SA has a habit of slowing down into major political events. Time seems to almost stand still. We saw it this past year with the municipal elections. In 2019, with the national elections, we even saw a sharp slowdown in the pace at which the government spent money before the election — something most other emerging markets (that generally see spending speed up into political event) would think bizarre.
The whole of the coming year is going to be internal-ANC-navel-gazing madness as one event stretches to the next inexorably towards the elective conference and the (non-event?) re-election of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The year will throw up a range of challenging questions with plenty of time to ponder these.
The battle will most intensely focus on the deputy president position and will tell us a lot about where the underlying majority and direction of the party really is once the broad — but loose — coalition that Ramaphosa has built disintegrates over time into a second term. The fallacy of the period since Nasrec has been that the battles have been the “Ramaphosa faction vs Zuma faction”, when in fact the most interesting issues were always intra-Ramaphosa faction — albeit a faction that is so broad since the step-aside realignment in the national executive committee as to not really mean much at all.
It would be interesting to consider — just to suspend disbelief for a moment — that some of the options for the top six would be judged on their competence in office and their policy views. Minister Gwede Mantashe’s already-formed campaign would become somewhat challenged in this regard, especially if we get a set of policy conference documents mid-2022 that actually acknowledge climate change and posit an even marginally sensible position on energy. His campaign may become the greatest test of the “Dilbert principle” of failing upwards.
But there is a serious point here. The minister has wielded great theoretically positive powers for change but has done remarkably little positive in his time in power; and, as we are seeing in the Eastern Cape at the moment, provincial power brokers will weigh up what the worth of various candidates really is. There may indeed be some reckoning of time in office.
Herein lies the challenge to the party and those whose support it seeks — particularly financially — in the year ahead. Is the party (as opposed to Ramaphosa himself and those closely knitted around him) a vehicle for positive change?
We have seen in the energy space this is clearly not so. The coming year will be so interesting here as wider actors like the financial sector and especially the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) largely dictate the direction of travel — the latter strategically setting the tone on critical issues like gas’s role in the transition (finding the Goldilocks point of not too much and not too little). We have already seen how the PCC has been a driving and catalytic force through 2021 and I expect more of that from it in 2022.
The climate and energy policy nexus is the most fundamental change being forced on SA and it is interesting it is a body like the PCC that is at the centre not the ANC (or indeed other parties). Eskom needs special mention here too for largely just getting on with it. The written story of 2021 was how quietly it was the catalyst for so much change and potential in future — against the wishes no doubt of the department of mineral resources & energy. Eskom’s latest brilliant idea (that sounds sarcastic — it isn’t) to lease land to the private sector for independent power generation shows a state-owned entity starting (ever so slowly) to get to grips with not being the centre of attention in the long run — against the ideological wishes of many.
But herein lies the fundraising problem for the ANC. What is the point? This is something that businesses and individuals are going to be thinking a lot about through 2022 as the president and others come cap in hand. Where is the real locus of change in society? The past year offered an interesting alternative for private donors who funded ActionSA in Gauteng or the Freedom Front Plus’s foray into semirural areas both with decent results. Similarly, the DA’s fundraising dry spot can quickly be overcome with now a multitude of mayor figures outside the “obvious” story of the Western Cape — if they can last more than six months.
While discussing funding seems rather grubby, this is the necessary underbelly of democracy and Ramaphosa will again be going cap in hand in 2022 ready for his elective conference fight. Unlike in Nasrec there are options now.
The policy conference midyear gives the ANC the chance to offer fresh views and insights and to surprise us by “getting it”. The madness of the fairground ride of post-Nasrec land reform nonsense — distracting from the urgent and necessary “real” land reform moves needed by instead focusing on a political vanity project trying to change the constitution — is only the most obvious example.
Yet to offer a different vision at the policy conference would be to choose between the sensible National Treasury and the madness of the department of trade, industry & competition agenda — something that doesn’t seem likely to happen. In other areas like energy policy, however, perhaps the president can show a little ankle. The political winds of the basic income grant will be especially carefully watched too through the political events of 2022.
The ANC’s failure on section 25 of the constitution in the National Assembly was a reminder of the noise and fury that SA can produce and yet something very different can occur underneath.
The next year will be like that again on energy policy, especially as the minerals and energy department charges down a dead end of coal and nuclear procurement and tries to offer a vision of a just energy transition that is counter to anything workable — least cost, maximising jobs or in line with global norms. Beneath that, corporates will be quietly getting on with the job of registering and then building sub-100MW generation capacity, helped by Eskom land and Eskom leadership on wheeling.
Above all, though, in 2022 — for all the party pomp and the noise — we will have higher unemployment and higher inequality than in 2017, or even in 2021.
Whether investors or party funders, the question for all politicians — going through large-scale narrative-dominant events or mayors quietly trying to make a difference — will be, can you turn the dial here or are you just creating noise and distraction?
• Attard Montalto is head of Capital Markets Research at Intellidex. This article first appeared on businesslive.co.za
Post 1994, SA rode a wave of global goodwill. We took advantage of it, pulling in billions in foreign investment and establishing a substantial tourism industry. That legacy gifted us membership of the G20 and the Brics group of nations, despite being economically insignificant compared with others under those acronyms. We have punched above our weight for many years. It has lulled us into a belief that the rest of the world cares about our interests.
It was a rude shock when SA and several of our neighbours were hit by global irrationality. The UK’s red-listing has destroyed a vitally needed tourist season by requiring all those returning to the UK to quarantine in government-controlled hotels at great expense. Canada’s refusal to accept SA-generated polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests is an insult to the quality of medical science in the country (though partly reversed now for Canadian citizens). President Cyril Ramaphosa has loudly and angrily declared these decisions irrational and in violation of international agreements made through the G20 to protect international tourism.
Theorists of international relations might posit that we are seeing a resurgence of realism in how the world treats SA. Countries are singularly concerned with their own interests and use their power accordingly. SA produces just 0.37% of global GDP, down from a democratic-era peak of 0.45% in 2008, giving it little to no power in confronting other nations for actions that harm its interests. Realist perspectives dismiss compassion for others’ suffering in state decisions, and certainly don’t acknowledge complicity in underdevelopment via colonialism.
Analysts from critical traditions see sheer racism in it. They can point to disgraceful media coverage, like the blatantly racist cartoon in Spanish newspaper La Tribuna de Albacete showing an SA-flagged boat arriving at European shores laden with brown-skinned coronaviruses with fat lips. The German newspaper Die Rheinpfalz showed a picture of poor black people under a headline “The Virus from Africa is with us”. The Bangkok Post headlined a story on efforts to trace 783 visitors from southern African countries “Government hunts for African visitors”. Can we be surprised that governments can arbitrarily impose damaging restrictions on countries whose only common feature is that most of their populations are black? While all three of these newspapers apologised (though not always fulsomely) their actions indicate how easily racist tropes can be rolled out.
Ramaphosa’s responses to these foreign hostilities were surprisingly strident on Twitter, declaring it “hypocrisy of the worst order” asking “where is science? These countries have always said to us that we should base our decisions on science. But when the time comes for them to apply it to themselves, they do not, but resort to their own self-interest.” It is with no sense of irony that SA has found itself lecturing the West on the importance of sticking to the science.
So far, the UK has not budged on its red-listing of 11 African countries. Domestic politics is certainly playing a role, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson eager for any distraction from the conflagration engulfing him. As he has personally shown many times, stoking a hornet’s nest of racism can shore up his support. A review of travel restrictions is due on December 20, by which time Omicron will probably be the dominant strain in the UK and the ridiculous 10-day quarantine rule will be obviously pointless — and have done absolutely nothing to inhibit the spread of the variant.
Ramaphosa has done well to stridently call out the hypocrisy. The travel restrictions are a serious blight to the SA economy with the UK traditionally the largest source market of high-spending tourists. Tourism and hospitality are important economic segments because they absorb unskilled labour and are biased towards women, helping to undo the structural challenges of our labour market.
The UK remains one of our largest trading partners and there are extensive economic links between the two countries, built (for good and ill) over centuries. The treatment of SA meted out by the Johnson government is certainly going to weaken those relations, both as businesses (including my own) find it difficult to work between the two countries, and as political and diplomatic tensions rise.
SA must box clever to get out of this predicament. It can use moral suasion and the embers of its global exceptionalism to embarrass foreign governments for their behaviour, but it must keep an eye on the realist analysis.
SA simply doesn’t have the power to bend foreign governments to its will. It must pull diplomatic levers, demand co-ordinated and rational international responses to new variants. It can attempt to influence domestic sentiment, borrowing lessons from the anti-apartheid movement, by keeping the impact of such behaviour in the domestic press. But it also must manage the consequences at home — a decimated tourist industry in need of support to survive until such time as tourists can start visiting again.
• Theobald is chair of research-led consulting house Intellidex
This article first appeared in Business Day
Screeching down the runway — in Ethiopian Airways’ shade-of-green seats — I had three flights ahead over the next 24 hours to try get home to the UK before red-list travel restrictions came into force. I was quite mad at having to cancel an entire week of meetings for a pointless showboating policy.
What struck me was the juxtapositions of my trip. I had gone from spending time in townships at early childhood development centres with the amazing staff of Breadline Africa to some of the best tourism experiences in the world. And from meetings in Pretoria with world-class policymakers to head-bashing in despair during meetings with others elsewhere in the capital.
This year has, of course, shown up these contrasts like never before: the July unrest and its self-interested instigators freed versus the world-class, selfless excellence of SA scientists and medics now working at speed on Omicron. The danger of the extremes is becoming more apparent after July and the chasms are going to widen.
Last week’s unemployment data was a shock even in the context of SA. What we saw was a record high in the official print, but look through layers of statistical issues with this data and the underlying share of people who should be in the labour force but are out of employment is at 47.1% — higher than the 46.6% this measure hit in the second quarter at the peak of the lockdown. July was not enough to explain this even in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, let alone in the other provinces.
There are about 11-million people out of work who should otherwise, in a “normal” economy with “normal” levels of unemployment, be in work. How do you solve an 11-million-person problem sustainably? Not with a basic income grant.
Solving this crisis is the urgent task for 2022. It’s the task for newly elected mayors around the country — either returning ANC ones or, surprisingly, newly elected DA ones.
Every decision, every choice of priority, must be passed through this lens. But of course this is not what 2022 is going to be about; from January 8 we are going to have an entire year of ANC elective-conference mania.
If we run with the assumption that Cyril Ramaphosa has no viable challengers, then the really interesting moment in this roller-coaster should be the midyear policy conference. Can the party break free from the unnecessary and unworkable compromises of Nasrec on policy: the pointlessness of Reserve Bank nationalisation; the impossibility of a well-run state bank; or the distraction of constitutional amendments from desperately needed real land reform?
It’s a chance for the party to show some fresh thinking and start to write a bounce-back narrative through 2024. Will we get clarity of vision or PR and spin in 2022 with all this distraction?
It’s a year when policymakers need to wake up from their infrastructure spin and do anything that will actually lift the dial from just 14% investment to GDP now — and take some tough decisions on a private sector-led model.
Similarly, will we have groundhog day at the investment conference in March as we count existing operational expenditure plans as new investment or already announced plans as new?
We must hope that the National Treasury keeps the line on fiscal consolidation rather than seeing its constitutional mandate to safeguard fiscal stability overridden from unexpected quarters. The interminable “debt or growth” debate will perhaps be thrown into some new contrast in 2022 — especially for those who seem to think there is a magic debt-issuance machine, divorced of consequences — as developed-market growth and particularly inflation drive the Fed and other central banks to drive global real rates higher.
The real question, however, is how much madness is allowed to proliferate in this ANC elective conference year, be it industrial policy, as Peter Bruce has been writing about, or energy policy, as I’ve been writing here throughout 2021.
This year was one of major breakthroughs for both SA’s climate policy and energy policy despite resistance on both counts. Next year needs to see these consolidated — especially with a new emissions-capped, least-cost, jobs-maximising Integrated Resource Policy that should kick off early in the year.
Yet the department of mineral resources & energy is consolidating an unsustainable and ultimately unworkable position that is not aligned to least cost nor maximising jobs, let alone emissions-aligned. Such a position will ultimately only embarrass the president unless he shows some leadership in this area.
All this will focus minds on a question that has slipped to the back of minds in 2021 but will resurface with a vengeance in 2022 as the funding cap comes around: does business back Ramaphosa and a path to a “reformed” ANC through December 2022?
The election of DA mayors in major metros now and the prospect of a serious upset at provincial level in 2024, and the probability of a national upset in 2024, puts such a decision into starker contrast. Can any serious probability of reform be expected of a party that has allowed the instigators of July’s unrest to go free for reasons of political expediency? The policy and elective conferences will allow tests of that probability.
As the Zondo commission report emerges into the political storm of an elective conference year, and as unemployment rises further, 2022 will be a year for taking risks for everyone as we constantly peer over the edge into a repeat of July. Everyone will have choices to make.
• Attard Montalto is head of Capital Markets Research at Intellidex, a South African research-led consulting company.
This article first appeared in Business Day