LETTER FROM LONDON: Minding our business a key part of Zuma’s job

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma has done his best impersonation of Pontius Pilate and washed his hands of responsibility for the economy. Yesterday, this newspaper quoted Zuma as saying: “Everybody says you (the government) are not running the country properly. But our job is to run the country … and the business sector is to run the economy.”

Okay then. So we now have a president who believes he bears zero responsibility for the economy? Fantastic. But, ever adept at playing the martyr, Zuma noted: “At the end, when the economy is not functioning, when workers are out (of work), it becomes the burden of the government.”

He did have a point in asking the private sector to think long and hard about whether, in the current economic climate, “reducing labour … so that you maintain profit margins — is the way to go”.

But abdicating responsibility for the economy, and expecting us to buy it, is a pretty big ask.

This has been a key feature of his presidency — abdicating responsibility. I did not ask for the security upgrades at Nkandla, it’s not my fault, I won’t pay back the money, it’s not a swimming pool, it’s a firepool … I’m not responsible for x, y, z.

Like former US president George Bush, he has an admirable ability to stay on message and stick to the script, no matter how ridiculous the spin is. And, unless you actually believe the nonsense that you’re saying, that takes a lot of courage. Oscar-worthy stuff (I’ll let you decide which Oscar).

You have to firmly believe every cloud has a silver lining. So that even as Statistics SA releases data and analysis that shows just how badly you’ve mismanaged your energy crisis, which has squeezed productive sectors and resulted in economic contraction, you can come out and say: “Hey guys, I can’t be held responsible for all of this. I’m just the president. It’s you who must do x, y, z.”

He’s basically taken the “it’s not you, it’s me” break-up line and reversed it. It’s an appropriate slogan for his term in office: “Dear SA. It’s not me, it’s you.”

It’s bizarre. His latest statement speaks volumes about the policy confusion within the African National Congress and the state. From wanting a state mining house, or champion as some prefer to call it, to refusing to let go of state-owned enterprises such as South African Airways, and a policy doctrine that favours a more economically active state to now saying the government can run the country without paying due regard to the economy. Really?

Reuters recently reported that economists estimate that underperformance and inefficiency in state-owned firms is lopping two to three percentage points off annual economic growth. “If we do all the calculations, most probably a lot of the missing growth in the economy is because state companies are not working,” Reuters quoted Wits University professor William Gumede as saying.

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene has described Eskom’s inability to meet demand as a “binding constraint” on economic growth.

Nomura’s Peter Attard Montalto put it more bluntly in the Mail & Guardian. He said Eskom’s load shedding caused the economy to behave “like it had lost a major industry” — resulting in the 1.3% contraction in the second quarter of this year.

So it’s quite startling to see Zuma respond to SA’s economic ills by pretending it’s none of his business. The economy is central to the health of our republic and our president does bear responsibility for it.

For the benefit of those who only engage with issues that have been hashtagged:

#SomeoneTellZuma that there’s a reason the phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid”, coined by Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, has become gospel for politicians wanting to win or stay in office.

#SomeoneTellZuma that the state of the economy affects the wellbeing of the people of the republic he leads.

#SomeoneTellZuma that’s why the state, through myriad policies, programmes and regulations, interacts with the private sector. The state, through these interactions, can boost or hobble economic growth.

#SomeoneTellZuma that perhaps it’s best to skip the next World Economic Forum jaunt in Davos and save us some money on the travel bill.

#SomeoneTellZuma that when you tell us to tighten our belts, we can’t help but think of the money we spend on you, your wives, your homestead, and wonder if we’re getting value for money.

#SomeoneTellZuma we’re just not that into him.

• Meintjies is Times Media’s foreign correspondent and bureau chief in London

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