Agents of doom we love to hate

2016-06-14 07:00

We held our breath not once, not twice, but three times as the wise men of the north ran the rule over us.

Powerful politicians and no-nonsense businessmen scurried about, like schoolboys gathering data, to prove that we were not deserving of “junk” status.

We looked close to pitiful as we begged the ratings agencies, today’s false gods, to give us one reprieve – with assurances of “we promise, promise, promise we’ll get it right”.

When they did so, we breathed the kind of sigh of relief that would have uprooted an old oak tree.

And when they wagged an arrogant finger at us that said, “It is not over yet”, we urged each other to get our collective act together. This, so that when the inspectors reappeared in six months’ time, all the teachers would be up to date with the curriculum, and all the children would have clean uniforms and neat haircuts.

Like many countries in the developing world, we abhor the power of the ratings agencies. We resent the fact that a bunch of foreigners with little knowledge of our country’s conditions can scrutinise us to determine whether or not we deserve the love that we believe investors owe us.

That they deem it acceptable to dictate our policy options, and can comment authoritatively about our politics, is hateful to us.

But the truth is that we bring it upon ourselves. The dictates of the ratings agencies are the result of our actions – or inaction. It is our mistakes and bad decisions that make recolonisation possible.

Let us take a detour to the country next door, which claims to be a bastion of the struggle against imperialism. In 2000 Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF government upped the volume on anti-imperialism and anti-recolonisation rhetoric. Every chance they got, they reminded their people that the West – in particular, Britain and the US – wanted to recolonise Zimbabwe. Zanu-PF would be the bulwark against this, they promised.

But while chanting the slogan that “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again”, Zanu-PF embarked on policies that made damn sure Zimbabwe would be recolonised.

In the name of fulfilling the Chimurenga promise of the return of the land, they went about destroying the agricultural sector, once the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy.

Its spectacular collapse was the nail in the country’s coffin. Inflation rose to such a point that the Reserve Bank had to print notes inscribed with the figure trillion. Not long after, the Zimbabwe dollar ceased to be.

What happened next sealed the fate of Zanu-PF’s anti-imperialist stance: the country adopted the US dollar as its official currency, with the rand and the pound as alternatives.

This in effect made Zimbabwe a colony of the US, notwithstanding Mugabe’s anti-American bombast and pronouncements on his Look East policy. His country was now more dependent on the arch-imperialist than it had ever been.

In recent weeks, the economy has plunged again into recession. Following a brief recovery during the government of national unity period, the country has been struck by a serious forex shortage. So much so, the joke in Zimbabwe is that dollars are now the country’s biggest export.

Closer to home, it does not take a genius to see the parallels. Misgovernance, lethargy and policy confusion during the past seven years have seen South Africa cede more and more of its independence to the Western powers that our leaders love to tell us they loathe.

The opinions of the ratings agencies have become more important than ever. In the Mandela and Mbeki years, we paid some attention to what the agencies said, but we could hold our heads high while telling them where to get off. We could take independent decisions which we believed were in the interests of South Africa’s citizens, without giving too much due to the opinions of investors from distant lands.

Now we dance to their every tune.

When the ratings agencies come to town, ministers, directors-general and blue chip chief executives clear their diaries and brush up on their PowerPoint presentations. Everyone puts their best foot forward.

Such was the case in recent weeks: quaking and deliberating, bowing and scraping, we tried our damnedest to prove ourselves worthy. “Will they or won’t they?” was the overwhelming question on everyone’s lips.

What made matters worse was the agencies’ response: they rubbed our noses in the sand by giving us loads of homework over the next six months to avoid getting a caning.

And in his response, President Jacob Zuma invited the finance minister to lunch and posted pictures of them laughing together – just to impress the neighbours of the north.

How sad.

So next time you hear anti-imperialist rhetoric from our leaders, a fitting reaction would be to laugh out loud.

March 18 2018