BOOK REVIEW: Chronicle of sober Rob Davies’s time among corrupt colleagues

Rob Davies has written about the rot that set in during the Zuma years.

 Business Day. 22 APRIL 2021 


It says a lot about SA and our economy that it is regarded as unremarkable that devout communists are appointed to important economic ministries.

However, former trade & industry minister Rob Davies takes it as read that he was up to the job when he joined the cabinet.

His memoir, Towards a New Deal, is a difficult read, densely written and sloppily edited, but it is an instructive, important and valuable record of an often-inadequate response to the industrial challenges SA has faced in the past few decades.

It is also useful in that I think he is the first former minister of his time to have broken cover, and to have written extensively about the damage done to this country by state capture. He was certainly at the centre of power as the cancer of corruption infested SA’s ANC government during the Zuma presidency.

Davies himself has impeccable struggle credentials, having spent years in exile in Mozambique, escaping with his life only due to the ineptitude of the apartheid hit squads.

He was active on his return in the transition to democracy in SA, and initially gives much detail about his early years of activism, his exile and return from exile — but the book gathers pace in the later chapters when he chronicles his move from parliament into government, first as a deputy minister, and then as trade & industry minister.

While Davies’s own integrity is unquestionable, one must ask whether he stayed on too long in government once he realised the grand scale of looting and corruption

Unlike another (earlier) white communist minister, Alec Erwin, Davies is a serious chap, and certainly he makes little effort to entertain readers. The one time I did detect a hint of humour was in his snide dismissal of the dress code of Julius Malema’s EFF brigade.

He writes: “It soon became apparent that the EFF was not going to play the conventional parliamentary game. Its MPs arrived at Parliament bedecked in red overalls and hard hats — representing something of a fancy dress outing for individuals better known for their penchant for luxury watches and designer clothing.”

There are very useful and worthwhile insights from Davies, who as a minister was rarely outgoing to the media about what was happening behind the scenes.

He reveals that he was furious at the way in which SA and its regional allies were treated in trade negotiations in Brussels by Eurocrat Peter Mandelson, whose bullying manner seems to have been a total disgrace. If you thought Mandelson was a nasty piece of work before reading this book, it will do nothing to change your mind.

Davies himself put this rather well, when he recalls how the eventual news of Mandelson’s replacement reached a gathering of African ministers and “many delegates broke out in an undiplomatic but heartfelt cheer”.

However, he does not direct his venom only at the Eurocrats; he is also scathing about the protectionist Americans, and even about the parasitic relationship (my words, not his) between SA and its partners in the SA  Customs Union (Sacu).ROB DAVIES: NAVIGATING A NEW DEAL FOR SA’S ECONOMIC RECOVERYIn his new book, former trade & industry minister Rob Davies debunks the mythical allure of neoliberal austerity and proposes a fresh way forwardLIFE1 week ago

He makes it clear that SA’s space for manoeuvre in trade negotiations was often constrained by the need to take Sacu concerns into account. And he chronicles futile attempts to reform the mechanism through which a hefty chunk of SA’s tariff receipts is distributed among the Sacu brethren, noting that it now seems that controversial reform efforts “are shelved”.

Davies has a strong desire to clamp down on booze, and is almost evangelical over this. Whether this is entirely based on logical analysis, or if there is some unmentioned reason in his personal life for such strong views, is not made clear.

He recalls his attempts to tighten those liquor regulations that fell under his influence as a minister. I find his arguments in favour of raising the legal age for drinking to 21 extreme and puzzling, but I do not call into doubt his sincerity or integrity on this issue.

His suggestion is that those younger than 21 should be deprived the joys of a booze-up because until this age, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is not fully developed and is especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.

By that age, though, I would just note that society does already allow our young adults to get married, to drive and to go off and be killed in wars. It seems Davies and I will continue to disagree on this issue. Just not over a pint.

On more weighty matters of state, Davies makes clear his distaste for the corruption that gripped SA under Jacob Zuma’s kleptocratic rule, and is unequivocal about Zuma’s culpability, but one does wonder whether he himself could and should have done more — and much earlier — to sound the alarm.

It may be that Davies’s years in exile during the struggle — alongside comrade Zuma — led to a degree of loyalty that made it less comfortable for him  (and others) to take a public stance against the harm being done to the SA economy, and the corruption of the president himself.Picture: SUPPLIED

While Davies’s own integrity is unquestionable, one must ask whether he stayed on too long in government once he realised the grand scale of looting and corruption.

Davies distances himself from the problem, to an extent, noting the many clean audits his own department received. He details some of the encounters he had with the vile Gupta brothers, always insisting that he resisted all requests to assist them. He did, however, share food with them as they tried in vain to win favour with him, and he attended the notorious Gupta wedding at Sun City.

He details his own strenuous efforts to stamp out dishonest practices, when these fell within his ambit, and he probably kept billions of rand from the clutches of the corrupt.

Though this book extensively analyses industrial policy, and there is no shortage of theory and analysis, one gets the feeling Davies is not particularly proud of his record in stemming the tide of deindustrialisation in SA.

He blames global factors such as recessions and the slowdown in commodity prices, but it is regretful that he was never given the clout to get enough done. He was the minister with primary responsibility for industry, but he does not seem to have enjoyed cabinet-wide, governmentwide, fervent commitment to supporting his work.

This trend has continued, I suspect, under his successor Ebrahim Patel, who took over an enlarged economic and industrial portfolio, but still sees the Treasury continuing to chip away at the department of trade, industry & competition’s (as it is now called) industrial support budget.

The book ends with some prescriptions for Davies’s “New Deal” — favouring infrastructure spend, and also with a strong emphasis on the importance of the development of the pan-African free trade area (AfCFTA), transforming Africa from a supplier of unprocessed communities, advancing along the path of beneficiation and industrialisation.

Davies’s memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in SA’s economy and postapartheid political evolution, but the density of the writing style makes it a daunting read.

Take this sentence near the very end: “It is imperative also that popular mobilisation embrace more of the heterodox perspectives on the structural characteristics of underdevelopment that ultimately constrain the ability to address real issues facing the people of the country.” Ouch!

Prof Rob Davies is perhaps too intellectual and too much of an academic to write an accessible book. This may not matter much, given the limited readership it will attract.

One is left wondering how much more effective he might actually have been as a minister if he had served more of his time under a president who put our country ahead of personal enrichment.

Sadly, we will never know.

• John Fraser is a former Business Day trade and industry editor.

Why the fire on Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain was particularly devastating

A wildfire spread across the slopes of Table Mountain to the University of Cape Town. Photo by Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images

By Alanna Rebelo and Karen Joan Esler

The devastating fire that ran its course across the side of Table Mountain in Cape Town this week has put the spotlight back on the management of an iconic range that’s home to some of the most biodiverse vegetation in the world. And what should – and could – have been done to reduce the risk of a catastrophe that destroyed priceless cultural heritage.

Table Mountain National Park is clothed in fynbos – a distinctive type of vegetation found only in South Africa – and is surrounded by the city of Cape Town.

Fynbos is a highly flammable shrubland, which has evolved over millennia to become dependent on fire for survival. It burns. Science tells us that we can expect most fynbos to burn on average every 12 to 15 years in natural conditions.

Therefore managing fynbos means managing fires.

Fire hazard is influenced by three factors: the weather, an ignition source and fuel loads.

The weather can affect fires by increasing spread through high wind speeds or resulting in dry vegetation after a period of warm weather. Ignition sources may be a result of lightning or arson.

Both weather and ignition sources are hard to control and prevent, and yet often receive the most media attention. But the one factor that is possible to manage, is fuel loads. Fuel loads in fynbos can be kept down through ecological burns and keeping the mountain clear of invasive alien trees.

The recent out-of-control wildfire on Table Mountain may be linked to several key issues: fire suppression, alien trees, constrained budgets and unsupportive policies, together creating a wicked problem. Climate change may also have played a role in the high temperatures and fierce winds around the time of the fire, though attribution studies will need to confirm this.

Fire suppression

Recent research has shown that urban expansion of Cape Town has created anthropogenic fire shadows which are changing the fire regime, often causing a decline in fire activity. For example, the fires that used to sweep the slopes of Newlands and Kirstenbosch from the flats below have been blocked by the suburbs of Newlands and Rondebosch, meaning that the fynbos on these slopes has not burnt in decades.

Scientists are calling this process a “hidden collapse”, that desperately requires management intervention. They also predicted two years ago that this would lead to extreme fires in ecosystems globally where there was no ecological restoration and where fuels were allowed to accumulate.

Further evidence of a decline in fire activity in Table Mountain Natonal Park is presented in a study on indigenous forests which showed that they had been expanding on Table Mountain due to fire suppression policies.

Invasion of alien trees

Invasion of alien trees also contributes to increased fuel loads, and therefore more dangerous fires. Fynbos is made up mainly of shrubs and therefore when alien trees invade or are planted in fynbos, they tower several meters above fynbos, carrying considerably more fuel. A change from fynbos to pines and gum trees can increase fuel loads from 4 to 20 tonnes per hectare.

One study found that the 2017 Knysna wildfire had a significantly higher severity in plantations of invasive alien trees and fynbos invaded by these trees, compared to areas with just fynbos.

Unfortunately, invasive alien plant species are proliferating faster than authorities can remove or manage them. This is also despite the efforts of Working for Water Teams working in the park, as well as over 20 volunteer groups working hard to clear invasive alien plants on the Cape Peninsula and beyond.

In an article in 2019, scientists warned of the areas of highest risk at the urban-fynbos fringe, and gave clear steps that could be taken to mitigate this risk. But these issues have been identified as early as 1995.

Could Cape Town have been better prepared to deal with this disaster?

Why is this a wicked problem?

Although we have the ecological knowledge to undertake prescribed burns and alien clearing, unsupportive policies, constrained budgets and a complex social setting make implementation challenging.

In the 1970s and 1980s, regular prescribed burns were practised in some parts of the park  with the dual goals of rejuvenating the fynbos, and reducing fuel loads (and hence risk). However this was halted at the end of the 1980s, and fire management shifted to fire suppression to protect plantations and residential developments.

The current National Veld and Forest Fire Act 101 of 1998 does not adequately cater for prescribed burning, as it only allows burning for the purposes of preparing firebreaks. This makes it extremely difficult to obtain permission to conduct fires that would maintain the fynbos, assist with the control of alien plants, and reduce fuel loads.

Another issue is the social resistance to prescribed ecological burns in Cape Town. The public have raised concerns around lack of communication, while the authorities past communications around prescribed and alien clearing has resulted in public efforts to block the planned management actions. This has resulted in a lack of trust between authorities and residents.

These challenges result in a management stalemate.


What should the priorities be in the short-term? Will funds for basic needs, such as recovering buildings and capacity, compete with disaster risk reduction needs, such as ecological restoration and clearing invasive alien trees?

Alien plant management needs to compete with all other budgetary pressures, which perpetuates a complex, wicked problem.

What can be done better going forward?

Firstly, the policy framework needs to be addressed. Although prescribed burns are dangerous and inconvenient, out-of-control wildfires are disastrous and could threaten many people’s lives.

Secondly, citizens of Cape Town need to be more supportive of prescribed ecological burns and alien clearing. The relationship with managing authorities also needs to be restored and trust rebuilt.

Thirdly, Cape Town needs to improve the management of its natural and cultural heritage. This should include both prescribed ecological burns, and keeping the mountain clear of alien trees.

Given the huge interest from the public in alien tree clearing, apparent from the many active volunteer hacking groups, there is a need to integrate efforts by the South African National Parks, the City of Cape Town, and landowners (such as the University of Cape Town) with those of the public to develop a more strategic, standardised approach to clearing invasive alien trees.

Alanna Rebelo is Postdoctoral researcher, Stellenbosch University and Karen Joan Esler is Professor of Conservation Ecology and Head of the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology at Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch University

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Why do we allow the state a monopoly over COVID-19 vaccination?

Only big brother can run a vaccine campaign?

By John Fraser

There can be no-one in South Africa who believes the state is doing a good job in vaccinating its citizens against the deadly COVID-19 virus. No-one.

Other countries are stumbling and bumbling as well. We have seen the rows over trade in vaccines between bitter divorcees UK and EU, and there have been fears about the side-effects of some vaccines – most notably the side-effect of blood clots.

However, South Africa just seems to be floundering. We bought a massive consignment of one type of vaccine, only to decide it was useless. So we sold it on to our African neighbours. Go figure?

Now we are told that the snail’s pace of vaccinating health workers will delay the next round of vaccinations until the middle of next month.

Reassuringly, the numbers becoming infected, and the numbers who are dying, appear to be far lower now than they have been.

But this pandemic is not going away, and we need to speed up the erection of the barricades.

If you need to do something fast and efficiently, it seems logical to those capable of logic, that you need all hands to the wheel.

The state has its strengths, though often these will be skilfully hidden. Surely, though, the private sector is also a potential partner.

It will come as no surprise that there are private companies that have approached the state, offering to procure and pay for vaccines for their workers – and in some cases for surrounding communities and those in their firm’s supply-chain as well – and to carry out the vaccinations.

The pros of such an approach? Lives will be saved and the state’s burden will be lowered, as it will not need to vaccinate anyone who has already been covered by such a programme.

Fewer infections, and a smaller burden for the state in spending on vaccines.

The pros are practical, but of course this approach has been polluted by ideology.

It cannot be disputed that some – though not all – of those who would benefit from a company’s own vaccination programme will already hold a privileged place in society.

It is also true that those who would fall outside the net of this type of programme would be at a comparative disadvantage, even though the more people who are protected against COVID-19, the lower the risk of infection for everyone.

So far, ideology has triumphed in South Africa, as one might have feared it would in a state which is still infested with leaders who have failed to fully disinfect themselves from the illogical communist ideology of the struggle years.

When it comes to populating coffins, it seems it is all for one and one for all, comrades.

No exceptions.

Take a step back and reflect on the consequences. The vaccination drive will be slower than it should be, with the state having put the brakes on private projects.

More people will fall ill, more will die, more families will lose a loved one, a bread-winner.

There is some encouraging movement from the private sector, with companies like some health insurers pledging to fast-track the vaccination of their own members, once government gives the green light.

However, the green light switch still remains in the hands of a bunch of politicians whose own judgement, ability and track record is questionable, to say the least.

How will history judge us?

I suspect that history will be a bit taken aback that instead of saving all possible lives by all possible means, the government has condemned many citizens to a painful and terrifying death because of ideological idiocy.

Do we South Africans really want to be remembered only for having a sinister variant of the virus named after us?

Surely not.

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