Panic

George Lakoff, cognitive linguist, published a book in the early oughts he called “Don’t think of an elephant”. It was about what people in the persuasion business call framing. His point was simple enough. If you don’t want your audience to think about elephants, avoid using the word elephant.

 I was reminded of this by the statement put out on Sunday by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation concerning Parliament’s 241-83 vote to debate putting government’s power of eminent domain — the US term for expropriation — on steroids.

 “Minister (Lindiwe) Sisulu calls on the international community not to panic”, the statement was headlined, introducing, quite unnecessarily, the notion that something panic-worthy was actually going on here and that government and the normally imperturbable Cyril Ramaphosa might themselves be running around like headless chickens.

 The don’t panic panic button pressed, the rest of the statement was likely to be a blur for most observers, a pity because the meat of the message was quite reassuring. There will be a process (we all know what SA processes do to action) and the views of all South Africans will be taken into account, not just those of the Julius Malema fringe.

 That was all that needed to be said, though as I write, a week after the vote, the Rapid Response team at the Government Communications and Information Service is still crafting a set of talking points for “government communicators” at home and abroad.

 Of course, panic is exactly what Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters want us all to do. It magnifies their importance. It makes them look as though their grassroots support is  many times what it actually is. And it allows to them frame a critically important debate about SA’s economic future in an utterly counterproductive way.

 Malema and Donald Trump are political soulmates. They work from the same poisonous playbook. Their modus operandi is to whip up fear and loathing, assiduously blowing on embers of resentment until the embers erupt into flame.  They are master of the ju jitsu of making their opponents defeat themselves.

 Trump tweets hard to goad his critics into saying things that energise his base. Does he really think arming teachers is a smart way of dealing with America’s gun disease? It doesn’t matter. The reason he says it is to stoke the great American culture war.  Malema uses much the same tactics to fan racial animosity.

 None of which is to deny that both men, whatever their self-aggrandizing motives, are poking at genuine wounds and that these need dressing. But they need dressing in a manner that doesn’t leave the patients crippled for years to come. If Malema and Trump are allowed to keep framing the debate about remedies, the prognosis is not good.

 How then should the SA land issue be framed? Not, certainly, as something about which one must be told not to panic. Were I still in the nation branding business, I would want to put it in the context of pushing the economy onto a higher, more inclusive growth path. I would have advised the Minister against saying, as she did, “We invite members of the international community to continue supporting our effort to reverse the legacy of apartheid.”

 Were there such a thing as the international community, it would have shrugged at that, if not rolled its eyes. For a better, more forward-leaning frame, consider what Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a splendidly proud and confident speech here last week: “We must create wealth and provide happiness to our nation…We are going to build a Ghana beyond aid…The black star is going to shine and shine and shine”. Ghana’s economy is projected to grow 8.3 per cent this year.

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Go for impact

My favorite tweet this week was by Shakespeare, or an impostor, commenting on a new BBC series about the Trojan War. The bard was not a fan. “Cassandra gave me her review of #TroyFallOfACity a week ago. I should have listened.”

My second favourite social media post was from Brian Levy, a friend on Facebook and also in real life. He was worried by an editorial in Monday’s Business Day subheaded, online at least, “What Ramaphosa can get cracking on with urgency is reconfiguring and co-ordinating the government.” It bought out the Cassandra in him, and remember, Cassandra spoke the truth.

Levy, a veteran World Banker who now divides his time between the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at the University of Cape Town, is author, most recently, of “Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies”. He knows how governments function in settings such as SA, of which he remains a proud and engaged son.

“I am hugely wary of the swamp of “reconfiguring and co-ordinating government”,” he writes. “I led the World Bank’s Africa public sector team for five years. I know first hand that gains on this path come slowly at best — and all too often lead nowhere…It’s a recipe for inaction.”

Instead, Levy argues, the focus should be on a limited number of “high impact” initiatives, say four to six, that can yield tangible near-term results, “build positive momentum” and “deepen optimism”. Sorting out the mining charter would be be a good example and Levy is pleased that President Ramaphosa has it high on his agenda.

Don’t misunderstand, Levy is all for thinning out the bloated herd of ministers and deputies Zuma left in his baleful wake. Cull, he says, but don’t “get overly preoccupied with the micro-details of reorganising.” Playing with the deckchairs is super tempting for politicians who want to be seen doing something. But the temptation must be resisted by those, and Ramaphosa is clearly one of them, who want to get real stuff done. Government is messy at the best of times. Live with it, for now at least.

Says Levy:””Reconfiguring and co-ordinating” is a marvelous agenda for large teams of highly-paid consultants. It offers them an endless work stream — and when the process turns out to be slow and doesn’t show results, they then call for patience (and more contracts), arguing that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

I can relate to that after my years with Brand SA, an organisation in a constant state of reinvention after its first CEO, Yvonne Johnson, was given the heave-ho by Essop Pahad for knowing what she was doing. Enter then the armies of consultants and facilitators with felt pens and white boards, the constant decamping to the Midrand conference centre archipelago, the orgies of organograms, matrices and flowcharts, and finally the complete triumph of process over action, process being what organisations use to convince themselves and those to whom they answer that they are making an actual contribution.

Talking of which, what is (italics is) Brand SA doing these days? They have blocked me on Twitter, I think for correcting their spelling, and I haven’t heard or seen mention of them in ages, unless you count the odd sighting of the logo. Is one of the Gupta brothers still on their board? If they are still around and Ramaphosa is in reconfiguring and co-ordinating mode, why not hand them back to the Government Communications and Information Service? Then turn over the reputation management and investment promotion side of things to credible third party endorsers and explainers in the private sector. They’d have more impact. Might be a lot more cost effective too.

Trump and Zuma

South Africa at long last seems about to put Jacob Zuma out of its national misery. Would that America was about do the same with its own extraordinarily Zuma-oid president, Donald Trump.

From sexual predation — with ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa, I believe Khwezi, and on the subject of crotch-grabbing, I take Trump’s own word for it — to a predatory contempt for the rule of law and the constitutions of their respective nations, they have so much in common. But not, sadly, the date of their departures from office.

Assuming this week’s market swoon is not a harbinger of things to come for the hot US real economy, I’ll wager Trump is going to be tweeting from the White House at least through January 2021. His Republicans, as servile toward him as the ANC has been towards Zuma, will likely keep Congress in November, thanks to full employment, rising wages and the ineptitude of the Democratic opposition. So long as the Republicans have the House of Representatives, impeachment is out.

Both men owe debts to dodgy strangers, one of whom they share. Vladimir Putin. Had the Russian nuclear deal gone as planned, Zuma and his cronies would likely be in clover for the rest of their days. We cannot say for sure that Putin’s meddling was decisive in throwing the the 2016 election to Trump, but the ex-KGB man certainly had his cyber thieves and agitprop artists giving it their best shot.

On the social media front, Zuma’s help came from another set of foreign friends, the Guptas, and the lizards they retained at Bell Pottinger to fuel a racially-charged meme:  the thieving Zuptacrats were really the good guys, battling white monopoly capital on behalf of the dispossessed.

Stoking racial hate is a Trump speciality, too. He uses bigotry to rev up his base, constantly giving his fans permission, even encouragement, to join him in fear and loathing for people of colour. From his crusade to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the US, to his equivocation about neo-Nazis and Klansmen, to his scatological references to African countries, the record in beyond contest.

If Zuma was gatvol with “clever blacks”, Trump is constantly reassuring his supporters that he has no time for clever whites (other than the cleverest and stablest of them all, himself). He is champion of the stupid kind.

For the two leaders, the line between what belongs to them and what belongs to the public is fuzzy indeed. Zuma had no qualms about using public funds for his private home at Nkandla. Trump bills the US taxpayer for outings to his own golf courses and his stays at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach palace and private club, membership fees for which he jacked up as soon as he was elected. He has stated for the record that conflict of interest laws to prevent officials using office for personal gain do not apply to him as president.

Zuma would like Trump’s infrastructure plan now taking shape: public subsidies for private investors to cherry pick projects from which they can extract monopoly rents in the form of bloated user fees. Billionaire economic empowerment, in other words.

But it is in their machinations to save their respective hides from the law that Zuma and Trump are full peers in chutzpah and lack of respect for the oaths they took when they were sworn in. Zuma’s efforts to create a state that would let him get away with anything have failed. Trump is still trying, using Fox News, his very own ANN7, and his army of Jimmy Manyis like Tony Leon’s former speechwriter Joel Pollak, to convince his people there’s a secret cabal in the Justice Department that’s out to get him.

 

Trump and Nixon

Fifty years ago this November Richard Nixon was elected 37th president of a country my father, then Washington bureau chief of the London Daily Telegraph, described in his 1970 book, America in Retreat, as “divided against itself, full of doubts and fears and looking inwards.”

“The tide,” Dad continued, ”may well be turning away from acceptance of the policy recommendations of an educated elite — and against the elite. The day of the simplistic know-nothing yahoo may be dawning.”

Tides go in and out. The latest would seem to have washed up an orange thing called Donald Trump. 

My father did not consider Nixon himself to be a know-nothing or a yahoo. What concerned him were the fans of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, the bittereinder segregationist who as an independent candidate in 1968 won five states of the old slave-holding confederacy.

Nixon was less afraid of his Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, than of Wallace siphoning off votes he needed for an electoral college majority.

To what extent would Nixon pander to the Wallace-ites for re-election in 1972 and for the future success of his fellow Republicans? To a considerable one, my father feared. And so it would transpire.

It was Nixon who first turned the party of Abraham Lincoln, or a good chunk of it, into the party of Wallace. And it was the heirs of Wallace’s following who elected Trump. No surprise, then, that Trump was actually quite pleased with himself for calling Africa a “shithole”.

How, more broadly, do Nixon and Trump stack up against each other?

Their backgrounds could not be more different. Nixon was the son of a petrol station owner in a remote California dorp who bootstrapped himself to the vice presidency under Eisenhower before narrowly losing to top job to Kennedy in 1960.

Come 1968, he was no political neophyte with a silver spoon in his mouth. But, like Trump, he was both driven and crippled, morally and emotionally, by an acid loathing for the elites which silently, and not so silently, loathed him.

JK Rowling, the author, has wondered “whether Trump talks to Trumpself in the third Trumperson when Trump’s alone?” The tic is called illeism. It is associated with narcissism.  My father said one of Nixon’s tells that he was running before he formally announced was that he became an illeist.

Both candidates exploited national anxieties that went beyond race to win office. The anxieties of 1968 were rather more tangible, however, than those of 2016, and required less populist demagoguery to fan. 

The country was tearing itself apart over the war in Viet Nam. Notwithstanding President Lyndon Johnson’s historic civil and voting rights legislation and massive expansion the welfare state, summer had become a season of race riots in America’s major cities. And then, in 1968 itself, came the assassinations in short order of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The “American carnage” Trump conjured in his weird inaugural address was real when Nixon ran.

Nixon may not have used the phrase “America First”, but that was the essence of his message. He promised to extricate the country not just from Viet Nam but from the “bear any burden” global policeman role to which Kennedy had committed it. Allies would now have to bear burdens for themselves.  Moscow would be his first port of call, perhaps even before his inauguration, to negotiate spheres of interest and dial down the Cold War.

“I see a day when America is once again worthy of its flag…worthy of respect,” he said in accepting the Republican nomination. Or as Trump would put it, he would make America great again.

Now we wait to see whether the parallels lead to the same disgrace.

Who Milost?

On September 21, the Friday before the Heritage Day weekend, WG Wearne, the building material supplier, announced that a little-known New York-based private equity firm, Milost Global, had come to its aid with up to R300 million in loan and equity finance attached to certain unspecified strings.

When the JSE reopened the following Tuesday, WG Wearne’s stock surged to R34 from its Friday close of R8, before sliding back to its previous trading band. On December 5, the Financial Services Board said it was eyeing the company’s securities for signs of possible insider trading in September.

Milost Global’s CEO is one Mandla Gwadiso. I asked him for an interview but he said I would have to wait until February because he was traveling. I understand I am not alone in receiving this kind of brush-off. From what’s in the public domain it’s clear that Gwadiso is a private person.

His company’s website features photographs of his team, but not of him. His face does not appear on his LinkedIn or Twitter profiles either. On the company site he says is “a reclusive rainmaker of note to his close circles”. His corporate cv gives no clue as to where hails from, where he was educated or where he lives now. Milost’s Wall Street and City adresses look high-powered but turn out to be virtual. 

Gwadiso does, however, want the world to know he is a major fan of “King” Donald Trump, for whom he is a veritable twitter mbongi. A typical effusion: “Wherever you show up, you derserve (sic) a standing ovation Mr President…from every living creature in America.” Whoever was behind twitter account of his previous, now disbanded, firm, Milost Advisors, took a different view, retweeting kisses to Hillary Clinton during last year’s campaign.

What exactly is Milost Global? In the blizzard of press releases its puts out it describes itself as “an American Private Equity firm with more that $25 billion in committed capital”. It provides “alternative capital” to companies around world. In choosing acquisition targets it is “agnostic”. It is not afraid to list cannabis as sector in which it has dabbled. Just who is committing the billions is undisclosed, but the quantum alleged is stunning when you consider that private equity titan KKR’s fund for Europe and Africa (before it dropped Africa) is $6.2 billion.

Africa is a particular Milost focus. In August, the firm said it was launching a unit to buy banks in SADC and ECOWAS countries, with Canzi Lisa as chairman. Lisa, a Robben Island stalwart, was municipal manager of Bushbuckridge. A November release announced the launch of Isilo Capital Partners which aims to raise $5 billion for African transactions of $10 million of less. Tiny Diswai, formerly a manager at Debswana, is to be ILC’s CEO.

Last year, Milost approached a strapped Canadian education company, KICG, proposing a buyout that would theoretically end with the business restored to financial health through a listing in the US. KGIC’s CEO, Dr Alexander MacGregor, bit. Milost, he was led to believe, would help him acquire what is known as a Form-10 company. This is an entity for which the Securities and Exchange Commission has lowered accounting hurdles to a listing on a major US exchange such as the Nasdaq.

In September, MacGregor sued Gwadiso and Milost for fraud in New York federal court. He claims he ended up paying them $560 000 for a shell company they acquired for $80 000 and control of which even then was not transferred to him. SEC filings signed by Gwadiso suggest that 100 per cent of stock in the new company was in fact transferred to the Canadian last May. MacGregor wants a jury. It will be interesting to see if Gwadiso wants the publicity.

State Bloat?

In a recent interview on Fox News, which does for Donald Trump what ANN7 does for Jacob Zuma, Trump defended his tardiness in making political appointments at the State Department. Some 70 top positions remained vacant. These included Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and ambassador to South Africa. The president said he was not convinced all of them needed filling.

As for the department’s career officers, “we have some people I’m not happy with their thinking process.” Then, illustrating why those people might not be entirely thrilled with his “thinking process” either, he went full l’état c’est moi. “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it strongly.”

Unsurprisingly, the department is hemorrhaging senior talent. Its leadership ranks were being “depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former ambassador who now heads the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union, writes in the current issue of the Foreign Service Journal. By her count, 60 per cent of officials of ambassadorial rank have quit since the start of the year.

This does not bother Trump. He wants to slim the foreign service drastically. When Vladimir Putin demanded that US downsize its official presence in Russia by 775 last July, Trump thanked him, only half in jest. Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, may not deny calling the president a moron, but is on board with at least this part of his programme. Tillerson reportedly aims to cut 2 000 of the department’s roughly 25 000 full time positions through a mix of attrition and buy-outs.

Does he have a point?

Audits by the State Department’s inspector general would give pause to any bottom-line conscious business executive — and Tillerson was certainly one of those as ExxonMobil’s CEO.

The most recent available report on the US embassy and consulate in SA dates to 2011. The ambassador at that point was Donald Gips, among the very best. But was the gargantuan complement of 954 staff, compromising 357 US government employees seconded from the US and 597 local hires really necessary to advance US interests?

The inspector general himself wondered, inter alia, whether it was really necessary to have, in addition to press relations officers in every embassy in the continent, a parallel Africa Media Relations Hub based in SA giving rise to turf wars and bruised egos.

Did the US taxpayer get value from the 1 020 embassy employees in Nigeria as of February 2013? Or the 1 304 in Kenya as of August 2012? Or the 92 in Swaziland (June 2010) now housed in a new $182 million terrorist-proof embassy.

For comparison’s sake, the British embassy in Washington is Her Majesty’s largest. It gets by, according to latest diplomatic list, with 100 seconded officials. Putin manages with 126. Admittedly, these numbers do not include local hires and trade and consular offices outside Washington. But we are talking here about representation in what is still the first among major powers, not in a picayune nation of 55 million. SA, for what it’s worth, gets by in Washington with 50 seconded and local staff.

Trump, solidly in the tradition of populist American demagoguery, loathes the State Department and the “pointy-headed intellectuals” of the foreign policy establishment because they read and think and have experience and hold him in deserved contempt.

Tillerson, on the other hand, seems rationally keen to debloat the State Department and its ancillaries like the US Agency for International Development, deflate their vanities and make them altogether more fit for purpose. Unlike Trump, he is not driven by the demon insecurity or a craving for revenge upon his betters.

Collusion?

“Efforts will be made…to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity…Poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents…Everything possible will be done to set major western powers against each other…Where suspicions exist they will be fanned; where not, ignited.”

That, warned George Kennan, then deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Moscow, was what the Russian regime had in mind for the West. The year was 1946. Stalin was in charge and the Cold War was just beginning. Seventy one years later, Soviet communism supposedly in the grave for a generation, Stalin’s latest successor, Vladimir Putin, appears to be guided by something uncannily akin to Uncle Joe’s playbook as Kennan described it in his famous “Long Telegram”.

Whether or not the active measures Putin’s security services deployed against Hillary Clinton in last year’s election were what put Donald Trump over the top is probably beyond knowing, given all the other variables. That they did meddle is incontrovertible.

They exploited social media platforms Facebook and Twitter to disseminate agitprop designed, in many cases, to inflame the resentments of carefully targeted audiences, in others, to suppress voter turnout. They hacked email accounts and made sure the fruits of their hacking were delivered to the media at strategic moments. If they failed to tamper with voter rolls, it was not for want of trying. This was war by other means.

No longer contested, either, is that people in Trump’s camp, including his son Donald Jr,. agreed to meet with creatures who represented themselves as close to the Kremlin and said they had dirt on Clinton. George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy adviser, has admitted to lying to federal authorities about the content and timing of discussions with Kremlin cut-outs who were offering to supply the Trump campaign with “thousands” of Clinton-compromising emails.

Was there collusion between Teams Trump and Putin? That is what Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been tasked with determining. Announced on Monday, the indictments of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, the bottom-most of all Washington bottom-feeders , and sidekick Richard Gates, do not on their face get us any closer to an answer. Neither does Papadopoulos’ guilty plea.

Much, of course, depends on how you define collusion. Does it only occur when the parties are actively and deliberately conspiring? Or can one collude passively, by letting things be done on one’s behalf which one knows to be improper but which one has neither directly encouraged nor requested? If blind-eye but mens rea collusion is actual collusion, Trump most assuredly colluded — or has no mens. But is that a crime? Or is it a purely political question, to be decided at the polls rather than by a court? Perhaps Mueller will supply an answer.

In the interim this we know: Trump, as a candidate for president, knew that relations between the US and Russia were, to put it mildly, adversarial. Otherwise why would he have campaigned on a pledge to improve them? He knew also that the Russians had stolen Democratic National Committee emails, yet he made light of it, openly inviting the Russians to find emails that had been erased from Clinton’s controversial private server.

A honourable man who cared about his country and its constitution, a genuine patriot, would have denounced the dirty tricks of a power known to wish the US ill, not encouraged or joked about them. Instead, he played and continues to play straight into hands of Stalin’s heir, setting Americans on each other at home and sundering America’s partnerships abroad — fanning suspicions where they exist, and igniting them where they do not.