Thursday, January 21, 2016

Parallel worlds of South Africa's President Zuma and England's George I

The report in Business Day on January 19, ‘Gordhan vows to avoid downgrade’, raises arresting points about the de facto role of President Zuma’s dramatically restored but still nominally subordinate Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the implications for the possible longer term development of SA’s democratic institutions.
In Britain in 1714 George I ascended the throne. Back home in Hanover, George was an absolute monarch; Britain already enjoyed parliamentary government.
Poor George, unfairly or otherwise, was considered a dull fellow by the English, unable to speak the language, caught up in marriage difficulties and never really quite up to events. Not coincidentally, he was away on a distracting holiday break in Hanover when a huge financial crisis known to history as the South Sea Bubble exploded. There was widespread ruin of companies and individuals and, through a network of bribery and corruption, a threat to the solvency of the British realm.
Into these calamitous events stepped capable Sir Robert Walpole to save the situation. With George abdicating - if not personally, then effectively - the crucial functions of government, Sir Robert became de facto prime minister - Britain’s first. He did not have that title at the time: his official titles were First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer – that is to say, finance minister. Britain’s prime minister is still known by the first title, though not the second, another prudent separation of functions later.
These innovations led, in turn, to the eventual emergence in Britain of cabinet government. George I had always shunned cabinet meetings because he couldn’t understand what they were talking about; and the cabinet gradually came to see his presence as irrelevant anyway. The parallels to recent events and the general situation in SA, many would say, are marked.
This first appeared as a letter in Business Day on January 21 2016

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