Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 28 January 2020

There’s only one thing worse than being talked about – and that’s not being talked about

South Africa has been the subject of some attention lately from international pundits, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. But that’s a good thing – as long as the government takes note.

The recent social media clips making the rounds from Davos have everyone talking. Richard Quest, speaking on the sidelines of Davos, laid into the South African delegation and took issue with our president and his approach to the current challenges facing our country. 

Quest says: “There’s no point in saying, invest, invest, invest, when you don’t have the policies worthy of it.” He then continues to say that while it was bad two years ago, “since then we’ve discovered just how awful the State Capture of state-owned enterprises has been. This is one of those few subjects where Pravin Gordhan tells us, ‘if you think it was bad, it is worse’.”

“Now you tell me,” he continues, “how anybody for the last five to 10 years has been saying South Africa is doing really well, we’ve got everything under control, and suddenly turns around and says well actually the economy was hijacked, by the way. And we’re terribly sorry to tell you that the losses are in the billions, well actually, we really don’t know, it could be in the trillions and oh by the way, even if it was bad, it was worse and we’re not even sure we’ve dealt with it.”

He concludes on the issue of SAA and says that proper transformation means “government hands off the airline. That’s proper transformation. Stop pretending that you are interested in transformation as the government, when in fact all you’re doing is moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic”.

When asked, how then does this reflect on the credibility of the South African government at a place like Davos, he simply responds “what credibility? The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, came in knowing that the government had minuscule credibility following the Zuma years and State Capture, you can’t suddenly whitewash it away, like you’re cleaning a wall.” 

Then he states on a positive note:

“Don’t get me wrong though, the opportunities in South Africa are huge, the potential is enormous, the labour force is fantastic, but you cannot just turn around to people and say, oh, by the way, don’t worry about that nasty little business, where trillions were siphoned off in a very corrupt environment”.

And so, the question beginning to rear its ugly head here, back home is, are you and your government doing anything about this very serious matter, Mr President? We know there’s some movement on some of these matters, but clearly the outside world does not. 

Then, to add salt to the wound, the historian Matthew Graham from the University of Dundee in Scotland added his critical voice to the chorus in an article published in The Star. He compared Ramaphosa’s negotiation skills of the 1990s to today’s challenges and states boldly that it clearly seems as though the president’s skill-set did not bear fruit in this current environment.

“His term in office has failed to deliver, raising the question: Has the legendary deal-maker lost his touch?”

Further on, he writes, “the president has the choice of economic meltdown, or keeping the ANC intact”. Stark choices it seems. But before we delve into these observations, let’s just put into perspective where we as South Africa stand in the global economy. South Africa is ranked as the 33rd-largest economy in the world, and we rank 37th in terms of GDP per capita (size of a country’s economy expressed per person living in it). By way of comparison, Nigeria is ranked as the 22nd largest economy, but 47th in terms of GDP per capita. Meaning, South Africans are wealthier per person in real terms. 

What lesson can we draw from these two pundits, I ask? Well, first, it’s nice to know that international pundits do take an interest in our domestic affairs and that they seem to think they have all the answers for us. Second, they seem to agree with the general sense in the country that Ramaphosa is not taking the bold decisions required to move the country forward, so to speak. Let’s take a look at both these sentiments and let’s see if we agree with them.

I have written before on the many strategic decisions made by our president in recent times, but the truth remains that a bolder and more decisive trajectory is required going forward. This is what most local pundits advocate for and as we have now seen, so too some international pundits. Quest is right – as South Africa, we have lost some of our international shine and attractiveness. Structural reforms are needed and if the unions are not onside, then so be it. Let them take to the streets if that’s what their contribution is going to be to our attempts to get ourselves collectively out of this rut.

Government shutdowns in the US are common, so why not here? Future generations must be uppermost in our minds when contemplating solutions to our current crisis. We simply cannot take opportunistic short-term decisions that will haunt future generations for decades to come. 

This is the kind of Radical Economic Transformation we require and not this nonsense from the EFF and some quarters of the ANC of nationalisation of land and the Reserve Bank. And may I also just add, the secretary-general of the ANC is correct that we as members must all be in support of conference resolutions, but this does not apply to the general public out there. 

The ANC is, after all, a governing party with a mandate from much more than just its one million members, and as such must be much more circumspect when it comes to radical resolutions from its conference. It did, after all, run the general elections in 2019 based on a manifesto which the people bought into. I don’t recall it saying the Reserve Bank must be nationalised, do you? 

Talking about decisive decisions, on another note, the pending decision by the ANC parliamentary caucus as it relates to the public protector (PP): Let us be clear, she is on the chopping block not because she is putting certain individuals into a corner, notably Gordhan and Ramaphosa, but because her office has been brought into disrepute too many times over the past few years. Losing court cases, embarrassing the office by overreaching the powers of her office, and our courts becoming irritated by her, hence imposing personal costs on her all the time. 

Let’s not fall into the trap which advocates that the removal of the PP is politically motivated. Seriously, she is incompetent and has brought the office into disrepute. That is why she has to go. I agree with the ANC and the DA on this one – the sooner, the better for us all. We need someone who can restore the image and reputation of the PP’s office. 

As for Quest and Graham, I concur thus: If the South African government and policy-makers can’t get growth in one of Africa’s biggest economies kick-started soon again, the rest of the world will outpace us in terms of poverty reduction, overall wealth and prosperity of people, and continued economic growth and development while South Africa keeps spinning its wheels due to corruption, ineffective and inefficient policies and their implementation. 

Lack of investment opportunities, both domestic and foreign, and policy uncertainty in terms of the land question (property rights), to name but a few stumbling blocks in South Africa’s economy right now. 

Let’s restore our credibility, Mr President, and let’s take heed of the views of our friends from afar. DM

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