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Ebrahim Patel’s successor in industry ministry will have big shoes to fill


Richard Calland is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance and Director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)’s Africa Programme.

Ebrahim Patel announced he was bowing out on Friday, saying it was time for reflection. Regardless of any weaknesses the Trade, Industry and Competition Minister may have had, his dedication to public service, as well as attention to detail, will be sorely missed in cabinet. 

Will they stay or will they go? The question of who will serve in the next Cabinet is always an important one. The uncertainty that envelopes the outcome of the 2024 election makes it all the more intriguing. We can’t even be sure who will be the next president, never mind the composition of the cabinet. If there is to be a coalition government, seats in cabinet will be one of the main trading points.

Ebrahim Patel has now removed himself from the mix, meaning that one of the most critical and powerful positions in cabinet will be up for grabs — Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC).

Patel was appointed as minister of a new department of economic development in 2009 by Jacob Zuma in recognition of Cosatu’s role in the coalition that had brought political change at the ANC’s watershed national conference at Polokwane in 2007. But even more so because of the labour federation’s then political and policy prominence and leading role in society — an influence that was depleted drastically during the Zuma years, ironically.

Frankly, I did not expect Patel to last 15 months, never mind 15 years. But he has.

Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Mr Ebrahim Patel address the opening session of the second Black Industrialists and Exporters Conference. on 20 March 2024.(Photo: Jairus MmutleGCIS)

Secretary-general of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union from 1993 to 2009, Patel is not really an ANC man (despite having been drafted into parliament to sit on the governing party benches more than once during his time in cabinet). He does not have a major constituency within the African National Congress — which may have allowed him to keep his head down and avoid the brutal internecine factional battles that have destroyed the ANC over the past two decades.

A combination of gritty determination and sheer hard work, allied to astute political management has kept the wily former trade union leader in the game. During that first term in the cabinet from 2009-2014, Patel shrewdly persuaded Zuma to add competition law and policy to the new economic development department, meaning that Patel now had an existing line management function to add to the rather nebulous new portfolio — which initially had to operate as a kind of think tank within government, painfully short of people and budget.

Competition law and policy

Patel recognised the importance of competition law and policy in a modern government and a modern economy. As State Capture swept through the corridors of State power, the competition authorities maintained their institutional integrity — carefully defended by Patel, who saw them as one of the few viable instruments for State intervention in the market.

Later, in 2017, Patel put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons when at the annual competition commission conference he announced the results of a study of the economic consequences of State Capture, which not only created space for progressive political forces, including Cosatu — who had by then changed their tune on Zuma — to push back against State Capture but also to challenge the ‘white monopoly capital’ trope devised by Bell Pottinger at the behest of the Guptas by laying out the data in terms of loss of jobs (over 70,000 a year) and negative impact on GDP (over R27-billion a year).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Patel: Corruption toll could be R27bn to GDP, 76 000 job losses

The Industrial Policy and Strategy Review that was published by Patel earlier this month proudly cites the ‘wins’ of Patel’s more strategic use of competition law and policy. South Africa’s competition law is distinctive because the “public interest” is a criterion that must be met when determining whether a merger should proceed, as well as more traditional considerations about market dominance and reduced consumer choice.

Accordingly, the strategy review extols the gains of this expanded use of public interest commitments on mergers: “Through a series of high-value interventions, [the Competition Commission] secured over R68-billion in investment pledges, R58-billion in equity participation for about 200,000 employees, R17-billion in local procurement commitments, and R4-billion in supplier development funds. These figures represent very significant wins for the public interest and promotion of structural change in South Africa’s economy.”

Talking of mergers, in 2019, Patel’s diligent defence of institutional integrity was rewarded by Cyril Ramaphosa, who not only appointed Patel to minister of trade and industry but allowed him to bring economic development and competition into an expanded department. Patel has relished the opportunity and challenge. Most notably for a leader at this time, he has seemed to crave the systemic complexity that is the hallmark of the current global ‘poly-crisis’ — a concept that is the starting point for the deep diagnostic analysis that is to be found in the industrial policy and strategy review.

This systemic understanding and willingness to grapple with the inter-connected drivers of a modern economy that is being buffeted by a range of systemic shocks and pressures — from climate change to exponential technological change to geo-political shifts to the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine — is reflected in the paper.

It is a remarkable document and well worth a read — for several reasons.

Industrial Policy and Strategy Review

As most of the rest of the cabinet coasted lamely into the final days of their time in a government that had largely lost the political will to live, Patel was driving hard in the opposite direction, determined to publish a paper that looks forwards as well as backwards. In addition to a painstaking review of the impact of industrial policy, not just during the sixth administration but stretching further back, the paper draws lessons for the next government. It sets out a framework for industrial policy and strategy for the future — proposing 15 “anchor initiatives” that in a far-reaching and ambitious vision span infrastructure planning, green industrialisation and access to the digital economy, as well as trade policy and investment facilitation.

It has a valedictory tone for sure. And those who know Patel well, and his penchant for close control of everything within his authority, could have been forgiven for thinking that he was seeking to not just influence the next administration and to define his legacy but to contain whoever would take over the empire that he has built, should he not be re-appointed.

But the reality is more complex; this version ignores that, in fact, the paper was commissioned by President Ramaphosa, as part of his own commitment to the “re-imagining of industrial policy”, as he called it in the first State of the Nation address of his first full term as president in 2019. Ramaphosa has had a keen interest in Patel’s work and in the Industrial Policy and Strategy Review.

Now that we know Patel will not be coming back (of his own volition) it makes even more sense. It is, perhaps, one of the longer ‘handover’ notes written for a new cabinet minister — a position that will inevitably be one of the hottest commodities for trading in any coalition negotiations that follow next Wednesday’s election — but is none the worse for that. It reflects the serious-mindedness of Patel; something that is in short supply as populist leaders flourish across the globe.

Which is why it is worth taking a step back, to reprise why industrial policy matters. It is where macro and micro economic policy converges with trade policy to determine who gets what, when and how — to deploy a very old definition of political economy. In the era of globalisation, it is also the space that defines the extent to which a sovereign government is able to not so much protect its own economy but advance it.

In this context, economists will pose questions such as “is a strategic approach to the global poly-crisis and multipolarity to become more protectionist (with a large role for industrial policy), or just more strategic in which global partners to prioritise and on what grounds?”

This was one of the questions that I posed to Patel, when moderating a discussion at the Wits School of Governance on the day of the launch of the strategy review a couple of weeks ago. His reply was essentially that it should not be a binary choice between the two. This reflects the delicate dance that any serious minister of trade and industry must perform if they are to be effective. Unusually for him, Patel had begun the evening with a simple soundbite: “Industrial policy is back”.

What he explained to a packed house of thought leaders, policy wonks and students was that an inclusive industrial policy is one that reverses or defies the extractive logic of the Victorian and colonial period of Africa, and builds meaningful value chains

In relation to the just energy transition, for example, this means ensuring that the transition is not only from coal to renewable energy, but can galvanise what I have written of as a ‘whole economy transition’, that can create more new jobs, directly and indirectly, by building industrial value chains around the new energy infrastructure.

This is why industrial policy is back and why it matters — it is critical to inclusive growth and has the potential to help shift South Africa and the region onto a different, far more sustainable economic development pathway. Achieving ambitious outcomes will require agile leadership across government and private sectors, with a willingness to share Minister Patel’s disposition for navigating complexity.

Importance of State role

As the global leadership summit that I helped convene for my institute in Cambridge concluded in February: the state matters and matters greatly for sustainable development, recognising that while private sector innovation is vital, policy and governance co-ordination, alignment and regulation are also needed to ensure the right blend of sticks and carrots are in place.

Patel certainly believes in the role of a strong State and recognises that a weakness in his strategy is that State capability has been eroded and must be re-built. That will be a singularly important goal for the next administration — regardless of who is president.

Patel’s critics are fond of complaining that he “meddles” too much; that he should get out of the way and “just let market forces do their job”. This is old thinking. And Patel’s retort is “look at the evidence”, as well as to understand that regulation and partnership between private and public sectors are essential to cope with the complexity of the moment.

Patel argues that policy initiatives implemented in South Africa have shown significant gains in driving industrial outcomes” — the evidence is set out in commendable detail in the strategy review, for anyone who cares to look and learn, including the increases in inward investment over the past five years.

Patel adds that “the new conditions require a strategic focus on aligning South Africa with the opportunities arising from the global green economic and technology revolutions, whilst strengthening economic integration on the African continent. Implementation requires agility in leadership and in State capability, as well as even deeper partnerships across government and with the private sector; all underpinned by an appropriate set of support measures”.

Industrial policy may be back, but it is still like walking through treacle. It requires dedication and devotion to public service, as well as the attention to detail that Patel, regardless of any weaknesses that can be ascribed to him, has in spades.

In this respect, he will be sorely missed in cabinet. His successor has big shoes to fill.

It will require a minister who in addition to these attributes, can maintain an optimistic mindset, given the scale of the challenge.

Unusually for him, Patel ended his presentation at Wits with a literary reference — to the great Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who wrote: “Optimism is radical. It is the hard choice, the brave choice…These days, the safest way for someone to appear intelligent is being sceptical by default…Optimism is not uncool; it is rebellious and daring and vital”. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Lewis says:

    This is an appalling piece of hagiography even for a Ramaphosa toady like Calland. Patel has been a wrecking ball for trade and industry, not enabler.

    • Pet Bug says:

      I agree. Cringe-worthy article.
      No doubt Patel was not corrupt and probably a perfectly good person, but heralding a Stalinist Ideologe who single-handedly ham-strung and undermined the SA entire economy’s energy and innovation to his communist ideal is frankly outrageous.
      Lost for words.
      Good riddance.
      And may Patel reflect while gardening on his hare-brained ideology that inflicted so much destruction.

  • Phil Lagerwall says:

    Whilst I can appreciate the authors admiration for Mr Patel and his good intention of putting together detailed and well thought out white papers and other high minded documents, the DTIC has been asleep at the wheel over the past 2 decades. I speak from experience when I say that global markets have made certain industries in SA a highly competitive environment. Whilst this has benefits to the consumer in terms of choice and price, it is a very uneven playing field when the international competitors have tremendous state backing that is unified and fluid. There is a reason that SA is becoming a consumer rather than a producer in certain industries and that we are de industrialising despite having a solid industrial base (Eskom and Transnet excluded). This has a direct impact on job creation. While the DTIC is drafting white papers and nit picking over what they can extract from industries begging for assistance, other nations are eating our breakfast. The state can be an incredibly useful tool for growing an economy (see Brazil and Thailand) but only when they act quickly and decisively to the ever changing world around us. Unfortunately in all my dealings with the DTIC, I have felt that they would rather talk and pontificate than take action. Execution beats strategy every time.

  • Joe Soap says:

    The role of Patel is defined by his “contribution” during the Covid epidemic – no roast chicken or open shoes.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    A star performer in the cabinet for for some years. A rarity. I wish him a happy retirement, but this is a big loss.

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    The private sector and industry are not going to miss Patel. A communist/socialist involved in the unions trying to setup policy for a capitalist market was always bound to be a failure. What positives happened on his watch? The negatives are: the flight of industry and brain power from south africa, the decline in industry and manufacturing sector and the rise in unemployment. One just hopes that his successor is a more enlightened person and more friendly towards the private the sector who are providing employment and funding for the fiscus.

  • Johan Buys says:

    With any luck his replacement is a person that has actually built and run industrial businesses in SA and that can act as enabler rather than a stumbling block. There are dozens of examples of how our trade policies handicap our industries.

    We allow the likes of Sasol and the steel manufacturers to charge local players import parity prices : so if you have a use for methanol from Sasol or steel from Arcelor, they calculate a Rand price that pretends you had to buy it from China or Taiwan or Japan, ship it here, pay freight & insurance, get it from the port to your factory and pay forward cover for 9 weeks. They get it wrong. A while back we could land the entire steel structure for an open field solar array supports in fully manufactured kit form – down to washers and nuts and bolts – for cheaper than the local steel guys could buy just the metal for from our proudly SA steel industry.

    Anyway, with luck we get somebody that has business sense.

  • Charl Engelbrecht says:

    Both Patel and Gordhan are departing just in time. If they hang around any longer, they risk getting slapped out of their overpriced shoes.

  • Martin Neethling says:

    If ‘industrial policy is back’, and we now need to ‘re-imagine’ industrial policy, it might be opportune to wonder where it went in the first place. The ‘look at the numbers’ approach that Calland thinks Patel would do emphatically, unequivocally and dammingly, shows how a Patel has utterly failed. The de-industrialisation of SA, the loss of global competitiveness, and the erasure of the jobs related to that are on him. I can hear Calland already trying to explain and contextualise and rabbit on about how the world has changed, but the brutal fact is that Patel’s meddling, and his Big State mindset is rooted in his Trade Union and Communist roots. Only in SA do we think putting an anti-business oke in charge of business is smart. It isn’t, and it’s cost SA massively. That he’s hardworking and polite might single him out from the worst of his cabinet colleagues but it does not excuse his anti-commerce posture on nearly everything, and his penchant for ‘master plans’ when either his department or one of his colleagues departments have wrecked yet another aspect of our economy. Sugar, steel, poultry have all felt his cold disdain, many deals abandoned or heavily burdened by competition commission extractive (rather Victorian one might say) demands. This person has been terrible for SA, and his very slight shoes could so easily be filled by a business person with a strong growth orientation. And we have those, just not one perhaps that responds to the label ‘cadre’.

  • William Kelly says:

    Happily we are all entitled to opinion pieces, so here’s mine. Patel, on every possible measure, has been found wanting. A hard working man does not a successful man make – to equate the two is naive. Forget about open shoes and chicken – any , and I do mean any, responsible person would have thrown that speech into the bin, and look at something like the motor trade. Under Patel’s direct dithering and vacuous lack of leadership investment decisions into the future of auto manufacturer have already been taken, years ago, whilst our OEMs have been screaming for one. We still don’t have one of substance, much less of any credibility when compared to those generated three decades ago long before Patel was anywhere near the wheel. Result? Patel rode on the coat tails of those that have gone before, those who had the foresight to build via implementable and meaningful policy. What Patel has left is what will become a shadow of past glories, our world class OEMs policy bound to produce ICE to compete only for the African market who are the ones left using them.
    He’s done the damage, and now he’s off into the sunset to enjoy the taxpayer funded retirement he probably believes is due him. It’s galling that such blatant incompetence, meddling and dithering can at any level be called “big shoes to fill”.

  • Colin Braude says:

    “look at the evidence”

    I used to work in the Cape clothing industry, which ranged from listed companies to “3 machinists in a garage”, to tailors and seamstresses. The ecology supported not only hundreds of thousands of workers, but ran to the costumes for the Minstrels (a closely guarded secret and part of Cape culture) and also earned foreign exchange through exports.

    As a Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union boss, Cde Ebrahim was part of the destruction of this vibrant sector.
    During his minstership, SA’s GDP and employment have collapsed.

    Strange that Professor Calland [MAHFGR] missed that.

    • Mike SA says:

      Colin, Durban also had a vibrant clothing industry that made good quality clothes. I would quite happily pay extra to keep these industry’s in place because we had excellent garment manufacturers.
      The stuff imported from China by Woolworth’s just does not cut it both in quality and in fit.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    Using the word “shoes” in any piece on this arch-communist is the height of irony. Remember Covid; no sandals, no hot food takeaways? Good riddance.

  • John P says:

    A communist, a socialist and a unionist. In his watch our manufacturing capability has been reduced, entire sectors such as clothing virtually destroyed and we have an unemployment rate that just keeps getting worse. They only thing to celebrate about Mr Patel’s time in government is that it has finally come to an end.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Has Calland left Cape Town for UK…. he worked for Blair back in the daybefore coming to Cape Town

  • Laurence Erasmus says:

    The macro economic data for the past 15 years does not lie! Patel has been a disaster for the macro economic growth of our economy. He will not be missed and his shoes should be banned as to fill them will mean the continuation of Patel’s wrecking!

  • Wayne Gabb says:

    Calland has obviously never run a competitive business and had to deal with DTI !!

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    One cannot post a communist as minister of industry. Nor competition. The very ethos of communism is lack of competition or industrial growth.

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