Business, Politics

While SA plays its political symphony, business goes elsewhere

By Stephen Grootes 3 August 2011

We’ve suggested before that South Africa is in a policy impasse at the moment. The ANC and their alliance partners are simply unable to break out of it, and unless something changes drastically, the only thing that will happen is a whole lotta nothing. We’re still not wrong. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Nothing seems to illustrate this deadlock more at the moment than government’s stance on the Walmart/Massmart deal. Everywhere you move in government circles nowadays you hear about jobs, employment and jobs. There’s no definition of “jobs”, or even a brief discussion about “decent work” versus “jobs” anymore, because we all know that that sort of talk can spark another little skirmish between Cosatu and the ANC, or between Zwelinzima Vavi and Gwede Mantashe. So when a new employer comes into the market, in the shape of Walmart, and says immediately that it will create 15,000 jobs, one would expect much rejoicing in the land.

Wrong. The reaction so far has been anything but. Instead we had Tuesday’s press conference where the ministers of trade and industry, agriculture and economic development tried to explain why they were asking for more conditions to be imposed on Walmart. To listen to their lamentations, one would think we will all literally suffer a fate more horrible than death if this deal goes through unchecked.

But listen more closely to their arguments, and scratch behind the usual contentions that Walmart won’t give them hard undertakings not to cut some jobs, and you get a sense that they are doing what politicians do, protecting their turfs. So when DTI minister Rob Davies wanted to express how damaging Walmart would be for South Africa, he used Shoprite/Checkers boss Whitey Basson (and Walmart’s future competitor) as witness. Basson has apparently told him he will continue to use a local pasta producer just as long as everyone else does, but once Walmart starts to import the stuff, he will have to follow suit. Does Davies not think his star witness might have an ulterior motive here?

The trio were on safer ground when asked if they are not tipping against history, that you cannot stop the trend to globalisation – Walmartisation if you like. It’s nice for a political hack to come across three politicians who actually stop to think before they give you an answer, who actually answer your question carefully, thoughtfully and without malice. It’s rare in today’s rough and tumble of immature politicians (A dig at Julius? You must try better, Stephen – Ed). Davies took that one and pointed out, eloquently, how it’s the US and the EU subsidising their agriculture, how they are telling us to do as they say and not as they do. It’s a fair point.

But that doesn’t really matter here. What matters is that because we have a political logjam, ministers are first and foremost protecting their turfs. There’s no real deep examination of what’s good for the country. And because there are enough ministers of a particular political persuasion (i.e. SACP/Cosatu) who can claim to have a common interest in this issue, they’re able to go to the competition appeal court together.

Exactly the same thing is happening with the nationalisation debate. Every now and then a cabinet minister sticks their head above the parapet when they think Julius isn’t looking, and says the “debate” around nationalisation has harmed the economy. That’s become the strongest condemnation of Malema you’ll get. It’s code in a way nowadays for “I disagree with you, Julius”. The result is a distinct lack of interest in our mines and our minerals by the world as demonstrated by the precipitous fall in the flow of foreign direct investment into South Africa.

Every statistic shows how we have fallen down the competitiveness tables. And it looks like that the slide will continue unabated.

But all of this is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Everywhere you look, there is policy paralysis. Last week the Cabinet had a lekgotla. What was decided? Nothing. It’s one of those statements that literally talks in broad general statements, without giving any hard and fast commitment. A bit like Walmart’s response to government. So we had ministers and everyone else all in one place for four days, and the best they could come up with was a 12-point plan on job creation. The Jobs Fund currently has a budget of just R2 billion. Which is about the same as it will cost to keep a new power station in bog-roll for a month.

We all know why this is happening. It’s because nowadays you get to be president, and stay there, if you do not insult the powerful constituencies. And that’s a game Jacob Zuma is playing extremely well. It’s why we are likely, for a while, to have a succession of people in executive positions who prefer impotence to action.

In the meantime, we are going to drift, aimlessly. We all know it. If you look at any kind of infrastructure controlled by government (the Gautrain doesn’t count, there’s a hefty private sector aspect to that) you can see it’s in bad nick. And you know why. Because for someone to do something about it requires an actual political plan and strong will. Which requires that someone actually takes a decision and is responsible for it. It’s basically Eskom between 2000 and 2008 all over again.
Every time government gets together, you hear about “action”. All the words used as mottos, as slogans, are about the illusion that someone somewhere is actually doing something. Don’t be fooled. Everyone’s simply too bloody scared to move. Because If they actually do, their nose would be cut off but fast.

So what will break the stalemate, how will we move on? There are a few ways. Some big political event could happen that we can’t predict now. Cosatu could finally lose it with the ANC. Perhaps Malema will come to be the person that actually forces things apart. Or perhaps the economy will, somehow, start to move in a way that the interests of workers diverge sufficiently from the interests of the rulers in the ANC for there to be a real change.

Maybe, perhaps, could. Words that best illustrate our precarious position. At the moment, we can’t see the country moving away from the rot. All we can see is drift and despair. And the longer we drift, the deeper the despair and the worse things are going to get. DM


Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma delivers a speech at Renmin University in Beijing, August 25, 2010. Zuma on Tuesday urged China to invest more in infrastructure and manufacturing in his country, as his government seeks to broaden South Africa’s economic appeal beyond mines and resources. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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