Business Maverick


After the Bell – Mining Indaba 2024: The broken mechanics of SA’s political system

After the Bell – Mining Indaba 2024: The broken mechanics of SA’s political system
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses delegates on the opening day of the Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town, 5 February 2024. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There is an old saying that you should never trust anyone who promises you change unless he or she is a cashier. Politicians keep promising change and seldom deliver, yet people still vote for them again and again. What exactly is wrong with the mechanics of politics? Us? Them? The system? Nothing?

I was in Cape Town on Monday attending the Mining Indaba, which was opened by Sama Lukonde, the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and our own President Cyril Ramaphosa. Listening to Ramaphosa’s speech, I was struck by how much of it contained promises that were at the same time very specific and very generic (read dubious).

For example, he said the Department of Mineral Resources had released requests for proposals for the procurement of 5,000MW of renewable energy under Bid Window 7, another 2,000MW of gas-to-power and 615MW of battery storage. The only problem is that Bid Window 6 was increased to 4.2MW of power in 2022. Ramaphosa didn’t say how much of this window had been built or was still being built, but he did say that 1.3MW were in construction or already in operation.

In this perverse little example, we have the crux of the problem in the mechanics of modern politics: a grandiose promise and the use of very specific information to suggest promises are being kept. But in fact, they aren’t; the data are presented in a way that suggests progress, pulling up a little bit short of honesty.

Other statistics presented at the mining conference tell a more accurate story. The Minerals Council South Africa, the mining sector’s business lobby, releases very carefully constructed statistics on the performance of the industry every year. On Monday, it reported the first drop since 2015 in South African mineral sales during a calendar year. 

SA’s mineral sales fell by more than 13% in nominal terms in the first 10 months of 2023, which, if extrapolated to the full year, would constitute the largest annual fall since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. Exports fell by 11%. What’s to blame is a combination of Eskom and Transnet dysfunctionality.

Amazingly and remarkably, the mining sector managed to add 7,500 jobs comparing the pre-Covid period to the most recent numbers, more than any other sector (most declined) and paid higher wages while increasing its contribution to the fiscus. Such is the strength of the global commodity market.

Allow me to guess what happens here: The Cape Town mining conference, one of the world’s largest, invites the President to give an address. The President, who likes to be seen at these events for political reasons, accepts. Someone gets commissioned to write a speech. 

If you are writing a speech for the President, there are two things you don’t do: 

  1. You don’t completely make things up (unless you are a US politician — they have a different tradition); and
  2. You put your best foot forward. Obvs.

The result is an odd, slightly untrustworthy mixture of factoids and the highfalutin language of soaring hope. Neither is convincing.

Ramaphosa ended his speech by saying: “We look forward to deepening our collaboration with industry as we write a new chapter in the history of South African mining. A story of inclusion, growth, transformation and innovation — and one in which no one is left behind.” 

To which my response would be: Just exactly who do you think you are kidding? SA’s mining sector constituted around 15% of the country’s economy in 1994 when it employed about 600,000 people. It now constitutes 6.2% of GDP and employs 470,000 people. Of course, the GDP as a whole has increased substantially. The industry has not imploded, a relief in itself. But the notion that this is a satisfactory and laudable improvement is entirely hogwash.

This much is obvious: the gap between intentions and reality is gradually widening. The result is that ANC support is declining and, perhaps more significantly, the trust in government as an institution is eroding. This leads to the gradual disaffection of voters, resulting in large proportions of unregistered voters, or registered voters who choose not to vote.

This is not a uniquely South African problem, but what is remarkable is how fast it has happened here; in a mere 30 years, the largest political party has become the Idon’treallygiveatoss Party. In SA, it’s estimated that there are 18 million citizens of voting age who will not vote. In 2019, the ANC was voted in with about 10 million votes. That is truly weird. Very few countries, and certainly no major democracy in Europe or North America, come even close to this skewed ratio.

The problem is threefold: these potential voters don’t believe participating in the political system will make a huge difference; and/or they don’t believe the promises made by the ruling party; and/or they don’t believe there is another option out there that will make a huge difference. That’s pretty much a wall-to-wall indictment of the political system.

In an ideal world, the mechanics of the political system work like this: politicians make promises; they are voted in based on those promises; they work to implement those promises. Things get better, or things get worse. If better, they are voted in again. If not, not. 

In every step of the mechanism in SA’s case, the moving parts are all jammed up. DM 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Richard Lydall Lydall says:

    Australia voting numbers are high but then it is mandatory to vote and you are prosecuted if you fail to do so.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Cape Town is a great place to visit in the cold Northern winters….. even if the presidential speeches by Ramaphosa and Mantashe disappoint

  • Colin K says:

    It’s easy enough to understand with just two TV shows. Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister deftly shows up the workings of civil service and Veep does the same with the political side. House of Cards (old British or new US) also helps to understand the importance of power.

    Sadly, these shows look staid and far too reasonable as compared to the politics we see in the world today.

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