No sacred cows

Analyst and researcher Gareth van Onselen is even-handed with his tongue lashings of all South Africa’s major political parties.

He recently slammed Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address as “heavy on rhetoric, short on quantifiable goals” then he lambasted Mmusi Maimane’s response as “visionless”. He raised the ire of the EFF when he noted their national caucus has had a 60% turnover rate. Now, prolific political columnist 
Gareth van Onselen will be scrutinising key national issues in his new role as Head of Politics and Governance at the liberal research and policy think-tank, the South African Institute for Race Relations (IRR).

 Gareth van Onselen

Interviewed by Noseweek about his new job, Van Onselen says it allows him to do what he loves, primarily to write and analyse politics and ideas. “There’s nobody sitting on your shoulder. That’s a wonderful environment if you’re interested in ideas. Secondly it’s a liberal institution and I consider myself a liberal,” he said.

One project Van Onselen has worked on since joining the institute in January has been the completion of a paper titled “Political Musical Chairs”, analysing the turnover rates for directors-general and ministers in Jacob Zuma’s administration between May 2009 and July 2017. He found there had been 175 changes to DGs across about 40 departments. DGs, he said, were just as infected with the Zuma disease as his cabinet. The average time a DG and minister worked together was between seven and 11 months.

“If Ramaphosa wants this administration to deliver, he must solve political uncertainty and administrative uncertainty. He must ensure DGs are competent, in place for a long time, and able to work with their ministers. He must make competent appointments.”

Van Onselen is also looking into the expenditure on VIP Protection since 1994. “It started with a budget of about R50 million a year. This year it’s at R2.5 billion and projected to be R3bn by 2021. By way of comparison, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR’s) total budget is R3bn. VIP Protection has developed into a monster. Nobody knows how it operates, who it reports to, or how many personnel it has. I want to pull together enough information to describe the nature of the beast.”

He’s passionate about the state of South Africa’s libraries and the national archives, how much money is allocated to them, and what state they are in. About 11 libraries were recently shut down in the Eastern Cape due to a lack of money and about 15 have been destroyed in service delivery protests in the past six or seven years.

“It’s kind of an attack on reading and the world of ideas. That’s before you get to the archives which are literally falling apart, in some cases.”

Van Onselen is underwhelmed by Ramaphosa and finds the overjoyed response to him by many South Africans “both fascinating and annoying”. “It’s fascinating because, under Zuma, corruption and good governance became the benchmark for managing a country. Those are important and I don’t want to undermine them but these are not the end, just a means to an end. The end is to implement a vision and a set of policies.”

He fears that in five or ten years’ time, South Africans will look at the growth rate, unemployment, and basic education, “and they’ll see that, yet again, no great strides have been made on any of them”. He says Ramaphosa’s way of governing through consensus will usher in an era of mediocrity.

He says it was evident from Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address that “his solution to a great many problems is to convene a council, a committee or some kind of Codesa-like meeting of minds to reach a consensus on the way forward”.

“He had one on unemployment, one on redigitalising, one on reindustrialising. He had one for everything. At the end of the day you’re not articulating an ideal, a goal or a hard outcome. All you’re saying is, let it emerge through consensus. If you put 50 people in a room, the result will be an average that’s not threatening to anyone, that doesn’t achieve anything significant and is held hostage by all the vested interests in the room. You can’t govern by consensus. You need to bring people on board and explain decisions. But the whole point of being a leader is to convince people of what you stand for, not to be convinced by what they stand for. That’s the whole problem with Ramaphosa.”

Van Onselen says the ANC’s policies after 24 years “have failed on a number of significant issues”.

As for the opposition parties, he says the big question now is: “What will the DA do post-Zuma?

“The question is equally relevant to the EFF. The DA invested too much of their brand in opposing Zuma. They had to oppose him, as there was a moral and political crisis, but they did it at the expense of developing a series of strong alternative policies to those of the ANC, so that once Zuma was removed from the equation they were left with an empty cupboard.

“To make it doubly problematic, Ramaphosa is riding a huge wave of optimism and hope. As is evident in Maimane’s response to the SONA, they seem to have been charmed by that, too, so they failed to take a hard line or set out differences, probably because of fears they’d cause offence or go against the national mood.

“There are not many opposition parties that pledge their support to the governing party in implementing its vision or offer their help in realising this goal. The thing is, you need to believe in something as a political party, have a vision to offer people. At the moment, the DA seem to be offering South Africa the same thing as the ANC. It’s not a vision, it’s merely mechanics. They’re offering good government and clean government (both of which are under threat in Cape Town). But that’s what you expect. The difference is their position on the economy and basic education and how do the values and outcomes differ from the ANC? The opposition must offer an alternative.” Voters, he said, need a clear idea of their options or “they will just go with power”.

“South Africa is a conservative, religious, nationalistic society. The ANC has tapped into its heart and will always be the first impulse for a lot of people unless you make a very compelling case otherwise.”

Van Onselen has previously said the DA is “all tactics and an endless stream of gimmicks” and “doesn’t seem to have a strategy or know where it’s going”. “It certainly can’t define a vision at the moment. Understanding the difference between strategy and tactics is very important in politics. Strategy is a long-term vision of how you are going to move from point A to point B. Tactics are the day-to-day decisions you make to implement the strategy.

“The DA is good at defining problems but it can’t really say, ‘this is our vision for South Africa and this is how we’re going to get there’. It doesn’t seem to know itself. All it does is make day-to-day decisions based on what it has read in the newspapers in the morning or what its polling says. It doesn’t seem to have a longer-term thought-out process which consistently explains its actions. Tactics without a strategy are just sound bites and gimmicks and leave you with the impression the institution is hollow, reactive and superficial.

The opposition needs “to put the economy in front and centre,” said Van Onselen, adding, it is also the key issue on which the ANC has fundamentally failed, whoever was in charge.

“The DA needs to become the champion of growth and jobs. It should talk about jobs relentlessly, how to create them and save them and how to become a country that encourages foreign direct investment and makes it easy to start a business.  But all of this is dependent on the DA’s having a policy framework and it doesn’t have one yet. It’s working on it, and keeps saying, ‘it’s coming’. You can’t communicate a vision unless you have it grounded in a policy framework – and that’s missing.

The IRR’s former Chief Operating Officer Gwen Ngwenya was recently appointed Head of Policy in the DA and sworn in as an MP. Van Onselen says she is “exactly the tonic needed for the party that has neglected policy”.

“The problem with the DA at the top level is that there are too many cooks. There are basically three different DAs being run by different people: the first is Maimane’s DA – a small cohort involving those close to him in his office and in Parliament – who  have one vision for the party. Then there’s a second DA that revolves around the mechanics of the party, run by James Selfe and DA CEO Paul Boughey; and there’s a third DA – a loose affiliation, which is the mayors of all the metros, who are running another DA, the DA in government. Those three DAs are not properly aligned and are not talking to each other. There’s no sense of cohesion and common purpose. As a result the party is stuttering and lacks conviction.”

So, how can the DA right itself?

“These things are relative. I don’t think the DA is in a crisis. It all boils down to potential growth. It will be hard for the DA to lose support in 2019. What the real damage recent events has done is to the DA’s ability to win over more voters. It has reduced its ceiling, particularly amongst black voters, which would have been very big, probably, prior to Helen Zille’s colonial tweets. Since then, it has been further reduced through the fallout with Patricia de Lille about Day Zero, and then through the election of Ramaphosa.

“So the DA is now talking to a smaller number of people willing to listen to their message. It needs to focus on those people by talking about the economy; differentiating itself from the ANC, and talking about the ANC as an institution, without making these ‘big man’ political speeches.

“It also needs to clean up various internal problems so that it can start focussing on external messaging rather than explaining internal chaos.”

The EFF, Van Onselen said, has a similar problem to that of the DA: “how to communicate what they stand for without Jacob Zuma”.

“They have been very good up to this point on the back of Zuma. The other pillar it had, because it’s a much smaller party and less able to articulate itself on a wide area of levels, was land, and the ANC has stolen its thunder by advocating redistribution without expropriation. The EFF will differ with them and have a fight but it will be a fight on the ANC’s terms in terms of what the ANC has proposed.

“The ANC’s greatest skill is its ability to suck opposition parties into debates on its terms.”

In the months ahead, besides the “usual characters”, Van Onselen will also closely track the people in charge of political organisations, who represent internal party decisions. “I like to follow what James Selfe says for the DA because he represents internal party decisions and structuring; similarly with Ace Magashule in the ANC and Godrich Gardee in the EFF.

Van Onselen hazards a guess that, if the 2019 elections were held today, the ANC would get 60% of the vote or more, while the DA might get roughly 24%.

“I think the ANC’s percentage is in the ascendancy as things stand and that of the DA, is in decline. If they carry on along these paths, then the DA will have a real problem, as the closer it gets to 22%, the more of a political crisis it will have. It will even have a political crisis if it gets to 24%. It will be very difficult to explain such small growth after eight years of Jacob Zuma. They do have a real battle on their hands.”

Scion of an academic dynasty

Gareth van Onselen is the son of renowned historian and author Professor Charles van Onselen and DA MP Belinda Bozzoli, who is also a former deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at Wits University.

Gareth, 41, who has a brother and a sister, was born in Switzerland while his parents, who still live in Joburg, were working abroad. “I loved my childhood. I’m a very nostalgic person by nature and I yearn after many of the things from childhood – a time of discovery, of newness – and the way the world felt when you were young.”

His father read “the classic books like The Hardy Boys and had a character he’d made up, modelled a bit on Tintin I think, who had a dog and a mortal enemy, Captain Schmidt. My father would lie next to me and make the story up. Then he’d say, ‘I have another chapter to tell you tomorrow’.”

Bozzoli, who is currently DA Shadow Minister of Education, is the daughter of Guerino Bozzoli, the esteemed late former University of Witwatersrand Vice-Chancellor who was famous for taking on the apartheid government’s plans to ban black students from Wits and curb student protests. “My grandfather was the doyen of Wits, an absolute towering figure. So, between my parents and my mother’s father, there are a lot of academic types in our family. I’m sure people have images of families like ours having seminars around the dinner table and stuff, but it doesn’t manifest like that.

“They were highly intelligent people and they taught me the love of ideas, questioning and thinking about things. They taught me abstract thought and to appreciate ideas for what they are.”

Van Onselen has many memories of being at Wits with his parents and of their work merging with his life. “We used to go with my father when he was interviewing Kas for his book The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985.” The book, which won the Alan Paton Award in 1997, described the effect of the land laws on one man and his family.

“We’d drive off to Kas’s plot which was in a rural township just outside Rustenburg. My sister and I would build a little fort in the back of the car. Kas would sit outside with my father and talk, while we played in the car. Those trips were great adventures.”

His mother’s defining book was Women of Phokeng – which tells the stories of 22 black South African women from a small Transvaal town. “I remember the whole process of her writing that book. I was around her office at university during the holidays, while she interviewed people.

“Wits was a great adventure, I used to lurk in my parents’ offices. There were books and corridors everywhere. It was like an academic Hogwarts..”

Van Onselen graduated from Wits in 1997 with a BA in General Sociology and History. In 2000, he obtained his Master’s in General Sociology.

In 2001, Van Onselen became a researcher for the then Democratic Party and in 2004 was appointed  Chief of Staff for then DA leader Tony Leon. In 2005, he became Director of Research and, in 2009, he was the party’s Executive Director of Communications. In 2012, he became the DA’s Director of Political Analysis and Development. He resigned in early 2013 to pursue his writing. He was a senior political reporter for The Sunday Times and has written columns for, among others, Business Day since 2010.

Van Onselen joined the DP soon after leaving university: “It is a weird story. I’d finished my Master’s and moved to Cape Town. I wanted a job as a researcher for eTV and followed a journalist around for a week. We went to Parliament to get comment on the Arms Deal from the DP. I clearly remember the moment we entered the Marks Building and I thought, ‘I want to be in this room’. I didn’t care anything for student or national politics. I’d never have guessed politics was something I’d want to do, but the bug bit and I’m totally addicted now.”

People who have influenced his life include Ryan Coetzee, the former strategist and CEO of the DA, as well as David Maynier, DA shadow Finance minister (“one of the most principled people I know, a paragon of virtue”), Tony Leon (“a brave and good person”), Helen Zille (“a powerful intellectual force in the DA”), Mbali Ntuli  (“a very brave woman, who was assigned a constituency deep in ANC/IFP territory and travelled there by herself”).

Van Onselen has written two books: Clever Blacks, Jesus and Nkandla: The Real Jacob Zuma in His Own Words and Holy Cows: The Ambiguities of Being South African.

He reveres George Orwell and lists as one of his heroes the British moral philosopher, Anthony (AC) Grayling, author of, among others, The Meaning of Things. He also likes drawing and has created his own cartoons, which involve a character, “a little blue man, massively depressive and melancholy who pontificates on some life circumstance or another in a kind of sad way.”

Asked whether he loves South Africa, Van Onselen says: “I have a contradictory attitude to South Africa. On the one hand, I’m deeply depressed by it as I regard it as a mediocrity – it doesn’t value excellence and it is consumed by a lot of superficial things it shouldn’t be. On the other hand I absolutely love it as it’s a frontier democracy. We’ve been in a degree of hibernation for so long and have only been back in the democratic world for 20 years, so we’re discovering things which other democracies have long since established, like what is accountability and what is transparency.

“We haven’t sorted it out yet. Talking about and interrogating the fundamentals as if they were something new really animates me.”

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