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The year ahead: not quite one of sensible economic policy

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

ANC president Jacob Zuma’s January 8 Statement was everything I expected it to be: badly spoken, creaking under the weight of tired political platitudes, and ultimately placatory instead of bold and decisive.

Through this dense thicket of Zumaspeak, shone glimmers of a future direction, especially in economic policy, and it’s becoming very clear who is going to win the economic bun fight. Cue Cosatu’s entrance.

Zuma is not a man for public speeches. Put him in a crowd, away from prepared words, and he shines. On the podium, it’s a different story. He exudes extreme discomfort, and it affects the rhythm of his speech, often making it impossible for him to finish one sentence without taking a big pause. Combined with the fact that the content of Zuma’s speeches is also almost always poor, his halting delivery means a lot of meaning is lost. It is mostly a case of trying to catch the next soundbite, instead of focusing on the greater narrative.

A re-read of the January 8 Statement demonstrates a generous nod towards economic and development minister Ebrahim Patel’s New Growth Path, which boils down to that old slogan: jobs, jobs, jobs. The NGP aims to create 5 million new jobs over the next 10 years through massive public spending on infrastructure and the so-called “green economy”, as well as interventions in the mining and agricultural sectors. In his speech on Saturday, Zuma said, “All government departments will be required to put the appropriate programmes in place and establish the right environment for the creation of many decent and sustainable jobs in every way possible.”

Patel’s NGP has faced steady criticism since it was announced late last year, most notably for being a sort of wish-list, rather than a credible plan that can be implemented easily. The ANC’s own plans suffer from the same illness. Zuma has reiterated his party’s commitment to a grand government that provides jobs and gives to the needy, without explaining how any of this is to be paid for. As the Democratic Alliance pointed out in its statement that rather bizarrely chose to interpret the January 8 speech as a concession to the ANC Youth League, Zuma also failed adequately to address the problems that already exist in government, and are bound to grow as the government itself expands to accommodate all the new programmes and jobs. Cadre deployment has been a disaster and will continue to hobble government’s efforts.

The state is making far too many promises, and won’t be able to keep them all. Some ANC insiders agree with this. ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe (ever the voice of reason within the ANC upper echelons) hinted that public spending isn’t for free when he said to the Sunday Times, “People want houses, they want this and they want that. For free, for free! Where have you ever heard of such a thing?”

The unfortunate result of all of this will be greater public debt without any meaningful results on the ground. The country’s economic policy has failed once again to separate itself from the tripartite alliance’s tug of war. Policies such as Gear will fall away, not because they’ve become outdated, but because their backers have been cast into the political wilderness (where, oh where is Trevor Manuel?). A resurgent and re-energised Left has taken charge, and will direct this ship for as long as Zuma is in power. The trade unions have already begun to make their presence felt, as is shown by the absence within the NGP of the promise made by finance minister Pravin Gordhan to subsidise youth employment.

Besides the fact that it is easily the strongest faction within the alliance, Cosatu will seize full control of the economic steering wheel simply because no one else with any sort of political pull is presenting an even mildly credible economic plan. The only other option doing the rounds is brutally stupid – calls for the nationalisation of mines by Julius Malema and the ANC Youth League.

Amid all this, bad public education, the country’s greatest threat to long-term prosperity was inadequately addressed on Saturday. Who can forget the spectacle of our basic education minister Angie Motshekga using the time meant to be for the ANC Women’s League statement to defend her department’s ham-fisted massaging of matric results? The cries of jubilation over a 7% “increase” disguise the fact that public education is woefully inadequate. As long as this issue goes unaddressed, the ANC’s commitment to ensuring “a better future for all” rings very hollow indeed.

The government’s heart may be in the right place at times (robust state intervention in key industries to facilitate economic growth), but a bad plan is not better than having no plan at all. I’m not convinced the Left has given us the best economic plan of all. DM


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