Opinionista Mandla Lionel Isaacs 12 February 2020

Mr President, give us a grand new vision

The time is now, the country is waiting. The speeches are wearing out, the hour for doing is upon us.

Dear President Ramaphosa,

This is not a “This is what you should say in the Sona” letter. This is a letter about transformational leadership, making history and generational opportunities.

Mr President, your country is crying out for transformational political leadership.

I have no special insight into the internal dynamics of your party. I am aware that there are individuals and factions who oppose you, and who might even seek to remove you at the end of your first term. 

Beyond these acute threats, I am aware that – like all politicians everywhere – you have a number of constituencies to manage. You have a tripartite alliance and your party’s unwieldy and fractious broad tent.

Your challenges notwithstanding, I would ask you to consider the following.

Fortune favours the bold. I disagree with all the commentary which posits that you must tread carefully lest you be deposed. No, Mr President. Forge ahead, it is your enemies who must tread carefully.

You will never have more political capital than you do today, in the first year of your term. You won an election mandate last year despite your party, not because of it. South Africans were furious at a decade of disastrous, self-serving, corrupt and incompetent rule. The mandate you won was in no small part due to voters believing that you are ethical and not corrupt, that you have the country’s best interest at heart, that you are a throwback to the servant leadership of President Mandela – who respected you greatly, and with whom you worked closely – and that as a successful businessman and co-patron of the National Development Plan Vision 2030, that you would free us from failed ideology and dogma and set a pragmatic way forward.

You are in charge. Tough decisions have been deferred for too long. You will not be able to govern by consensus.

Mr President, I urge you, forge ahead. You have South Africa’s best and brightest at your disposal. You have excellent developmental and economic minds at the Presidency, at National Treasury and at the Reserve Bank. You have appointed an excellent economic advisory council (though with respect, I don’t see why it took you 19 months to do so after promising it in the 2018 Sona.)

If I may be so audacious as to give you some advice, it would be the following. I suspect – though I’ll be ecstatic if you prove me wrong – that you do not yet have a grand vision to announce in the Sona. You’ve been busy firefighting Eskom and SAA over the last several months.

Take one last kick into touch. Promise the nation that on the 8th anniversary of the NDP launch, in August of this year, you will be unveiling Vision 2030 2.0, as the country’s new grand vision. A slimmer, more practical document will be developed that will give clear orders to all levels of government and other stakeholders. It will form the basis for coordination and performance measurement of ministers and government departments. The high level of our new grand strategy to achieve rapid growth and inclusive, sustainable development within 10 years will fit on a couple of pages, and be easily understandable by everyone from eight years old to 80.

In this summit, a clear direction and vision will be taken, once and for all. Everything will be on the table, all the sacred cows. There will be no years-long haggling at Nedlac. All will be heard, and then you will make decisions.

Business needs to make concessions. With the level of inequality in our country, the most privileged among us must sacrifice first. All the more so, as the structure of our economy excludes the majority of the population. Wage restraint, employee representation on boards, and increased black ownership targets, among others, should be on the table. Black asset managers’ share of the national savings pool must be increased from 7% to 50% forthwith. Business should generously fund transformation funds in each sector, administered by black industry groups. Overly concentrated sectors need to be addressed; maybe Minister Patel can come armed with some proposals on large companies to break up to open space for new entrants and SMMEs.

More proposals should be solicited and interrogated.

Labour needs to make concessions. Union leaders must be forced to start engaging with the need for sustained productivity improvement, a goal which might be helped by employee representation on boards. Unions should make concessions on strike frequency and wage demands if employees benefit from the upside through expanded employee share ownership. Small businesses should be exempt from collective bargaining agreements.

Increase the pay for experienced teachers and principals, in exchange for stronger performance and consequence management.

The government needs to make concessions. It was great to hear Minister Gwede Mantashe tell the Mining Indaba that companies will be able to generate their own electricity, with minimal red tape. State-owned companies should be opened up to competition, as Treasury’s draft strategy calls for. The departments of Energy and Transport should publish high-level benchmarks of our electricity and transport (passenger and freight) costs – against peer developing countries – and use these as a basis for discussions with SOEs, the Department of Public Enterprises, Parliament, business and the public.

Close down those that can be better run by the private sector. Empower SOE management to right-size businesses, compassionately. The days of SOEs as job reservation schemes are over, it is foolish to make the economy uncompetitive to serve a handful of companies; the SOEs’ raison d’etre should be to make the economy competitive, alongside transformation. Create a national fund to retrain retrenched workers, pay them a stipend while they study or give them grants to start businesses.

Is that R100-billion-plus UIF surplus still there? Return it, all of it, directly to workers to provide some relief and some economic stimulus.

The government must commit to moving at the speed society needs, not suffocating our economic dynamism with years-long policy and regulatory processes. The telecommunications spectrum auction should be given a “come hell or high water” date as soon as feasibly possible in 2020, or heads should roll.

The NPA should start prosecuting low-hanging fruit (Estina?) and Zondo Commission malfeasance while the inquiry goes on.

Above all, the national development strategy should commit to two things: being world-class in a number of areas, and some moonshot goals.

What does it mean to be world-class? If asked where is the best place in the world to do a thing, consumers should answer: “South Africa.” Where’s the best place in the world for precision engineering? Germany, maybe Japan. Textile craftsmanship? Italy. Manufacturing? China.

The answer for mining used to be South Africa, it should be again. Tourism? You’ve set a target of 21 million visitors by 2030. Let’s get there earlier. Let’s address the cost to get here, marketing, crime and perception. We’re competing with Dubai, Bali, Thailand. Let’s analyse the customer decision journey for Chinese, Americans and other distant rich tourists, and make sure South Africa shows up well at each stage. 

Fund the Department of Home Affairs properly and give it a stake in the upside. Give the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) more resources as tourism arrivals go up.

Over-invest in the gates to our country. Think like a business. When international travellers arrive at OR Tambo and find only a handful of immigration counters open because of DHA’s meagre personnel budget, how many billions does the country lose when travellers return to their home regions and grumble about the experience of transiting through South Africa while they rave about Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Singapore? We should have eGates by now, South African passport holders should be breezing past machines overseen by a couple of immigration agents, while the bulk of our officials process foreigners.

Fast-track the overhaul of ports of entry. Beitbridge is the biggest gateway to the SADC. We should make it a strategic priority to establish a huge, efficient, one-stop border post at Beitbridge which is pleasant for travellers and truckers and a model for the rest of Africa.

Finally, moonshot goals. How about this… 6% growth by 2025, 80% of our kids reading for meaning in five years, 100,000 township kids trained in app development and software coding in three years (let’s study the model of École 42, a teacherless coding school in Paris with no qualification requirements). 

Let’s build a single, fast metro – combining the Gautrain and Metrorail – linking the entire Gauteng City Region with affordable housing at key nodes as part of an integrated, mixed-use development plan. Let’s build waterfront canals in Durban and turn it into a playground to rival Dubai and Miami. Independent power producers to establish world-class competence in solar plant production (with storage) and electric vehicle battery manufacturing within five years. Let’s convince Elon Musk to build a Gigafactory SA.

In closing, Mr President, I ask you to consider the 18th century Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke. Your party fixates unhealthily on an unworkable and undesirable idea of delegate representation where leaders’ sole authority and responsibility between conferences is to implement conference resolutions. Push back.

Burke argued instead for a trustee model, where your constituency accepts that it has elected you for your knowledge, experience and judgment. In matters of leadership, yours is to consider the mandate you have been given and all points of view, and then, crucially, to make decisions you believe to be in the public interest.

Put us on the path for rapid inclusive development and no conference will depose you. Rather, you will be remembered alongside Madiba, Lee Kwan Yew and Deng Xiaoping as enlightened nation-builders who chose the opportunity to change the course of history over any small, mundane calculus of political survival. DM

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