Bruce Whitfield: Running SA is harder than it looks – but just remember how bad things could have been
- The news keeps getting worse, and governance, like the power grid, is crumbling.
- A political and economic turnaround was never going to be a quick fix.
- There is hope yet – and that wasn't a given at the end of last year.
A least the Boks won this weekend. And the Western Cape has had some decent rain.
As for the rest of it, it was quite grim – and confirmed that the real work to fix the country after the descent to chaos of the past decade is going to be long and hard.
Ratings agency Fitch affirmed South Africa’s junk status on Friday, and while cautiously optimistic about better governance and the progress made so far in the turnaround of state institutions, it said it was worried about governments considerable debt burden. It was also concerned how the state was going to tackle the significant issues around inequality, especially with the albatross of Eskom hanging round its neck.
In addition to Eskom’s rapidly expanding debt burden (expected to peak at half a trillion rand before turning around) the power grid appears even more rickety than we might have feared before load shedding resumed last week. There are few things that deliver a reality-check faster than realising a grossly inefficient state utility is incapable of performing even its most basic function.
Sure, there was some low-level substation sabotage; people were stopped from going to work and some coal trucks were denied access to make their deliveries. But the fact that the utility imposed load-shedding so quickly suggests a frightening vulnerability of the system.
“Things are falling apart,” cautioned a frazzled Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe last week. That’s the frankest assessment of the crisis so far.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said as much about the state of governance amidst a reported rising tide of protest, primarily against the failure of local government to even do the basic stuff right.
“We have seen just how governance is collapsing… When hospitals run short of medicine, when housing projects remain unfinished and when schools run out of books we know that our institutions are failing our people. I want that to come to an end.”
You must hope that the President who has, by necessity, trodden exceedingly cautiously so far to ensure he keeps a balance of control amidst some very clear attempts to undermine his leadership, is able to continue and speed up the reforms he has instituted. He found time at the weekend to phone Beast Mtawarira to congratulate him on his 100th test cap for the Springboks – so it’s clear that the President remains keen on balancing his commitments.
New Business Unity South Africa (Busa) president Sipho Pityana, who was a strong critic of the Zuma administration, is supportive of the changes Ramaphosa has brought in.
“Sentiment is changing. I suspect the next phase is going to be more about tangibles,” he said.
Those tangibles need to be recognised by big business as an indicator that government is serious about business, but also by large numbers of poor South Africans left out of the economy because of multiple factors from poor education, to low growth and the fear within corporate South Africa of investing domestically for the long term.
The release of the draft mining charter on Friday is positive from the point of view that it recognises historic BEE deals and does not require new empowerment deals to be done each time shareholders lower their stakes in a company. But it does have problems. Most notably the 10% stake communities and workers would be entitled to without charge in terms of this charter. However, everything remains open for negotiation, unlike the previous version released nearly a year ago which was so badly considered it even had business and labour working together against its implementation.
So, it was a grim weekend. At least you are not the Liberty CEO David Munro who took over the job from within controlling shareholder Standard Bank last year. The insurer confirmed over the weekend that it had suffered a significant data breach and that hackers were demanding money to release stolen information.
2. Liberty is the victim of criminal activity.— Liberty Group SA (@LibertyGroupSA) June 17, 2018
3. There's no evidence that our customers have suffered any financial loss.
4. We'll proactively inform our customers individually if and when we discover they may be impacted. No further action is required from our customers.
It’s useful, before you start feeling sorry for yourself, to consider how much worse this could have been. Had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma won the leadership race in December, Jacob Zuma would probably still have been President. The rand would be considerably weaker than it is today, and we would be junk on all fronts as Moodys would not have provided us with the umpteenth get out of jail free card in December.
So sure: it’s tough. But it could have been so much worse. And there is a chance. Just a chance that we are on the mend. Jut hold on to your hats, because it’s going to be a hell-of-a-ride.
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