ways to better identify our preferences and micro-target their products, using the long-established techniques of advertising to stir our desires towards their wares. You really want to hack the triangulators? Next election, vote for the candidate who addresses the community’s well-being, not your own, and see how that scrambles the data-miners algorithms.

But really, how many of us will do that? One of the things Professor Pinker’s Whiggly narrative manages to avoid is that the spread and consolidation of democracy in the nineteenth-century probably owed less to a thirst for liberty than to a hunger for the booty of empire. The Industrial Revolution, itself intimately linked with empire , unleashed a massive wave of migration from countryside to city, as peasants became workers. In their crowded slums, they were easily organised by the rising radicals who rejected capitalism. Giving them the vote, improving their working conditions, raising their wages, recognising their unions – by such measures did Europe’s ruling classes buy off their restive workers.

However, such gifts weren’t paid for with new taxes on the rich. They were paid for with the flow of wealth coming from the colonies. They were paid by out-sourcing the exploitation of one working class to another in the peripheral zones – where democracy, and even liberty (given the persistence of slavery) were scarcely permitted. And so it continued through the twentieth century. We in the West never had much objection when our governments deprived other nations of liberty or material well-being, provided we were kept in the standard to which we’d grown accustomed.

Which brings us to the problem with our young ‘uns. Since the turn of this millennium, for the first time in two centuries, the net flow of global wealth has begun moving away from the rich countries and towards what we once called the Third World. With the developing economies growing faster than those of the West, our share of global output is falling rapidly. In short, the subsidy of empire has been lost. This has forced governments to look inwards to find the resources to keep their constituents in the pink. Rather than adjust everyone’s expectations downwards, politicians have continued reaching out to their own supporters. With capital-owners, baby-boomers and the elderly being the groups that have put politicians in office, this has meant preserving asset-values and pensions, and shifting the cuts onto those with less power – immigrants, the working class, young people. And we want them to suck it all up in the name of democracy?

If we truly love liberal democracy for its own sake, maybe we do need to restore civics education. But I don’t think young people need be the primary  target. Let’s start with the rest of us, who’ve bent the system to serve our wants. If democracy delivers for all, it will deliver itself all the believers it needs to thrive. If it doesn’t, then we can’t complain when the torch-bearers show up in our neighbourhoods.

To readers in South Africa: I’ll be speaking about my new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, on 4 April at 4 pm at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, and on 11 April at 12:15 at Stellenbosch University.


South Africa’s Nine Lives

The ‘Beast from the East’, a cold front descended from Siberia, had reached its height in London the day I left for Johannesburg. Snarling traffic and rendering the morning commute a misery of cancelled trains, the bitter, snowy weather made Londoners, never the most patient of people, into their most surly selves. Cramming onto the trains to the point the doors couldn’t shut, late-boarders further delayed departures with a you-can’t-if-I-can’t air of defiance. Walking out to catch the bus, I slipped and slid my way on a pavement dotted with sheets of black ice and ridged with snow, and finally made my way to Heathrow.

I spent a good part of the eleven-hour flight pouring skin-cream into my hands and massaging it into the cracks the cold dry air had split open. I caught up on some films – Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, Darkest Hour – before dozing off for a few hours, and when I awoke we were coasting in the clear blue skies above the Highveld. The next day, I was awakened at dawn by a mixed chorus of birds. I stepped outside to see steam rising off the patio furniture as the cushions, swollen by the previous evening’s heavy rains, and now relieved by the warm rising sun, released coils of moisture into the still-cool morning air. It was going to be a good day.

The big South African story in the foreign news has been the water crisis in Cape Town. But that city’s woes may tell us less about the state of South Africa than about the future of a world of heavy resource-consumption, given that London itself is among the cities at risk of running dry in the foreseeable future. At least for now, Capetonians seems to have risen to the challenge of slashing their water consumption, a lesson we could all learn given that water is one of the planet’s scarcest yet most critical resources.

Instead, the talk of the moment here is about the start of a new political era under the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. It’s not the first time the buzz on the street is of a new beginning. Nelson Mandela was meant to usher in a rainbow nation; racial equality remains as acute as it was back when he became President in 1994. Thabo Mbeki heralded an African renaissance; the South African economy has scarcely budged since his time in office.

Yet over the quarter-century since the end of apartheid, South Africa seems to have enjoyed inexhaustible reserves of second-wind. Like Joe Frazier the night he fought George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, the country seems to hit the carpet, take the count, and miraculously spring back, ready for more of a beating.

I often return to my old stomping-ground  here. I was once a fellow of the South African Institute of International Affairs, and come here to write in an environment that is both creatively edgy and intellectually stimulating – and also, for a writer looking to stretch out his meager advances and commissions, refreshingly affordable. But while the languid life in the southern sun seems to go on as always, from one year to the next, in the trendy cafes and restaurants of Parkhurst and Melville, the despondence and sense of decay had been inescapable during my last visit, two years ago.

Some of this was no doubt the weary nostalgia of people who’d lost the privileges of apartheid and resented the populism of Jacob Zuma’s government. But it was more than that. As evidenced in the ruling African National Congress’s sinking poll numbers, and the persistent popularity of its radical breakaway the Economic Freedom Fighters, Zuma disappointed across the political spectrum. ‘State capture’ of some of the highest reaches of government by the shady Indian business family, the Guptas, who were wrapped in a tight nexus of power and corruption with the Zumas, alarmed South Africans of all walks and political persuasions.

As it happens, the economy had started rebounding last year. Business optimism, already improving, has leapt in the wake of Zuma’s departure. But while Ramaphosa is making all the right moves, from the viewpoint of both the local corporate sector and the international investment community, he isn’t just shilling for ‘white monopoly capital’ (which is how a notorious Gupta-funded publicity campaign described opposition to Zuma). Interestingly, the EFF has signalled that it may now start cooperating with the ANC in municipal governments. With Zuma gone and the ANC putting the possibility of land redistribution without compensation onto its policy agenda, genuine radicalism may work its way back into the ANC just as pragmatism is in the driver’s seat.

That, obviously, will be a tough balancing-act to maintain. Cyril Ramaphosa has revealed himself to be a clever operator in the boardrooms of the new South Africa. Whether he can repeat that act in its political assemblies remains to be seen.


Image: It’s not South Africa if it Isn’t a braai