One of the excellent points made by Brian Pottinger in his 2009 book, The Mbeki Legacy, relates to the palpable frustration felt by South Africa’s government at the manner in which its actions were perceived by outsiders. South Africa’s leaders would bemoan the failure of their interlocutors to understand the nature of the country’s challenges and thus the response of its government. If only they would get it, everything would fall into place.

Pottinger also wrote a biography of former president PW Botha – and coined the term ‘the Imperial Presidency’ – and he notes that the approach of the post-apartheid government has been strikingly similar to that of the minority government in the 1980s. Neither seemed willing to accept that the fault lay with their actions, not with their communication skills.

This thought came to mind last week. In part, this was because a close approximation of this view was expressed by Trudi Makhaya, President Ramaphosa’s economic advisor.

In a contribution in Business Day she said that South Africa was plagued by a negative narrative that had real-world consequences. She wrote: ‘When we are considered at all in (sic) global platforms, we are spoken of as a nation slipping into post-liberation dysfunction. Too many South Africans aid and abet this narrative. The assumptions, conspiracies and prejudices that fuel doomsday narratives in the radical trenches or in cloistered boardrooms wear down business and consumer confidence.’

Her appeal, she said, was ‘for careful consideration of how our words contribute, or detract, from our economic potential’.

Pottinger’s remarks also struck a chord in light of the State of the Nation Address. These events are a time for narrative building. A few years ago, the tagline for the speech – which was woven into the broader commentary from the African National Congress – was that ‘we have a good story to tell’. This seems to be what Ms Makhaya had in mind, and it seems that this was the drift of the president’s remarks.

His line was that a new and better country is on the way.

No surprises there

The speech clearly drew heavily on the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. No surprises there – nor in the president’s likening the pandemic to fires that pave the way for the fynbos to grow again; destructive, but ultimately productive and necessary. As the Plan has it: ‘The current conjuncture presents an opportunity to reset the South African economy. It is an opportunity to build a new, inclusive economy that benefits all South Africans.’

Thus the narrative. Great things are afoot. A more just, equitable and prosperous society is within reach. Indeed, it is within sight. As both Makhaya and President Ramaphosa would doubtless say, this is the end goal of the government’s plans.

More than a great plan, the progress already made has been profound. Much is being done on utilities, on the governance of state-owned enterprises, on telecommunications and making it easier to do business. It recognises the need for structural reforms and for painful decisions. The president declares that commitments to invest in South Africa made at his flagship investment conferences ‘shows that our country is still an attractive investment destination for both local and offshore companies’.

This is a fine, hopeful narrative.

The narrative propounded by the SONA was dealt a severe blow by global investment figures released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (Given South Africa’s low savings rate, foreign direct investment is simply indispensable.) A write-up in the Daily Maverick commented that even though the pandemic had hit foreign investment flows, this had been most acute among developed countries. The developing world had fared better, but South Africa has been an outlier – while FDI into Sub Saharan Africa fell by 11% in 2020, that into South Africa plummeted by 46%. And the quantum of FDI that South Africa was receiving had declined between 2018 and 2019 – before the pandemic.

A great deal of the much-vaunted investment commitments made had in any event already been envisaged before the executives mounted the stage to announce them.

Jarring disjunction

There is a jarring disjunction between the supposed intention of attracting investment and the surrounding policy proposals. Black Economic Empowerment, for example, must be ‘accelerated’. The threat to property rights – expropriation without compensation, and pending legislation that will open the way to state intrusion into all manner of assets – is to be pushed forward. This offers nothing but a disincentive to investment, local and foreign.

As every SONA and every one of the progression of plans produced since the 1990s have suggested, employment sits as the (nominal) objective of all policy. Labour-intensive industries are a particular fetish. Here the president declared forthrightly: ‘We will not achieve higher rates of growth and employment if we do not implement structural economic reforms. These reforms are necessary to reduce costs and barriers to entry, increase competition, stimulate new investment and create space for new entrants in the market.’ The recovery plan joins in, pointing to the possibility of ‘reviewing labour market policies relating to issues such as retrenchments and wages’.

Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that in recent weeks the very industries that have been battered by the state are the ones the state claims to want to nurture. Agriculture has seen minimum wages hiked by 16%, while restaurants – an industry especially badly hit by the pandemic and the government’s lockdown measures – are required to comply with a new set of standards that are guaranteed to depress hiring, if not put many out of business altogether.

These are real-world, real-time problems. They will be solved by admitting them, and acknowledging that there is a crisis. ‘Lifting a nation out of poverty decisively requires a long period of sustained growth,’ says Makhaya. This will require proper, sustained policy action that encourages investment and overcomes the hindrances to attracting it.

Locked in crisis

This is not a matter of ‘narrative’, and cannot be addressed by adopting a cheery countenance. Understand what a narrative is – the arrangement of elements into a flow that communicates particular themes. A narrative, as Makhaya notes, need not be accurate. Having a ‘story to tell’, after all, is central to fiction. And until government policy is matched to the challenges as they exist, not as anyone might wish them to be, South Africa will predictably be locked in crisis. To think the country can narrate its way out of it is delusional.

This is the case as much for President Ramaphosa as it was for President Botha.

 [Image: Andreas Lischka from Pixabay]

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  1. To understand the actual real narrative … watch this

    What Ramaphosa and the Tri-Partitte Alliance ( their handlers ) are doing is just the very old Bolshevik MO of saying one thing — for the benefit of the helpful / hopeful but ultimate;y useless IDIOTS — and then actually doing something else — the REAL agenda !

    South Africans HAVE TO understand this old Bolshevik MO to begin to make sense of what is happening in SA currently.

    It would be VERY helpful to watch this movie

    The movie “Mr. Jones”
    is an important new historical drama with a very contemporary context. Released in the US in spring 2020, it sheds long overdue light on one of Stalin’s worst crimes, while also serving as a timely reminder that today’s talk of fake news is actually nothing new.

    With its focus on the journalistic duel to control the narrative surrounding Stalin’s famine, the movie echoes many of the themes that define today’s information battlefield. In the current era of fake news and alternative facts, “Mr. Jones” demonstrates that previous generations also grappled with similar challenges. It illustrates the grave responsibility of the media to portray events accurately, while capturing the unchanging authoritarian impulse to conceal and distort.


    The TRUE story of Gareth Jones and Walter Duranty

    Read the book and the history that informs it

    Even dear old Bram Fisher — scion of an old esteemed BOER family was taken in !
    He would have been in the USSR at about the same time as Gareth Jones

    Both became attracted to communism. While he was at Oxford, in the long vacation of 1932, Bram visited the Soviet Union, and, like many others, did not dig below the surface, and became a convert to the Stalinist doctrine. His earlier nationalism converted to anathema; he now considered fascism and Nazism “cancerous nationalism”.

    It would appear that even today there are many STILL attached to this beguiling and intoxicating political philosophy and social program. Which is however essentially , ultimately misleading , totally destructive , and like all politically engineered utopias eventually dystopian !

  2. I personally cannot see our beloved country recovering from this current economic crisis in the short term if at all. Shower Head led from the front when looting our country’s coffers and many of his cohorts enriched themselves at our country’s expense.
    Pres Ramaphosa (Uncle Squirrel) is a weak leader and his actions and / or lack of them shows this. And, if the NDR is his biggest success, the GOD help our people.
    Our biggest problem in this country is that the uneducated rural peoples believe and cling to the false promises of the ANC. And unfortunately the ANC relies heavily on this support, and those that are seeking to enrich themselves further. And regrettably, there are ,many of them.

  3. These people live in a fantasy world of ideology and denial, enjoying a consumptive ‘prosperity’ , safely cosseted behind a wall of taxes.

    They become frustrated when the people who bear the very real world consequences of their delusions, and pay those taxes, dont buy the narrative.
    Others are simply predatory, and hostile toward rhe public good.
    They live under no illusions

    The administration is delinquent, and incapable
    One of those incapacities is for reform
    As the narratives become more fantastic, they become less relevant.

  4. As an ex employer ( notvbig , av 1-3 peeples ) in the steel related industry , the government interference and cosieing up to the communist China machine , coupled to basically giving Iscor to mitral , has done incredible damage to the industry …
    The same can be saidvof the banishment of capable , qualified cans extremely experienced management as well as the blue collar force , in favor of u no ? ….
    Until that clock can be turned back ( not necessarily bringing back whites , but HIGHLY CAPABLE PEOPLE to manage , and repair , and maintain) , you r chance of farying against thunder , will be more effective , than progress …
    Cut minimum wage completely , let people be employed , rather than sitting at home dreaming up mischief …

    cANCer is the cause of our woes , but woe unto them who vote otherwise …

  5. Since Cyril was invited to deliver a speech to the Davos attendees remotely for the WEF during early 2021, he has this self-assuredness that billionaires that was granted their billions afford themselves since they did no work for it to actually deserve it.
    None of the government-controlled entities can show any real monetary and/or effective improvement after being granted control of those entities to date.
    It seems that they are so out of touch with the difference between talking up a huge storm and actually doing anything to actually create the storm. Their rhetoric initially were aimed at the global investment communities and their own comrades as well as Big Business in the RSA but their track record have shown that they cannot deliver anything or even put in place any laws/regulations that allows the actual global investors to want to invest more in the RSA and even the local Big Business is starting to see the futileness of expanding their business in the RSA as the numerous expansion plans that were either scrapped or set aside during the past 3 years.
    The proud announcement by Cyril that Ford will be investing more money in the RSA was planned years ago to replace the jigs for the current outdated Ranger Bakkies that required re-investment to protect their competitiveness in future in the bakkie market since they used to export a lot of Ranger bakkies to the world that requires righthand drive bakkies and if they did not invest in these new jigs, Ford worldwide would have to find a new country where they would have to spend much more money just to get to the point where they are currently in the RSA, in addition to the cost of the new jigs. In addition these new jigs will also be more automated and thus require less manual labour which will increase the unemployment further.
    The ANC’s answer to the question: “How do you make a Million?” is to “Start with a Trillion” and it seems that their “actions” to lessen the nearly 50% unemployment currently will be to allow 50% of those unemployed currently to either starve through lockdown/covid/suicide/CO2-Mask Poisoning/etc via stupid regulations and no real actions, to get unemployment down to about 25%.
    ‘Nuff said.


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