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… which I entirely doubt will be made glorious summer by this sun of KZN when he gives his 5th nth State of the Nation Address this evening.

I am not, as my children might have said, very amped for this.

The only ray of light so far (I am watching on eNCA) was a brief interview with Floyd Shivambu who suggested it should be a ‘state of the resignation address’ … that if the President couldn’t make it to the Cabinet Lekgotla ‘then it would be best for him to just come here to explain that he is just too old and tired and to say goodbye’ – or words to that effect.

I thought I would use the time to publish some bits and pieces that I have sent to my clients over the last week.

The winter of our discontent – as the labour relations cycle meets a secular trend

Every year at this time South Africa is engulfed in strikes as annual wage agreements are traditionally renegotiated in several sectors of the economy. Every year analysts and journalists pontificate widely about the dire labour relations conditions – and the gloom deepens because this all takes place in winter.

Three factors this year are probably going to make the outlook more negative and threatening.

Firstly, the post national election winter has, since 1994, been characterised by spikes in service delivery protests. The causes of this phenomenon are not fully understood, but it is likely that:

  • voters confronting a hostile winter and declining services levels – so soon after being promised the earth by politicians – are likely to be unsettled;
  • local politicians who failed to make party lists begin mobilising factional support, perhaps to stand as candidates in 2016 local government elections, perhaps to discredit those whose positions they covet.

Secondly, the platinum strike is being driven by a number of ‘political’ factors – as discussed previously.

Thirdly Numsa is showing clear signs that its political aspirations are, as we predicted, going to drive deeper and more robust strikes and labour unrest. One sign is the growing violence as Numsa attempts to widen its action at the Ngqura container terminal in the Coega Industrial Development Zone in Port Elizabeth.  The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (a Cosatu union) is opposing the Numsa strike and is calling for its members to stay at work at the Transnet facility. However, both Transnet and Satawu were quoted on radio (SAFM 20h00 news broadcast 08/06/2014) as decrying the burning of houses and cars of the workers who were at work. The SATAWU spokesperson warned that the situation had similar dynamics to those that were present in the platinum sector in 2012 – that this ‘is just like what happened with Amcu (same broadcast).

Additionally, Numsa is preparing to lead 220,000 workers out on strike from the metals and engineering sector next month. “The bargaining negotiations have spectacularly failed to produce the desired outcomes as expected by the thousands of our members in the sector,” spokesman Castro Ngobese said in a statement quoted in The Herald (5/06/2014). Numsa’s core demands includes a 15% pay rise and a one-year bargaining agreement, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa, which represents 23 employer associations) has offered an inflation-linked increase of 6.1 percent.

So what?

This is the cycle meeting the secular trend, with each driving the other deeper than either would have been driven ordinarily. Numsa is in the  process of breaking away from Cosatu and is beginning to vigorously compete with other Cosatu unions in overlapping sectors (container terminals, the big electricity generation projects and down and upstream mining and metallurgy operations).  This is, at least partly, about Numsa preparing to set up a ‘left’ party to compete for votes in the future. Comparable (but not identical) dynamics are driving the platinum strike. A winter with ‘normally’ increased social and industrial unrest will probably become unusually bleak and unwelcoming in the months ahead. The impact on GDP growth and on the possibility of ratings downgrades are both important considerations.

 

X Rated

Both Fitch and Standard & Poor made references on Friday (13/06/2014) to increased political risk when they changed their views on the South African government’s willingness and ability to pay the sovereign debt.

Fitch revised the outlook for South Africa to negative from stable and affirmed the country’s long-term foreign and local currency issuer default ratings at BBB and BBB+ respectively. S&P downgraded both the country’s local and foreign currency ratings by one notch from A- to BBB+ and BBB to BBB-  respectively, but moved its outlook negative to stable. None of this is a catastrophe  but of interest to us here is the central role of ‘politics’ in the given reasons for both Fitch’s and S&P’s changes.

Fitch says it most baldly in the press release announcing the change in outlook (my emphasis added):

“Following its election victory in May with 62% of the vote, the African National Congress government faces a challenging task to raise the country’s growth rate and improve social conditions, which has been made more difficult by the weaker growth performance and deteriorating trends in governance and corruption. This will require an acceleration of structural reforms, such as those set out in the comprehensive National Development Plan (NDP). In Fitch’s view, the track record of some key ministerial appointments and shortcomings in administrative capacity mean this is subject to downside risks.”

Fitch gives amongst the key drivers of its more negative outlook: “Increased strike activity, high wage demands and electricity constraints represent negative supply side shock.”

Standard and Poor’s downgrade was similarly motivated but adds some additional concerns:

“While we think that President Jacob Zuma’s newly elected administration will continue the policies of his first administration, which controlled fiscal expenditure and fostered broadly stable prices, we do not believe it will manage to undertake major labor or other economic reforms that will significantly boost GDP growth”.

My initial take on the new Cabinet is supportive of these motivations.

In addition both agencies made extensive reference to the negative industrial relations environment – and the negative impacts on GDP growth and government revenues. There is a significant political dimension driving industrial unrest – as I have argued above.

So what?

The validity of the actual ratings and ratings outlook of these agencies is much disputed[1] but the issues they use to motivate their views are interesting because they (the agencies) are cautious; clinging to a sort of ‘average view’ of investors. So if political criticism makes its way into the text (as is the case in both these instances) we are obliged to consider that these may represent, or may come to represent, a general view in markets.

South Africa has a small open economy and liquid financial markets and the difference that policy makers can make to economic outcomes is limited. But even within those limitations too many political choices (certain cabinet appointments, corruption controls, delivery performance and the honest brokering of labour contestation) are either not helping or are actively negative.

[1]No-one could have failed to notice the excoriating criticism of the credit rating agencies (CRAs) after their generalised failure to accurately assess the risks associated with the collateralised debt obligations allegedly because they were mostly issued by the CRAs biggest paying clients! However, it is the opposite with sovereigns: “It has also been suggested that the credit agencies are conflicted in assigning sovereign credit ratings since they have a political incentive to show they do not need stricter regulation by being overly critical in their assessment of governments they regulate.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_rating_agency (accessed 13h56 16/06/2014.

 

The National Directorate of Public Prosecutions

I  dealt with this issue last week, but it is making bigger and more anxiety provoking headlines than ever.

So what

The NDPP was drawn into the fight between Mbeki and Zuma and since that time has limped along to the rhythm of one or other faction aligned to competing interests within the ANC seizing or losing power in the institution. This is not a situation in which one could safely choose one set of ‘good guys’ and back them against another set of ‘bad guys’. The situation is complex but relates primarily to the on-going struggle to either ensure that certain senior political leaders are brought to justice or to ensure that they are not.

The NDPP is one of the most important institutions of the justice system, and without certainty and stability here it is impossible to have certainty about the operating environment for any business in the country. This is a serious problem and it appears to be getting worse under the current administration.

 

Platinum Strike

(This is a bit dated, but you might be interested in my rude remarks about the new minister.)

“Government is ready to wash its hands of the protracted wage strike by platinum mineworkers in Rustenburg” according to the Sunday Independent 08/06/2014. Mines minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi threatened to pull out his inter-ministerial task team if a settlement was not reached at the last scheduled government facilitated meeting, which is due to take place today.

In addition, a formal ANC statement delivered by Gwede Mantashe at a press conference in Luthuli House in Johannesburg last night after the ANC weekend lekgotla[1] characterised the strike in a way that seemed to destroy the remote possibility that Ramatlhodi could have made a difference anyway:

“The articulation of AMCU position by white foreign nationals, signalling interest of the foreign forces in the distabilisation (sic) of our economy.

The direct participation of EFF in the negotiations, and thus collaboration with the foreign forces.

These two factors led the lekgotla into cautioning the Ministry of Mineral Resources in handling the facilitation with care. There were questions about the role of the state in workplace disputes where there are clear rules guiding it.”

This statement is interesting precisely because it borders on the bizarre

So what

The ANC statement indicates shows just why the new ANC minister cannot be an honest or effective broker in the negotiation – and it is therefore unsurprising that he is preparing to withdraw his team. The ANC is compelled to believe that this strike is only not ‘negotiable’ in the normal manner because the real issues driving it are political  and not about wages at all. The ANC might be correct about the strike being ‘political’ but the party itself is culpable of having politicised the strike by attempting to defend its Num ally against the vigorously growing Amcu, by alienating workers by characterising their union as ‘vigilantes’ and by the ‘Marikana massacre itself.’ s – There was never any real possibility of this government mediating between the parties or influencing the outcome.

 

Concerns about property rights

The South African Institute of Race Relations and AfriBusiness (AfriSake) have recently released warnings about property rights in South Africa. A proper assessment of these warning would require specialist legal opinions, but our own assumptions have long been that the South African Constitution provides adequate protections for private property (see here) and the ANC government is unlikely to risk fiddling with these principles.

However it seems to be a basic due diligence requirement to keep an eye on the risk – perhaps more so since Jacob Zuma spelled out at his Cabinet announcement (reiterating many recent ANC and SACP statements) that we are entering a “more radical” phase of economic transformation.

With this is mind, we reproduce the basic summary of legal concerns AfriBusiness and the South African Institute of Race Relations have raised in their research (note that below is a direct quote from the AfriBusiness statement linked above):

  1. The National Development Plan has as its aim the transfer of 20% of the agricultural land in a district to black recipients, at only 50% of the value as determined by the state (in terms of the Property Valuation Bill).
  2. The verdict of the Constitutional Court in April 2013 in the case of AgriSA v the Minister of Minerals and Energy distinguishes between “deprivation” and “expropriation”. After the verdict the state is able to dispossess and redistribute property, as long as the state does not assume ownership of the property and act (sic) only as custodian.
  3. The Green Paper on Land Reform aims a radical redesign of property rights, with inter alia a type of freehold on land which will drastically limit the rights of owners. Within this context a Land Management Commission is proposed, which will have discretionary powers regarding disputes over title deeds.
  4. The policy proposal by the Minister of Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, for “Strengthening the rights of workers working the land” aims to transfer 50% of the land to the workers, commensurate with their term of service. No compensation will be paid to the owner.
  5. The Expropriation Bill poses that expropriation may be used for the public interest and public goal. The Bill is not only applicable to land but will cover all types of property. Public interest and public goal are determined in an ad hoc manner and both have restitution as aim.
  6. The Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill allows state intervention in investment processes. The Bill explicitly provides for expropriation at less than market value. All in the name of so-called restitution. Any property used for commercial purposes is targeted by the Bill.
  7. The Infrastructure Development Bill aims to eliminate so-called inequalities in infrastructure. The Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission is granted the authority to expropriate in the public interest and for the public goal.
  8. The Spatial Planning and Management of Land Use Act aims at centralized planning of land ownership. It proposed so-called spatial justice by integrating low and high cost housing in residential developments.
  9. The Extension of the Security of Tenure Amendment Bill expands the rights of occupants and their dependents. Evictions are strictly controlled and the Amendment Bill means a significant loss in control over property.
  10. The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill creates further political and economic uncertainty regarding the future of property rights.
  11. The Rental Housing Amendment Bill proposes stricter regulation of the rental property market. Rental Tribunals will be established to hear disputes and will be able to determine increases in rent.
  12. The National Water Amendment Bill and Policy Review prohibits the trading of water rights and proposes a use-it-or-lose-it principle for water rights. Equality (including racial transformation) becomes the criterium (sic) for the allocation and re-allocation of water rights.

Consume that with the requisite amount of salt but keep an eye on the detail.

 

[1]Sesotho loan word meaning court or community council meeting; used in the South African context a “lekgotla is a meeting called by government, Cabinet or the ANC to discuss strategy planning”. Wikipedia accessed 04h30 09/06/2014.

 

I am on my way to London to speak to the funds that buy and sell South Africa’s corporate and government bonds i.e. the market that sets the price at which the world is prepared to lend us money.

Daily I become more convinced that the South African political economy is, like quick clay so unstable that when a mass …  is subjected to sufficient stress, the material behavior may transition from that of a particulate material to that of a fluid.” 

The other metaphor I was fiddling with was: all the cards have been thrown in the air and where they will land, nobody knows. (I’m sure there is an elegant song or poem that says something like that, any help there would be appreciated  … that request  is the WordPress equivalent of a  #twoogle - Ed) 

But before I get onto the more lofty questions about the future of life, the universe and everything, I thought I would send you my latest news update – so you can see the gradually building case for my sense that everything has changed. (Thanks as always to BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities for generously allowing me to republish this – albeit a few days later – here.)

  • A new socialist party appears on the horizon of South African politics … it’s not all good news, but nor is it all bad
  • Murmurs about vote rigging – a leading indicator of political instability 
  • Mining policy meets with surprising levels of push-back from the private sector – in the Business Day at least
  • The future push for the NDP, Hitachi and the ANC, final takes on the budget and why South African telecommunications infrastructure is a very fat golden goose

Numsa confirms it will launch socialist party

The biggest union in the country is effectively in the process of being expelled from the ANC- aligned Cosatu and has announced its intention to establish a party, provisionally to be called the United Front and Movement for Socialism.

“We need a movement for socialism,” general-secretary Irvin Jim told reporters in Johannesburg on Saturday.

He (Jim) continued on to argue that ‘leadership of the national liberation movement as a whole had failed to lead a consistent radical democratic process …’ (Jim paraphrased in numbing detail in SABC Online, Sunday, 2 March 2014, 17h49.)

Numsa has been given seven days (from last Thursday) by the Cosatu NEC to provide reasons why it should not be suspended from the federation. The main issues motivating the suspension are that Numsa has been openly critical of the ANC and the Cosatu leadership and that Numsa has begun competing with, especially, the National Union of Mineworkers, in defiance of Cosatu’ s one-industry-one-union slogan.

So what?

This is unfolding much as predicted. The ANC under Jacob Zuma has decided (or been compelled) to impose discipline on the ruling alliance and force a degree of compliance with the various policies of the ANC and its government. The discipline sought by the ruling group within the ANC is motivated by apparently divergent concerns. On the one hand, Jacob Zuma and his allies are attempting to get the left-wing to stop attacking them (Jacob Zuma and his allies) as corrupt and incompetent. On the other, Jacob Zuma and his allies are attempting to force a degree of support for the National Development Plan (NDP), a policy that the left-wing generally sees as ‘neo-liberal’, anti-poor, anti-working class and conservative in fiscal and monetary terms.

There is a fine tension here between positives and negatives (for the audience NB writes for … mainly fund-managers – Ed). The NDP has been widely welcomed in financial markets. But the corruption associated with the holding of high office in South Africa is becoming something of a crisis for investors of all stripes. It is as inaccurate to think of Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla faction as purely the champion of market friendly policy as it is to think that Irvin Jim, Zwelinzima Vavi and Numsa are purely the anti-corruption champions of South African politics.

For now, we need to watch for the formation of the socialist party, probably at or before the year-end. Such a party will have a multiplicity of impacts including (but not limited to) undercutting areas of ANC support and forcing the ANC towards finding policies that stimulate economic growth.

(By-the-way I feel it is likely that this new party will have more substance and longevity than the EFF and through a variety of possible mechanisms – including some kind of alliance or even amalgamation – could subsume much of the EFF support and intellectual leadership. But that sort of speculative concoction will follow this post some time over the next few days.)

UDM says beware of vote rigging

The Sunday Independent (2 March) reports that Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement claimed that ‘rogue elements’ in the Independent Electoral Commission will help rig the 7 May election to ‘facilitate the underperforming ANC’:

“The ANC is very concerned (about shedding votes), hence they are pinning their hopes that those rogue elements will run the elections, so rigging will be on the high. There is no doubt about that” – Bantu Holomisa in the Sunday Independent, 2 March 2014.

So what?

The effectiveness, reliability and constitutionality of the Independent Electoral Commission have been important guarantors of aspects of South African democracy. While Holomisa’s allegations are not substantiated (in the aforementioned interview), the fact that such allegations are made can be an important leading indicator of long-term political stability. People and political parties must trust the electoral system if they are to accept the outcome of elections.

(Holomisa’s ‘rogue elements’ probably refers to Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the IEC, who was found last year by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to be guilty of improper conduct and maladministration with regard to the R320 million lease contract for a new head office for the IEC. Tlakula is currently challenging Madonsela’s finding in courts. The IEC and the Public Protector are both institutions established in terms of Chapter 9 of the South African Constitution with specifies that they are designed to “strengthen constitutional democracy in the Republic” – Chapter 9 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.)

Mining policy pushback – in the Business Day anyway

Today’s Business Day leads with a story claiming that there are ‘growing rumblings’ from the mining industry about the ‘once empowered, always empowered’ equity provisions in the Mining Charter. The issue in this case is that the government will this year audit the mining companies’ requirement to be at least 26% black owned. Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye Gold, is threatening to go to court to have Sibanye’s empowerment transactions counted in the audit, even if the black beneficiaries have since sold out of their equity.

Mining companies are issued licences pursuant to them meeting certain criteria with regard to Black Economic Empowerment, employment, social, community and labour obligations.

So what?

The series of stories in the Business Day about this matter smacks a little of a campaign by the newspaper – nothing wrong with that but then consume them tentatively. The story is worth reading just to catch the tone and tenor of Neal Froneman – who sounds fed-up to the point of rebellion. Catch it here.

The article quotes Mike Schroder, a portfolio manager of Old Mutual’s gold fund, at a mining conference last year: “One cost that I can’t chart is BEE (black economic empowerment). It doesn’t affect the bottom line or the EPS (earnings per share) or PE (price:earnings) ratios, but every time a BEE deal is done, our pension funds, our provident funds, our unit trusts have to chip in.”

I expect these legislative interventions by the government to strengthen not weaken over time. It is my initial impression that part of the ANC’s answer to the populist incursions onto its territory by the EFF will be to significantly strengthen ‘transformation obligations’ on the private sector – and in return the government will back the private sector against the labour unions. I think these trends will become visible before the end of the year and will be accompanied by greater emphasis on the NDP and by the axing of the ANC’s left-wing elements. Thus, the ANC will attempt to reconfigure South African politics, basing itself more tightly on the emerging property-owning and middle classes than previously, and in a loose alliance with the private sector.  This feeds into my ‘hoping for the best’ view of last week – although we should be cautious, because these complicated trade-offs will as likely end in tears as smiles.

Bits and Pieces

  • Last week, Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, became involved in an unseemly Twitter spat with City Press journalist Carien du Plessis. Actually, it was only Zille doing the spatting and (probably to Zille’s mortification) du Plessis wrote a calm and thoughtful defence of herself in the City Press on Sunday (2 March 2014). In the Twitter exchange, Zille essentially accuses du Plessis of apologising for being white (as far as I can make out). Zille is feisty and combative and there have been several ‘scandals’ around her phraseology and views. She definitely skirts the boundary of what is acceptable in the highly circumscribed and sensitive language of political debate in ‘post-apartheid South Africa’. Will this lose the DA any votes on 7 May? Will it gain the party any? I have no idea.
  • Business Day editor Peter Bruce’s Monday morning column, ‘The Cutting Edge The Thick Edge of the Wedge: The Political Basis for budgets (if he perchance comes to these lonely shores and find’s that error, I ask his forgiveness in advance) should be required reading for anyone interested in the speculative intersections between South African politics and economics. This morning, he claims that a normally reliable informant, someone “spectacularly close to the Presidency”, told him that Trevor Manuel will stay on in government as a super-minister in the Presidency in Zuma’s next administration, that other ‘left leaning ministers in the economics cluster’ (he probably means Ebrahim Patel in EDD and Rob Davies in DTI) will be shifted aside, that the ANC will hold its vote above 60% on 7 May, that the new administration will make “a big and forceful push after the elections to begin implementing the National Development Plan”, that the EFF and Numsa’s new party will not fly, and that Zuma will secure his safety from prosecution for fraud post his presidency by ensuring that his ex-wife and African Union President Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is his successor. (The argument in Peter Bruce’s article being: “She would not put the father of her children in jeopardy – which I don’t necessarily buy, but is interesting anyway). This view concurs quite closely with my view articulated last week that it appears, shorn of its ‘left’ and ‘right’ factions, the ANC will be obliged (and set free) to pursue vigorous economic growth if it is to win the 2019 election.
  • Hitachi has bought back the ANC stake (held by investment company Chancellor House) in Hitachi Power Africa as the shareholding constituted ‘a conflict of interest’. You don’t say. Hitachi Power Africa won R38.5 billion of contracts from Eskom for the Medupi and Kusile power plants. Nuff said.
  • The weekend press had a few ‘final takes’ on the budget. The two I found most interesting were Peter Bruce, in his aforementioned column, writing that it was “a budget of almost unsurpassable banality”, and Numsa’s Irwin Jim saying at his Johannesburg press conference on Saturday that the budget “more than anything else confirms the right-wing shift in the ANC/SACP government”. I won’t say anything.
  • Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko wrote a paid-for ‘open letter’ in the Sunday Times yesterday accusing MTN SA and Vodacom of acting against the public interest (of expanding access to and lowering costs of a ‘modern communications infrastructure’) by opposing lower termination rates. Maseko claims that Telkom had subsidised Vodacom and MTM to the tune of R50bn over two decades. Professor Alison Gillwald of Research ICT Africa was quoted in today’s Business Day (by the excellent Carol Paton) as saying “Telkom is right. MTN and Vodacom had an extraordinary termination rate asymmetry with Telkom over 20 years.” She went on to say that, during the period of asymmetry, the private companies rolled out “enormous infrastructure that has improved access.” Finally, she says: “While one wouldn’t want to kill the golden goose, she was a very fat goose”  … which I thought was a good enough turn of phrase to deserve republication anywhere.

* That is deliberately missing an apostrophe – the ‘*’ makes you think it might be there and you are forced back and forward between the noun and verb meaning. (Get a life! – Ed.)

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.

As promised some comments on the politics of Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget … but first forgive me for expressing some of my irritation at two of his (Gordhan’s)  recent statements.

That will be followed by some of  the bits and pieces I found interesting in the weekly newspapers – if you didn’t see the ‘Zuma gaffes” selection in the Sunday Times and City Press I reproduce some of them here.

Excuse me?

Look I am not yet ready to start calling him a tubby little tyrant with the charisma of a mud prawn but Pravin Gordhan has been saying some things that are not hugely endearing.

First he told a joint parliamentary committee that negative news flow from ‘the media” was partly responsible for sovereign downgrades of South Africa’s debt. So what, he thinks Moody’s, S&P and Fitch get their understanding of government policy from the Sunday Times?  It is just a stupid thing to say and makes him sound just like a National Party ministers circa about 1986. Catch that here.

Secondly, responding to the flurry around South Africa’s cancellation of its bilateral investment treaty with Germany he “blamed lawyers serving the private sector for increasing uncertainty in South Africa’s investment environment” – catch that Business Day story here .

I didn’t personally hear Gordhan in either of these instances but there might be a pattern emerging:

Pravin (PW Botha) Gordhan

Look familiar … think PW Botha? (That’s Business Day’s photo btw, I hope and trust they don’t mind)

Okay, I am glad I got that off my chest – on with the rest.

Political messaging and the medium-term budget – all good

If political messaging was all that we were looking at in the MTBPS then we would have to conclude that Pravin Gordhan’s performance was overwhelmingly financial market positive. Obviously ‘messaging’ doesn’t determined the price of eggs or the price of much else. The believability of Minister Gordhan’s various estimates and projections is ultimately more important for determining sovereign risk, but the overt politics of the message indicates a more confident government prepared to stand on organised labour’s toes to reassure global capital markets (and other investors).

Firstly, Gordhan was on message with regard to the Employment Tax Incentive Bill. This is the latest manifestation of the youth wage subsidy and has been bitterly opposed by Cosatu and, to some degree, by members of the SACP (for reasons that I have explained elsewhere). It is unclear whether the policy will make a significant dent in South Africa’s serious youth unemployment problem (which deputy minister of Finance Nhlanlha Nene recently put at  42% for  those aged between 19 and 29) but what the rating agencies have been looking for is signs that the ANC and government can forge policy independent of, especially, Cosatu – and in this confident assertion by Gordhan they have their signal.

Secondly, the Finance minister cast the MTBPS – and, in fact, all future budget statements – as the accounts of the National Development Plan (NDP). Again, the NDP is bitterly opposed by Cosatu – and is less than warmly regarded by the SACP. It is a confident Jacob Zuma that backs his Minister of Finance to define government budgeting as : “(t)aking the National Development Plan as the point of departure”.

The NDP is little more than a shopping list and a general statement of intent but it generally conceives of the market as the appropriate mechanism for the allocation of capital (at least more so than the New Growth Path and the Industrial Policy Action plans do). It also puts the infrastructure plans and improving capacity and accountability of the public service as key planning objectives. There is no evidence that the ANC and the Zuma administration is going to succeed in moving beyond planning to implementation, but Gordhan made the right noises in his speech.

Thirdly Gordhan pressed every conceivable button in his attempts to tone down excesses in the executive and the public services. He placed a number of ceilings on luxuries, cars, travel, catering, accommodation, use of credit cards – and amongst the Twitterati the cry went out: Gordhan derails the gravy train!

Again this is good form but we have to keep an eye out for the content. After all this is a government led by a president deeply implicated in the ambitious abuse of various privileges. It is going to take a more than fine sounding words to convince the country that the gravy train has, in fact, been delayed let alone derailed.

Fourthly the key political aspect of political risk in relation to the budget is the commitment to restrain growth of the public sector wage bill and social grants – two pillars of both political stability and continued electoral support for the ANC. Obviously the minister (at this stage the apparently tough and skilful Lindiwe Sisulu) in public service and administration will have to hold the line in public sector wage negotiations – we will have to wait to see how that plays out, but Sisulu is the right person for the job of holding that thin red line.

Loud and widespread muttering about power struggles in the Democratic Alliance

It should probably be seen as a sign that the Democratic Alliance is on the verge of breaking out of its previously narrow ethnic base that the fine details of its internal power struggles are becoming a matter of national public debate. All the major weeklies discussed a putative succession struggle between the DA’s national spokesman and candidate for Gauteng premier, Mmusi Maimane and the DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. The point being that Maimane’s supporters are pushing for him to be on the parliamentary list so that if the DA does not win Gauteng next year (dah!) he will still get into parliament.

So what?

Obviously the Democratic Alliance believes that it needs a black leader if it is to make a serious dent on ANC support in 2019 – but the matter is not so pressingly urgent that they are likely to dump their extremely successful and popular leader Helen Zille any time soon. I still think there is space for an amalgamation of the DA and AgangSA after that new party performs adequately but fails to shoot out the lights in 2014. That will leave the tantalising possibility of Mamphela Ramphele finding her way into the top leadership of the DA some time in about 2016. So of the three potential black leaders of the DA, Maimane probably has most township credibility and would represent the DA going out there head-to-head with the ANC for the African vote. Lindiwe Mazibuko would be the most palatable for the DA’s traditional support base (yes, we all know who I mean). And Ramphele, with her struggle credibility and achievement in academia and business seems like a perfect – and heavy hitting – compromise. She might need a charisma injection, but that is purely a personal observation.

Mozambique – Renamo rears its scarred and ugly old head

The Mozambique army overran a key Renamo base in central Sofala province on Monday last week and Renamo guerrillas hit back on Saturday by ambushing a minibus, killing one person and injuring 10 more.

So what?

This might seem like small cheese, but Monday’s government attack has forced Renamo opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama to flee into the bush and has raised the spectre of the restart of the 16-year civil war which ended in a 1992 peace pact that established multi-party democracy in Mozambique. Renamo has lost every election since 1992 but Dhlakama’s party said on Monday it was abandoning the peace agreement. In and of itself what has happened over the last week is not huge, but in the context of the hopes for Mozambique’s economic growth as that country emerges as a natural gas giant, Renamo becomes a significant risk that needs careful attention.

The Cosatu vortex is sucking in everyone in – this is a clear and present danger

This weekend the national general council of the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union lined up in precise opposition to Numsa in the on-going and bitter struggle taking place in Cosatu. Sadtu backed the disciplinary process against Zwelinzima Vavi, it vigorously opposed the holding of a special Cosatu conference and it unequivocally backed the ANC in elections next year.

So what?

My own (perhaps counter-intuitive) view is that the only way for Cosatu to remain as a functional federation and part of the ruling alliance is for a special congress to be held during which Zwelinzima Vavi wins the popular vote, escapes disciplinary action for his various infractions (both the real ones and the made up ones) and Numsa decides to stay in the federation. However, it is looking increasingly like the ANC loyalists are going to force Numsa, Vavi and their various allies out of the federation. Note that Sadtu itself is facing something of a minor palace revolt after receiving threats from some of its own members who are angry at the suspension of the union’s president Thobile Ntola for supporting Zwelinzima Vavi. Yes the key Zuma and ANC allies in Cosatu can force the leftist critics out of the federation but that will lead to a split – and, in my opinion, cascading instability throughout the labour sector as Numsa and others compete in every workplace against the incumbent Cosatu union. This outcome is closer than ever and it appears to me can only be averted if a special Cosatu congress is allowed to take place and that a likely democratic victory by Numsa and Vavi is allowed to carry at any such conference. It would stick in some ANC craws, but it would re-establish the status quo of a restive Cosatu that remains a faithful, if critical, ANC ally.

Jacob Zuma provides some light relief

Politicians often say things that outrage some and delight others by providing grist to the social satirist’s mill.

Jacob Zuma provided a gem last week when he said:

“We can’t think like Africans in Africa, generally; we’re in Johannesburg (the N1 is) not some national road in Malawi”.

(Gauteng ANC manifesto forum – October 21 2013)

This provided the opportunity for several journalists (most notably Gareth Von Onsellen in the Sunday Time and Carien Du Plessis in the City Press) to aggregate some of Jacob Zuma’s more illuminating gaffs from the last several years. Here, purely to save you from having to dig into the papers yourself, are some of those:

“I’ve always said that a wise business person will support the ANC … because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business”

(ANC 101st anniversary gala dinner in Durban – January 12 2013)

“Sorry, we have more rights here because we are a majority. You have fewer rights because you are a minority. Absolutely, that’s how democracy works”

(President’s question time in the National Assembly – September 13 2012)

“Kids are important to a woman because they give extra training to a woman, to be a mother.”

(SABC interview with Dali Tambo August 19 2012)

“Even some Africans, who become too clever, take a position, they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything”

(Speech to the National House of Traditional Leaders November 1 2012)

“When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed.”

 (Address to ANC supporter in Easter Cape – February 4 2011)

“The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back.”

 (Gauteng ANC special council – March 15 2004)

We don’t want to review the Constitutional Court; we want to review its powers.

(Interview in The Star Newspaper – Feb 13 2012)

So what?

When compared with other famous presidents Zuma’s gaffes are fairly benign … (hmm I am no longer as sure that those are quite as benign and cute as I thought they were when I wrote that early Monday morning … but I will let it stand for now.) What is interesting is how socially conservative some of his off-the-cuff comments are. It gives some insight into the gradually building pressures in the ANC with regard to appealing to an urban professional class versus traditional rural groups. There is no question that Zuma represents only one of those choices.

Bits and pieces

  • Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget statement received both criticism and praise. Cosatu’s spokesman Patrick Craven described it as “a conservative macroeconomic framework predicated on a neo-liberal paradigm”. Piet le Roux, the senior economic researcher at Solidarity (coming, in some ways, from the other side of the spectrum) said Gordhan’s mini budget was based on an “unsustainable model of deficit spending, mounting government debt and onerous taxation”.
  • The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) announced on Friday (25/10/13) it would consult its members on a possible strike after it received a certificate to strike at Impala Platinum (Implats) when wage negotiations deadlocked. Amcu is demanding a basic salary of R12 500 a month for underground workers and R11 500 for surface workers.

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.

Sunday’s newspapers were more interesting from a political risk and investment point of views than normal.

This is what I thought mattered, as far as financial markets were concerned, in last week’s Mail & Guardian, the Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and City Press:

Construction industry – possible prosecution and fines for fraud and racketeering

Government and the national prosecuting authority are reported to be facing a dilemma: managers in at least 20 major constructions firms might be guilty of serious criminal practices relating to may years of in-industry collusion, but a successful prosecution of the guilty parties would rip the whole management level out of up to 20 top companies and thereby sink government’s infrastructure plans – Mail and Guardian.

The stories are covered in the Mail & Guardian and the City Press – both drawing their details from a series of leaked 2011 affidavits apparently produced by individual managers at Sefanutti Stocks when they (Stafanutti) realised that despite co-operating with a Competition Commission investigation, individual managers were likely to be liable for criminal prosecution (by the Hawks and the NPA) and that the punishment could include imprisonment.

Paul Ramaloko, Hawks spokesperson said “This case is bigger than people think. We are going to take our time and do a thorough investigation” (Mail & Guardian), but in City Press he says the investigation was in its “early stages” and that he would only comment once it had “matured”.

So What? Sounds like a political dilemma. The NPA and the Hawks are not (entirely) governed by the political priorities of government (despite apparently decisive co-ordination between the Hawks, SARS and the Public Protector in the Julius Malema fraud, money laundering and tax evasion investigation). However, government is likely to do what it can to make sure the companies survive intact – albeit compliantly chastened and grateful for leniency. Of course, the NPA and the Hawks might, alternatively, feel these managers would make good examples of how ‘old-order’ and ‘untransformed’ individuals and companies are as important sources of corruption as the ANC, its leaders, supports and structures.

Either way, the reputation and coherency of the companies concerned could be seriously impacted. However it is not clear from the news reports that there is any differentiation between, “winners and losers” … no-one appears more or less guilty than anyone else – which rather suggests the sector as a whole is risky, with no safe havens.

Gupta TV

Key Jacob Zuma allies Atul and Rajesh Gupta (using family vehicle Oakbay Investments) are reported to be on the verge of adding a 24-hour continent-wide news channel to their media portfolio (which includes New Age newspaper) in partnership with Essel Media and an unnamed black empowerment firm. Multichoice will likely be providing the platform but purely on a commercial basis and is not expected to be partner in the venture (Mail & Guardian).

So What?

Well, one of the Guptas’ current empowerment partners is President Zuma’s son Duduzane and the Guptas themselves have become key ANC funders and power players in South African politics.  The Mail & Guardian has a picture of Atul and Rajesh Gupta (who came to the country from India in the early 90’s) ensconced at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December. Obviously, the more the merrier on the news diversity front – and who says government and the ANC shouldn’t spend more money in the space? South Africa has a free and open media culture – to the point of government and ANC leadership spending a considerable amount of their time denying allegations and defending government policy against feisty attacks. It is unlikely to be harmful if government and the ANC strengthen their ability to put their point of view. Influence trading is always a feature of politics and is no worse or better in South Africa than it is in many countries across the world.

Telecommunications – new political upheavals on the cards

All the weeklies report that Communications Minister Dina Pule is about to be removed from her post in a cabinet reshuffle. At least part of the reason is because she is accused of “routing large sums of money to her alleged lover” – Sunday Independent.  So many individuals are touted as possible replacements, but the one person who comes up time and against is Lindiwe Zulu. This is what the Mail and Guardian has to say about this close Zuma confidant: “Zulu has just been appointed head of the ANC’s communications and her star has been rising under Zuma. A government source said Zuma trusted her opinions. She is his adviser on international relations. ‘He likes her bravery. The way she’s handling the Zimbabwe issue in a fearless manner has impressed him.’ She is one of Zuma’s three envoys on that country.”

So what? Pule will be the third minister to exit this portfolio in four years and instability in the department has raised fears that SA will continue to wander in the policy wilderness as far as migration to digital TV, Telkom’s business plan chaos, spectrum allocation and unbundling of the local loop (to name but a few pressing policy mattings) are concerned.

Mining Indaba – policy confusion as rife as ever

The Business Times has a depressing few pages about the Mining Indaba that implied that if anything the industry is more concerned than ever about policy uncertainty. On the proposed Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill: “The move has again flooded the country’s struggling mining sector with uncertainty” – Loni Prinsloo.

“On the exploration side” said Magnus Ericsson, Chairman of Raw Material Group, in the lead story, “I think it’s a general hesitation … if you find something in South Africa, what will be the BEE requirements? What are the other requirements? For some foreign investors they are seen as difficult”.

The same series of articles argues that the pressure to “quarantine” SA assets is becoming fierce. “A valuation by AngloGold Ashanti’s biggest shareholder, Paulson & Co, indicated that South Africa’s biggest gold miner could boost its share price by as much as 68% if it split out it local assets.” Elsewhere on the front page of the Business Times, the paper argues: “The true investor sentiment will be measured tomorrow (now yesterday– ed) when Sibanye (Gold Fields’ local assets – ed) lists separately.”

So what? To my mind regulatory uncertainty, especially in the minerals sector, remains the key politically driven investment risk in South Africa. The risk is being driven by pressures (felt by the ANC and government) to improve delivery and redistribution. These pressures will increase going forward and the increased regulatory burdens government is placing on private mining companies is unlikely to achieve any of government’s objectives … in fact, the reverse is more likely to be true. This is an unhappy environment for those searching for policy certainty.

Bits and pieces

  • The brutal rape, torture and murder of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp filled many column inches in all four weeklies – hoping to stimulate the kind of outrage against rape that swept India recently. Many of the stories point out that South Africa has the highest incidence of rape in the world.
  • Ramphele – will she or wont she? The press is full of speculation about whether Mamphela Ramphele (former anti-apartheid activists and close friend of Steve Biko, a doctor, academic,  successful businesswoman, a former director at the World Bank and former Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town) will set up a political party and that that party will capture a significant percentage of urban black support. I think she might, but I doubt whether the party will make a dent on South Africa’s politics. The most likely scenario, to my mind, is Ramphele ends up in the Democratic Alliance.
  • There was much speculation about what President Zuma might say in his State of the Nation address this Thursday – with a generally excited consensus emerging that Zuma is less beholden to special interest groups (post his decisive victory at Mangaung) than he was previously. I am not convinced this will lead to bold new steps.  I am watching for tension between this speech and the National Budget on the 27th of February.  I expect the political plans in Zuma’s State of the Nation to be at odds with Pravin Gordhan’s plans to balance the books … but I expect that tension to be hidden.
  • The Mail & Guardian gave a list of who it thought is in Zuma’s inner circle: (Lakela Kaunda, Lindiwe Zulu, Mac Maharaj, Collins Shabane, Gwede Mantashe, Nathi Mthethwa and Batandwa Siswana), but then spoiled any special insight that might have given us by adding :

“Those privy to Zuma’s kitchen Cabinets say the president also has a high regard for Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, National Planning Commission Minister Trevor Manuel and Justice and Constitutional Development Min­ister Jeff Radebe. Other key confidants include Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti, Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and, to some extent, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. People outside government who are in the president’s good books include businessperson Sandile Zungu, film producer Duma ka Ndlovu and  businessperson Deebo Mzobe, widely considered the man behind the building of “Zumaville”, the town surrounding the president’s homestead.”

… hmmm, must have a pretty big kitchen.

I am in Serbia on a social visit and I thought I would record here some of my initial observations about stuff we might learn from this country about some aspects of SA politics and culture.

Cultural Betrayal

Firstly, I am in Belgrade – a city of 1.6 million people built on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava – and a peculiar mixture of modern flash, Soviet-era bland and medieval tatty. The scars of the Nato bombings are still dramatically evident in a sort of carefully preserved tableau, a series of monuments to that seminal betrayal, that you can’t miss on your way in from the airport

Serbian/Yugoslav Army HQ? Taken a few minutes ago (thanks Jaimo) – I will double-check what the building’s original function was … before it (and a few of its neighbours) were bombed on May 1 1999, becoming (permanent?) monuments to Western perfidy

Why betrayal? Because everyone my age here has the same (as me)  … memealogy? (okay, I made it up – memes are cultural genes and you can work it backwards from genealogy). The cultural literacy is all Rolling Stones, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, The Alien, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Billy Joel (you dredge up the cultural icon from the 60s, 70′s and 80′s and I bet I share it with Serbians of an appropriate age – except they are more culturally literate. Interestingly, just like in Yugoslavia, in SA we got this stuff a few years late – in SA because of apartheid and National Party awfulness, in Yugoslavia because of a slightly different set of transgressions.)

… and then one day their beloved Americans and English cultural tutors bombed them and killed the firemen trying to save people from the buildings – ostensibly to stop some new, particularly ugly, transgressions. Oh the treachery, the faithlessness …

Ethnic uniformity

The second thing that strikes me is the populace is ethnically identical. They are all white. There are no black people, no Arabic looking people; no any kind of people who are in any way different looking from what I think of as Slavic – which is just a minute variation on your bog standard white person – the men with chiseled features and the women with unusually long legs and everyone with white skin … not olive or dusky or anything, but white – in the old Apartheid conception of the skin colour.

“The city was more cosmopolitan”, my Serbian friend tells me, “before the disaster of Slobodan Milošević – before then you could see more  Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Slovaks …”

We are wandering down a medieval street crammed with crowds of handsome young people. I ask him to show me some individual examples of these groups that survived the virtual and literal ethnic cleansing that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia.

His attempt seems half-hearted, even dispirited.

“Hmm maybe she is Croat,” he says indicating a woman flicking through some blouses at a street kiosk. She is one of the tall, long-legged, light-brown haired, chiseled cheek-boned and haughty beauties that shoal in these alleys, as ubiquitous as sardines at the right time in Durban.

“Ok, maybe not” he shrugs as I frown at him in confusion.

We finally manage to agree that “those gypsies” selling knock-off Ray-Bans look ethnically dissimilar to the majority. But to me  it’s a margin call – any one of them could have been my old ‘Leb’ Catholic chinas in the Johannesburg of my youth; definitely ‘white’ under apartheid’s racial taxonomy.

Remember it took the terror of ethnic cleansing to create this level of uniformity, but even before that, in the old Yugoslavia, the full range of ethnic diversity could have been encompassed by the differences between, say Rafael Nadel and Charlize Theron …

Let’s compare monstrous barbarisms

Everyone here above a certain age seems haunted by what happened after the collapse of Yugoslavia. You would think that this lot would be immunised to bombs, betrayals, racial and religious purging and radical disjuncture in their social organisation.

It started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” in 50 000 BCE  (okay, I’m exaggerating) who in their turn were replaced by an endless Roman occupation; sacked by Attila the Hun in 442 and then one thousand five hundred years of bloody, impossible to follow conquest, resistance, sacking, rapine, pillage … I could go on and on. It was the Byzantines, the Franks, the Bulgarians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Crusades, the Serbian Empire (briefly) the Hungarians again, the Ottomans (for five hundred years! … and yes, they did persecute the Christians but not half as badly as the Christians did to almost anyone of any other faith during the Crusades … and there are a whole lot of beautiful and ancient churches that the Ottoman-Turk conquerors and rulers left standing) and the Austrians.

And of course, that is only before the First World War, and as you know all the important stuff happened since then.

I know our African and South African histories are important and it is appropriate that we wrestle as long as it takes – which will be forever, obviously – with the ongoing consequences of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

But being here does tempt me to wish my countrymen and women had a slightly less myopic view of our own trials and tribulations.  I read this morning that Belgrade is trying to scrape together the finances to build a memorial to Judenlager Semlin, the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast Europe where in May 1942 the Nazi’s proudly announced one of their first major European campaign successes: Serbia was “Judenfrei”. The men had been executed earlier, but the last 7000 Jewish women and children were killed in the camp in the first few months of 1942.

By May Serbia was Judenfrei.

And this is not a The Holocaust trumps all kind of statement – I just mention it  in the context of the previous 2000 years of European history. The Germans might have achieved a unique scale with their technological and organisational excellence, but the great rivers of cruelty and tears are old, deep and cold here and they flow through every valley of this geography – and not only to and from the mighty lake that was The Holocaust.

The Economy and the European Debt Crisis

The Serbian economy has hit the wall and the government is trying to decide on a balance between cutting public sector wages and salaries by about 6% and increasing VAT to about 22%. The options are limited and there is an absolute consensus that extremely hard times have arrived. This is the European debt crises writ slightly smaller – because Serbia is not part of the European Union.

But what I see are people eating and drinking in restaurants – and partying as hard and as healthily as it gets.

There are almost no beggars – and those that there are are obviously professionals with studied acts:

  • the near-sighted (with ridiculously cute thick glasses) slightly retarded child playing – very badly – the violin, every item of clothing and scuff on his thick medical black shoes a carefully choreographed act that everyone consents to and ignores.
  • An old hunched-backed crone, her nose not six inches from the floor, tapping along on a short, gnarled staff, an arthritis crippled hand held out blindly above her … I am convinced she is a 22-year-old actress who couldn’t find a waitressing job.

The point is there are none of the streams of dead-eyed, exhausted people searching and researching the refuse; people you will find in any South African city. There is a medieval character to Belgrade, which means there are a million nooks and crannies and little hollows in ancient buildings and monuments everywhere. In South Africa those would all be occupied – where they were fenced, the fences would be broken and tunneled under – there would be evidence that someone was eking out an existence in every hollow, in every gap.

But here, nothing.

Sure, there is an occasional drunk sleeping on a park bench, but that is pretty much as bad as it gets. I have absolutely no doubt that I am not seeing the whole picture and certainly there are large areas of the city with awful Soviet-era council housing-type tenements, covered for 10 metres from street level with graffiti that looks to me just like Cape Town’s gang signs.

In South Africa we feel like we are bursting out of our seams, with the poor competing intensely for the leavings of the rich and thereby driving some kind of desperate but highly energetic economy. Here it feels older and emptier, certainly dowdy in places, but calm and stoic.

Everyone has time for a coffee and a rakia.

Don’t get me wrong. These people descend from women who have thrown their babies onto invader’s spears; their forefathers and mothers have eaten dogs and rats and stones to stave off the inevitable rape and slaughter that awaits the fall of the castle walls; they have catapulted the last live chickens at their enemies who have besieged them for years, and successfully convinced the invaders to just give up and go home.

So I  am not exactly saying that this is tired old Europe with nothing left to do but casually sip a coffee in the shade, sneering at the inevitable heat death that comes with impossible debt, dipping personal income and stagnant growth – of the economy and the population.

I am also not exactly saying that we are fresh and chaotic and ready to burst onto the global stage with the vigour and desperate energy of youth.

But there’s something in there, some little kernel or nugget – maybe a hope that I haven’t quite allowed myself to feel yet …

But it’s mid-afternoon and so hot that it is impossible to process this any further. Time for my first rakia and 4th double espresso – I’ll think about this tomorrow.

I think the e-tolling saga is important precisely because my headline bastardising the denouement of John Donne’s famous poem is, in truth, wrong.

Gauteng’s road upgrade does not come for free.

The R20bn was borrowed by Sanral and lent by people and institutions (which) who assessed the risk attached to repayment on the basis that e-tolling was part of the deal.

This is a précis of what I told my clients about some of the political implications:

The North Gauteng High Court granted an urgent interdict on Saturday that will postpone the implementation of e-tolling until as late next year – and perhaps contribute to stopping it completely.

At this stage the court has ordered a full review of the process that will probably take at least two months to complete. If the court rules that e-tolling can go ahead the appeals process, all the way to the Constitutional Court, can take up to two years.

So what?

There are a number of significant risks associated with this decision .

The National Treasury itself, during the course of legal arguments, predicted dire consequences for South Africa’s sovereign risk rating and for public finances more generally.

I think they exaggerated but one could hardly blame them. The Treasury is the custodian of the public purse and its officials and political head carry the responsibility  if R20bn that will no longer be raised from tolling has to be dug out from somewhere.

But the ruling is important for a deeper reason. South Africa, according to President Zuma’s State of the Nation address (and confirmed by a number of government and ANC statements in the last few months) is engaged in an infrastructure programme that is expected to cost just short of R1 trillion over the next 8 years.

This is the biggest bet for anyone hoping to invest in the country for the next ten years. Will it happen or will it – again – fizzle?

At least part of the funding model for this infrastructure programme is the  ‘user pays’ system established in the planning of the Gauteng highway upgrade project. In general, I think a user pays system is a more efficient – and fairer – system of allocating capital than unwieldy central plans that draw on the central tax pile.

Further, private sector lenders funded the project on the basis of the collection of user fees – this is how they did their calculations and assessed their risk. The ruling effects government’s credibility as a borrower.

Chris Hart (economist at Investment Solutions) is reported to have dismissed this saying the delay is no big deal – less than 0.2% of planned government expenditure this year. Goolam Ballim (chief economist at Standard Bank) said if there was a contractual infringement impacting on Sanral’s ability to pay, it did not imply sovereign default risk and “will not compromise South Africa’s international credit standing in any way”.

Now those two economists are no slouches – and know more about our public finances and the basis that the rating agencies changes the investment grades of our government bonds than I ever will – but surely it is obvious that there is a degree of damage to government (and Sanral’s) credibility as a borrower? Perhaps not as much as the Treasury argued during the urgent application. But we are coming up for strike season, the Treasury has promised to hold the line on public sector wage increases, the budget is under immense pressure and R20bn is not a meaninglessly small amount.

The whole of the South African government looks weak – with the Treasury and the Department of Transport being the most obviously and immediately affected. Both are “studying the ruling” before making public statements. These issues might not swing Standard & Poor, Fitch or Moody’s against SA bonds, but there is no question that this ruling will be part of their assessment.

The risks are clearer when we look at the political back-story. There is a changed political configuration in the Ruling Alliance. The rise of Jacob Zuma was characterised by an already growing influence of Cosatu on policy making.  A Thabo Mbeki led ANC would have taken a much stronger line against Cosatu’s campaign against e-tolling and would have stood much more firmly behind the Treasury’s arguments in favour. I am not necessarily cheering for that side, but I do think the Zuma administration is beholden to Cosatu in a manner that limits its options in public finance – and that limitation is being set by a very narrow interest group.

Cosatu has – as is its wont at the moment – been tactically brilliant in this campaign. It has built a classic broad front, multi-class alliance against the e-tolls and has strengthened the group made up of Zwelinzima Vavi, Irvin Jim and Numsa on the one hand and weakened the group made up of Sdumo Dlamini (Cosatu President) Frans Baleni and Num on the other.  See here for more discussion on the relevant factional splits within Cosatu.

The gravitational centre of the Alliance is only weakly occupied by Zuma and “the left” in Cosatu has been able to shift the whole edifice towards itself. This is a trend that we will have to keep a close eye on during the lead-up to Mangaung, when the Zuma administration is likely to be at its most docile and weak.

And it is in this environment that Cosatu has taken on e-tolling as ‘privatisation by stealth’ and an infrastructure funding method that taps its constituency too directly. Cosatu is a sectional interest group … and is completely entitled to pursue the sectional interests of its employed worker members (employed, by definition, in ‘union jobs - and all strength and luck to them for that advantage’.)

The most important signifier issue will be how government deals with public sector wage demands over the next few months. It’s strike season, and I mentioned elsewhere, Gordhan’s budget only balanced because of the hard line he took against public sector wage increases.

To give you a sense of why that is important, this is what I said about the budget and public sector wages on February the 23rd:

Public sector wages: This is the area, to our (I wrote this with economist Sandra Gordon) mind, of least credibility with the most consequence:

Total Compensation % of total budget % yoy
2009/10 248558.0 31.8 17.7
2010/11 281619.2 33.6 13.3
2011/12 314907.2 33.9 11.8
2012/13 336959.4 33.5 7.0
2013/14 357168.2 32.7 6.0
2014/15 378148.7 32.1 5.9

Adjusted for inflation those figures in bold are heading towards zero – and remember we are talking about over 30% of the total. The public sector wage bill was R8,1bn more than budgeted for in 2011/12 and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the whole edifice of the budget could crumble on this point.

So what? … Public sector unions set the tone for industrial bargaining throughout the economy. Our main scenario, in which 2012/13 becomes an industrial relations blood-bath, is looking ever more likely – although we await, with interest, Cosatu’s formal response to Budget 2012. This proposed spending shift – if Zuma’s ANC can hold the line – is also supportive of our construction and investment relative to consumer equity theme – with the consumer sector keeping a “look-in” by social grants increases from R105bn in 2012/2013 to R122bn 2014/15 and the promise to reassess if inflation rises further.   
.

So the e-tolling is an ongoing threat to public finances and it is an indicator issue of how beholden … and therefore weak … Zuma’s leadership is.

But there is an upside to this story. The ANC and Cosatu did agree to postpone e-tolling after their meeting last week – and announced that they had instructed government to do this (revealingly issuing a hastily retracted statement saying they would, in fact “request government to postpone”).

But the real upside is that it wasn’t, ultimately, political weakness or fiscal slippage that led to the cancelling of e-tolling. It was judicial sensitivity to popular opposition and an assertion of the principle of the rule of law.

You will be able to tell by reading between the lines that I think e-tolling was actually the right approach, but it is clear that an unaccountable system, that never bothered to consult the public properly and that, in addition, has badly damaged its own credibility in as far as corruption and maladministration is concerned, was defeated by a judge determined to uphold legal accountability and respect for popular discontent.

It might make the Treasury’s job more difficult and it might create uncertainties about funding infrastructure development, but it has got to be positive for the South African democracy as a whole.

We are the ape with the pattern recognition dial cranked up high and this has served us well over our evolutionary history.

But when we assess risk in systems as complex as the global economy our instinctive wariness at the sudden silence in the Palaeolithic forest is not necessarily useful – and might be part of a warning system directly implicated in us getting things wrong in the complex and networked world in which we live and act.

The billions of tons of grinding debris in the violent waters surging over Japan’s eastern coast seem part of a flood of dangerous chaos and instability stretching from the sovereign debt markets through the shifting front lines in Libya to the meltdown at the Fukushima  nuclear power facility.

Two months ago the theatre of the world seemed to be playing to a comforting old script we all knew.

Today it feels like anything might happen – and it probably will.

Let me not pretend to expertise on plate tectonics, but the clearest and most current metaphor that best explains how we should think about the world and the global economy is the state of the earth’s crust east of Japan just before Friday’s quake.

The Japanese main island of Honshu is unique in the world in that it is at the meeting point of four of the Earth’s fourteen major tectonic plates.

Plates driven by convection in the plastic rock below (in the asthenosphere) meet each other with a gradual build up of complex pressure and stresses, which are, in truth, continent smashing in their power and potential.

After sometimes extended periods of apparent stability the stresses reach a point at which they are suddenly released and one or more plate(s) move(s) violently – in this case the Pacific Plate jerks in the direction it has been pushing all along: deep underneath Honshu.

And then follows a sequence that might, with the benefit of hind site, look like tumbling dominoes in one of those endlessly complicated but strangely compelling set piece knock downs (only click here if you have the patience and bandwidth for watching endlessly toppling supermarket products – the Balkan juice  boxes are the most mysterious.)

First the quake: 8.9 on the Richter Scale, making it the 5th most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Then the seabed buckles over hundreds of square kilometres displacing a huge volume of water that sends a whole series of giant waves travelling at over 600 km/h in every direction, giving the Japanese authorities less than 15 minutes to react.

Then consider if you will the extended shuddering cascade of triggers and causality that will travel into the future – think of it as a wave that unlocks energy, destructive or otherwise, inherent in the situations and objects it encounters, rather than the cause of what happens.

Beyond the immediate human tragedies of loss, displacement, suffering and death there is long-term infrastructure damage, economic catastrophe in the already stretched insurance industry, political turmoil from a populous that will accuse the politicians of not having prepared adequately, an unfolding nuclear crisis and sundry other effects and consequences that we can all speculate about, but will likely be a surprise anyway.

The point is that while we can attempt to model such systems, beyond a certain level of complexity there is almost nothing we can say with certainty about how things will unfold.

While you consider these waves spreading out from the disaster that has struck Japan,  bursting other bubbles, causing other wound up instabilities to suddenly unwind, consider the ripples of this earthquake meeting the ripples of the oil supply shock rooted in the political turmoil in North Africa and the gathering force of the the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and elsewhere.

“Why” is not the question

When tragedy strikes us, particularly the personal, catastrophic and traumatic kind – a fatal car accident, a murder or the unexpected suicide of a family member – our first self-protective act is to grasp for an explanation.

Our initial need is for something simple, some prime cause that can give us the limited comfort of being able to say to ourselves: “This is why it happened”.

Fredrick Nietzsche {here quoted from”Ubiquity: The Science of History – or Why the World is Simpler Than We Think” by Mark Buchanan (Crown 2000) – it’s heavy going but well worth the effort} said:

To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none…The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear….

In the world in which we live, no explanation is almost always better than an incorrect one. At least then you know you don’t know – which is a slight protection in itself.

There is no new tide of chaos sweeping the world. This is the world as it has always been: interconnected in dizzyingly complex ways and apparently both deeply unstable and unpredictable.

But we have never lived the world at this level before. When twitter and Facebook and Al Jazeera TV and immediate images of the terrifying dark swirling waters engulfing the Japanese coast are brought together in our sensory universe in the same moment our evolved risk assessment tools are inadequate.

We are seeing the world not at the human scale of the hunter in the suddenly quieted forest. This is the world from a perspective that humans previously imagined was only available to their gods.

As individuals we are still essentially the same animal as that palaeolithic hunter in the primal forest.

But collectively we have recently gained the technology to see – if not fully understand – what is happening way beyond the forest, way beyond the world.

It will be a collective endeavour (through states and various other forms of human organisation) to make that information useful to us – as such forms of organisations have imperfectly striven to do in the past.*

Already Tsunami Warning Systems have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives over the last few days and Twitter and Facebook have kept millions of Japanese families in touch with the world and each other.

But we are only at the very beginning of the journey towards the kingdom where our collective ability to generate and harness vast streams of data will become meaningful and intelligible to us as individuals.

For now it is enough to say: when dealing with the world in all its complexity, don’t trust your instincts.

Luckily for us “pattern recognition” is not the only reason we have survived as we have.

“Adaptability” is this primate’s main strength and with the finger pressed firmly on the fast forward button of technological advancement we are going to need every edge we can get.

*The struggle between ourselves as individuals and the collective elites, governments and national secret agencies that previously attempted to monopolise this information and act on it to further their own interests – as often as not incompetently and mistakenly – is the subject of another discussion, although an important and linked one.

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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