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  • Writer's pictureAndile Khumalo

Ross Perot Caused Few Waves In '92, But The Ripples Are Still With Us

Updated: Oct 13, 2019

In a welcome break from the rather violent local political scene, my attention shifted this week to the US, where a billionaire died who had run for president and had spoken of the "giant sucking sound" of jobs being lost to Mexico. No, not Donald Trump; Ross Perot, who died on Tuesday aged 89. If you are a born-free, you are forgiven if his name doesn't ring a bell, because Perot's dalliance with politics took place in 1992 when he ran as a third-party candidate for president against George Bush snr and Bill Clinton.

During the race, he referred to the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) as the instrument that would cripple the US economy by shifting jobs to Mexico. Such sentiments would form part of the Trump campaign later on. But it is in his role as a pioneer of the information age that Perot's story intersects with Trump's. Having left IBM to found Electronic Data Systems, Perot laid the blueprint for today's global information economy and in the process made himself a fortune.

"The Darroch episode is a demonstration of the flaws inherent in the information age"

Rapid information exchanges now transcend borders and facilitate fast communication. Unfortunately, very few systems remain to filter or verify information that finds its way into the public discourse. And the constant threat of information interception means the burden of responsibility on those charged with custody of sensitive personal, political and business data is heavier than ever.

Data interception - whether accidental or intentional - is the new business threat of our age. This imposes an obligation on custodians of information to "foolproof" their systems. The consequences of data breaches are dire, whether it's a falling-out between friends or a company that loses all credibility.

Last week, British Airways was fined a record £183m (about R3.2bn) for the system hack that resulted in the publication of the private data of more than 500,000 passengers. Soon afterwards, an information leak blew up into a diplomatic crisis between the US and the UK. Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to Washington, sent home a cable that referred to the Trump administration as "inept and woefully incompetent".

While the characterisation would hardly surprise anyone, the cable, published in the Mail on Sunday, sparked a furious reaction from Trump on his favourite platform, Twitter. His invective - bordering on crass - would ordinarily have invoked an icy response from the UK government. But the UK has no functional government at the moment and the man in the running to fill the vacuum, Boris Johnson, is himself a stranger to diplomatic niceties.

The Darroch episode is a remarkable demonstration of the flaws inherent in the connected world of the information age. The ambassador put his faith in information integrity, but when that was breached he had to resign. Trump on the other hand uses Twitter to peddle falsehoods at will, with no apparent consequences; his audience does not care if there is no truth filter between it and his "alternative facts".

Perot's claims about Mexico proved to be unfounded when tested against facts. Rather, it was the Clinton administration's support for China's entry to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 that led to an exodus of US jobs.

Perot's views on Mexico didn't get much airtime because he had such little support. But he did win 18% of the vote, which allowed Clinton to beat the incumbent, Bush snr. Trump's stance on immigration and Mexico helped him to win in 2016; but his other bugbear, cheap imports from China, is a Clinton legacy. Delightfully ironic.

This article first appeared in the Business Times section of The Sunday Times on 14 July 2019.

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