Skilled at saying nothing

2014-08-01 00:00

PRESENTATIONS by government officials on the economy, be they provincial or national, have become boring.

These talks hardly ever shoot the lights out in terms of information value anyway, and often, one needs to have a real interest in economics and/or statistics to draw some value out of them. The last one I attended was addressed by KZN’s Agriculture and Rural Development MEC Cyril Xaba.

These speeches are important. They tell us what direction the government is taking on its spending plans, they alert business to new opportunities and inform the public about whether their taxes are being spent wisely. They inform us about our economy, compared with other countries.

In an ideal world, these talks should inspire us. However, these kinds of presentations have become especially dull lately. This is because, one after the other, speakers end up deferring to the National Development Plan (NDP) or the grand infrastructure plan (R4 trillion to be spent over 15 years).

It is not difficult to understand why.

It is an easy way to toe the government policy and party line in public, there is little risk of screaming headlines the next day, and let’s face it, the speaker doesn’t have to do too much thinking about what’s been said countless times before.

Sure — as we are reminded often enough — the NDP means that for the first time, the government does have a plan of action when it comes to the economy, which stretches 30 years ahead.

And the infrastructure programme is under way, even though it has mostly not yet translated into bricks and mortar, barring at Eskom, where the new power stations were conceived a long time before the infrastructure programme.

KwaZulu-Natal will be a major beneficiary — consider that the Durban dig-out port and aerotropolis at King Shaka Airport will be part of the programme.

But the public needs more than just to be reminded of great plans.

The government is doing a rotten job of informing us about the progress of the infrastructure programme. In fact, the probable reason why various government officials have to keep reverting back to the “plans” is because they have no idea of the progress being made either.

Even worse is that it is becoming all too apparent that the circumstances that initially drove these plans have, and are still, changing. Lower economic growth, funding availability and conflicting spending priorities mean that while some projects may go ahead, others may not, while others may need to be staggered until growth picks up again.

The government’s urban transport infrastructure plan is a case in point here.

In Pietermaritzburg, the plan, originally proposed for the big metropolitan areas in the country, will mean an additional 150 to 200 buses operating through the city.

After driving through a relatively empty Church Street at 5.15 pm last week, I had to wonder if these buses are even necessary in the city. Maybe in five years’ time they will be.

And while the taxi industry can survive a new major bus service in a big metro, the jury is out whether they will survive in a smaller city like Pietermaritzburg. Little wonder that some taxi operators are concerned. But this is all speculation until the government opens up on this.

In the meantime, government officials have to propagate great “plans”, like oasis’ on the horizon in the desert, that may or may not turn out to be real.

These plans have a big impact on the business environment. For instance, rapid bus services will have an impact on countless small traders and businesses that operate in taxi ranks, and Eskom’s new generating capacity will alleviate a power shortage that is strangling private-sector development all over the country.

The government keeps pleading for greater participation by the private sector to help develop the economy. But no investors are going to put any money down unless they know exactly what is going on.

A good place for the government to start with a programme of better communication would be through the so-called Presidential Infrastructural Co-ordinating Committee (PICC).

As an avid reader of the financial press, I have yet to read one utterance by anyone from this committee, which is chaired by President Jacob Zuma himself, barring the announcement of its formation in 2012.

Perhaps, like many government activities, its activities are secret, and we will all wake up one morning to a newly built, glorious dig-out port, and an amazing aerotropolis, and people will form processions and wear flowered garlands along the road to the port to welcome all the new changes.

Yeah right!

• Edward West is the business editor at The Witness.

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