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Who is responsible for South Africa’s decadelong disaster?


Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

Last week, I wrote about a paper published by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research on some of the longer-term trends in SA’s economic progress. The idea was just to present some of the data collected by the group.

The story can be found here. But the aspect of the paper which I didn’t address was the answer to the crucial question posed by the group: why has South Africa so badly underperformed its developing country comparators for so long?

The paper proposes three possible explanations: an external story – the end of the country’s growth was the consequence of the end of the commodity supercycle; a macro story – SA’s debt build-up and macroeconomic failures; and a microeconomic story – the persistent loss in productivity in the economy and the investment slowdown triggered by microeconomic policies.

I would like to reflect here a loose summary of the findings of this august group. There are three possible explanations, the group poses: an external story, a macro story, and a micro story.

The external story

The paper says that SA’s growth deceleration is often understood in the context of the end of an era of ever-improving terms of trade. “Given the relative importance of the mining sector to South Africa’s economy, a stagnation or reduction in commodity prices would ultimately imply a shock to economic activity primarily through a direct income effect, and the impact on mining exports and investment, but also through channels such as the availability of international finance and the real exchange rate. Moreover … the mining industry directly and indirectly affects fiscal balances through tax revenues, lower nominal GDP growth and other channels.”

However, the group discounts this explanation, saying the growth slowdown has little to do with the direct impact of reduced nominal mining gross value added, as it is the rest of the economy’s contribution that explains the downturn in GDP.

The commodity price shock to mining exports has indeed significantly contributed to export stagnation through the 2010s. But, it says, South Africa’s terms of trade have actually improved since 2007.

The fall in export commodity prices can explain at most a quarter of the decline in GDP growth, and does not explain the current fiscal dynamics, the report concludes.

The macro story

This is a more complicated issue, but one of the main arguments is that large public deficits crowded out private spending, leading to lower growth. Another aspect is that fiscal adjustment efforts from about 2012 onwards were self-defeating, also lowering growth.

SA fiscal policy in the decade after the global financial crisis was to maintain the budget deficits in order to provide countercyclical support to the economy. So why did this not work? The paper suggests that the composition of the increased expenditure had too much current expenditure and too little capital expenditure, which had a lasting negative impact on the allocative efficiency of government spending.

This might not have worked, but what it didn’t do was crowd out savings from firms or households. Part of the reason has to do with the financing which came primarily from foreign portfolio inflows. “On balance, while South Africa’s macro policy resulted in a large debt build-up, the arguments and evidence that macro policy slowed GDP growth are not compelling,” the paper finds.

A microeconomic story

Here, the paper finds its main culprit. The two main “microeconomic” issues are the sectoral roots of the productivity slowdown, and political factors behind the investment slowdown.

“Over the last decade, parastatals have been hit by an ‘operational, financial and governance’ crisis… Many factors … have resulted in a substantial increase in Eskom debt, rising from 2% to 9% of GDP in 12 years…”

Ultimately, “the micro story provides the most comprehensive account of the circumstances that led to the current growth challenge and a framework through which it is possible to evaluate the effectiveness of macroeconomic policy in the recent period,” the paper finds.

To put it brutally simply, the paper finds statistically what all South Africans know in their hearts: SA’s decline can’t be blamed on commodity prices or an overzealous reserve bank – the main arguments of politicians. Instead, the decline lies at the feet of those very politicians. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Joe Soap says:

    This is a boring story. Everyone knows the crime syndicate called the ANC is the reason. At least the solution should be easy, prosecute and eradicate. Unfortunately, in SA, the easy things are hard to do.

    • Stephen T says:

      True, but this article explains it in an expert and professional manner. Just pointing fingers at the ANC is not good enough because they can just ignore criticism as ‘mere opinion’ or their perennial favourite ‘racism’. They can’t do that quite so easily when it is a deep dive into the data itself that demonstrates unambiguously what a catastrophic failure they are.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Thank you for unpacking the UNU research – I downloaded this, but it’s way over my head.
    It would be great if the microeconomic culprit could be unpacked and where the government went wrong and look at remedial actions they must focus on.


    There is another group that is complicit in the responsibility and they are not called out often enough. There are honourable exceptions of course but the economics commentariat – including those in the “market”- has been notably shallow in their structural analysis of what ails South Africa.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Amen to that but we’re tired of being told ANC are crooked with no consequences. We’d like to know which institutions/politicians give a damn are pushing back, other than the overtly racist DA. Is Herman a real contender? Apart from the AG’s office what institutions are pushing back. The NPA seems a lost cause and no amount of money thrown it seems to improve its patent dysfunctionality. With Zondo done wherein lies our hope?

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