When Leaks become a flood

The ripples from the WikiLeaks scandal made a fairly gentle landfall in South Africa last week. No one was surprised that Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, the minister of International Relations and Cooperation, had privately called Robert Mugabe a “crazy old man”, or that United States diplomats in Harare doubted the even-handedness of Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to mediate between Zanu-PF and the MDC. But now some larger waves are starting to wash ashore. The latest cables deal directly with the domestic political scene and traverse conversations with, and about, some of its big beasts.

Front and centre is Julius Malema, who, ahead of the ANC’s (African National Congress) Polokwane conference, spoke to a US embassy team visiting Limpopo more frankly than anyone else in the province was prepared to. During this period the diplomatic corps was in the same frenzy of speculation about the party’s presidential succession race as the rest of us. The American duo must have felt fortunate to find Malema so loquacious where others parroted the official line.

In our view there is nothing wrong with his decision to speak freely to representatives of a foreign government about his views on matters of vital (or indeed trivial) national concern. We would much rather the information reaching foreign capitals about the lay of the political land were accurate and representative of a range of voices. Malema himself has often seemed to feel differently, however, and his infamous “bloody agent”slur on BBC journalist Jonah Fisher captured a feeling widely held in the ANC that the foreign press is a pack of spies and the locals not much better.

For the record, just like Julius, we enjoy talking to diplomats, and we do it all the time. In fact, what the cables show is an effort to get to grips with a complex but crucial country, “the most important in Africa”, as one dispatch puts it.

The diagnosis of President Thabo Mbeki’s prickly brilliance seems indisputable and the assessment of Jacob Zuma’s path to power via victimhood and the ANC grassroots spot on. Indeed, the assessment of President Zuma is cautious to a fault. There is nothing here to rival the comparison of Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to Batman and Robin, for example.

The most irritating report for the government from the current tranche is an assessment of the potential impact on its legitimacy of the scandal over expensive ministerial cars. Judging by the growing hum of anxiety from Pretoria there could be more to come and it may be considerably more embarrassing — South Africa’s relationship with the United States deteriorated sharply under the Bush administration and, despite some improvement, sharp differences remain on issues like Iran’s nuclear programme. But the fundamental assessment is unlikely to change much: this is a relationship that matters, that traverses complex territory and that requires governments to work flat out at understanding each other.

For a parochial South African press and public the biggest lesson from the leaks may be this: we’re part of the big geopolitical game and when everyone is a bloody agent, no one is.

Holding thumbs for Transnet

Malusi Gigaba, the new minister of public enterprises, hasn’t wasted any time in getting to grips with his portfolio. On Wednesday he announced a new board of directors for Transnet, the parastatal at the heart of the government’s plans to provide more efficient, cheaper infrastructure.

Those plans have not yet borne the expected fruit. Maria Ramos cleaned up a disastrous set of finances and tightened up governance during her tenure as chief executive, but operational improvements were limited — perhaps unsurprisingly given the relative brevity of her tenure. Too many trains still crash, or run late — and there aren’t enough of them.

Where new investments were evident — in ports, for example price gouging limited the economic benefits.

Still, Ramos’s repair job ought to have laid the platform for intensive investment and tangible improvement. Instead, her departure triggered a debilitating succession war as Siyabonga Gama, with heavyweight political backing, tried to defy allegations that he allowed dodgy contracts with former communications minister Siphiwe Nyanda to be approved.

With a new board in place — and former minister Barbara Hogan out of the way — Gama is once again being touted for the job. So is Brian Molefe, the former Public Investment Corporation boss whose wife Portia was director general of public enterprises. A perhaps more likely candidate is passenger rail chief Lucky Montana, a confidant of Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, who is favoured by transport union Satawu.

The new board is a mixed lot who seem to show the influence both of Hogan and her former deputy, Enoch Godongwana, and of those close to Zuma. Certainly its chairperson, Mafika Mkhwanazi, did not shine during his time as Transnet chief executive, but there are several strong independent directors. They will have to choose a chief executive who has serious operational expertise and whose commitment is to the crunchy detail of trains, ports and pipelines, not politics.

Years of political meddling have hobbled the company responsible for moving South Africa, it’s time it was given a chance to deliver its crucial load.

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