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 

By JOHN FRASER

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.

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