Mbeki’s decision to withdraw from the Aids debate deserves emulation. Zuma should consider withdrawing from publicly commenting on the economy.

There was a time in our great Republic when HIV-Aids was a political football.

President Thabo Mbeki was a leading striker in the dissident camp. He fought civil society groups and drug manufacturers who wanted his government to provide drugs to those in need.

Mbeki expressed scepticism about whether Aids was the biggest threat facing Africa, as opposed to poverty, and whether a virus could cause a syndrome.

He believed there was a racist agenda to caricature Africans as “promiscuous carriers of germs”, who suffered from “unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust …”.

Mbeki took to lecture halls, parliament and the internet to express his views.

While the debate was ongoing, people were dying of Aids.

For a while leaders of the ANC cheered him on, defended him or remained silent. A few dared to raise a finger.

While Mbeki was absorbed in this controversy his administration had no clear policy to respond to the scourge.

But after some time those close to him told him he needed to stop. They had had enough of the public backlash. He withdrew.

The government went on to implement an unambiguous Aids policy. Millions of lives were saved. There was policy certainty.

 

Pres. Zuma should consider withdrawing from publicly commenting on the economy.

Zuma’s utterances and decisions have a negative effect on the country’s economic direction.

It’s not clear what inspires Zuma to say the kinds of things he says on matters economic.

Some of his remarks and decisions have caused irreparable damage. Now investors don’t talk about South Africa without referring to “political risk”, a synonym for “Zuma risk”.

This means the prospect of creating jobs, reducing poverty and nailing inequality are slim.

His economic gaffes are too many to enumerate. The latest are his remarks that the effects of his sacking of Nhlanhla Nene from the finance portfolio and replacing him with a man of no standing in the world of finance were “exaggerated”.

How could he possibly say this when investors lost billions of rands, confidence in the economy as an investment destination took a hammering and the rand got battered?

On economic matters the president either has a rudimentary understanding or no grasp at all.

To members of the governing party and ordinary South Africans — the real victims of the president’s economic utterances — he means well and should be forgiven for his lack of economic sophistication. But the globalised nature of stock markets and currency markets is such that there’s hardly time for sympathy.

Global markets don’t operate on a philanthropic basis.

If they have to dump the rand for the dollar because Zuma has pressed the wrong buttons, they will do so. If they have to quit our stock exchange, sending shares tumbling, because they think Zuma is gambling with the economy, they will do so.

But now Zuma gives investors a reason to doubt whether he is committed to continued prudent fiscal management.

It matters a lot to investors what he, as the president of the most advanced and diversified economy in Africa, says — and does.

It’s about time he stopped making harmful utterances.

His comrades must compel him to withdraw from such matters and give ministers in the economic cluster space to instil investor confidence in the country.