TheBigPond - spotlight on what South African business and business people have been up to in Europe. Edited by South African journalist Christo Volschenk from Stuttgart, Germany. Note: This blog has migrated to a new home at www.thebigpond.eu.
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WAS IST LOS, FRAU MERKEL?
Something's wrong with Frau Merkel.
Since her "inappropriate" speech during chancellor Schr?der's no confidence debate she looks like death warmed up.
She looks tired, stressed, unhealthy, untidy and unhappy (even I couldn't manage all those things on a bad day). Like someone who's under huge stress. And can't cope with it.
And she hasn't even been chancellor for a day!
If she doesn't shake herself out of this "daze" soon and start looking like chancellor material, the CDU/FDP coalition will not make it in the September election.
And if they lose in September it will surely go down as the most remarkable election loss in recorded history.
I accept there must be a hellavulot of stress involved in getting an election program on paper in Germany - a country where everyone gets some kind of hand-out and thinks he/she is entitled to it until death parts him/her from Father State.
But, really. She had it in the bag 4 weeks ago. Now it looks like she's going to lose something she never had.
And it wasn't always like this. Until this fated no confidence vote she was superb in her public appearances. Looking....well, looking OK. But, saying the right things. In general, looking in control and on top of her job.
Then she came with that "I'm-the-little-campaign-fighter-on-the-opposition-bench" speech in the no confidence debate, when a statesmanlike "Meet-your-next-chancellor" speech was called for.
That was a bad day for her. (It was also a bad hair day for her. But then again, almost every day is).
Could it be that on that day some of her party colleagues lost faith in her ability to lead them all to victory in September?
Egal. Only thing important now, is that she regains her former "glory".
The problem is, Frau Merkel has to get her act together, because the CDU/FDP can't rely on anyone else to pull them through.
Herr Stoiber certainly can't do it. He simply hasn't got the stature, gravitas, body language and presentation needed to be a chancellor. If he was the opposition candidate for chancellor and not Frau Merkel, they would lose (again). I'm sure.
And she has to get her act together quickly. Voter polls are getting unfriendlier by the week. If the rot picks up a certain momentum, she's not going to stop it before it's too late.
Then Germany will sit with the same problem after the election than before the election: a government too weak to act fast, decisively and with the perceived strength needed to get tough reforms through.
So, Frau Merkel. Shake yourself out of it. And start looking and acting like a statesman, eh....stateswoman. Your country needs you.
ECB INDEPENDENCE REVISITED
While I'm at it, I should perhaps just finish the chapter on central bank independence (for now.....we'll most certainly be revisiting this topic in the not too distant future).
So, the EZB withstood all political and other pressures on it last week and announced it will NOT drop rates.
Because it stuck to its guns "against the wishes of the EU parliament", so to speak, the EZB came out of the whole episode with its independence strengthened - not weakened, as I thought might happen.
Does that mean this observer is now going to say "sorry, I was wrong" and eat humble pie? No, unfortunately not. Because my point still stands: it is unhealthy and potentially dangerous for EU politicians to be putting pressure on the EZB in the way they've done in the past months.
And it is strange, to say the least, that the EU parliament voted on the issue of the EZB monetary policy stance. (Why they did that, I still haven't been able to find out.) In principle, that is wrong.
So, what I observe as a "latent danger for the Euro", still lurks.
Something else. The EZB decision to keep rates unchanged came 24 hours before the London bombings. Would the EZB have made the same decision if the bombs exploded 25 hours earlier?
Probably, yes. But, my guess is, the chances of a rate cut next time around (is it September?) have been increased by the bombings.
Also expect the clamour from politicians and other commentators for a rate cut to increase in the coming months, as the business cycle takes new turns for the worse.
ABOUT HAIR AND POLITICS
Come to think of it, what is it about politics that is so bad for women's hair?
Think about Maggie Thatcher, Hilary Clinton. And now our own Angie Merkel. Not to speak of all those Green female politicians we see on our German TV screens every night.
They all have terrible hair.
Don't they care? I don't think so. Don't they have the time? I don't think so. Don't they know how? Well, now we might be getting warmer....
Until now politics and elegance/style/femininity have been mutually exclusive things. But, I always hope it changes.
Would it not be heaven to watch an Andy McDowell-like, or Julia Roberts-like politician telling us why we should stomach a tax increase?
FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN SA REVISITED
A while back I wrote about the high court decision in SA which prohibited the Mail & Guardian from publishing an article on alleged corruption.
Then I suggested the facts would come out anyway - washed of their "illegality".
This week the same publication published a story so long, so packed with facts, so damning of the ANC and (on the face of it) the judge who tried to keep the story from slipping into the public domain, that I could only lean back in my chair, stretch my arms and think: there is nothing more determined to win than a journalist who has been muzzled by a court.
Yes, that's true. If you want a story to come out, then run to the court and get an interdict prohibiting publication.
So, the facts are out. Here they are, in all their glory. I can recommend the story. (But beware, it will take a few minutes to read...quite involved).
Go to www.mg.co.za and click on the Oilgate headline.
Alternatively, paste this (rather long) address in your browser:
Although it feels good to know this level of investigative journalism is still "happening" in SA, the episode has it's dark side, ie. how on earth could the judge have come to the conclusion that it was not in the public interest that these facts come out?
Could the judge have been under political pressure to rule the way he did? Does this put the independence of the courts from the politicians in question?
Or, am I just being naive (again)?
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TREATING THE SYMPTOMS, NOT THE CAUSES
It is very tempting to say: President Mbeki, for more than 8 years now commentators have been warning about the dangers of "doing nothing" about Zimbabwe and economists have been warning of an impending economic disaster in that country. But, you decided to rather wait until the mango hits the fan, or worse....you hoped the problem would go away. Now the SA taxpayer must foot the bill for your inaction.
But, that would be a bit unfair. An over-simplification of the problem and of the treatment it was given...
So, I'll rather not say that, and stick to a few "factual observations" (Yes, I haven't had my morning coffee yet).
But before I do, here a short exerpt from a recent article in the Mail & Guardian, to bring everyone up to speed, so to speak:
"We engage them because we don't want Zimbabwe collapsing next door," Mbeki said.
"South Africa would inherit all the consequences of Zimbabwe collapsing," he said.
Mbeki said his finance minister and central bank governor were negotiating with top Zimbabwean officials to find ways to help the country pay for urgently needed imports of food, fuel and electricity. Zimbabwe needs $1-billion to stave off economic implosion, say Harare economists.
The announcement came as Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, travelled to China to request financial assistance from Beijing.
Mbeki confirmed that his officials were considering ways to pay off the $300-million that the Mugabe government owes to the International Monetary Fund.
Zimbabwe risks becoming the second country ever to be expelled from the IMF later this month.
Mbeki said the termination of Zimbabwe's membership would be "counterproductive" because it would create "a bigger problem" that would "require bigger resources to solve". (End of quote.)
My observations. Firstly, until Zimbabwe's "real problem" is removed, the country will fall from one economic and political crisis to the next and outside money-givers will have to keep coughing.
One could still have agreed with this $1 billion loan Mbeki wants to give Zimbabwe if that would have put the country back on the road to recovery. But, it won't. This will be the first of many bail-outs with Mugabe at the helm. And will SA be the money-giver every time?
Secondly, I said "money-giver" and not "moneylender", although this assistance is called "a loan". Because SA will never see that money again. How can SA insist on getting it's money back from one of the poorest of the poor in Africa, while at the same time it campaigns (quite rightly, in my view) for debt foregiveness in Africa?
SA can't and probably never will insist on that money back. If more "loans" follow next year and the year after, this can turn into an expensive party.
Thirdly, Mugabe's trip to China is nothing less than a slap in Mbeki's face. The Mbeki who has been so "understanding" all these years.....who has bended over backwards to keep the "friendship" going.
But, no. Although Mugabe knows SA is willing and ready to help him, he defiantly flies off to China. Apparantly, because he doesn't like the conditions attached to the loan.
So, the man is as wild as ever. No sign of mellowing here.
Question remains: When will Mbeki get to the point where he says "enough is enough" and start putting some real political pressure on the wild one?
Three "loans" later and with half the Zimbabwean population in SA?