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.
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.
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