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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Offshore gas finds offered major promise for Mozambique: what went wrong

People displaced by the atacks on the town of Palma, northern Mozambique, flee to safety with meagre possessions. Alfredo Zuniga / AFP via Getty Images

Theo Neethling, University of the Free State

Recent events in Palma, a town in the volatile Cabo Delgado province in the north of Mozambique, have taken bloodshed in the region to new levels. Dozens of people were killed when hundreds of Islamist militants stormed the town on Wednesday, 25 March. They targeted shops, banks and a military barracks.

The attack has been devastating for the people living in the area – as well as the country. The escalating violence has already left at least a thousand dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

The conflict has put a temporary lid on plans that have been in the making for more than a decade since rich liquefied natural gas (LNG) deposits were discovered in the Rovuma Basin, just off the coast of Cabo Delgado. Western majors like Total, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP entered the Mozambique LNG industry as well as Japan’s Mitsui, Malaysia’s Petronas and China’s CNPC.

The gas projects are estimated to be worth US$60 billion in total. Some observers recently predicted that Mozambique could become one of the top ten LNG producers in the world.

The development of the projects had led to the area becoming a hive of economic activity.

The plan was for Palma to become a LNG manufacturing hub where hundreds of skilled workers would be located. And, more broadly, the hope was that it would drive the rapid advancement of a country that ranks close to the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. More than 70% of the population have been classified as “multidimensionally poor” by the United Nations Development Programme.

The LNG projects in the northern Cabo Delgado area represented a silver lining of hope. Since 2012 the major multinational energy companies have spent billions of dollars on developing the offshore gas sites. Today, offshore exploration in the Cabo Delgado area includes Africa’s three largest LNG projects. These are the Mozambique LNG Project (involving Total and previously Anadarko) worth $20 billion; the Coral FLNG Project (involving Eni and Exxon Mobil) worth $4.7 billion; and the Rovuma LNG Project (involving Exxon Mobil, Eni and CNPC) worth $30 billion.

Production was scheduled to start in 2024 but intensifying attacks near the gas site on the Afungi peninsula are now posing serious challenges to the production time lines.

There have been no material benefits for the people of Cabo Delgado thus far. Moreover, many local people feel deeply aggrieved because many were evicted and had to relocate soon after the discovery of gas in Cabo Delgado to make way for LNG infrastructure development.

History of instability

Cabo Delgado is Mozambique’s most northern province. Neglected over many years, the people who live there have been politically marginalised. And the area is underdeveloped.

Since independence in 1975 investment, and rising incomes, were largely confined to the capital Maputo in the south as well as the southern parts of the country.

In addition, the central government in Maputo has only had a fragile and precarious control over the territory and borders of the country. A 16-year civil war that involved clashes between the central government and Renamo, a militant organisation and political movement during the liberation struggle and now opposition party, claimed more than a million lives.

More recently, since 2017, the militant Islamic movement, Ansar al-Sunna, locally known as Al-Shabaab, has been active in Cabo Delgado. It now poses the biggest security threat in the country, rendering some of the northern parts almost ungovernable.

The militants took advantage of the Mozambican government’s failure to exercise control over the entire territory of the country.

Ansar al-Sunna reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April 2018. It was acknowledged as an affiliate of ISIS-Core in August 2019. In view of this, the US Department of State has designated Ansar al-Sunna Mozambique, which it refers to as ISIS-Mozambique, as a foreign terrorist organisation.

What makes this armed force so significant is that the movement has orchestrated a series of large scale and targeted attacks. In 2020 this led to the temporary capturing of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado.

In addition, the turbulence caused by the militants’ attacks has displaced nearly 670,000 people within northern Mozambique. Obviously, foreign companies in the LNG industry with their considerable investments feel threatened, especially at the current stage where final investment decisions have to be taken.

In recent months the situation in Cabo Delgado has gone from bad to worse. In November 2020, dozens of people were reportedly beheaded by the militants. Now the bloodshed has spread to Palma.

Amid the development of an increasingly alarming human rights situation towards the end of last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed for urgent measures to protect civilians. She described the situation as “desperate” and one of “grave human rights abuses”. Bachelet also stated that more than 350,000 people had been displaced since 2018.

Growing risk

There is little doubt that Islamist insurgents are increasing the scale of their activities in Cabo Delgado. A lack of governance and a proper security response by both the Mozambican government and southern African leaders make this a case of high political risk for the LNG industry.

The escalation of the insurgency can potentially jeopardise the successful unlocking of Mozambique’s resource wealth. Until now, the main LNG installations and sites have not been targeted, but the attacks in Palma have brought the turbulence dangerously close to some of the installations.

The Mozambican armed forces are clearly stretched beyond the point where they can protect the local communities. A part of the solution lies in Southern African Development Community or at least South African military support to stabilise Cabo Delgado and restore law and order in the short term. Wider international support might even be necessary.

But this would require the Mozambican government to change its stance by allowing multinational foreign military forces on its soil.

At the same time, a long term solution should be pursued. This will require better governance of the northern areas and the local people in what has been called a forgotten province.

It is clear that Cabo Delgado is an area which the central government in Maputo is unable to control, govern effectively, or even influence. In short, weak state institutions – including weak armed forces – are key to the problems of Mozambique and specifically the turbulence in the northern parts.

Theo Neethling, Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Suez Canal container ship accident is a worst-case scenario for global trade

The container ship ran aground in the Suez Canal on March 23, blocking the passage of other ships and causing a traffic jam for cargo vessels. EPA-EFE/Media Suez Canal Head Office

Rory Hopcraft, University of Plymouth, Kevin Jones, University of Plymouth, Kimberly Tam, University of Plymouth

It’s estimated that 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea. As consumers, we rarely give much thought to how the things we buy make their way across the planet and into our homes. That is, until an incident like the recent grounding of a huge container ship, the Ever Given, in the Suez Canal exposes the weaknesses in this global system.

High winds have been blamed for the container ship blocking the narrow strait, which serves as a trade artery that connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. But with shipping so heavily reliant on such narrow channels, the potential for these incidents is ever-present.

As researchers of maritime security, we often simulate incidents like the Ever Given grounding to understand the probable long and short-term consequences. In fact, the recent event is near identical to something we have been discussing for the last month, as it represents an almost worst-case scenario for the Suez Canal and for knock-on effects on global trade.

The Suez Canal is the gateway for the movement of goods between Europe and Asia, and it was responsible for the transit of over 19,000 ships in 2019, equating to nearly 1.25 billion tonnes of cargo. This is thought to represent around 13% of world trade so any blockage is likely to have a significant impact.

The Suez Canal Authority started expanding the strait in 2014 to raise its daily capacity from 49 vessels at present to 97 by 2023. This gives an indication of how many ships are likely to be affected by the current situation. There are reports that the incident has already halted the passage of ten crude tankers carrying 13 million barrels of oil, and that any ships rerouted will have 15 days added to their voyage.

The severity of the incident is because of the dimensions of the vessels using the canal. The Ever Given is 400 metres long, 59 metres at its widest point and 16 metres deep below the waterline. This makes it one of the largest container ships in the world, capable of carrying over 18,000 containers. Depending on the severity of the grounding, the salvage and re-floating of this type of ship is a complex operation, requiring specialist equipment and potentially a lot of time.

While the exact number of container ships of this size transiting the canal is unknown, container vessels account for almost a third of all canal traffic. Their depth and girth make for difficult navigation within the canal. When operating within such tight margins, ships of this size have to maintain a certain speed to keep their steering effective.

With the capacity to carry over 150,000 tonnes of cargo, these ships cannot stop suddenly. If something does go wrong, crews have very little time to react before the ship runs aground.

A large container vessel sailing the Suez Canal.
The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 – long before modern container ships existed. Mr_Karesuando/Shutterstock

This makes a blockage of this type almost inevitable, especially considering that the length of these ships far exceeds the width of the canal. But what makes this incident particularly disruptive was the location of the grounding. Since the canal was expanded, the Mediterranean end of the Canal now has two channels for ships to take, allowing seamless transiting even if one channel is blocked.

But, in its location at the Suez end of the Canal, the Ever Given was blocking the only channel for ships to pass through. As ships travel through the 193km of canal in convoys with tightly scheduled slots, vessels leading these groups can block the channel like this, creating a backlog of ships or even collisions. It’s unclear if the goods being delayed are time-sensitive (for example: medicine or food), but understanding what effects these incidents have on trade can help us preempt effective solutions.

Could it have been worse?

We’re also interested in what other factors can influence an event like this. One element is the time of year. Traditionally, in the build-up to Christmas, October and November are busy times for maritime trade. A disruption in the global supply chain during this period would have a far greater impact, and could coincide with difficult weather conditions which would exacerbate things, like visibility-reducing fog.

Another element is the unevenness of the canal’s banks. If the incident had occurred only a few kilometres down towards the seaport of Suez where the strait ends, the ship would have run aground on banks composed of rock, not sand. An impact here might have caused serious damage to the hull, making salvage operations harder.

While not identical to our team’s table-top scenario, the latest incident does highlight that as ships get larger and more complicated, their reliance on narrow shipping routes constructed in an earlier age looks increasingly risky. This blockage will have limited long-term implications, but incidents like it could be triggered maliciously, causing targeted or widespread impacts on global and local trade. We need to be more aware of these weaknesses as our world becomes more connected.

Rory Hopcraft, Industrial Researcher, University of Plymouth; Kevin Jones, Executive Dean, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Plymouth, and Kimberly Tam, Lecturer in Cyber Security, University of Plymouth

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Jamal Khashoggi: why the US is unlikely to deliver justice for the murdered journalist

Still no justice for Jamal Khashoggi. EPA-EFE/Tolga Bozoglu

Armida L. M. van Rij, King’s College London

When Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had not expected the outcry that would follow. For perhaps the first time in recent history, Saudi critics and Saudi supporters were united in their condemnation of the extrajudicial killing.

The allegations – that Khashoggi, who had disappeared after entering the embassy on October 2, had been murdered and his body dismembered and disposed of by Saudi agents – sparked a diplomatic crisis in Istanbul, Riyadh and London, but not in Washington DC. The then US president, Donald Trump, continued to publicly support Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, its de facto ruler. Two-and-a-half years later, the White House has a new occupant. With a CIA investigation into Khashoggi’s murder now declassified, will the US president, Joe Biden, shift the gear on US-Saudi relations?

What the headline of the CIA’s report into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would be has been relatively clear all this time: Prince Mohammed approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi. And yet Trump was not interested in justice for the murdered journalist. Trump’s focus on pursuing a transactional relationship with the Gulf state, quantifiable in billions made from weapons deals and arms exports, formed the baseline for the US relationship with Saudi Arabia during his presidency.

Biden, however, so far appears interested in restoring the importance placed on values in international relations, and has been more reticent about engaging with Prince Mohammed directly during his first month in office. The White House has signalled that Biden is looking to rebalance the relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a challenge many US presidents have grappled with before. Biden will supposedly seek to carefully balance cooperation with a long-standing US ally, while taking more of a stand than his predecessor did against Saudi Arabia’s excesses, such as its waging of war in Yemen, which has sparked the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

So far, Biden has ended US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. He has also put a temporary stop to arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including precision-guided munitions, which have been used to target Yemeni civilians. This is significant, given that in the period 2015 to 2019 just under 75% of Saudi arms imports came from the US. Alongside the publication of the CIA report, secretary of state Antony Blinken announced a “Khashoggi ban”, which imposes visa restrictions on any individuals who have threatened dissidents overseas on behalf of a foreign government. The US has immediately used the ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi nationals.

Still friends?

Ultimately though, none of these measures directly target or affect Prince Mohammed, who the CIA points to as the person who approved Khashoggi’s murder. While the White House has tried to send signals to Saudi Arabia and may not favour Prince Mohammed, it is likely he will take over the throne from his father and rule the kingdom for decades to come. The Biden administration may dislike Prince Mohammed personally, but they will probably need to work with him if the US is to maintain a working relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The Biden administration is sending a strong signal that past erratic behaviour by the crown prince will no longer be tolerated. However, it is not clear what, exactly, any consequences in response to such behaviour would be and the extent to which Biden is willing to put the US-Saudi alliance on the line. It is also unclear whether the Biden administration will seek to target Prince Mohammed individually.

Saudi Arabia anticipated Biden’s position and has sought to sweeten the new administration by releasing Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison and restoring diplomatic relations with Qatar. Having heard the promises Biden made while on the campaign trail, during which he called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state”, the timing of these is no coincidence.

The extent to which the US-Saudi relationship will indeed cool remains to be seen. Saudi Arabia is still considered a key US ally to hedge against Iranian influence in the Middle East. Iran has steadily increased its reach in the region through proxy organisations which operate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Equally, the US may simply believe that they cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East, particularly as the Gulf state is considered to be a key ally in counter-terrorism efforts.

So, while the Biden administration may seek to distance itself from the cosy relationship that Prince Mohammed enjoyed with the Trump family and reset the relationship in that regard, it is unlikely that it will cut all diplomatic and political ties with Saudi Arabia.

Where does this leave justice for Jamal Khashoggi? The CIA report does clarify where his body is. It is unlikely that Prince Mohammed will ever be tried by an independent judiciary for his role in the murder, or that he will be directly sanctioned by the US. Two-and-a-half years on, we are no closer to justice.

Armida L. M. van Rij, Research Associate in Security and Defence Policy at the Policy Institute at King’s, King’s College London

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Buying booze and fags is not a sin!

Heaven, or hell?

By John Fraser

There is normally a lot to annoy me in the budget. Taxes are not nice, whether they are income taxes on earnings, VAT on spending, or the whole range of fuel levies.

I resent, but understand, the taxing of tobacco products and booze.

What really gets to me is the very unfunny jollity with which such levies are so commonly referred to as ‘sin taxes’.

Tax me if you must, but how dare you judge my lifestyle?

I accept that the far-from-funny linking of these taxes to the punishment of sin seemed jolly funny to the sad and pathetic accountants in whose depressing lives such hilarity appeared to be side-splitting.

But while reckless drinking and smoking may sometimes be unwise, there is little direct reference to these habits in the 10 Commandments.

You may burn in hell for all eternity for coveting your neighbour’s wife, being unholy on the Sabbath, committing adultery or for stealing.

But having a fag? Smoking a cigar, having a beer, a glass of wine or a G&T?

Pull the other one, you sad, sad sods.

Christ himself approved so much of wine that he manufactured the stuff out of tap water, and wine forms the centrepiece of one of the Christian religion’s most profound and spiritual ceremonies.

OK. There are religions which do curse the drinker. But do we really want our fiscal nomenclature to be based on one interpretation of the teaching of a bearded prophet (aren’t they all?) whose depiction in a cartoon is enough to get the artist a death-threat?

These are not taxes on sin. They are taxes on pleasure. Our pockets are being picked – our mortal souls are not being levied as we prepare for the fires of Hell.

We are being forced to effectively pay more for – largely harmless – pleasures. More sinned against than sinners.

To hear the way that this accounting phrase is creeping into all budget reporting, political comment and common parlance is a saddening and infuriating example of the way in which idiots have perverted our beloved English language.

When it comes to writing about budgets, my focus will be on syntax and there will not be a ‘sin tax’ reference in sight.

There is nothing holy, worthy or saintly about taxing booze and fags and do not let this distorted language suggest anything different.

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A better budget than many had feared

Tito the taxer

by John Fraser

Given the deep decline of the economy even before the Covid pandemic clobbered South Africa, it would have been deeply damaging if the Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had implemented the R40bn in tax increases he threatened in in his mini-budget towards the end of last year.

As it was, he announced in his 2021 budget that he would not raise any additional tax revenue in this budget, beyond the usual inflationary – and oft above-inflationary – annual increases.

The personal income tax brackets and rebates will increase above the inflation rate of 4 per cent, excise duties on alcohol and tobacco will jump by 8 per cent, and fuel taxes will see increases around the inflation rate.

Over the medium term, R9 billion is allocated for Covid vaccine rollout, which seems way below earlier estimates of up to R20bn.   Possibly the private sector is going to chip in more than we had thought?

In terms of industrial support, the highly successful Section 12J incentive for venture capital to end as had been scheduled this year.

Pleas for an extension were ignored.

In general, the budget speaks of a determination to dim the focus on industrial support through incentives, opting instead to reduce corporate tax, which will happen from next year.  SA’s corporate tax rates do not compare favourably with those of our rivals.

But at least there is no wealth tax, no really horrid surprises and an outlook which is less awful than had been expected.

That’s the budget out of the way.   Now let us clobber the pandemic.

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Presidents who subvert democracies they vowed to protect can hit a brick wall: ask Jacob Zuma

Former South African president Jacob Zuma says he won’t comply with a Constitutional Court order to appear before a commission on corruption. EFE-EPA/Yeshiel Panchia

Roger Southall, University of the Witwatersrand

It can be tough when you are a former president in a democracy you have attempted to subvert, especially when that democracy comes back to bite you. Former South African president Jacob Zuma is finding this out the hard way.

Zuma is holed up in his expansive homestead in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, since being ousted from the presidency in February 2018. His leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC) ended with the election of his nemesis, Cyril Ramaphosa, in December 2017.

Since then, Zuma (78) has spent his retirement engaged in defensive action to stave off the threat of prosecution for past malfeasance going back two decades.

But he appears to be running out of road on a few fronts. Firstly, he has lost the battle to prevent the National Prosecuting Authority from arraigning him on charges of corruption and racketeering relating to a notorious 1998 arms deal. The deal to equip the military amounted to R30 billion.

Worse may follow. He’s in a tight corner following his refusal to appear before a commission of inquiry into corruption that’s been running since August 2018. The Zondo Commission was set up to hear allegations about grand corruption during his presidency between May 2009 and February 2018.

Zuma has been asked to appear before the commission. He did appear – albeit reluctantly. And then he walked away when confronted with questions he didn’t want to answer.

This decision was taken to the Constitutional Court, where Zuma recently suffered a defeat in his efforts to challenge the constitutionality of having to appear.

He has since said he won’t comply with the court ruling.

He now faces the prospect of being jailed.

Zuma shares this ignominy with his American counterpart, former US president Donald Trump, who, like him, faces legal consequences for his attempts at subverting democracy while in office. Both have demonstrated their contempt for constitutional constraints, using their power as president to destroy institutions of state.

Going to jail for subverting democracy is less than edifying. In Zuma’s case it would be an particularly ignominious final chapter of his life. He has been in jail before, but for reasons that were noble, alongside extraordinary men and women who fought for freedom.

He served 10 years at the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison, from 1963 to 1973, for taking part in the sabotage operations of Umkhonto Wesizwe, the military wing of the then banned ANC, against apartheid. He was 21 when he started serving his sentence.

Similar paths

Trump used the presidency to build up his business empire and stave off its mounting debt. Zuma and his family aligned themselves to the Gupta family, which stands accused of orchestrating the capture of the state for personal profit.

Testimony before the Zondo commission has brought fresh claims to light about how he went about this enterprise, and the extent of it. Even for South Africans who have been provided with a mountain of fresh allegations on his malfeasance since he left office, the latest testimony has been shocking. It has included steps he took to turn the intelligence services into his personal instrument and use them to undermine those who opposed him within the ANC.

The analogies with Trump might seem distant. But they aren’t. Both men stand accused of subverting democratic processes and institutions they were duly elected to protect. They swore an oath to do so.

For his part, Trump is preparing to face his impeachment by Congress for inciting the storming of the Capitol by his right-wing supporters in a bid to overturn the outcome of an election he lost. If he were to be successfully impeached, he would lose his presidential pension and be banned from running again for federal office.

A man with thinning blond hair, wearing a black overcoat and a red tie speaks at a podium.
Former US President Donald Trump’s legal woes are mounting. EFE-EPA/Stefani Reynolds / pool

The stakes for both Trump and Zuma are high. Both are focused on the future, rather than trying to rescue their reputations in history. Both represent a major threat to democracy.

Zuma will play the game to the final denouement

Oh yes, it can be tough being a former president, but make no mistake, Zuma will play the game in the way he know best, by subordinating the law to politics.

Zuma is skilled at playing the victim, reckoning that his best defence is to rally support within the ANC, where he still enjoys support, and raise the political costs of pursuing him through the courts.

He knows well that if he is successfully prosecuted for corruption and sentenced to jail, even if only for a symbolic time, those who backed him during the era of state capture and shared the spoils will fear that the prosecutors will be emboldened to come knocking on their door.

The ANC remains riven with factionalism, and with President Ramaphosa seemingly unable to stamp his authority upon the party, Zuma is likely to play for a political deal which will continue to allow him his freedom, even if he is convicted in court.

Democracy and accountability

For Trump, the impeachment process is only a forerunner of charges likely to be filed by New York State relating to his tax returns, very possibly alleging fraud and criminality.

South Africa’s Constitutional Court rebuke to Zuma in its latest judgment reminds him that no-one, not even the president, is above the law.

The apex court is reminding Zuma that the demand for accountability is at the heart of democracy. The US Democrats’ drive to impeach Trump is restating that same principle: that being a former president should not grant any special privileges.

The message is clear. Democracy demands that both Trump and Zuma be held to account.

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A whiff of hypocrisy permeates the ANC’s preaching

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula (Pic Minister of Transport, via The Times)

By John Fraser

What do you do when a man is down? Do you offer him a helping hand, a word of encouragement, comfort and hope? Not if you are one of the out-of-control fanatics of the governing ANC.

Having used bouts of prohibition and curfews to drive most of SA’s restaurants and wine farms to the brink of ruin – and having succeeded in pushing all-too-many over the cliff into bankruptcy, our beloved government now has a new booze-bashing bombshell to deploy for a dance on the grave of this most civilised of sectors

It’s a ban on driving with the merest drop of alcohol in your blood.

Now nobody in their right mind, and not even those of us whose minds are getting wonkier by the day under the Covid menace, would suggest that driving while drunk is a good thing.

It is not. It should be discouraged. People should be safe and sensible.

But there is a differenced between being sensible and being totally bloody fanatical.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, one of those born-again temperance types, appears to believe he has some divine duty to crush the livelihoods of those who crush grapes, along with the rest of we fermented-grape-loving worshippers of Bacchus.

From June, under a law which has already reportedly been signed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, that will be it. You do not drive if there is any booze at all in your system.

Of course, there is the option of having a boozy lunch and then heading off in an Uber, but that will be expensive, and the additional cost would certainly act as a deterrent.

Bad, bad, bad for business. An already battered, buggered business.

There has been a lot of preaching recently by the ANC government about the dangers of booze, and they are not entirely wrong.

There are people who do become violent, aggressive, abusive if they have been drinking heavily. But using the iron rod of prohibition in controlling all of these cretins must be balanced against the infringement of the basic rights of the rest of us who regard a beer on the way home from work, or a good meal with a glass or two of good wine, and a safe but not 100% sober drive home as a good thing.

Have tough alcohol limits, do. But be reasonable, be measured, be intelligent about this.

Of course, it is an open secret that preaching comes more naturally to our politicians than practicing does.

Take the Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who was suspended for breaking Covid rules and going to lunch with a bunch of chums.

Or Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane, who has been all over social media today attending the funeral of another Minister – failing to wear a mask. He had died of Covid. No irony there.

I have to include this pic of her. It is worth so many thousands of words:

A maskless moron. (Pic: Everywhere on Twitter)

The event (dis)graced by the presence of this ANC maskless super-spreader had been the official funeral of Minister Jackson Mthembu, who had died far too young from Covid. While I was no admirer of his pedestrian and patronising delivery at regular government briefings, many of which featured his colleagues ranting against the demon drink, I join those who pay tribute to his patriotism, to his service to his country.

However, even the most patriotic of politicians can be led astray.

Ten years ago or so, when he was the ANC spokesman, Mthembu was nabbed for drink driving, with more than three times the legal alcohol limit in his blood.

He was fined, and immediately threw his weight behind the road safety campaign.

I did not listen to all the eulogies, but have not yet spotted much mention of this particular blight on his political career.

Of course, if the Orwellian ANC gets its way and completely crushes our hospitality industry and wine farms, there will be less scope for any of us to emulate the mistakes of the much-lamented Mthembu.

What a bullying bunch of hypocrites they are.

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