(Part of this is from a news update I published for the clients of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities on Monday – 07/04/2014. Thanks as always to them for allowing me to republish here a few days later. None of opinions expressed here are those of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities.)

  • Nigeria’s GDP rebasing is normal and welcome – for South Africans as well as foreign investors. Reading some of the media coverage, however, one might have thought a grave threat to South Africa’s sovereign interests had suddenly arisen somewhere in the north on Sunday morning
  • HIV infection rates are up and caution and prevention are down in South Africa – a more serious matter than how Nigeria estimates the size of its economy
  • Cosatu and Vavi’s brief reprise will both be threatened at this week’s Central Executive Committee meeting. The quicker and more fundamental the impending split, the better
  • Noisy nation – Nkandla is actually most relevant for the “screaming and shouting at the powers that be” and is a sign of rude health – John Carlin in City Press (06/04/2014)
  • South African’s irritating sense of ‘exceptionalism’

Nigeria’s rebased GDP sets off anxious (and defensive) flutters and finger wagging at SA from global and domestic media outfits

The issue that made the biggest media impact on the weekend happened on Sunday, too late for the main weeklies. Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics announced that the country’s GDP for 2013 was 80.22 trillion naira (between $509.9 billion and $477.98 billion depending on what value you give to the naira) and not the 42.3 trillion naira previously estimated. Nigeria had last assessed the size of its economy in1990 and has long realised it needed to add previously uncounted industries like telecommunications, IT, banking, insurance, music, airlines, online retail and the vibrant Nollywood film industry.

So what?

Not unexpectedly the announcement set off a flood of global media commentary (and local hand-wringing and defensiveness) about the sad state of the South African economy, which prior to the announcement ‘had’ Africa’s largest GDP at about $353 billion.

The Wall Street Journal Online (06/04/2014) probably had the most representative coverage:

“Nigeria’s ascendance marks a validation for foreign companies diving into Africa’s riskier markets, where populations are young and growing fast.”

“For South Africa, losing its status as Africa’s top economy is more than a symbolic blow. Pretoria has used its position on the continent to argue for inclusion at the table of the world’s most powerful nations. It joined the G-20 in 1999 and the “Brics”—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—in 2010. It has also campaigned for a U.N. Security Council seat.”

The article discusses Nkandla and South Africa’s anaemic growth (and Eskom’s wet coal) but also points out that South Africa has the continent’s best infrastructure and that it produces 10 times more electricity than Nigeria for a population one third the size.

A more salient point came from several Al-Jazeera interviews with Nigerians, best summarised by Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives: “Is the money in your bank account more on Sunday than it was on Saturday? If you had no job yesterday, are you going to have a job today? If the answer  … is ‘no’, then this is an exercise in vanity.”

Equally, the myriad problems in the South African economy were no worse on Sunday than they were on Saturday. Will Nigeria’s rebasing create more urgency amongst South African policy makers? I doubt it.

HSRC update on HIV/AIDS in South Africa is concerning

The Human Sciences Research Council has released research that indicates that the proportion of South Africans infected with HIV has increased from 10.6% in 2008 to 12.2% in 2012 and that the total number of infected South Africans now stands at 6.4 million, 1.2 million more than in 2008.

The table below indicates HIV prevalence in females (a) and males (b) by age in South Africa in 2008 and in 2012 (South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012 – xxvi of the Executive Summary):

HIV

Provincially, KwaZulu-Natal has the highest HIV prevalence (16.9%) and the Western Cape the lowest (5%). There were 469 000 new infections in the country in 2012.

So what?

HIV/AIDS was a significant area of risk associated with investing in South Africa in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and the disease radically lowered life expectancy in the country (from 62 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2007 – StatsSA). The impacts on consumption, the price of labour and pressures on social infrastructure were endlessly explored in research reports, also by this analyst.

There have been admirable increases in treatment levels (especially by government, but supported by non-governmental organisations) but significant declines in condom use and knowledge about the disease (particularly amongst young people) and recent increases in infection rates imply that the availability of treatment might be leading to complacency and a reversal of some of those gains. Watch this space.

Cosatu has a week of the long knives ahead – which is mostly a good thing

As it happens there was a considerable amount of drawing-back-from-the-edge this week raising interesting questions about the role of Ramaphosa and of Vavi … but I will explore that next week. Meanwhile here is the Monday comment, without retractions:

On Friday the South Gauteng High Court set aside Cosatu suspension of its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on technical grounds. “While the CEC of Cosatu was authorised to suspend Vavi” said Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo, “it failed to comply with the constitution of Cosatu in that they did not vote whereas the constitution expressly called for a vote.”

This is obviously not a crushing victory in Vavi’s favour, but it does lay the grounds for some sort of final showdown at Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee meeting that starts tomorrow morning. (It would be a relatively simple matter for the CEC to vote to suspend Vavi … and it might do this and add suspending or expelling Numsa into the bargain.)

So what?

Cosatu is fundamentally split between two broad factions.

One faction, centred around Vavi, Irvin Jim and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, oppose key elements of ANC economic policy on the grounds that the policy (particularly the NDP) is ‘pro-business’ and fails to adequately address the needs of workers and the poor. Further, this faction has expressed itself in very clear language against what it sees as the abuse of public resources for personal gain by key ANC and government leaders, including Jacob Zuma. This faction wants a formal Cosatu break with the ruling alliance and has hinted at its intention to establish a socialist workers party at some time in the future.

The other faction – essentially the incumbent Cosatu leadership including its president S’dumo Dlamini – is attempting to keep as much of Cosatu as possible within the alliance with the ANC and is, essentially, loyal to the incumbent leadership of the ANC.

The tensions that are expressed in this split have been present since Cosatu’s formation in Durban in 1986. The fact that the underlying political and ideological divisions are coming to a head now is not primarily because the ANC or government leadership is more corrupt that previously and certainly not because ANC economic policy is more pro-business than previously. The ANC and government’s adoption of the National Development Plan (as well as government’s promulgation of both the youth wage subsidy and Gauteng e-tolling, against Cosatu’s explicit and bitter opposition) has forced the underlying division into the light but the division was eventually going to be exposed anyway, as the sentimental glue of ‘the struggle’ gradually dissolved through exposure to the (famous) ‘ravages of time’ and the accumulation of normal, difficult, choices all governments must make between ‘national’ as opposed to ‘sectional’ interests.

(Gosh, that is a long sentence – Ed)

The bright light that Vavi and Numsa shine on corruption is welcome (but not untainted by other political considerations) and a healthy part of our democracy. This faction heading into the wilderness to set up a ‘left’ or socialist party would also be an expression of maturity – as well as a welcome release of the ANC from the tiresome shackles of its increasing anachronistic alliance with a trade union federation.

Nkandla in perspective

The Sunday papers are invariably a tiresome chore to read with only a handful of articles making it worth the effort. This week John Carlin (best known for his excellent writing about politics and soccer) dealt with the Nkandla scandal in a manner that brought some blessed relief.

In an article entitled “Noisy Nation” he delightfully describes the health of the South African democracy thusly: “The amount of screaming, shouting and booing at the powers that be, the furious debates between political parties and old and new trade unions, the daily revelations in the press, the hyperventilating opinion columns: it is all music to the ears, a sign of political health – just as a new born baby’s screaming is a sign of physical health.”

Among the welcome reminders he brings is that South Africa is a new democracy with regard to peer comparisons and that freedom of expression and levels of public debate compare very favourably:

“At 20 years old, it (South Africa) has barely emerged from adolescence and is still seeking its identity, finding its bearings in the world. The parents, by which I mean (stretching the metaphor a bit) successive ANC governments, are not a model of maturity themselves, but they have had the wisdom and moral coherence not to do as governments have done in other countries that arrived at democracy at roughly the same time, such as Russia. They have not locked up political opponents or murdered overinquisitive members of the press.”

Well, not yet and not that we know of, but the point is well made and well taken.

An aside on our irritating exceptionalism

(Not published as part of the original note.)

In addition to the wonderful ‘noisy, healthy nation’ point, Carlin takes a carefully balanced and nuanced shot at South Africans’s tendency to believe both that we are uniquely victimised by a history and that we were miraculously saved by rare and unusually heroic individuals.

I would much prefer you to read the whole of Carlin’s article as it appears on City Press’s website – here is a link – but for those who are unable to do this I am going to take the liberty of publishing the introductory paragraphs to the article – so that some of Carlin’s nuances are preserved:

A South African lawyer was in New York in the late 1980s to deliver a paper on apartheid’s crimes.

Before his turn came, he heard speakers from Latin America tell their tales of horror and realised, with a sinking feeling, that he could not compete.

The man from Argentina spoke about the torture and disappearance of 15 000 people, most of them grabbed from their homes.

The one from El Salvador spoke about the 30 000 killed by the state death squads at the rate of 1 000 a month.

Worst of all, the one from Guatemala shared similarly prolific rates of assassination, plus army units that routinely burnt entire villages to the ground.

Yes, in South Africa you had death squads killings, but not on an industrial scale.

Yes, when I arrived in South Africa in 1989 you had some 30 000 activists detained without charge.

But as I pointed out to the lawyer, in El Salvador those 30 000 would have been dead.

As for Nelson Mandela, the notion that his equivalent in Guatemala would have been tried in court and then spared the hangman’s noose was, in a grim sort of way, laughable.

I knew about these things. I had spent from 1979 to 1989 in South and Central America.

By contrast, South Africa’s political climate struck me as mild; the space for political expression, relatively free.

From the day I arrived in South Africa, I never came across a black person afraid to express his or her view.

I am not being frivolous about the suffering black South Africans endured under apartheid.

It was, as Mandela once said, “a moral genocide”, an attempt to systematically exterminate an entire people’s self-respect.

It was also a brazen affirmative action programme for white people, the inevitable downside of which was that those born with darker skins were condemned to lives deprived of economic opportunity.

It was uniquely evil. Well, almost.

In Guatemala, the 75% of the population who were of Mayan origin, were treated with at least equal contempt by the rich and powerful, who then dispatched battalions of Eugene de Kocks to terrorise them into submission.

I was struck in a similar way when I visit Serbia some time ago. This is what I said, also about South African ‘exeptionalism’, at the time (here for the original post)

It (the suffering in the region) started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” … 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 … (and you do – Ed.)

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.

At an earlier time I discussed our (equally irritating) ‘leadership exceptionalism’ (here for original post) where I said:

… this country has developed a habit, possibly a mythology, of what I term “leadership exceptionalism”. In short this refers to the belief, erroneous or otherwise, that South Africa has achieved an unlikely stability primarily through the exceptional quality of leaders throughout the society – including on both sides of the Apartheid fence and in the churches, trade unions and business.

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