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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.

This is a quick and casual aside as I await the more weighty matters of Pravin Gordhan’s medium-term budget policy statement at 14h00 today.

For various reasons* I attempt to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving technological and cultural aspects of what we call ‘social media’

New cultural trends drive developments in language and there are a couple of new words and usage that I found interesting enough to share here.

Recently a person I follow on Twitter (Sarah Britten who goes by the handle @ananitus – I love her stuff and follow her across several media platforms) used a hashtag to characterise the flood of criticism she got when she mentioned that she had gone to a chiropractor for relief from some or other ailment.

Most of the criticism/advice came from men and she called it (the criticism and advice) “#mansplaining’ as in: enough with the #mansplaining, I don’t need you to tell me whether alternative medicine is unscientific or illogical (that’s not a quote, I don’t have a record of the original interchange, but that is roughly how I remember it).

I immediately felt slightly embarrassed. Oops, busted. I have been patiently mansplaining to the women in in my life that their views are illogical and unscientific ever  since I was a too serious boy. Hurumph Hurumph – stroke my beard, push my eyebrows together, suck on my pipe. You see Josie/Mom/darling the scientific method exposes astrology as  … blah blah.  Yeah, right.

A hashtag (#) is a kind of metadata tag that allows all future conversations that deal with the same topic to be grouped and therefore accessible.

Listicle is another new word (well, new to me anyway) that perfectly sums up a phenomenon to which we are all being increasingly exposed. A listicle is an article that presents itself as a list.

It can be any rubbish … just make it up. The 10 ugliest South African politicians. The five top reasons to vote/not to vote for the ANC in 2014. Seven reasons that Blade Nzimande has become a recluse (or the 50 reasons he should become a recluse). Five secrets that are keeping Zuma in power. The 10 hottest DA members of parliament. Five reasons why South Africa sucks as an investment destination. The three top reasons why Zuma’s critics should keep their tax affairs in order. Five reasons we should not listen to the rubbish spouted by political analysts. The ten least known Zuma sexual conquests. Four ANC members most likely to become president in the next 20 years.

The point that I find so interesting is that  listicles  are almost irresistible to your finger hovering on the mouse. Just look at The Huffington Post and you will understand just how compelling (and trashy)  listicles are.

In fact listicles are so compelling that they can usefully to termed ‘click bait‘. Anyone who has ever flicked a gaudy lure in front of a fish in the hope of irresistibly drawing the fleeting piscene attention long enough to embed the hook in the creatures mouth (goodness, when I put it like that fishing sounds a faintly monstrous activity) will immediately understand what ‘click bait’ means.

I have held out against using listicles as click bait on my blog. I hope I am never reduced to heading a post with Top five political risks to investment in South Africa or 3 reasons supporting a sovereign downgrade or even Top 10 best dressed ANC NEC members. But you never know; desperate times lead to desperate measures.

 

 

*For me it’s a professional imperative: I have to get my views out there to persuade those  who might want to pay for those views (supposedly delivered in more depth) that the said views might be worth paying for … so I  trundle out my free-to-air discussion and curating on a range of platforms in the hope that this will generate paid work … which it generally does, btw. The two other reasons are

  • posting forces me to come up with a view on the unfolding situation … I am never certain what I think about something until the moment I am forced to say to someone else what it is I think – so thanks, you are that someone else;
  • keeping the blog is a way of safely storing a history of my views – this is all sitting out here in the interweb, a record of my views, safely stored away from my own lack of competence or the ill-fortune of my laptop.
  • the cloud.

Forgive the dearth of postings here … I was brought low by some late winter dreaded lurgy and as a result my life came to grinding halt for almost two weeks.

The big story (which I will deal with later today or tomorrow)  is the astonishingly decisively manner in which the ANC and its government is blocking Cosatu on a whole range of policy issues … immediately prior to an election.

Later today I will  attempt to assess whether the medium-term budget policy statement holds the same line, particularly with regard to the public sector wage bill. If it does then I am going to have to start reassessing whether Jacob this-isn’t-some-African-shithole Zuma is quite as soft-in-the-middle on policy as I have previously asserted. The implications of the putatively shifting position are huge and, I suspect, driven by a complex and contradictory set of factors.

Meanwhile here is an excerpt from my weekly news commentary describing the rising decibels and pitch of the moan coming from business and its representatives (and from financial markets in general) around policy, especially policy related to the labour market. The ascending pitch and loudness of the whine are undoubtedly two of the factors pushing Zuma’s showdown with Cosatu – but I think it would be premature to think of the president’s actions as primarily about bowing down to business and the diktats of global capital markets.

South Africa deteriorating investment destination

Complaints about South Africa’s hostile policy environment are getting louder.

Pepkor chairman Christo Wiese added his voice to a chorus complaining about a hostile investment environment in South Africa. In other African countries “infrastructure is improving, border crossings are becoming easier, more property development is taking place and, in some cases, they are offering more opportunities.” But in South Africa government is “certainly not cooperative” and “one is left with the impression that government sees business as the opposition, not as a partner … you can’t have German rules because we can’t administer them,”

The wizened and iconoclastic Christo Wiese held up Angola, Nigeria and, especially, Rwanda as improving business destinations. South Africa’s labour regime, according to Wiese, is becoming one of the greatest inducements to invest in other African countries. (Wiese was quoted in an interesting interview with Chris Barron in the Sunday Times 22/10/2013 – here’s a link to the republished article in Business Day … Barron is always interesting and not to be missed in your weekly news read.)

Wiese’s comments came soon after Moody’s Investor Services said in a credit opinion on 12 October that South Africa’s elevated strike activity continues to affect the investment climate. “BMW’s announcement that South Africa has been removed for consideration for the new car is tangible evidence of the negative impact that the increase in work days lost to strikes in the past two years is likely to pose for the medium-term outlook of the economy … Such decisions are likely to be repeated by other companies when such significant losses are incurred -” Bloomberg and Moody’s Credit Opinion 12/10/2013.

In the same week Amplats CEO Chris Griffith said (after the company was again battered by strikes) that it “is not possible that we can continue with these kinds of strikes, which are having an effect not only on the mining sector but all sectors of the economy. It’s hurting the economy … It is impacting jobs” – Business Day 16/10/2013.

From extensive plans to cut 230,000ozs of achievable platinum as well as 14 000 jobs announced in January this year, Amplats appears to have been steadily successfully bullied back by unions, government and the ANC from doing what it initially intended.

Read against South Africa’s scores in the recent WEF Global Competitiveness Report 2013 – 2014 (click here for a full copy) some of this anxiety seems justified. While South Africa is ranked 53rd this year out of 148 countries, the quality of the educational system is very poor at 146th, as was labour market efficiency at 116th – and ‘hiring and firing practices’ and ‘wage flexibility’ at 147th and 144th respectively. The ability of the employer to respond quickly to changing production needs for skills and size of workforce is called ‘labour market flexibility’- and aggregating our performance in these categories suggests a serious deficit compared with our peers.

Okay, so that sets the background for a follow-on post (today or tomorrow) dealing with the now unavoidable conclusion that Zuma’s government appears to be risking the wrath of its left-wing allies with regard to a range of policy measures. The important question to answer is ‘why’ is the ANC drawing the line? And why now?

 

Some of my recent news coverage and commentary:

E-tolling and the DA’s cruel billboards

Last week Jacob Zuma signed into law the Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Bill – meaning the unpopular e-tolling can begin on certain Gauteng highways.

I was impressed that the President did the necessary – despite the fact that this will cost the ANC votes in the 2014 poll especially in the closely contested Gauteng and especially amongst the class of people the ANC is, supposedly, at risk of losing to opposition parties.

Of course failure to sign the law might have led to downgrades by rating agencies and an even more hostile report from the IMF … but good for him anyway!

The interesting aside is that last week huge billboards sprung up along those highways saying things like: “E-tolling – Proudly brought to you by the ANC”.

ANC-e-tolls-billboard

Of course that campaign is funded by the Democratic Alliance snapping with its sharp little teeth at the ruling party’s heals .

Or perhaps it is more like being savaged by a duck?

Whatever, it’s all part of the razzmatazz that is going to be seriously tiring in about four months’ time but for the moment is mildly entertaining.

Election 2014 – the Zuma swings and the Zuma roundabouts

The major weeklies continued their faintly mindless coverage of Election2014.

City Press ran with two stories about how the ANC had decided to put Jacob Zuma delivering 50 specific and successful infrastructure projects at the centre of the ruling party’s election campaign. Not quite the shock the screaming headlines claim it to be.

All the Sunday Papers covered the fact that last weekend’s National Executive Committee of the ANC nullified the previous week’s Provincial General Council of the ANC in Gauteng. At issue was that the ANC in Gauteng is clearly not delighted to have to front itself with this particular president and believes its supposedly more urbane, sophisticated urban voters would be better wooed by Thabo Mbeki, Cyril Ramaphosa and/or Kgalema Motlanthe.

Deep behind the chatter is the growing view that the Zuma-face of the ANC is unlikely to charm the middle classes. The basic reasons, according to feisty City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, are made explicit in the Gupta wedding scandal cover-up:

“(it was not) the first time the party has been damaged by our president’s careless ways and friendships, which morph too easily into cronyism and patronage. There is a long line of infractions, stretching from the arms deal and his relationship with Schabir Shaik, to the rape trial he faced (the president was acquitted), the news of a child born out of wedlock with Sonono Khoza, the splurge at Nkandla and the game-playing with the courts around the spy tapes.” (Said the delightful, clever and middle-class Ferial Haffajee in her column in City Press  on 06/10/2013)

The rumour mill is constantly hinting that in certain constituencies the ANC will lose votes because of perceptions about Jacob Zuma’s cronyism and his traditionalist lifestyle choices. The hints usually suggest that the ANC’s own polling information confirm the view.

Frankly it would hardly be a big surprise if certain middle class constituencies are not enamoured with Jacob Zuma. Previous elections strongly indicate that the president is wildly popular in poorer and rural communities, so things are likely to balance out for the ANC.

What would be a surprise is if government got its act together with regard to infrastructure delivery in any meaningful way before Election2014. While a burst of energy can only be a good thing, do not expect a miraculous improvement in infrastructure delivery to result from the ANC’s election campaign.

Microlending falls from favour

Microlending as a business took a number of hits this past week. Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the microcredit lender Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, warned that microlending to finance consumption could lock the poor into a life of poverty.

More importantly from a local perspective, Futuregrowth Asset Management’s Andrew Canter was quoted in the Business Times (06/102013) saying the company would “wind down” its exposure to microlenders, including Capitec, African Bank and other unsecured lenders on “moral grounds” (unfortunately the story doesn’t specify if Canter was purely referring to Futuregrowth’s SRI funds – which would be my expectation.) Canter, according to the paper, said: “We have always backed the responsible firms, but the industry structure has provoked industry behaviours that are not good for consumers, or in our view, the nation” … but, he said, Futuregrowth would not make a “panic exit”. “If industry practices improve, or particular players create more sustainable lending products, we will look to back them.”

The microcredit industry has always been controversial and becomes more so when consumers are struggling to make repayments in declining economic conditions. With the link having been drawn between the Marikana tragedy and the extent to which the strikers where in dire straits with regard to loan repayments, it was only a matter of time before sentiment towards the lenders would sour. With sentiment this negative, government is likely to further tighten regulatory control of the sector, especially in an election build-up.

The judiciary – it’s that Jacob Zuma problem again

In a matter almost as impenetrable as it is serious, a judicial tribunal appointed to probe Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe’s alleged attempt to influence two Constitutional Court judges to rule in President Jacob Zuma’s favour when he was fending off serious allegations of corruption got under way last week.

Amongst the complicating factors is that the two judges Hlophe allegedly tried to influence, Chris Jafta and Bess Nkabinde, have indicated they do not wish to proceed with the complaint.

I am not going to pretend to be able to analyse adequately what is going on here. Follow Pierre De Vos at his excellent blog Constitutionally Speaking for all matters relating to politics and the constitution. There is going to be a lot of complex legal argument around this matter but most constitutional experts suggest that the judiciary will be harmed almost no matter the outcome.

The point we unfortunately have to keep uppermost in our minds is that politicians, and especially their machinations in internal struggles within the ruling party, have damaged our systems of law and the institutions that are important to our democracy – from the judiciary, to the prosecutorial authority and including all state sectors directly concerned with national security (including the SAPS, crime intelligence and National Intelligence Service.) And further, such damage continues unabated as powerful groups in the ruling alliance war against each other.

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

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