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Technicolour dream coat? Not if you’re weaving with South Africa’s ‘hard fact’ fibres…

30 October 2021 Gareth Stokes

It there was a competition for setting up commissions of enquiry, talk shops, think tanks or globe-trotting private-public partnership ‘sorties’ to solicit foreign direct investment from wide-eyed offshore investors, then South Africa would scoop gold every time. Unfortunately, the country offers irrefutable proof that talk is cheap. Action, not words, will accelerate the country’s economic growth; move us up or down the global Gini rankings; or tackle our unemployment crisis.

The technicolour dream coat is unravelling

In the dawn of post-Apartheid democracy, South Africa was lauded as an emerging rainbow nation; each of its citizens blessed with a proverbial technicolour dream coat that held the promise of immense favour and fortune. Alas, almost three decades since the introduction of a mostly democratic dispensation, the coat is unravelling. Not even a master weaver can fix this fabric using the cold, hard fibres of fact available for the job. As the November 2021 municipal elections draw near, we face a reality in which the more things seem to have changed, the more they remain the same. For starters, we are still talking about the action needed, rather than doing. 

Talk shops are something that South Africa’s leading financial services brands increasingly excel at. Over the past few months, we have attended numerous PSG Think Big webinars; the occasional Critical Conversations panel discussion sponsored by Sanlam Investments; and a handful of thought-provoking debates hosted under the Investec banner, among others. Today we reflect on the substance of an Investec Focus discussion that was advertised as “a refreshingly frank conversation on the future of South Africa, featuring Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter and Advocate Wim Trengove SC”. Would this 30-minute chat result in a resounding call to action; or rather live up to its puffy by-line: harbingers of hope? 

The oft-repeated ‘R’ words

Minister Godongwana kicked off the good-natured discussion with a couple of oft-repeated ‘R’ words. “There is consensus among South Africans that [we need to focus on] the Recovery and Reconstruction of this economy,” he said. In his view, business and government are on the same page insofar the key issues that South Africa must address. Perhaps more importantly, the Minister indicated that society’s response to pandemic reflected a positive commitment to overcome its shared challenges. “We can take a lesson from Covid-19; South Africans across the board, across the political spectrum, worked together … without a single document being signed on how to do so,” said Godongwana. 

The problem with hosting a critical discussion on a branded platform, exacerbated by doing so under a ‘harbingers of hope’ tagline, is that the moderator cannot tear into the panellists. We assumed there was no intention to put any of the panellists on the spot; but it would have been wonderful if the Minister’s opening remarks had prompted a scathing counter or interrogation. Imagine if instead of a “thank you Minister, next please”, we were blessed with comment juxtaposing government’s multi-decade record of producing excellent economic reconstruction and development policy papers with its abject failure in implementing most of the policy so described. As luck would have it, the Minister’s introductory remarks were followed by an opening statement from Advocate Trengrove, on a totally different topic. 

Ironclad constitution, showing signs of corrosion

Advocate Trengrove was surprisingly upbeat given the legendary struggles of South Africa’s legal system in proceeding to court, even in apparently cut-and-dried cases. Alas, he was not on the virtual stage to talk about the arms deal or ex-presidents, but as a harbinger of hope. “The constitution has been more firmly entrenched and accepted by all South Africans over the last two decades,” he said, adding that early assaults on the country’s courts and the rule of law had failed. The result: “Over the last decade, even in the decade of state capture, the courts have prospered … our judges have asserted themselves, the rule of law, and the supremacy of the Constitution to great success and with acclamation of all”. 

Unfortunately, the ironclad Constitution is showing some signs of corrosion, possibly from within. Trengrove criticised the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) for its shortcomings in appointing judges and exercising discipline over them. “We have always had a range of judges, ranging from hopeless to brilliant; that has always been so, and it is so in every society,” he said. “But it is important that we maintain a core of smart judges who are confident and capable in what they do”. The key takeout from Advocate Trengrove’s introduction was that South Africa needed brilliant, confident and courageous legal minds and could not stand for the “impoverishment of the quality of its bench”, under any guise. 

Next up was Eskom CEO, De Ruyter. Few could dispute that South Africa’s ailing state-owned power producer is among the best examples of the consequence of “all talk and no action” on the global stage today. The struggles we face circa 2021 follow on from years of side-stepping tough decisions in favour of political expediency. Even today, tough actions are either deferred or implemented half-heartedly to placate political masters. De Ruyter, did not pull any punches in his five-minute opening comment. “Eskom is a technically insolvent business that is failing its customers on a more or less frequent basis with this phenomenon called load shedding; with capacity shortages beset by the legacy of corruption; old unreliable plants; and customers, particularly municipalities, that do not pay us,” he said. Wow. This writer could feel the hope bleeding out into the vacuum of cyberspace. 

The vacuum of hopelessness…

But De Ruyter was not done. He set about injecting the promise of opportunity into the vacuum he had just created. The Eskom CEO believes that a thoughtful rebuilding and / or repurposing of the country’s power infrastructure will deliver much needed economic growth and jobs. One such opportunity is to leverage the country’s natural solar and wind resources to address our shocking carbon emissions track record. “South Africa is endowed with some of the best wind and solar acreage in the world,” said De Ruyter. “If the Germans can make the transition to renewable energy, if they can invest in wind and solar, surely, so can we”. 

The idea is to align the country’s fiscal environment with its energy and industrial policies and to pivot away from coal towards a cleaner and greener energy future… This pivot would have to address the well-founded concerns of those with interests in the fossil fuel value chain, to achieve a just transition. Enter the private-public posse that will be riding into Scotland to attend the COP26 climate change talk shop in November this year. “Team South Africa are going to COP26 to try and engineer exactly that; we will then [hopefully] be in a position to avoid expenditure of some R300 billion on cleaning up the emissions from our coal fired power stations,” said De Ruyter. 

He suggested that this expenditure would have limited impact on the country’s ambient air quality, do little to dent its overall carbon emissions, and consume inordinate amounts of water in an already arid country. De Ruyter’s conclusion was that South Africa needed a “resolute, clear and decisive implementation of aligned policies to craft something that will create a stimulus for the economy and be very positive for the country going forward”. 

An advanced diploma in ‘getting things done’

How does our beautiful country graduate form talk shop specialist to doer? Step one is to expand upon and gain a clearer understanding of the issues. Everyone talks about the structural changes required to move South Africa to the next level; but few unpack what these structural changes are. Step two is to decide the specific actions to bring about change, with due consideration for policy alignment across all stakeholders. It is impossible, for example, for Eskom to make changes without buy-in from its only shareholder. The country will also have to address a range of policies and policy uncertainties that are preventing domestic and foreign businesses from making infrastructure investments. And the third and final step is to adopt the famous footwear brand’s slogan: Just do It! 

“I would urge that people invest in South Africa; we cannot take isolated incidents which are not a feature of our society as a reason for lack of investment,” concluded Godongwana, in response to concerns over the civil commotion that wracked South Africa in July 2021. “The rule of law is a necessary condition for the confidence that attracts investment; it is alive and well in South Africa, so that foundation is here,” added Advocate Trengrove. And De Ruyter agreed, encouraging South Africans not to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. He also fielded the toughest question on the day. Will the lights be on over Christmas? His response: Those lights consume very little!




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