South Africa is in a state of deep crisis. As the year comes to an end, the spectre of rolling blackouts is back. Eskom is nowhere near looking like it may be turned around, and the wider systemic risks it represents — the energy crisis, the country’s debt, economic slowdown — get more pronounced by the day. Unemployment has worsened, and when the full numbers for 2019 are in, we may discover that the economy contracted this year.
This is the broad background against which President Cyril Ramaphosa is graded. It’s a tough picture. But Ramaphosa does have one or two advantages that boost his grade somewhat.
For one thing, he is not the author of the multiple crises his government is tripping over. He is, for better or worse, the man we entrusted on May 8 to get us out of the mess. He is judged not so much on its existence but whether he is succeeding in getting us out of it.
Ramaphosa also gets a lot of leeway, considering who he inherited the mess from. In other words, he gets a good hearing merely by not being former president Jacob Zuma. In April 2009 Zuma came to power and almost immediately set about dismantling the state apparatus that had spent much of the decade pursuing him for corruption or could stop his rampage through the buffet he considered state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to be.
In nine disastrous years, he took a hammer to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Hawks investigative unit, the South African Revenue Service (Sars), the South African Police Service and the intelligence services. Then, and seemingly this was the entire point of his presidency, Zuma and his cronies set about robbing Eskom, Transnet, Denel, SAA, the SABC and any other part of the state from which a few dimes could be squeezed out. The cumulative effect of the work of his syndicate is where we are now: staring at Ramaphosa, wondering, as the panic rises, if this man has what it takes to accomplish even half of what needs to be done.
Regarding the economy, Ramaphosa is a mixed bag. We have stood still in 2019, not getting better but also not getting much worse. That is the sort of thing that’s considered good news now. There will be sub-zero percent economic growth for this year, and an overall contraction is still possible if the fourth-quarter gross domestic product numbers follow on the 0.6% decline of the third quarter. There seems to be no plan that involves extending economic opportunity to the more than 10‑million people who are out of work, and so unemployment now sits at about 30%.
What’s most concerning about Ramaphosa and his team’s performance on the economy, though, is the apparent lack of coherence and direction. In his first State of the Nation address after the May elections, Ramaphosa said his government would pursue seven key priorities, at the top of which was “economic transformation and job creation”. There was the promise of a grand plan to get South Africa working and growing. Since then, all we have seen is a demonstration of the damaging incoherence that has dogged ANC governance on the economy for 25 years.
It was Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, not the president, who released a “blueprint” for the economy earlier this year. The political management from Mboweni and Ramaphosa was amateurish. Neither the ruling party (even its powerful economic transformation sub-committee) nor any of Mboweni’s Cabinet colleagues played a part in conceptualising or drafting the document. Many had not seen it until it was posted on the treasury’s website for public comment. Unsurprisingly, this angered Cabinet members and ANC bigwigs, and alienated labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. Later news reports informed us that Ramaphosa “supports Mboweni’s economic plan”. That is surely not how it should be.
The document has glaring weaknesses: it makes uninformed claims about some economic sectors, misdiagnoses problems and prescribes the wrong remedies. It is also shockingly unambitious, and the plans in it will do nothing to make a dent on 30% unemployment. It reads as if it was written by treasury officials and advisers, not elected leaders who feel the burden of lifting millions out of poverty.
Ramaphosa is failing to provide clear leadership and direction on the economy. We do not yet have a “Ramaphosa plan” in which the communication is coherent, unambiguous, driven by the presidency and adopted by all ministers and departments. That means the most important part of the president’s task remains a still-contested political football between his economic ministers, senior ANC figures and alliance partners.
But there are triumphs on the horizon. The investment climate is slowly but surely changing. Ramaphosa’s second investment summit attracted about R350‑billion in pledges from local and international investors. He has promised to bring R1.4‑trillion worth of investment into the economy by 2024. On this measure, he is doing well.
The South African Reserve Bank’s numbers confirm the investment turnaround. In the second quarter of this year, gross fixed investment increased by 6% after five quarters of decline. This growth in investment is led by the private sector, with the state and SOEs following behind. This suggests business confidence in the economy is on the rise, despite the persistent headwinds.
Under Ramaphosa there has also been a slow but clear effort to restore the integrity and functioning of state institutions and, most importantly, to restore public confidence. Sars, the NPA, the Hawks and other key institutions have new leaders. They are in the middle of a clean-up of the rot that took root for nearly 10 years. But budgets are constrained and progress is slow, so public patience is wearing thin.
There are signs that high-profile prosecutions for corruption will follow in 2020, as a result of the work that has been put in to reinvigorate the investigative and prosecutorial capacity of these offices. If that happens, Ramaphosa will possibly have a better year — and a better grade.