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I intend, in the near future, to dust off my Marxist theory.*

I am going to need a framework through which to express my growing conviction that much of our politics can be understood as a function of the collapse of the alliance of classes that underlay the national democratic revolution – and the African National Congress.

The big driver is the strongly emergent black middle class – or perhaps competing versions of that class. In the background is a sort of bad kung fu movie fight scene involving the industrial working class, various parasitic elites within the state and party, a comprador bourgeoisie and a whole mess of tribalists, proto-fascists, landless peasants and  lumpen proletarians of various stripe.

(The camera occasionally flicks across the deeper shadow behind, where we almost catch a glimpse of Moeletsi Mbeki’s lurking oligarchs, watching us.)

It’s my job to have some kind of understanding of what is going on … and I will need all the help I can get theory-wise.

In the last week the ANC has given strong hints that the Labour Relations Act amendments are being held up because government wants balloting prior to strikes and a ‘forced mediation’ strike-breaking mechanism. (See here.)

Also we have the astonishing re-emergence of the (excellent) idea that we should break up Eskom and sell off some of  the bits and get the private sector to build other bits. (See here  … and btw I can’t help but notice how much interesting news is written by Carol Paton of Business Day.)

What’s going on?

Well, one things is government is facing further downgrades because it can’t pay its bills.

The biggest bill of all is public sector wages, which will be renegotiated before  the current wage agreement expires in March 2015.

That bill will represent above 35% of non-interest government spending and the wage level the employer and the employee eventually agree upon and the degree of disruption that accompanies the bargaining is extraordinarily important for South Africa and therefore for the stability of the governing party.

Also government is burning due to its apparent inability to get the endlessly promised infrastructure built. At least part of the reason is the constant labour stoppages, for example at Kusile and Medupi.

Having lost much revenue (and political support) during the recent strikes led by Amcu and Numsa, the ANC government is forced to find a way to rewrite the terms of engagement between employer and employee.

Also Eskom is bleeding … or potentially bleeding … government dry.

The case for privatisation is threefold: you get money from the asset sale to pay your debts, you don’t have to keep bailing out the loss-making enterprise and you get the ‘efficiencies’ (the removal of structural impediments to growth) that supposedly come from the private sector running the enterprise.

(As an aside: privatisation seldom works quite like that. This government, and the people of South Africa, have barely recovered from the the drubbing we received from the ‘private sector’ following the partial privatisation of Telkom in the 90’s.  But desperate times, desperate measures … and all of that.)

The groups that traditionally oppose these policies are in disarray. Cosatu has essentially collapsed in a heap – and the most energetic sections of organised labour are actively hostile to government/ANC anyway and no longer require wooing … or rather, following Marikana and various statements of outright hostility by the ANC and government leaders, are no longer susceptible to those old sweet lies.

The forces that shaped our labour market are profoundly changed.

A growing mystery to me is where the SACP is in all of this?

So its all: hello 1996-class project, we who threw you out with the bathwater at Polokwane in December 2007 would like to apologise and welcome you back. Don’t worry, the communist are in China learning how to deal with corruption and with the labour force … you can chat to them if they ever come home.

So meanwhile here is a sort of ancestor to my questioning the ‘class character’ of the moment; a column I wrote for the Compliance Institute of South Africa in November last year:

Is this Jacob Zuma’s Maggie Thatcher moment?

I admit that on the face of it the comparison seems something of a stretch.

For example I can’t think of an ‘Nkandla’ equivalent in Baroness Thatcher’s world – although her son seemed to benefit from parental political power in much the same way as Jacob Zuma’s myriad offspring seem to be enjoying.

Maggie1

The point, though, is Thatcher came to power with the reforming mission to roll-back back the influence of organised labour and to make labour markets more flexible– all as part of her attempt to stop an on-going recession, bring summer to the ‘Winter of discontent’ (paralysing wage strikes by public sector unions in Britain in 1978-1979) and increase employment and economic growth.

(‘Thatcherism’ as a political-economic ideology is also considered to include attempts to keep inflation low, shrink the state – by privatising state owned enterprises – and keep a tight rein on money supply … (and is not famously concerned about employment – Ed) … but let’s leave those details aside and stick with the matter of organised labour.)

Much to my surprise there is growing evidence Jacob Zuma is forcing a showdown within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – and between the members of the ruling alliance (the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu).

Since 1994 it has been a good bet that tensions in the ruling alliance would flare up and then subside – but that the constituent ideological factions and organisations would always back off from a real split.

The ruling alliance has always seemed to me like a vaguely unhappy marriage that none of the parties have the resources or discipline to leave.

I have been covering South African politics and financial markets since 1997 and in 1999 I commissioned this cartoon :

Maggie2

 

The original caption read: ‘She means nothing to me’, he pleaded unconvincingly. ‘You’re the one I will always love’.

The report that accompanied the cartoon – which I originally published for the then stockbroker Simpson Mckie James Capel – made it clear that the man in the middle represented the ANC and his entreaties were addressed to Cosatu and the SACP … while his real passion (and the furtive fumbling behind his back) was for business, global and domestic. (Cathy Quickfall drew the cartoon and did a better job than I could have hoped for: the Cosatu/SACP figure’s naive and hurt innocence, still wanting to trust Mr ANC; business in a sharp suit, her disdainful look into the distance with just the busy hand behind her back revealing her urgent and furtive intent.)

It has looked for many years as if the dysfunctional relationship would continue for ever – that the parties involved (both the institutions of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu but also the myriad ideological factions that exist across those organisations) have more to gain from being inside and more to lose from being outside.

But, surprisingly, it appears that the ruling faction within the ANC (the incumbent leadership, represented by Jacob Zuma) appears to have finally drawn some kind of line in the sand with the ‘left’ unions within Cosatu, most obviously the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

The first signs that this was happening appeared when evidence surfaced that Jacob Zuma’s allies within Cosatu were moving against Zwelinzima Vavi, the now suspended secretary general and strident ‘left’ critic of corruption in the ANC and critic of the slightly more business-friendly economic policy (particularly the National Development Plan) of the Zuma government … (remembering that this was written late last year and Vavi has now been reinistated … sort of – Ed).

At first it appeared that Vavi would be got rid of by being accused of corruption or some form of financial mismanagement related to the sale of Cosatu House for a price less than it was worth. While that investigation was still on-going, Vavi handed his enemies a perfect excuse to suspend him by having sex with a junior employee in the Cosatu head-office earlier this year (last year – Ed).

Since the suspension of Vavi his allies in Cosatu, especially the biggest affiliate (the 350 000 member Numsa) has been on a collision course with both Cosatu itself and with the ANC.

The conflict is likely to come to a head at the Numsa special congress to be held on December 13 – 16.

Why do I see this as, partly, Zuma’s Maggie Thatcher moment?

Well, Vavi’s suspension is only the proximate cause of the impending collision. The ‘real’ or ‘underlying’ causes are what are important.

Vavi, Numsa secretary general Irwin Jim, his deputy Karl Cloete – and probably a majority of Numsa leaders and shop stewards … and several other groups and leaders within Cosatu) appear increasingly of the opinion:

  • that Cosatu has been bullied by the Zuma leadership into accepting policy positions with which it (generally) disagrees
  • that the ANC under Zuma has attempted to turn Cosatu into a ‘labour desk’ of the ANC and the alliance summits have become nothing but a ‘toy telephone’ rather than a real joint decision making forum for the ANC/Cosatu/SACP alliance
  • the policy positions with which this group disagrees are, particularly, the National Development Plan, but also e-tolling, the Youth Wage Subsidy and the ANC government’s failure to ban labour brokers. (The reasons why this ‘left’ group opposes these policy measure are crucial: they oppose the NDP because it is seen as ‘neo-liberal’ and anti-socialist; e-tolling because it is seen as covert privatisation of public infrastructure; the youth wage subsidy because it segments the labour market, threatening Cosatu’s monopoly and potentially exposing ‘protected’ Cosatu members to competition from ‘unprotected’ youth workers; and the failure to ban labour brokers because those institutions are also anathema to Cosatu’s monopoly.)
  • that the ANC under Zuma has been captured by a crony-capitalist regionally based (possibly ethnic) elite bent on looting the state
  • that the gamble to back Zuma against Mbeki has badly misfired

 

There is widespread press and analyst speculation that the tensions within Cosatu could lead to the federation splitting – and in some way or another the more specifically ‘socialist’ pro-Vavi, Numsa-based group leading Cosatu – or a piece of Cosatu – out of the ruling alliance.

In what way is this ‘Zuma doing a Maggie’?

Well, because the disgruntlements of the Vavi/Numsa group (described above) are real and represent significant shifts against organised labour by the Zuma government.

If we add to the youth wage subsidy, the NDP, the failure to ban labour brokers, e-tolling in Gauteng to the very tight budgeting for public sector wage increases mentioned in my October column I think we have a strong circumstantial case that Zuma’s ANC has moved decisively to roll-back the power of organised labour.

Maggie3

 

Why Jacob Zuma and his allies might have done this is revealed clearly in the anaemic Q3 GDP growth figures of 0.7 per cent compared to the previous quarter, or 1.8 per cent on a year-on-year basis . Almost across the board analysts and economists have ascribed most of the weakness to labour unrest, particularly in the motor vehicle sector – where the recent strikes were organised by Numsa! (Again, remember that this was written in November last year … just imagine how many exclamation marks he would have used if he had written that sentence today? -Ed)

Numsa has also helped plague Eskom’s flagship Medupi project – and has undoubtedly contributed to government’s infrastructure plans looking shaky.

The ANC’s motivation is not purely an attempt to fix economic growth – and bring to an end our own ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vavi and his allies in Numsa have harried and harassed the ANC leadership over corruption – and particularly the upgrade to Nkandla – and this has clearly helped force the hand of the Zuma ANC to drawn a line in the sand with the left-wing of Cosatu – especially as the ANC enters an election and struggles to cope with this level of internal dissent and criticism.

The resignation earlier this week of Numsa president Cedric Gina (who, unlike the majority of his Numsa colleagues, is close to the current ANC leadership: his wife is an ANC MP and he probably has similar ambitions himself) is probably an indication that the Zuma/ANC allies intend contesting Numsa’s direction in the lead-up to the Numsa special congress in December. The ANC leadership has probably decided to fight it out in Numsa – and Cosatu more generally – making sure that if/when a split occurs the faction that sticks with the ANC/Zuma/SACP is as large as possible and the faction that defects is as small as possible.

The big risk for investors and financial markets associated with a possible split in Cosatu is that Vavi/Jim group is likely to contest with unions within Cosatu that currently support the ANC and Zuma’s leadership – most obviously and most unsettlingly –  with the National Union of Mineworkers which has complained repeatedly that Numsa is poaching its membership. This potential for a widespread contestation of each workplace and each economic sector between a new ‘Cosatu’ and an old ‘Cosatu’ is probably the most important threat represented by the unfolding crisis.

Politically the Vavi/Jim group will likely be campaigning against the NDP, the youth wage subsidy, e-tolling and Nkandla-style corruption just as the ANC’s election campaign peaks early next year. I do not think a split in Cosatu will translate automatically into specific electoral declines for the ANC – it is possible and even likely that Numsa members who support a split could still vote for the ANC.

However, one of the big unanswered questions is whether the defecting faction has any possibility of linking up politically with the EFF. Up until now the defecting faction linked to Vavi and Jim have unequivocally rejected the EFF on the grounds that its (the EFF’s) leadership are ‘tenderpreneurs’ (much like the Nkandla faction of the ANC) who just happen to be out in the cold.

However, the EFF’s support for nationalisation of mines and expropriation of white owned farms with or without compensation does dovetail with aspects of the Vavi/Jim faction’s essentially socialist ideology.

My own view is that in the event of a split it is possible that the Vavi/Jim faction forms a ‘labour party’ which could only feasibly contest elections in 2019.

The motivation for Thatcher moving against the unions was as much about weakening the Labour Party as it was about repairing the economy – so we shouldn’t dismiss the Zuma/Thatcher comparison purely because his motivations are mixed.

If Zuma and the ANC succeed in reducing the militancy and power of organised labour it is possible that they will have contributed in a small way to laying the grounds for an improvement in public education, for a period of recovery and even extended economic growth.

It’s a risky – and complicated – business, but it was for Baroness Thatcher as well.

 

* It was, in our eyes,  a fine hat and we cocked it jauntily. And thus attired, and to our very great satisfaction, we successfully answered all the important epistemological questions of the day. We let the  cowards flinch and traitors sneer as they boastfully proclaimed the end of history. We were history … or at least, through the complex functioning of the intelligentsia in Marxist Leninist theory … we were history’s engine made flesh. And the race wasn’t over … we were merely getting our breath back.

Below are my comments about Sunday’s cabinet announcement followed by my comments about the elections from a week or so earlier – a sort of trip back in time.

In both cases the originals were written under tight deadlines and in both cases my initial impressions have been moderated by time, drifting towards the insipid end of the spectrum.

But for those who might be interested these were my first, slightly more vivid, impressions …

(Sent out 06h00 Monday 26th May):

Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet 2014 – through a glass darkly

From a narrow ‘financial market’ perspective the Cabinet announcement by Jacob Zuma last night was disappointing and confusing.

(Note: it would be possible to find much good in this Cabinet and the strategy it implies, but because the announcement was so late – about 1900 hours last night – I have decided to focus almost exclusively on the risks and problems, mostly because they dominate. Apologies if this makes me sound whiny.)

Cyril Ramaphosa

The appointment is finally made. It’s largely a good thing from a financial market perspective – given his understanding of how business works. However, the damage done him by his comments before the Marikana massacre should not be underestimated (he called for greater police action against strikers – see here) and his power within the ANC should not be over-estimated (he has, essentially, played hand-maiden to Jacob Zuma from assuming office of the ANC deputy president at Mangaung in December 2013). However, Ramaphosa was a clever and powerful negotiator for the ANC at Codesa I and II. It is likely that Ramaphosa’s authority and influence will gradually increase in the next few years, possibly leading to his ascension to the ANC’s and the country’s presidency.

Nhlanhla Nene – Minister of Finance

Nene became Deputy Minister of Finance in November 2008 and served in that role till May 2014. He is technically competent and liked by the few in the markets and in business who have dealt with him. As chairman of parliament’s finance committee Nene urged in October 2008 that “utmost care should be taken that parliament does not undermine macroeconomic stability” – see here for that reference.

Issues, problems and basis for assessment

Nene is the ‘continuity candidate’ in the absence of Pravin Gordhan – but it is this absence that increases uncertainty. Nene is not well known in the markets and he is particularly ‘lightweight’ politically in terms of his seniority and influence in the ANC (as opposed to his predecessors Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan).

This becomes more of a problem when GDP growth is as sluggish as it is in South Africa and when the President himself summarises his intentions (as he did prefacing his cabinet announcement): “I announced on Saturday that we have entered the second phase of our transition to a national democratic society. I also said this would be a radical phase of socio-economic transformation.”

One must assume such “a radical phase of socio-economic transformation” would put even greater spending pressures on the Finance Minister. Gordhan (and before that Trevor Manuel) had proven levels of toughness and authority in holding the fiscal line – although at least in Manuel’s case the ‘markets’ were nervous for some time after his appointment in 1996 (and Gordhan was not, initially on the ANC NEC when he was appointed).

The problem is made worse by the fact that DTI and EDD are unchanged

One of my early concerns with Zuma’s first Cabinet in 2009 was that it distributed economic policy-making power around government apparently (to me) as a gift to the SACP and Cosatu for having backed Jacob Zuma in his struggle against Mbeki. Thus Rob Davies in DTI and Ebrahim Patel in EDD have been left in place in yesterday’s cabinet announcement. As it turned out after 2009 Pravin Gordhan was eventually able to establish the Department of Finance as the centre of government’s economic policy-making function. Appointing Nhlanhla Nene to head the Treasury while leaving the other (now more experienced) economic Tsars in place rather reawakens the original concern.

If public sector wages and public service productivity are key variables for balancing government books …

The removal of independent and powerful Lindiwe Sisulu to the backwaters of Human Settlements (formally housing) and her replacement with the quiet and self-effacing Collins Chabane, previously of monitoring and evaluation in the Presidency, is another cause for concern. Again, he is admired and liked and should be given the chance to rise to the challenge of this key portfolio, but my first take is this is another weak appointment. The major negotiations for 3-year wage agreements in the public sector come up for renewal this year. I would have preferred someone in this post who had the political weight to stand up to the public sector unions (and various other political interests).

The key idea seems to be to house the NDP in a politically beefed up Presidency

The new ‘centre’ of economic policy making will actually be within the Presidency where Zuma has appointed Jeff Radebe as a sort of Prime Minister of the National Development Plan into which he (Zuma) has collapsed performance and monitoring as well as ‘youth development’.

Radebe swings a lot of weight – and a more general comment is that Jacob Zuma has made weak appointments throughout his cabinet but has very significantly strengthened his own office. There are several problems with this, but I will mention only that Jeff Radebe has never played a role where he has been required to establish or defend (or even understand) macro-economic policy stability, but he has played the role of party fixer, strongman and bully in the ANC. If these talents can be deployed in giving flesh to the NDP bones that will be a good thing.

Supply-side misery

The Governor of the South African Reserve Bank consistently has expressed concern about various ‘supply side’ constraints (see here for the Monetary Policy Committee statement of May 22nd).

These constraints include energy prices, labour unrest, transport bottlenecks, broadband penetration and regulation and failures in the education system among a host of issues.

So here are just a few of the appointments in this area:

Energy: After a disastrous term in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Minister Tina Joemat-Peterssen has been appointed Minister of Energy. She has been the subject of several Public Protector Investigations and she has courted a highly confrontational relationship with the fishing industry. However, she is strongly supported by Jacob Zuma. Her new department will be central to the decisions about the biggest public tender in South African history: R1-trillion worth of  nuclear power stations.

Telecommunications and Communications: The functions have been split, with the  Minister of State Security Siyabonga Cwele moving to Telecommunications and Postal Services. The bigger problem is how many changes have been made here, with the telecommunications industry  having expressing the hope that Minister Yunus Carrim would stay in the post and finally move towards stabilising the policy framework under which the local loop would be unbundled and the sector regulated – after a long succession of disastrous appointments. There are no grounds to be confident that Cwele is up to this task. The only grounds that we can see for the appointment is if the sector is conceived of as an extension of the country’s state intelligence function.

Communications: Ms Faith Muthambi has been appointed to head this department which will include the functions of the independent regulator Icasa, the state broadcaster SABC and government information services, the GCIS. It still needs to be assessed whether the structural change and appointments here and in telecommunications will be positive for the industry, but on the face of it is peculiar, to say the least, to group the regulator of the private sector (Icasa) with the ‘marketing’ and ‘promotion’ capacity of the government and state.

(See here for the eviscerating comments on the ‘communications’ decisions in the cabinet from the SOS Coalition (‘trade unions, community media and content producers hoping to support quality public broadcasting’).

Education, transport and labour: It can have escaped no-one concerned with South Africa’s economic development that these functions of government are failing or significantly underperforming. But Jacob Zuma has left education and training with Blade Nzimande, basic education with Angie Motshekga (which, btw, some NGO’s and the DA reckon is a good thing), transport with Dipuo Peters and labour with Mildred Oliphant.

(Because I don’t know him that well, I didn’t discuss Adv Ngoako Ramathlodi as mining minister in that note. But here  is the new minister in 2011 essentially arguing that the South African constitution was a compromise from weakness on the ANC’s part and the the courts need to passop stepping on toes of government, the ANC and the Executive’s …. and here is constitutional expert Pierre De Vos apoplectic response to Ramatlhodi’s disturbing views.)

Full Cabinet

(The Deputy President is Cyril Ramaphosa)

1. The Minister in the Presidency is Mr Jeff Radebe.

2. The Minister of Women in the Presidency is Ms Susan Shabangu.

3. The Minister of Justice and Correctional Services is Mr Michael Masutha.

4. The Minister of Public Service and Administration is Mr Collins Chabane.

5. The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans is Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

6. The Minister of Home Affairs is Mr Malusi Gigaba.

7. The Minister of Environmental Affairs is Ms Edna Molewa.

8. The Minister of State Security is Mr David Mahlobo.

9. The Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services is Dr Siyabonga Cwele.

10. The Minister of Police is Mr Nkosinathi Nhleko.

11. The Minister of Trade and Industry is Dr Rob Davies.

12. The Minister of Finance is Mr Nhlanhla Nene.

13. The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is Mr Senzeni Zokwana.

14. The Minister of Water and Sanitation is Ms Nomvula Mokonyane.

15. The Minister of Basic Education is Ms Angie Motshekga.

16. The Minister of Health is Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.

17. The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation is Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

18. The Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform is Mr Gugile Nkwinti.

19. The Minister of Higher Education and Training is Dr Bonginkosi “Blade” Nzimande.

20. The Minister of Economic Development is Mr Ebrahim Patel.

21. The Minister of Transport is Ms Dipuo Peters.

22. The Minister of Mineral Resources is Adv Ngoako Ramathlodi.

23. The Minister of Social Development is Ms Bathabile Dlamini.

24. The Minister of Public Enterprises is Ms Lyn Brown.

25. The Minister of Sport and Recreation is Mr Fikile Mbalula.

26. The Minister of Labour is Ms Mildred Oliphant.

27. The Minister of Arts and Culture is Mr Nathi Mthethwa.

28. The Minister of Public Works is Mr Thulas Nxesi.

29. The Minister of Small Business Development is Ms Lindiwe Zulu.

30. The Minister of Energy is Ms Tina Joemat-Peterssen.

31. The Minister of Science and Technology is Ms Naledi Pandor.

32. The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs is Mr Pravin Gordhan.

33. The Minister of Communications is Ms Faith Muthambi.

34. The Minister of Human Settlements is Ms Lindiwe Sisulu.

35. The Minister of Tourism is Mr Derek Hanekom.

ends ….

 

(And then this, sent out Monday 12 May 06h30)

Election 2014 results

South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced the following election results for the country’s National Assembly on Saturday 10 May 2014:

Elections1

The ANC has 15 fewer National Assembly seats and the DA 22 more than they achieved in the 2009 election.

The provincial results followed a similar pattern, with the ANC winning 8 out of 9 provinces (with the Western Cape remaining in DA control). In three of those provinces the ANC increased its majority (Kwazulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape – and increasing its percentage of the vote in the Western Cape) and in five provinces the ANC majority was reduced.

ANC drop more significant in Gauteng and some other major cities

The most significant reduction in ANC support occurred in Gauteng, the country’s economic and industrial heartland and the province with the highest population and highest population density. In the provincial poll in Gauteng the ANC fell 10.45% to 53.59% from 64.04% in the 2009 election.

In the table below the trend is clearly revealed in the three major Gauteng metropolitan areas and is reproduced to some degree in Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape:

 

Elections2

 

(As an aside, News24’s coverage of the election as well as it’s app from which the above is a cut-and-paste was truly excellent –  it’s set the new gold standard for election coverage in South Africa. To get a taste of that, visit here.)

‘Racial voting’ patterns persist

A feature of South African voting trends is that, in general, the parties have quite distinct racial or ethnic support bases.

This trend clearly persists (from City Press 11/05/2014)

Elections3

 

So what?

A close examination of ward data changes between 2009 and today reveals that there is a blurring of the racial voting patterns in Gauteng’s metropolitan areas – but only to a limited degree and only in the most developed urban centres. The persistence of ‘racialised’ voting patterns is unsurprising given the country’s history and the persistence of apartheid’s spacial planning and economic, demographic and cultural disparities in the present. The implication is that party support patterns are as suborn and persistent as other social patterns. From a financial market perspective this can mean both that the political environment is stable and predictable but also that such secure incumbency is likely to gradually increase patronage and complacency.

(You might want to temper these conclusion with the views of Pallo Jordan who wrote in a Business Day column: “Racial interpretations of voter behaviour might be very comforting for analysts who confuse public manifestations of discontent with the rejection of the governing party. Unless the coloured voters of the Northern Cape are being included in the “racial solidarity” African voters are accused of, their political choices can only be explained in terms of attractive policies”. I think Jordan’s argument is taking on something different to the points I make above, but I include them – Jordan’s comments – here in case I am missing something.)

The main implications: government, the ANC, the NDP, the middle ground and the EFF

These are, in my opinion, the main financial market implications of the election:

  • The result is generally financial market positive: it leaves the ANC with a secure enough majority to be able continue ‘grasping the nettle’ of macro-economic policy stability, including fiscal consolidation.
  • However, there may be just enough voter admonishment implicit in the ANC’s loss of 15 National Assembly seats and the more dizzying drops in the major metropolitan areas to cause the party to attempt a clean-up of the behaviour of some of its top leaders.
  • My reading of the relative ANC losses in the main urban centres of Gauteng is that these were only partly driven by the introduction of unpopular e-tolling gantries in that province. A more fundamental divide is the kind of leadership Jacob Zuma has brought to the ANC: with his ‘rural big man’ characteristics, the casual diversion of public funds for the development of his Nkandla home, his backing of patriarchal legislation like the Traditional Courts Bill and his too cosy, mutually beneficial, relationships with business people like the Shaik and the Gupta families (see here and here). The most educated urban voters are the least likely to tolerate this kind of behaviour by the country’s top politician – and this is reflected in voting patterns.
  • There is very little disagreement between the ANC and the DA (and most of the smaller opposition parties, except the EFF) as to the broad outlines of economic policy. Thus the National Development Plan and a broadly stable macro-economic policy platform is the consensus of over 90% of the political establishment.
  • It has long been a feature of South African politics that ‘the real opposition’ and political contest is not in parliament, but actually within the ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance itself. This alliance has not, since 1994, been less divided over economic policy. The SACP is firmly backing the Zuma government and Cosatu is in disarray, leaving the ANC/SACP to pursue the NDP and related policies.
  • While I do not think the NDP is a panacea for South Africa’s myriad economic problems, the programme’s holistic approach to economic development, it’s emphasis on improving infrastructure and its greater reliance on market mechanisms for the allocation of capital (more so than previous such policies like Asgisa, IPAP 1 & II and the New Growth Path) make it broadly financial market positive.
  • The ANC is signalling its intention to ratchet up Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action in the workplace (through legislative, regulatory, political and state spending mechanisms.) This will get loud – and will become a more central feature of the valuation of companies and economic sectors in South Africa.
  • The rise and vibrancy of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters has been, perhaps, the most notable feature of this election. Malema faces a final sequestration hearing on May 26 – and if his provisional sequestration is upheld he will be barred from being a member of parliament.
  • With or without its leader in parliament the EFF is already vigorously attempting to link up with striking platinum workers and with service delivery protesters.  This will become an increasingly noisy feature of South African politics. The upside is the ANC will probably become less ambiguous in its attitude to such strikes and protests. The downside is there will now be a parliamentary pressure group backing the radical populist policies of land seizures and mine nationalisation. My view is this is, on the whole, a healthy development. The radical populist views have been present in the ruling alliance and the society more generally since 1994 anyway. Having those views directly represented by a minority party in parliament formalises the debate and contest within the democratic and constitutional structures of the country. Of course that doesn’t mean the EFF won’t constantly attempt to take its struggle to the streets, but it does mean that the ANC will be clear on where it stands in relation to those issues.
  • All attention will now move to Jacob Zuma’s new cabinet (which will be announced soon after his inauguration – which I expect on the 24th of May) and to succession issues within the ANC.

I have been agonising over whether to keep this website going –  or to consign it to the wastelands of the interwebs there to wander mournfully, accumulating lurid advertisements for secret ways of getting rid of belly fat and invitations from young, beautiful and lonely people, in your area, waiting by their phones for a call from you.

After weighing matters too arcane to bore you with here I decided to gird my sagging loins (that’s long and loose clothing, not that other thing you were thinking – Ed) and once more into the breach … and all of that.

So … I have written various 2014 previews. One you may have seen was for the Mail & Guardian and titled ‘What I will be telling investors in 2014′. I would have liked to give it a better edit – and I think I don’t adequately deal with the issue of the corroding effects of the original arms scandal – but you may be interested in reading it anyway. Catch it here.

I also published in early January, as part of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities’ 2014 Outlook, the overview below. (Thanks, as always, to my main contract holder for generously allowing me to republish a few weeks later here.)

(Remember, no-one has been to the future and returned with any useful information as far as I am aware … so treat the following with a healthy degree of scepticism – Ed)

Political outlook 2014: No safe haven in the storm

Introduction

At least part of our sanguine view of South African politics has rested on the belief that the ANC had several more decades of 60%-plus support at the polls. We were of the view that while this could lead to corruption, complaisance and cronyism, it would also allow the party to keep the country, government and constitution steady while SA undertook a wrenching transformation from its apartheid past to whatever the future held.

However, several important fissures have appeared in the ANC’s support base that suggest this assumption of indefinite ruling party dominance may not be correct and, therefore, that the essentially benign shepherding of that transition is under strain.

Amcu: bridgehead in previously safe African working-class constituency

Firstly, the success of the Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) in the mining (particularly platinum) sector has led to the virtual collapse of a key ANC labour ally, the National Union of Mineworkers (Num). Amcu is important for a number of reasons, but in this section, the issue is that it has created a bridgehead in the ANC’s core constituency that has every possibility of linking up with new left-wing (or in other ways radical) political formations that will challenge the ANC politically in the next few years.

Julius Malema and the formation of the EFF

Secondly, the expulsion of Julius Malema from the ANC and his formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party damages the ANC in two important ways. It draws disaffected young black South Africans, who are experiencing unemployment rates of about 60%, out of the ANC. And it captures ideological terrain that the ANC was previously able to control and finesse, namely, the question of the nationalisation of mines and land.

A strong and confident ANC has, since 1994, essentially been able to tell its electoral constituency that patience is required for transformation and that constituency has, with mutterings, accepted the ANC’s moral authority on the matter. However, that consensus is collapsing. Mr Malema’s ‘red berets’ are attacking the president at every opportunity and arguing that the ANC has sold out the birth-right of Africans and has been bought off by the opportunity to loot the state and by juicy empowerment deals. The message has a natural resonance among poor urban and unemployed youth – but up until Mr Malema’s expulsion, the ANC was able to articulate both sides of this debate within itself.

NUMSA split: The unravelling of the ruling alliance

Thirdly, it appears that the long-standing split within Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) over its relationship with the ANC has been forced to a head by the suspension of Cosatu Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi. A ‘left’ faction had, with a degree of discomfort, existed within Cosatu since the formation of the union federation in 1985. This faction has its roots in non-ANC liberation traditions and was concentrated mostly in Cosatu manufacturing unions, especially Numsa. The moves to get rid of Mr Vavi and close down Numsa’s criticism of the president and of ANC economic policy probably emanate from the hegemonic faction within the ANC itself, in other words, Jacob Zuma and his closest allies. Not unsurprisingly, Numsa has now formally called on Cosatu to leave the alliance with the ANC, has said it will not be supporting the ANC in the election in 2014 and has called for the immediate resignation of President Zuma.

Over time, this will impact ANC electoral support, though not necessarily profoundly in 2014. How Numsa members and their dependants vote in next year’s election was probably a ‘done deal’ prior to Numsa’s defection decision at its special congress in late December 2013. Numsa may link up with ‘left’ or ‘workers’ parties (and may actually form a ‘socialist party’ that could challenge the ANC for support in the ANC’s key black working-class constituency), but this will likely impact more profoundly on electoral outcomes in the 2019 election.

ANC swelling in rural conservative areas and shrinking amongst urban sophisticates

Fourthly, the patronage and diversion of state resources as depicted by the Nkandla saga, combined with the vigorous pursuit of the rural vote in Kwazulu-Natal, has meant that the ANC is gradually appealing less to urban Africans (although this is by no means a majority trend) and more to rural and traditional poor black South Africans. This appears to mean that parties like the Democratic Alliance, AgangSA and the EFF are picking up a degree of unexpected traction in such constituencies.

Labour environment

After a catastrophic 2012 as far as the labour environment was concerned – especially the repeated waves of illegal and violent strikes in the platinum sector – 2013 saw stabilisation, albeit at still unacceptably high levels of unrest and strike activity.

In the platinum sector, the Amcu is ‘bedding down’, but likely to continue contesting with the Num in the gold sector. The next public-sector wage round is scheduled for 2015, so we have a breather before that storm hits (and we expected it to be a big storm when it does).

The formalisation of the Numsa split from the alliance probably means that this union will begin to actively contest with the Cosatu unions and in several other sectors of the economy. We are looking for the formation of new and smaller unions in sectors where the incumbent unions have grown too cumbersome or complacent to deal with the demands of specialist groups of workers. Unionism is a growth industry in South Africa, with annuity income for those who set them up. As Cosatu shudders, there are many opportunities emerging.

Labour unrest, poor labour productivity and inflexible labour markets (price, size, skills) are among the biggest negative domestic drivers of economic growth and we expect the figures to show a slight improvement in 2013 over 2012 and a significant deterioration in 2014 and 2015 – which may have significant negative implications along the lines of the BMW ‘disinvestment’ decision.

National Development Plan: The political rise of the Treasury and fall of Cosatu

The ruling party and the ruling alliance’s approach to the National Development Plan (NDP) has appeared highly conflicted since the adoption of the plan at the 2012 Mangaung national conference of the ANC.

While our view is that the NDP is little more than a shopping list (and not the miracle cure some ratings and multilateral agencies hope it is) in the areas of large infrastructure roll-out and a disciplining/training/focusing of the public service, we may be in for upside surprises. The important political leaders to watch here are ministers Lindiwe Sisulu (public service and administration) and Malusi Gigaba (state-owned enterprises).

In several different ways, the Zuma leadership of the ANC has, over the last few months, appeared to back with a degree of fortitude previously orphaned policy thrusts from the NDP that are generally ‘financial-market positive’.

The first of these is the foregrounding of the NDP itself – both at Mangaung, but also in the medium-term budget statement in October 2013. Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan stated that that this budget statement and all future budget statements would be ‘the accounts’ of the National Development Plan, putting the plan at the centre of government policy.

The trade-union movement – especially the now defecting faction rooted in Numsa, but actually common to the whole federation – was outraged by this, as it sees the NDP as a capitulation by the ANC to (variously) ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘business interests’.

In conjunction with this foregrounding of the NDP, Jacob Zuma has recently signed into law two major policy thrusts that are bitterly opposed by the ANC’s labour ally.

The first of these is the Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Act, which allows for the implementation of ‘e-tolling’ on Gauteng highways and has been bitterly opposed by COSATU and other community groups in that province. Bond-market investors and ratings agencies have repeatedly said it is crucial that the ANC implement ‘e-tolling’ if the government is to maintain credibility on the global capital markets. It is significant that the Zuma administration has grasped this nettle, despite facing (by all accounts) a significant electoral challenge in Gauteng in 2014.

The second surprising nettle-grasping activity has been the promulgation of the employment tax incentive bill in the face of united Coatu fury. This is the ‘youth wage subsidy’ of yore, and the ANC under Jacob Zuma has obviously decided to accept thunderous criticism from its ally in the hope that longer-term employment growth benefits will weigh in its favour at the polls, in both 2014 and 2019.

Together, these initiatives are surprising positives and have probably come about because the Treasury has managed to persuade Mr Zuma and his cabinet that failure to take a stand on these various measures could lead to downgrades by the ratings agencies.

Policy and regulatory risks predominate

Thus, our view is that the Presidency, bereft of any real policy direction itself (because it is busy purely with rent seeking and hanging onto power) has been persuaded by Pravin Gordhan that the country is in trouble, that the deficit is looking genuinely threatening, that downgrades are a real possibility and that if this goes south, President Zuma might go with it. The National Treasury briefly has the reins, and this gives us a moment of respite.

However, hostile mining regulations, a fiddly and interventionist Department of Trade and Industry, an overly ambitious Department of Economic Development, a hostile Department of Labour, liquor legislation, more and tighter empowerment legislation and deepening regulations on all fronts, but especially in the credit markets, mean that, on the whole, government in 2014 will be an unreliable financial-market ally.

State finances: The deeper risks are fiscal

The country’s increasing dependence for stability on social grants and other forms of social spending is a real and deepening political risk. While the social grant system has lifted millions of South Africans out of poverty and the public sector has employed hundreds of thousands of others, it has also created a culture of dependency and paternalism and is an unsustainable expense that the government will at some stage be forced to reduce. This is definitely going to be accompanied by severe social turmoil, although as mentioned previously, the real ‘fiscal cliff’ is still some way ahead of the forecast period dealt with in this report.

Election 2014

The election results will be important, but in ways that are difficult to predict.

If the ANC’s share of the national vote plummets to the low 50% range, will this force the party into a process of renewal, or will it be panicked into populist measures? It probably depends on which parties take up the slack.

If the ANC gets 65% of the vote, will it be ‘Nkandla business’ as usual – an unhealthy rural populism à la the Traditional Courts Bill, combined with activities like the significant public resources (ZAR208m) spent on building the president’s Nkandla compound and accusations of corruption?
If Mr Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters get 10% of the vote, will that mean ANC policymaking is paralysed until 2019 as the party attempts to appease the angry and disenfranchised youth? Will it mean legislation relating to mining and land ownership swerves into uncertain and dangerous territory?

If the Democratic Alliance wins 27% of the national vote (which we think unlikely) and if it is able to form a provincial government in alliance with other parties in Gauteng (which we also think unlikely), how might that cause the ANC to behave? Better? To continue to allow the Treasury to set the tone of probity and effectiveness, concentrate on fixing education and focus on economic growth as the only guarantor of electoral success in 2019? Will this kind of threat cause the ruling party to attempt to make opposition strongholds ungovernable? We suspect different impulses are already at war within the ANC and investors should watch how that battle plays out.

Below, purely as a way of presenting our latest ‘guesstimates’, are our ‘most likely’ electoral outcomes for 2014 (these may change as campaigning performance changes before the election and as various crises emerge, eg, the booing of Jacob Zuma at the FNB Stadium commemoration for Nelson Mandela in December 2013).

votingresultsinpreview

BRICs and the uncertain rise of the SACP

A relatively new and difficult-to-unpick issue is the growing confidence the South African Communist Party (SACP) has in shaping the national agenda. The inappropriate focus on BRICS speakers at the FNB Mandela memorial (over Africans and European Union speakers, with Obama the inevitable exception) is probably evidence of the Communists having very significant influence.

We think this could have fed through into the announced Zuma/Putin ZAR 100bn nuclear deal.

This is a matter of growing tension within the ANC, with a previously dominant (under Mandela and Mbeki) group of ‘progressive Africanists’ having lost power to the Communists, who are now in an alliance with a patronage-seeking, provincial elite with strong links to state-security apparatuses and rent-seeking business interests (‘the Nkandla crew’.)

This struggle could play into succession issues and might be a driver of attempts to impeach Jacob Zuma (a strategy unlikely to succeed, in our view) over the next few years.

Succession and a ‘rescue mission’ in the ANC?

While this matter probably lies beyond the 2014 scope of this report, within the ANC, the possibility of a rescue mission is taking shape (driven, in part, by growing commentary about how many public resources are ending up on and around Jacob Zuma’s person and his tight control of security agencies). A group now on the outskirts of the party, and in very general terms representing the ‘old guard’, appears set to begin working on securing a succession process that reverses the decline (moral and in popularity) over which Jacob Zuma appears to be presiding.

This move has not yet taken shape, nor is it properly manifest, but in our view the important people to watch are previous President Thabo Mbeki, Lindiwe Sisulu, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize.

I was looking for a shorthand way of summarising what I thought were the main political risks that are in the minds of investors in South African financial markets.

Note that the emphasis here (in what appears below) is what I think is an appropriate prism for investors in financial markets, and specifically those with an horizon of a maximum of 5-7 years.

If I was looking at broader security issues, particularly with regard to the stability of the state and ruling party, I would have had a significantly different emphasis – and have aspects that are both more negative and more positive than that which appears below. Hopefully, at some time in the future, I will post here a more general threat or risk analysis that would be of more specific relevance to South Africans who hope to live and work here.

Finally, before I get on with it, I do not explore the potential for an upside suprise here … but there does appear to me to be a slight accumulation of good news, albeit against a dark background.

SA Politics and financial markets – 3 risks

  • Unpredictable and/or negative government economic policy interventions: Medium seriousness. Medium likelihood. Short- and medium-term duration (next few months to five years);
  • Escalating social unrest – perhaps leading to “Arab Spring” type event: Very serious. Very unlikely. Medium- to-long duration (five to seven years);
  • Ratings downgrades and tension between ambitious government plans and narrowing fiscal space: Serious risk. Medium likelihood. Short- and medium-term duration (one to three years).

Unpredictable and/or negative government economic policy interventions

Medium seriousness. Medium likelihood. Short- and medium-term duration (next few months to five years)

What it’s about: Most obvious are new interventions in the mineral and exploration sectors (including new taxes, price setting, beneficiation requirements, export restrictions, uncertainty about licence conditions and significantly increased ministerial discretion via the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Amendment Bill), but there are comparable interventions across the economy, as indicated in the ANC’s Mangaung Resolution and in a range of proposed regulatory and legislative changes, including those relating to telecommunications, liquid fuels,  the labour market, employment equity and Black Economic Empowerment (to name just a few).

My view: Since 1994, it has generally been the case that markets consistently overestimate the risk that the ANC and its government will take significantly populist policy measures. The best example of this was in July 2002, when exaggerated targets for black equity participation in the mining sector where leaked and R52b left the JSE resources sector in 72 hours – a buying opportunity of note. However, the traction Julius Malema was able to achieve with disaffected youth post-2009 and the implicit defection from the ANC and its allies in the platinum strikes last year have catapulted the ANC into something of a policy scrabble. While nationalisation is off the agenda, it has been replaced by a policy push that hopes to deploy private companies, through regulation and other forms of pressure, to achieve government (and party) targets of employment, revenue generation, service delivery to local communities and infrastructure build. Increases in the tax take look likely – it’s purely a question of ‘how much the market can bear’.

Government intervention, per se, is less the issue here but rather the confused, generalised and uncertain nature and intent of the interventions. If the interventions do not have the desired results (growth, employment and equality), the risk is that government does not reassess the wisdom of the intervention, but instead uses a heavier hand.

Financial markets: Policy uncertainty puts downward pressure on investment, employment and output in all sectors. In South Africa, these negative impacts will be felt most keenly by companies most exposed to government licencing and regulatory power, or most exposed to government’s political prioritisation. Resources, telecommunications and agriculture all fall into one, or both, of these categories.

Escalating social unrest – perhaps leading to “Arab Spring” type event

Very serious. Very unlikely. Medium-to-long duration (five to seven years).

What it’s about: Significant and consistent (apparently linear) growth in service delivery protests, combined with growing levels of industrial unrest (in 2012, anyway) seem to imply that such unrest could continue to escalate until it reaches a point of ‘phase state change’ (as in thermodynamics, referring to changing states of matter – to/from solid, liquid and gas). Thus, the risk is of a sudden systemic shift from unstable to revolutionary/insurrectionary.

My view: Increasing protest and industrial unrest are normal – and fairly consistent – features of South African political life and have been since at least the mid-1970s. Even before 1994 there was no real expectation that unrest would lead naturally to insurrection. A rapid phase state change, like an Arab-spring type event, requires (perhaps indirectly) contesting political formations and ideologies as well as the widespread failure – or absence – of social institutions (parliaments, courts) that direct, mediate and give expression to grievances and/or conflicting group interests. South Africa is rich in such institutions and there is no evidence that large groups of dissenting voices have permanently failed to find expression in society’s normal processes and institutions – even when some of those processes include robust forms of public dispute. However, South Africa does have some comparable features to countries that have had ‘Tunisia-moments’ – including high and growing youth unemployment, high  levels of visible inequality and serious government corruption – so we would keep an eye on the escalating ‘service delivery protest’ trends, as evidenced in graphs from Municipal IQ below.

Municipal IQ

Municipal IQ

Industrial relations unrest is slightly different from – and more negative than – the question of social unrest as a whole. Trade unions are strong and growing in South Africa, and contestation between them is vigorous, even violent – as we saw in the platinum sector in 2012. Trade unions are businesses with an enticing annuity income flow – and this will drive their contestation. The collective bargaining system in South Africa is functioning sub-optimally for a number of reasons – including inappropriately high levels at which automatic recognition kicks in – and the disarray in the system also drives unrest. This conjunction of subjective and objective conditions means I am less sanguine about industrial relations stability (than about stability per se) and expect this to remain a negative investment feature for the next several years. I am specifically negative on public sector industrial relations stability for 2013.

Thus, I do not think unrest and social discord will lead to any radical policy or political discontinuities, but will remain a constant drain on confidence. I also think this phenomenon will tempt government into keeping spending (on the public sector wage bill and on social grants) at above-inflation levels – helping to feed uncertainty and unpredictability in state finances, inflation, the currency and the bond markets.

Additionally, I think labour unrest will remain a seriously destabilising factor of production – including via disruption of services in public sector strikes.

Financial markets:

Resources, agriculture and construction are most exposed through their reliance on large, aggregated and often low-skilled/low-pay labour forces. The financial services and retail are less exposed to (but not immune to) the negative effects of industrial action.

Ratings downgrades and tension between ambitious government plans and narrowing fiscal space

Serious risk. Medium-likelihood. Short- and medium-term duration (one to three years).

What it’s about: The ruling party is facing something of its own ‘fiscal cliff’. The ANC feels itself in danger of losing some support because of failure to deliver employment growth or adequate reductions in poverty and inequality. Foreign investors agree this is a risk, but will not necessarily agree to fund the gap. This tension is among the reasons that all three major rating agencies (Moody’s, Fitch and S&P) downgraded SA’s sovereign rating in 2012 (Fitch in January this year) and both Moody’s and S&P put SA on watch list for future downgrades. The ANC secures political support, at least in part, through spending on the public sector wage bill and on social grants – which together now make up more than half of annual non-interest government spending. Additionally, the ANC has occasionally shown itself hostage to the views of its alliance partners or popular opinion in its spending and revenue plans (Gauteng toll-roads, youth wage subsidy). The ratings agencies don’t like the tension and I expect the bond markets won’t either.

My view: South Africa maintains respectable debt-to-GDP ratios, although these grew to 39% of GDP by end-2012, substantially higher than the 34% for emerging and developing economies as a whole. When Fitch downgraded SA earlier this year, it specifically mentioned concerns about SA’s rising debt-to-GDP ratio, given that the ratio is higher (and rising at a faster pace) than the country’s peers.

South Africa is uniquely (eg in relation to its BRICS peers) exposed to foreign investor sentiment through the deficit on the current account combined with liquid and deep fixed interest markets. SA’s widening deficit on the current account is a specific factor that concerns the rating agencies and is one of the metrics the agencies will use to assess SA’s sovereign risk in the near future. Further downgrades are the risk – potentially driven by foreign investor sentiment about political risks. Non-investment grade (junk bond status) is not an inconceivable future rating.

Financial markets: A significant sell-off in the rand, coupled with persistent currency volatility and reduced foreign capital inflows. Traditionally this scenario would mean investors look for rand hedges and attempt to get exposure to export-orientated sectors, including manufacturing – and to stay out of the bond market. Offshore borrowing costs will be raised for domestic companies – as well as for the country as a whole.  This risk has an internal feedback loop (downgrades make debt more difficult to pay, leading to further downgrades) and naturally feeds other political risks, including in relation to taxation, clumsy government intervention, social stability and property rights.

Remember kaleidoscopes?

Basically a tube that you held up towards a light and peered through as if it was a telescope?

But unlike kid’s telescopes –  which, like kid’s microscopes, were blurry and disappointing and stupid – the kaleidoscope was a device of astonishing power and beauty.

The point for my six-year-old self who received his first kaleidoscope for a birthday, probably, was the power that little tube put in my hands.

The simple expedient of  twisting one end caused visions of astonishing, luminous, grandeur to pour out the other.

I can still feel that tingling as if I was balanced on a precipice, reaching out to shape a whole universe; causing tectonic shifts in the intrinsic structure of reality … okay, maybe not that last bit … but you get the point.

Such power … and I had absolutely no idea how it worked.

My “device of power and beauty” was a semi-rigid cardboard tube with loose coloured translucent beads or pebbles in the end and two mirrors running lengthways up the inside, duplicating images of the transparent junk that tumbled as the tube was rotated.

My first kaleidoscope wilted in my sweaty, meglomeniacal hands a few hours after I had torn it from its pretty wrapping – and I cut myself on a broken piece of mirror as I desperately pounded it to make it continue producing those wondrous images.

Which brings me to my worries about ANC policy making.

I am slightly more worried today than I was when I wrote the piece below (July 2) just after the conference.

That is partly because I have thought further about some of the issues and partly because the consensus points within the ANC seems to be slippery – and therefore uncertainty is rising.

In short my worry is that the ANC is approaching more vigorous economic intervention with the enthusiasm and growing expectations of my six-year-old self after he first looked through his pretty new cardboard tube.

I think the likelihood of this all ending in tears in increasing exponentially – and the reasons are not very different from those that caused the ruin of my first kaleidoscope and my cut finger.

I will pursue this theme (the threats involved with increasingly desperate state interventions – especially those that worsen the problems they promise to fix) in future posts, but first my initial take on the conference; written just after having read the particularly awful English language Sunday newspapers of July 1:

Much ado – and confusion – about the ANC policy conference

The teams of journalists from the political desks at the Mail & Guardian, the City Press, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Independent could have been covering different conferences given the divergence of their understanding of what went down at Gallagher Estates in the Midrand from Tuesday to Friday last week.

This is my first attempt at a distillation of the main points – partly of the coverage, partly of what was supposedly being covered:

  • Debates about policy and the struggle over who will be elected to the top positions in the ANC at the National Conference in December became blurred, to the detriment of both.
  • The “Second Transition” concept became associated with Jacob Zuma (even though it was penned by his factional enemy, Tony Yengeni) and its rejection by most commissions at the conference was interpreted as a set-back to Zuma’s re-election campaign.
  • The power struggle obscured the fact that there was general consensus that transformation is “stuck” and radical and urgent action to hurry the process along needs to be taken if the ANC is to keep the trust and support of its majority poor and black constituency.
  • The report-back to plenary of the key breakaway commission on mining became the most blurred moment, when Enoch Godongwana presented a summary of the views on the state’s proposed involvement in the mining sector – with pro-Zuma provinces KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Free State tending to go with the SIMS compromise and the other six provinces tending to support the ANC Youth League in a strengthened nationalisation position.
  • When consensus is finally reached, it is likely to include an even stronger role for the state-owned mining company – perhaps giving it the right to take significant stakes in all future mining licenses issued. Absolute taxation levels might be an area of compromise between the state and the mining sector in negotiations about this matter in the final lead-up to Mangaung where policy will be formally decided.
  • There was broad consensus that the state could and should force the sale of farmland for redistribution purposes and that an ombudsman be appointed to determine ‘a fair price’ – to prevent the process being frozen by white farmers holding out for better terms. It is not clear whether this would require a constitutional amendment.
  • There was general consensus that the Media Appeals Tribunal is no longer necessary, that the number of provinces needs to be reduced, that the proposed Traditional Courts Bill is reactionary and against the constitutionally guaranteed rights of women and children in rural areas, and that the youth wage subsidy (as a tax break to employers) had to be sweetened, or replaced, with a grant directly to young job seekers.
  • The push for “organisational renewal” will require a number of changes: a probation period of 6 months for new members, a 10 year membership requirement before such members can be elected to the NEC, a reduction of the size of the NEC from 80 to 60 members and a downgrading of the status of the Leagues (women, veterans and youth) so they more directly serve the interests of the mother body.

So if this was a soccer tournament, what is the score?

The City Press led with “Tide Turns Against Zuma”, but frankly I think this is more about that newspaper’s preferences than anything else. The ideological disputes in the ANC are complicated but broadly follow an Africanist/nationalist group versus a SACP/Cosatu/anti-nationalist group. Neither Jacob Zuma nor Kgalema Motlanthe are clearly in either camp (but Zuma tends towards the former and Motlanthe towards the latter). Only one potential challenger, Tokyo Sexwale, is firmly in one group (the nationalists, which is the ideological home of the ANC Youth League) and he has more chance of passing through the eye of a needle than winning this competition.

Only Motlanthe could seriously challenge Zuma in a succession race and despite all the rumours and leaks it is by no means clear whether he has any intention of running – or, if he did, whether he would have a significantly different policy agenda than that being pursued by Zuma and his backers.

In a Woolworths queue in the Gardens Centre yesterday evening I idly picked up the Cape Argus.

It’s the only time I actually read anything in that newspaper.

I like to casually glance at its headlines during my journey from the beginning of the endless tunnel of sweats sweets (damn morning rush) and magazines. I then stash it amongst the heap of chocolate boats stuffed with Smarties right before the tills.

I commit two very mild acts of corporate activism when I do this.

I admonish The Argus for plastering Cape Town with interesting and clever billboards that inevitably refer to puerile and ridiculously provincial – and badly written – stories.

And I wrist-slap Woolworths for having made me carry my then small children through that tunnel after a long day of shopping – an experience that  still makes me shudder.

Okay, these are not very militant acts; more mild criticism of two old and venerable institutions that I feel great affection for but believe would benefit from the occasional slap.

Anyway, the cover story on The Argus shocked me rigid – such that I barely noticed the passing array of Magnum Ice-creams and left-over chocolate father Christmases calling out to me and the small squalling children being pushed by their exhausted mothers through Infanticide Row.

Government is proposing to fine South Africans who give unsanctioned weather and pollution warnings –  ten years in jail or a R10 million fine (catch the full text of the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill here.)

I got it immediately.

You can’t have amateur forecasters spreading panic and despair because they had seen fluctuations in their crystals and spirit catchers … or because choppy surf with a curling left-break at Glen Beach means Durbs is gonna be hit by cyclones, dude … or whatever.

But as I was passing the tubs of sour worms it dawned on me that all forecasting should be controlled. You can’t have every blogger and his parrot predicting the unfolding sovereign debt crises in Europe, the US presidential elections, the possibility of a US/Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, whether Germany and France will eventually let Greece sink without a trace, whether the Euro will be history this time next year …. the list is endless.

The pronouncements of economists and political analysts and talking heads of all kinds should come with health warnings. Who’s to say they know anything more than anyone else about anything?

But they get asked by television and radio stations and newspapers and they set up blogs …

Oops …

I dawned on me, but only after a surprisingly long time; somewhere between the sacks of chewy white milky cars and deep piles of You Magazines.

I am a forecaster. I have been quite specific about what I think will happen in the ANC’s debate about mine nationalisation. I have been fairly specific about succession issues in the ANC – both at Polokwane (where I was mostly wrong) and Mangaung (where I will be mostly right) ….

Excuse me? Did you really just say what I think you said?

No. No but seriously – the South African Weather Bureau has scientists with balloons and mysterious beeping machines in places like the Antarctic and Gough Island and a billion information feeds and huge computer models that attempt to get closer and closer to emulating the storm systems driving across from south of South America … and they still fail because they forgot about the butterfly flapping its mysterious wings in Peru.

By the time I punitively stashed The Argus amongst the chocolate tugs stuffed with brightly coloured beads just before the serene Woolworths teller lady I was having a minor existential crisis.

Admittedly not a completely new one – once you have been fairly sure that the ANC would not slip into the hands of the Nkandla Crew at Polokwane you are forever chastened and humbled by the knowledge that the future really is an ever unfolding mystery.

The previous post was headlined “The ANC’s surprising return to form” and it stayed as the face of this website throughout a week in which we were reminded of the nest of corruption our president emerged from.

… oh yes, and a week when the ANC in parliament passed the Protection of Information Bill – with sneaky abstentions from three of their MPs. (Gloria Borman actually abstained, Ben Turok walked out and Salam Abram said he would have abstained if he could have made it to the sitting.)

… and a lot else has gone wrong such that it is difficult to even pierce the gloom.

Many of these issues have been done to death, but briefly on Mac Maharaj:

The Mail&Guardian weekly newspaper and the Sunday Times (and now City Press) revealed different pieces of evidence that appear to prove that French arms company Thales channeled money to Mac Maharaj, then Minister of Transport (also, crucially, architect of Zuma’s rise and key strategist behind Zuma government) a few months before Thales was awarded a credit card licence tender (worth about R265 million) by Maharaj’s department in 1996.

The more revealing points are that the alleged middleman, Zuma’s financial advisor Shabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for, amongst other things, securing a bribe from Thales for Jacob Zuma’s protection in the arms deal. Thales country manager Alain Thetard allegedly signed or originated both the agreement that channeled money to Maharaj through his wife Zarina as well as the encrypted fax spelling out the payment for Zuma and the protections and advocacy those payments were for.

The issue is Zuma only avoided prosecution for corruption and racketeering because it was shown that there was political meddling in the prosecution – not because there was not a prima facie case for him to answer (his financial advisor went to prison for securing the bribe for his boss … you don’t get more prima facie than that!)

The leaking of the evidence is undoubtedly linked to the conflict between Zuma and the faction of which Julius Malema is a part. In fact the Youth League has made it clear that it plans to raise issues associated with Zuma’s sexual conduct as well as the fact that his (Zuma’s) friends and family have benefited financially (and overwhelmingly) from his presidency. Some of Malema’s key backers were insiders to the arms deal scandal and it would have been an easy matter for evidence against Mac and Zuma to emerge from some of those quarters.

At the very least the accusation (and reminder) that the Zuma presidency is deeply tainted by this history will hurt his  re-election bid at Mangaung.

… while the ANC itches to get more fingers on the economy

Late last week it emerged that there are proposals to tax ‘unbeneficiated’ mineral exports and to force the South African fund management industry to own a specific amount of government and SOE bonds in ‘draft of draft’ reports from the ANC Economic Transformation Committee – that were due to be discussed by the ANC NEC this weekend.

Both Bloomberg and Reuters have got hold of these, but the ‘final drafts’ take a less prescriptive approach, according to committee chair and key ANC economic policy strategist (and deputy minister Economic Development) Enoch Godongwana.

The ANC aches to get its hands on the IDC’s Public Investment Corporation’s investment power – especially as assets under management (mostly public sector pensions) topped the 1 trillion Rand mark in March.

The prescribed assets idea and strategies to force beneficiation – all in the service of the jobs drive – have been on the fringes of government thinking for years and are flirted with in much of the motivation that led to the NGP.

I don’t think these proposals will ever be legislated in this form.

A pre-Mangaung policy conference (in May according to the Business Day and June according to Bloomberg/Reuters) will make recommendations but the decision will only be made in December 2012.

The ‘nationalisation of mines’ draft proposal was also expected to be delivered to the NEC this weekend. I haven’t seen it or read any reports about it, but I expect a shift in the tax regime, a tightening up of the Charter and a plan to strengthen the African Mining Exploration and Finance Company (AEMFC) – which is the much vaunted “state owned mining company”. Together these fall well short of the ANCYL nationalisation proposals, but still weaken the investment case for the industry as a whole.

(Note, that these ideas proposed by think-tanks within the ruling party are essentially grappling with ways to make the economy more supportive of the transformation project. The problem, though, is one of trust. Giving this ANC is led by the kind of people named in the first few paragraphs of this post, more control over central aspects of our lives feels stupid. I just don’t trust them any more.)

… meanwhile

… Cabinet approved the publication of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act Amendment Bill that plans to fine companies up to 10% of revenues for ‘fronting’- and allows for companies to lose points on one part of the balanced scorecard for failure to achieve targets on another.

This is the first major attempt to give B-BBEE serious teeth (outside of mining licensing where the legislative and regulatory teeth are already pretty sharp.)

My own feeling is that resources for ‘deracialising’ the SA economy are limited; cheating is a problem, but the fact that the process is too often indistinguishable from a bribe of the political class is the bigger failing the new amendments ignore.

There’s my happy little corrective for an early Monday morning.

Capitalism, at its most basic and unbridled, is a system that says: okay, the king is dead and therefore no longer owns all this stuff; take what you can … if you can hold onto it, it’s yours. Oh yeah, and you can pay the people who don’t manage to hang onto any stuff to work yours … because if they don’t they will starve.

On your marks, get set … go!

The system is extraordinarily productive, driven as it is by those gargantuan twin-thrust engines: human greed and human fear (you can keep what you can take/failure means death).

One of the great political achievements of the last 300 years has been the refining, softening and regulating of this system so that it maximises the good it can produce for as many as possible.

But note this: it can’t produce the same amount of good for everybody – because its fundamental driver is that it allows the hungriest, cleverest, most creative and most intelligent to keep what they can take. That’s why those people build the enterprise. So they can keep what they can get out of it. That’s the creative heart of the system.

(One of the many flaws of capitalism is it also allows those who have become powerful for reasons other than those listed in the last sentence to “keep what they can take”. Thus both Apartheid apparatchiks and New Elite cronies are (still) living high on the hog for reasons that have nothing to do with the unleashing of their creative spirit and more to do with their ability to cheat and steal. But that is another story.)

The point I wanted to make, is that in its most basic and unregulated form capitalism will allow the owner of the factory or mine to extract the last drop of blood from the worker – and the last drop of blood from his children, his old mum and his maiden aunt.  Without regulation the only thing that will stop the capitalist working the worker to death is the need to have him come to work tomorrow and for his children to come to work in ten years time. The history of capitalism has demonstrated this unfortunate truth about humans time and time again.

Thus we have labour market regulations: minimum wages, basic working conditions, rights to dignity, rights to organise and strike. These are amongst our greatest achievements – and they are all there on the law books of the new South Africa.

But there is a line over which we must not cross.

When the law, in effect, demands that the capitalist share equally the profits of the enterprise with the workers, the enterprise is over.

If local regulation means the capitalist can’t make sufficient profit here he (or she) will go elsewhere or will spend his or her time doing something else. That’s it; end of factory, end of jobs and end of story.

"Not only are the proposals contained in these draft bills a staggering contradiction of the government’s economic and social objectives with the potential to destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs, but they are also poorly drafted and difficult to interpret." Michael Spicer, CEO of Business Leadership South Africa

Michael Spicer, as CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, is the perfect person to listen to if you want to get an average signal of what South African capitalists are feeling.

His comment in today’s Business Day about the conflict between the flood of proposed changes to labour and employment equity laws and government’s job creation agenda is well worth a read. Catch it here.

It seems to me we are carelessly testing for the “tipping point”, the point beyond which the capitalists mechanise their plants or leave.

I have been sickly and trying to pay the bills.

All my ‘paid for’ commentary on the NGC is done and I can finally get back to home ground where I feel more comfortable to make some wild accusations – and I will, finally, be more explicit in this post about who I think the bad guys are and who I think the less bad guys are.

At the outset, forgive me; this is long and requires a degree of effort to plough through. I believe your efforts will be rewarded in the end – but I would think that, wouldn’t I?

The NGC, just like the world itself,  becomes a cacophony, impossible to follow and impossible to interpret, without a guiding theory or a framing shape to look through.

The “theory” I am going to use here is that the NGC was the terrain on which two broad factions in the ruling alliance clashed. How you slice-and-dice a thing, conceptually, is always important for what you conclude, so much of what appears below is an attempt to unpick what and who those ‘factions’ consist of.

To think that what was happening at the NGC was “about” the nationalisation of mines call will lead to ‘error’ (you can see Lenin in my heritage when I use terms like that). Instead the NGC was “about” a more fundamental and complex power struggle.

The picture is additionally complicated when we consider that there were over 2000 delegates at the NGC (1500 from branches, 500 from the leagues/Cosatu/SACP/SANCO/PECs and 800 deployees/non-NEC ministers/DGs/premiers/CEO’s of SOE’s) and the interplay was vast and varied.

So instead of trying to cover everything I am going to look through the prism of an alleged power struggle between two broad factions or groups of interest.  This will ultimately be another attempt to “follow the money”.

Here then is the prism through which I believe it is most useful to look:

  1. The ‘nationalisation of mines’ (NOM) call was always a “stalking horse”. The term “stalking horse”  refers originally to  “a horse behind which a hunter hides while stalking game” (WordNet) and is defined in Wikipedia as “a person who tests a concept with someone or mounts a challenge against them on behalf of an anonymous third-party … if the idea proves viable and/or popular, the anonymous figure can then declare their interest and advance the concept with little risk of failure … if the concept fails, the anonymous party will not be tainted by association and can either drop the idea completely or bide their time and wait until a better moment for launching an attack.”  Oh yes, I love the language.
  2. The ‘nationalisation of mines’ call (hereafter called NOM because in fact, it has less do with policy and more to do with power) is best understood as the political platform of a particular alliance of groups and individuals and interests that has as its objective the winning  to power in the commanding heights of the ANC and the South African State. The NOM is therefore something more (and less) than a policy proposal. It is a contingent strategy for winning power – and getting the ANC to nationalise the mines would be a desirable side-affect for some of the participants.
  3. The first part of the NOM is the Youth League’s own specific ambitions, which have most obviously been expressed as a campaign to elevate Fikile Mbalula to the position of Secretary General of the ANC – the position currently occupied by Gwede Mantashe. Mantashe is despised by the League for a number of reasons, but mainly because he is part of those who believe the ANC Youth League is part of an ambitious rent seeking agenda. The League considers itself to be a “king maker” in ANC electoral processes and the organisation has energy and mobility and time to move quickly around the country to influence decisions at a branch and provincial level – a feature it demonstrated successfully at and in the lead-up to Polokwane.
  4. The second part of the NOM are those mining tycoons who want their BEE deals bailed out by the taxpayer. Who could have failed to notice the unified voices of those gleaming billionaire siblings Patrice Motsepe and Bridget Radebe as well as Minister of Housing Tokyo Sexwale backing the NOM in the lead-up to the NGC or at the conference itself?
  5. The third part of the NOM is the election campaign of Tokyo Sexwale to succeed Jacob Zuma. Has he specifically funded and backed the ANC Youth League so that it can be deployed in its traditional role of “king-maker” on his behalf – or because he wants his BEE deals bailed out … or both? It is impossible to prove – either that he has passed money/business/tenders the way of the League or why he might have done so – but that he has done so – with the intention of becoming president – is clearly the view of most of “the left” in the tripartite alliance.
  6. The clearest unifying principle behind the NOM and the most distinct characteristics of its participants is that they are first in the queue to gouge a rent out of the ANC’s economic transformation agenda. The nationalisation of mines call is tailor-made for the broader agenda of the NOM:  there are real material benefits for the backers, it allows the policy bereft Youth League to appear radical and pro-poor – and anti-white capitalist – to its potential supporters; it forces the current top leadership under Zuma (for the sake of investment and economic stability) to deploy itself to defend against something that would naturally appeal to the rank-and- file’s populist instincts.
  7. So who is the NOM challenging? Essentially “the incumbents”, which at one level just means Jacob Zuma, but at another level means everyone who has assumed a leadership role in government, party and the Tripartite Alliance as a consequence of Jacob Zuma’s elevation as well as the ideas and policies that have come to be crafted by that incumbent group.
  8. The “incumbents” should also be conceived of as including all those tenderprenuers, Nkandla hangers-on and Zuma family members whose fortunes are linked to the fortunes of the incumbent leadership.
  9. Do the members of the NOM even know who they are or what they are part of? Mostly they do – because there is an increasingly bitter conflict, for example, between the ANC Youth League and the SACP. When powerful factions clash, they strengthen themselves, make themselves more defined; they force anyone and any issue into the framework of their clash. We saw this in the Cold War, but more recently and specific to the groups here, we saw this in the struggle to stop Mbeki and elevate Zuma. eventually everyone knew whether they were “for” or “against” the motion. Attempts to stay sane, principled and above the fray are inevitably MIA in this kind of overblown factional dispute.

Given that framework, what actually happened?

NOM preparation

Firstly, the NOM did extensive (but insufficient) spade work around the policy that fronts their agenda. Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu have been on an extended road trip, selling the idea for over a year. They have written for newspapers and addressed conferences. Malema threatened to withdraw Youth League support from any leader who did not support the call. The Youth League attended all provincial preparation conferences for the NGC and was successful in getting its view represented in every delegation from every part of the country. There are extensive reports that members were instructed to infiltrate ANC branches and emerge later as NGC delegates. The style associated with “winning” this view at various conferences was a combination of exclusive focus on the issue and heckling, booing and threatening any opposition – in the now time-honoured traditions of the League and its members.

What the financial backers of the NOM and members of the broader NOM agenda were doing in the lead-up to the NGC should not be underestimated. Individual backers of the NOM have extremely extensive resources. Such wealth and power gives individuals the ability to reach people and process far from themselves – and snap them like a twig.

Incumbent preparation

It is difficult to say how much work the incumbents did. I have made the assumption that securing the Tripartite Alliance was key to the incumbents preparing for the onslaught they knew was coming at the NGC. In this context the brokering of the ending of the public sector strike and the carefully worded apology from Cosatu to the Zuma/government for the language workers and their leaders had used during the strike was, in part, an attempt to establish the ground for a united front against the NOM agenda at the NGC. Comprises and certain concession were probably made to “the left” – but I will discuss this in the conclusion.

The NGC opening – political and organisational reports

Jacob Zuma’s Political Report and Gwede Mantashe’s organisational report were interesting for a number of important reasons but what is relevant for this post is both reports were correctly interpreted as a significant shot across the bows of the NOM. We can all delight in the fact that Winnie Mandela had to physically comfort the distraught Julius Malema after the dressing down he received during Jacob Zuma’s opening Political Report and take to heart her now immortal words ” … every parent is allowed to talk to their children … Every organisation is like a parent.”

Commission 5 victory and then plenary defeat

The sighs of relief ‘the incumbents’ might have breathed after the NOM’s early humiliation were soon replaced by anxiety when the NOM decided to put all of its eggs in one basket (this is one time that cliché is justified) by sending 45 of the Youth League’s 66 delegates to the Wednesday economic transformation commission. It appears that all supporters of the NOM including Tokyo Sexwale and several other BEE mining tycoons flooded the commission to ensure a particular outcome. The best article in the public domain I have seen about the commission is by Moipone Malefane and Caiphus Kgosana in The Sunday Times of September 26 – catch it here.

Joel Netshitezhe , Lesetja Kganyago  (DG in the Treasury),Trevor Manuel, Enoch Godongwana (Deputy Minister Public Enterprises) and old stalwart on this issue, Jeremy Cronin, were amongst the key ANC intellectual and economic thinkers who tried to hold the line at the meeting. Their appeal for thoughtfulness and care around an issue likely to costs government hundreds of billions of Rand were reportedly overwhelmed with bullying, heckling and unthinking repetition of the demand: adopt the call, as we have defined it, as policy!

Without having seen the exact statement that emerged from this commission it is clear that the Youth League (and everyone else present) was under the impression that they had scored a clear victory and the inner cabal reportedly headed off to the Hilton Hotel to celebrate victory in the style to which they had become accustomed.

The ANC Youth League’s (and the NOM’s) celebration was premature. The next day at the plenary session of the NGC Minister Geoff Radebe (husband of Patrice Motsepe’s sister, Bridget, and someone who had expressed support for the basic premise of NOM earlier) delivered a watered down version of the results of Commission 5 – and the ANC Youth League leaders exploded, ultimately sealing their fate by appearing to storm the stage in an aggressive manner.

Conclusion

Ultimately, through the support of delegates from across the alliance at the plenary, a watered down version of Commission 5 carried – essentially calling for thorough cross-country comparison and analysis of nationalisation as part of government’s ability to influence economic growth patterns in favour of the poor and unemployed. This study was mandated to report back to the 2012 Bloemfontein/Mangaung 100th centenary elective National Conference.

In the end it was not ‘the incumbents’ that were overwhelmed by the “shock and awe” campaign of the NOM. In the end it was the NOM that lost the skirmish – they overestimated the efficacy of their own preparation and they underestimated the coherency of the opposition – as well as degree of anger that is now widespread towards the ANC YL and its leaders.

The paucity of facts in the public domain does not relieve us of the obligation to think about what may be going on and develop a view as to the potential risks involved in any situation. Wile E Coyote might have said ‘what we don’t know can’t hurt us’, as he wandered over another cliff, but in the real world what we don’t know can sometimes be deeply threatening. So the explanations I have given here are my best attempts to muster an explanation for as much of the story as possible. I am sure that at some point in the future some of the guesswork and necessary assumptions might prove misguided – but that is life in the threat analysis business.

Three final points;

Firstly, it is okay to delight in the set-back of a particularly voracious self-enrichment agenda at the ANC NGC. But it is important not forget that the conference left unscathed similar agendas in many other places in ANC and affiliated ranks, including in the Zuma family itself.

Secondly, the defeat of the NOM is a tactical, tangential issue. Like the Governator, they’ll be back.

Finally, the victory was bought at the expense of some kind of compromise with “the left”. I expect the upcoming Cabinet review of a New Growth Path to be more sympathetic to a host of issues traditionally seen as part of an SACP or Cosatu platform (including Rand policy, inflation targeting, downward pressure on interest rates, nationalisation of the SARB, tax on short-term capital flows, industrial policy, National Health Insurance and the establishment of a state-owned bank.) The consensus within “the incumbents” is inexorably moving towards a rejection of some of the basic tenants of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Macro-Economic Policy as defined by Mbeki and Manuel.

Our future is full of as yet undefined state intervention. I wouldn’t feel so bad about this if I didn’t agree with Cosatu that this state, in this place and time, is rapidly becoming a predator.

The extreme nature of the reaction to the electricity price increase is about a number of things, perhaps most obviously:

  • the public and institutional suspicion that the crisis in Eskom is due to cronyism at a management level and looting via tender abuse by a politically connected elite, and
  • the Great Recession has left the society, but particularly the poor, deeply vulnerable to price shocks like this one.

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa has granted Eskom the right to increase its tariff 24.8 percent this year and a further 25.8 percent for 2011, and 25.9 percent for 2012.

The problem Eskom is attempting to address is its increasing inability to meet growing demand for electricity because of capacity constraints in the generation, transmission and distribution process – with this capacity already having caused the economic and social chaos of the rolling blackouts two years ago.

The price increase immediately:

  1. makes it viable for Eskom to raise the more the R385 billion it has estimated it needs to upgrade its generation capacity;
  2. reduces demand.

Either way (or rather, both ways) the constant threat to the extremely narrow reserve margin (the small safety gap between what is demanded by industry/society and what Eskom can supply) is immediately relieved.

The SACP and Cosatu are outraged. The SACP calls this a “catastrophic betrayal of the poor” and places the blame squarely on “a neo-liberal economic regime that did not encourage increased state investment”. Cosatu speaks in similar terms, but also appears to acknowledge that the increase is less than the 35% per year that Eskom wanted.

The level and timing of the increase is a political matter and it is quite likely that Eskom built a margin into its request to give the regulator and, by popular implication, government room to wriggle and demonstrate its caring and thoughtful approach. And this is as it should be in the political kingdom.

To make a real assessment of the validity and necessity of the price increase one would need a detailed and comprehensive analysis of Eskom, its productivity and its commercial soundness. In the absence of such an analysis here are two general points:

  • We have to move towards costs recovery in this kind of utility. It is appropriate to protect the poor and possibly subsidise the use of this kind of product, but the society as a whole must pay the price of the secure and ongoing generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. Hiding those costs through the state subsidising Eskom is a mistake.
  • It is crazy that this far down the road we still have a state utility that has a monopoly on the generation and transmission of electricity. What is it about the last hundred years of human history that could suggest to anyone that a state institution is likely to generate electricity more efficiently, cleaner and more securely than a competitive private sector and a traded electricity market?

The labour market and the apparent elevation of the narrow sectional interests of Cosatu are hurting the unemployed.

Last week Statssa released the Labour Force Survey for the third quarter. Unemployment had risen to 24.5 percent (from 23.6 in the second quarter) and, even more disturbing, the total number of employed fell 484,000 to 12.885 million.

These figures would have been even worse if an additional 510 000 people had not given up searching for employment in the period and were therefore  excluded from the figures entirely. If the figures of those who have given up searching are included in the definition of “the unemployed” the  rate is now at 34.4 percent, up from 32.5.

34.4 percent? Jobs are being shed throughout the world because of the global debt crisis and the recession but South Africa’s total figures seem way out of kilter.

The reasons we have such high (and vulnerable) unemployment rates are complex and seem to be “built in” to the structure of the South African economy.

But this does not mean the government and policy makers are powerless to influence “the carrying capacity” of  this economy.

At least some of the downward pressure on employment is associated with the legislation and practice that structure the labour market. Our labour market is hugely and inappropriately “inflexible”.

The Flexibility or otherwise of a labour market refers to how easily the market is able to adapt to the changing  needs of production.

Two basic changes to “needs of production” occur regularly with the cycles and ebbs and flows of the economy more generally:

  • The need for total number of workers changes rapidly, and
  • The requirement for certain skills in the labour force changes with time.

A labour market is said to be “flexible” when an employer is easily able to access the requisite skills from the labour force and is easily able to change the size of his or her labour force in response to changing needs of production.

Now labour is not like a pile of bolts sitting in the inventory store. It is made up of human beings and it is quite appropriate that there should be constraints placed on the employer to hire and fire at will in relation to his or her changing needs vis-a-vis the general ebbs and flows in whichever particular sector he or she operates.

However, and crucially, these “constraints” should always be placed on the employer with the understanding that too little constraint will injure the individual interests of workers and too much constraint will cause the employer to seek alternatives to employing.

What alternatives can an employer seek (and this is obviously important because to some difficult to determine degree the high base line level of unemployment in South Africa is a result of employers seeking such alternatives)?

  • The employer can mechanise the production process;
  • The employer can export the production process to environments where the labour market is less restrictive,
  • The employer can break the law and participate in the thriving illegal labour market .

The complex and demanding legal framework governing the labour market has a direct impact on the total number of employed – and on “the carrying capacity” of the economy.

Government and Ruling Alliance

Which brings me to the point: we are currently seeing a deeper and more vigorous push by the Ruling Alliance to tighten the legal framework that structures the labour market.

The public face of this push is the attempt to close down the labour brokers. Labour brokers exist to serve employers’ attempt to legally circumvent the most restrictive aspects of legislation and bureaucracy that govern the labour market. It is the moral equivalent of clever lawyers working out legal ways to avoid tax.

Apartheid fell because of a simple political error by the National Party: it is impossible, in the long run, with laws and policemen and courts – and hit squads -,  to stand in the way of collective human endeavour i.e. the market. If you attempt to thwart the market it will find ways around you – possibly in a distorted form.

Imposing a labour regime on South Africa best suited to Norway or Sweden is harmful to total employment numbers in the country.

South Africa’s labour regime is responsible, to some degree, for the constant downward pressure on employment.

Cosatu appropriately attacks labour brokers – because Cosatu represents those employed in the first world conditions of the formal labour market.

But for the rest, for government and the legislature – it is crucial that they are persuaded that increased inflexibility of the labour market works diametrically opposite to the interests of the millions of unemployed people who have put their names on labour broker books in the hope of finding work – any work.

Do not imagine that in the event of labour brokers being banned employers will formally employ workers they previously accessed through the broker.

The road to hell … and all of that:

Those jobs are going boy and they aint coming back

Bruce Springsteen, My Hometown

Let’s be clear here. Cosatu might oppose unemployment, but that is an abstraction and Cosatu’s opposition is largely symbolic and ineffectual.

It is the interests and strivings of the unemployed themselves that Cosatu actively works to counter.

It’s obvious really. Cosatu is a federation of trade unions. A trade union is the representative of employed people, as employed people. As such the collective interests of employed people (the sellers of labour) is to get the best deal – in terms of wages and working conditions – from the employer (the buyer of labour).

As in any market, if the seller can control the supply of the good he or she can command the price and the terms of the deal.

But how to control the supply of labour in a situation of high unemployment?  By locking the unemployed out of the labour market!  Cosatu strives – and has generally succeeded – to deny the unemployed and the potential work giver access to each other.

Opposition to labour brokers, calls for increases in the minimum wage and a range of compulsory regulated collective bargaining processes have one thing in common: they lock in the interests of those already inside the system. They work together to make it either costly or illegal for the potential work giver to look beyond the pool of Cosatu members (i.e. the formally employed) for work seekers ( i.e. the formally unemployed).

The interest of the unemployed is to find work. The various protections and minimum wage and bargaining agreements and elaborate benefit schemes for those already in the system are of no interest to the unemployed who benefit nothing from these goods. In fact these “goods” impose a huge cost pressure on the work giver such that he or she will do everything possible to keep employment to a minimum.

Cosatu’s 10th annual congress closed this last week to much self-congratulation, much of it deserved.  Trade unions have undoubtedly saved capitalism from itself. The logic of the individual capitalist is to pay as little as possible (in wages and working conditions). It is only by the banding together of workers and the advancing of their collective interests (against the individual employer, through strikes and boycotts, and within the state and legislature itself) that working conditions have evolved into the human rights compliant work culture of modern capitalism.

But we forget at our peril that Cosatu represents a special interest group not coterminous with the national interest or the interests of all citizens. In important ways some of Cosatu’s interests are inherently opposed to the national interest.

Attempting to represent the national interest is the job of  the ruling party. Ruling parties can be captured by special interest groups, groups whose interests are at odds with the nation as a whole. Cosatu sometimes crows like it has successfully captured the ruling party. I argue here and here why I believe Cosatu has bitten off more than it can chew and already its crowing, to my ears anyway, is a hollow echo.

Paul Krugman tilts at the USA citizen’s default hostility to government. He argues that on health care policy and on banking regulation it is more government, not less, that is needed. Does the same apply in the South African case? I think the issues are significantly different, with the first task in South Africa being to fix dysfunctional government. However, in the USA as in South Africa, it is clear that left to its own devices ‘the market’ is  neither going to regulate itself nor solve the problems of inequality and lack of access to health care.

This was published in the New York Times on August 23.

All the President’s Zombies

By PAUL KRUGMAN

The debate over the “public option” in health care has been dismaying in many ways. Perhaps the most depressing aspect for progressives, however, has been the extent to which opponents of greater choice in health care have gained traction — in Congress, if not with the broader public — simply by repeating, over and over again, that the public option would be, horrors, a government program.

Washington, it seems, is still ruled by Reaganism — by an ideology that says government intervention is always bad, and leaving the private sector to its own devices is always good.

Call me naïve, but I actually hoped that the failure of Reaganism in practice would kill it. It turns out, however, to be a zombie doctrine: even though it should be dead, it keeps on coming.

Let’s talk for a moment about why the age of Reagan should be over.

First of all, even before the current crisis Reaganomics had failed to deliver what it promised. Remember how lower taxes on high incomes and deregulation that unleashed the “magic of the marketplace” were supposed to lead to dramatically better outcomes for everyone? Well, it didn’t happen.

To be sure, the wealthy benefited enormously: the real incomes of the top .01 percent of Americans rose sevenfold between 1980 and 2007. But the real income of the median family rose only 22 percent, less than a third its growth over the previous 27 years.

Moreover, most of whatever gains ordinary Americans achieved came during the Clinton years. President George W. Bush, who had the distinction of being the first Reaganite president to also have a fully Republican Congress, also had the distinction of presiding over the first administration since Herbert Hoover in which the typical family failed to see any significant income gains.

And then there’s the small matter of the worst recession since the 1930s.

There’s a lot to be said about the financial disaster of the last two years, but the short version is simple: politicians in the thrall of Reaganite ideology dismantled the New Deal regulations that had prevented banking crises for half a century, believing that financial markets could take care of themselves. The effect was to make the financial system vulnerable to a 1930s-style crisis — and the crisis came.

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. “We know now that it is bad economics.” And last year we learned that lesson all over again.

Or did we? The astonishing thing about the current political scene is the extent to which nothing has changed.

The debate over the public option has, as I said, been depressing in its inanity. Opponents of the option — not just Republicans, but Democrats like Senator Kent Conrad and Senator Ben Nelson — have offered no coherent arguments against it. Mr. Nelson has warned ominously that if the option were available, Americans would choose it over private insurance — which he treats as a self-evidently bad thing, rather than as what should happen if the government plan was, in fact, better than what private insurers offer.

But it’s much the same on other fronts. Efforts to strengthen bank regulation appear to be losing steam, as opponents of reform declare that more regulation would lead to less financial innovation — this just months after the wonders of innovation brought our financial system to the edge of collapse, a collapse that was averted only with huge infusions of taxpayer funds.

So why won’t these zombie ideas die?

Part of the answer is that there’s a lot of money behind them. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” said Upton Sinclair, “when his salary” — or, I would add, his campaign contributions — “depend upon his not understanding it.” In particular, vast amounts of insurance industry money have been flowing to obstructionist Democrats like Mr. Nelson and Senator Max Baucus, whose Gang of Six negotiations have been a crucial roadblock to legislation.

But some of the blame also must rest with President Obama, who famously praised Reagan during the Democratic primary, and hasn’t used the bully pulpit to confront government-is-bad fundamentalism. That’s ironic, in a way, since a large part of what made Reagan so effective, for better or for worse, was the fact that he sought to change America’s thinking as well as its tax code.

How will this all work out? I don’t know. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that a crucial opportunity is being missed, that we’re at what should be a turning point but are failing to make the turn

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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