The pre-election fog of war


The pre-election fog of war

PIET CROUCAMP talks to Rise Mzansi's business sector coordinator, Nick Binedell, about Songezo Zibi, coalitions and how to fix South Africa.


NICK Binedell is a professor of strategy and leadership at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He is a former member of the Defend our Democracy secretariat and a former trustee of the Helen Suzman Foundation. And, like so many South Africans, he has decided that South Africa can be saved, deserves better leadership and is worth fighting for.

After a cup of coffee with the former editor of Business Day, Songezo Zibi, he became the business sector coordinator for a new political party, Rise Mzansi. In “the fog of war”, as Binedell refers to the days in the run-up to Wednesday's national and provincial elections, it is difficult to make sense of the policy differences between the 70 registered political parties. I decided to pick his brain on some of the key questions voters will ask of Rise Mzansi. What I found particularly refreshing was the integrity of how often he said, “I just don’t know”.

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PC: Will you be going to parliament if Rise Mzansi gets enough votes?

NB: No! I said that to Songezo during our first cup of coffee; I don't want public office.

PC: You are like Jacob Zuma; you work for the party but you can't go to parliament?

NB: My picture won’t be on the ballot.

PC: How did it come to this, your willingness to enter politics?

NB: I got increasingly alienated by what I saw happening in government. I worked with various ministers and on various projects. That was quite frustrating in terms of real outcomes. I'm a strategist and I began to feel that we were in a structural crisis of some kind, and it became more and more visible, as is obvious to us all.

PC: Where did Songezo enter the picture?

NB: A few years ago, I got particularly concerned and decided that I should try and do something more. I knew Songezo, not well, but I did know him. He asked me for a cup of coffee and said he's going to start a political party, and I listened to him. I then offered to assist.

PC: I find him an impressive mind.

NB: Songezo really impressed the hell out of me. I mean, I've worked closely with him for a long time now, seen him under all sorts of conditions. Technically, he could be elected as the president of South Africa. He's a very impressive individual. He is, in many ways, the adult in the room.

PC: But you were involved in politics for most of your life?

NB: In the 80s, I was involved in a variety of pro-democracy structures affiliated with the UDF (United Democratic Front).

PC: Did you ever consider joining one of the other political parties? Parties with an established infrastructure and a significant support base.

NB: I was a member of the ANC for a while. But I became really concerned with Jacob Zuma's administration, especially with the Nkandla matter. Obviously, I raised questions within the party at the time, but I was rebuffed. At that point, I left.

Rise Mzansi KZN premier candidate Nonkululeko Hlongwane-Mhlongo and Prof. Nick Binedell urge residents in Umngeni to vote on May 29.
Rise Mzansi KZN premier candidate Nonkululeko Hlongwane-Mhlongo and Prof. Nick Binedell urge residents in Umngeni to vote on May 29.

PC: So, you have been on the inside, can the ANC transform itself?

NB: The answer is anything can be reformed, but it has to have the ability to undertake that. And that requires really good leadership, not just management. I think President Ramaphosa has managed the ANC reasonably well in his term, simply because it could have been much worse.

PC: Do you think Ramaphosa’s idea of “the renewal of the ANC" could eventually come to fruition?

NB: Well, anything's possible in theory, but I think as an organisation, the ANC is in grave difficulty. It's an old administrative organisation. It has not developed a new generation of leaders. Most of its top leaders are veterans of the struggle. Yes, there's some new people coming in, but by and large it has not had a very good succession and leadership development programme. It hasn't built up a new generation of professionals. It struggled at times to fund itself. I also don't think it's got a clear governance strategy.

PC: Am I wrong to suggest that diversity used to be the ANC’s strength and now it has become its weakness?

NB: Yes, the ANC had always been a very diverse organisation. The ANC in the 80s and 90s included everything from Trotskyists to hardline Marxist-Leninists, but also Christian nationalists; all compressed into this tremendous pool of democrats. To hold that together is an extremely difficult task, and the ANC is Byzantine in some of its administrative models. You have a very old organisation trying to deal with very difficult modern issues, and it really struggles to do that.

PC: If the ANC needs to elect the president in the National Assembly, and it needs the votes of Rise Mzansi, will you work with it?

NB: There are too many ifs and buts in that question.

PC: Songezo recently had a bit of a public spat with John Steenhuisen. Will you work with the DA after the election?

NB: It's possible. We haven't had that discussion yet. We are very focused now on getting the vote. We have a week to go. And we've been talking a bit about what the landscape might look like after May 29, but we've not come to a final position. What we know is, we will definitely be a small part of the parliament and be a very active caucus. We will work with all reasonable people whose values we share and whose policies we think are sensible.

PC: Are you disappointed with polls that suggest Rise Mzansi’s support is at around about 1%?

NB: I know how tough it is to start an organisation. It's very easy to have policies and points of view and criticise the government or even the opposition. But to actually build the machinery is very tough But I'm very pleased with the way — in one year — that we've gone about building the organisation. We have lists in every province. We've built a substantive organisation of organisers and supporters. We chose not to have membership but we've got 380,000 people who've told us they are supporters. Whether they all vote for us can't be forecasted, but I'm not pessimistic about where we are. Also, remember, in the big polls we're within the margin of error. Some polls show us in the 2% region, I think we're a little above that. But we can't be sure; we're in the fog of war at the moment.

PC: How did we, the ANC, the government, get it so terribly wrong over the last 30 years?

NB: As the ruling party, the ANC has been deeply embedded in the political struggle but less so in economic development. The ANC and its policies brought an inclusive economy through empowerment, grants to millions of poor people and NSFAS to students. All of these mechanisms I would broadly support, but it hasn't brought real focus on how to grow this economy. Growth is the oxygen of a democratic society, especially one that has to transform itself and redistribute for the greater good. Economic growth is not the number one item on the minds of so many of our leading politicians, especially in the ANC.

PC: But for our purposes and needs, a distributive state is critically important.

NB: Yes, it is very important. I've got no argument with that. My concern is the lack of efficacy.

PC: How do you balance growth with distribution and redistribution?

NB: That's the challenge; you have to balance those things. I'll give you an example. When I look at the Scandinavian countries, somehow they've found the magic mix, and I'm sure it requires difficult trade-offs between the market, state and society. How do you balance the interests of society with those of the state and the economy? If you take Norway and its sovereign wealth oil fund, it didn't let people get their hands on the capital. But I think the average Norwegian has $90,000 of capital in the oil fund. That is responsible distribution.

PC: Does ideology stand in the way of getting this balance right?

NB: It is difficult to get it right. But Germany's got some of that right. And New Zealand has got some of that right. So what are we talking about? We're talking about constitutional democracies that are slightly left of centre, that understand the realities of the economy and the needs of people, and are able to make strategic investments that generate growth. Foreign investors at the moment don't have high levels of trust in South Africa’s investment climate, and our domestic companies have lots of money on their balance sheets but they're not investing.

PC: Should we rethink black economic empowerment? Through empowerment deals, individuals enter the value chain in the absence of competitiveness and without the need to take risks. They then maintain their positions through a degree of violence and political influence. How do we change that? How do you convince such a dominant constituency that you will have to start taking risks and you will have to be competitive because we will never achieve the economic growth required to address poverty if they don't do that?

NB: I agree with your analysis. You know, South Africa's growth period was led by CEOs that were accountants, which is quite bizarre. There's no country that had more chartered accountants than South Africa. They were able to create these entrepreneurial environments. So those dynamics need to get going again, hopefully. And during this first phase that we are in now, we could say, “yes we now have a new professional class, we have a new elite, but how do we hold the elites to account?" And my point is, if the middle class are not active in holding elites to account, then democracy can't work in South Africa.

Prof Nick Binedell, member of Rise Mzansi's leadership collective, chaired the party's first gathering in London.
Prof Nick Binedell, member of Rise Mzansi's leadership collective, chaired the party's first gathering in London.

PC: Songezo says that part of the solution to get South Africa growing lies in a R300 billion wealth tax. But you need the private sector to come to the party, and they won't come to the party if they are excessively taxed. Do you really think it's a good idea?

NB: Look, I wasn't involved in the calculations, but let me ask this question, and I don't know the answer. What is the total sum of wealth that is held by what percent of the population? If you said to me, “Nick, you've got to pay another 2% or 3% tax for the next five or 10 years in order to stabilise this country," that could be the best investment I could make. But what we have to make sure of is how this is managed. It can't be managed by an incompetent state.

PC: What gave rise to Zuma and uMkhonto weSizwe?

NB: Zuma represents a particular point of view and a particular style, which he shares maybe with the EFF. In the beginning, the media was saying the MK is going to be very big. I'm not sure it's going to be so big, but it's an interesting dynamic. Remember, back in the 70s and 80s the Conservative Party broke away from the National Party but they didn't really go anywhere. I think it's one of those.

♦ VWB ♦

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