Guest Column

John Steenhuisen: We need fewer wishbones and more backbones

2019-11-10 06:00
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

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I have no doubt President Cyril Ramaphosa knows what needs to be done in order to rein in our spending, curb our massive debt and bring back investment. But the fact that he can't do any of it is worrying, writes John Steenhuisen.

Ronald Reagan, a man known for his ability to wrap insights in memorable one-liners, once quipped: "Many a man has failed because he had his wishbone where his backbone should have been." That's something we know all about here in South Africa.

If our economy – and indeed our country – could be built on wishes and intentions alone, we'd be unstoppable. If we could lay all the promises of imminent investment, of imminent jobs and of imminent arrests end-to-end, they'd circle the globe. But when it comes to turning those promises into reality we are always left wanting.

The reason for this is that it's hard, and particularly in an organisation like the ANC that has been built around patronage and quid pro quo arrangements. There are simply too many people and groups that need to be constantly pleased and placated, and more often than not what they want is the polar opposite of what our country needs.

The reality is, one has to choose between the narrow interests of the few and the broad interests of the country. There is no version that satisfies both. And this requires a president who can serve his country before his party, even when it is hard. Someone who can stand up to the very people and alliance partners who helped put him in his job. Someone who can say "no" when he has to. A president with a firm backbone.

Take the Treasury document on growth and reform released by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni a few months ago. In its original guise it was a breath of fresh air. While far from a comprehensive plan for economic reform, it contained enough interventions to make people across the spectrum sit up and pay attention. For the first time in years this government had produced a collection of ideas around the economy that earned praise from friend and foe alike. If implemented, the plan would have stemmed some of the bleeding and nudged us back in the right direction.

But that didn't last, of course. By the time the unionists and the communists were done with it, the plan was a pale imitation of itself. The biggest of these backtracks was Mboweni's retreat on the proposal to sell off Eskom's coal power stations in order to try and stabilise the state utility's gargantuan debt. It was an excellent idea, which is why it was immediately shot down by the powerful unions. This is where the finance minister needed his president to step in and defend the proposal – to show some fortitude in the face of this anti-growth hostility. But there was nothing, and so Mboweni was beaten into retreat.

It now remains to be seen whether other areas of Mboweni's plan will suffer the same fate when challenged by the unions. One of these is his proposal to end the extension of collective bargaining agreements to parties that weren't part of the bargaining process – something the DA has been advocating for years. Again, this is set to put him on a collision course with the unions, and again he will need the support of his president. Will this happen? Not likely, if his track record is anything to go by.

I have no doubt President Cyril Ramaphosa knows what needs to be done in order to rein in our spending, curb our massive debt and bring back investment. But the fact that he can't do any of it is worrying. He has just been wooing investors at the Second South Africa Investment Conference in Sandton, telling them how South Africa is open for business and alive with possibilities. But without meaningful reforms, all of that is just the stuff of wishbones.

He knows we need to dramatically cut our public sector wage bill, and along with this we need to trim the bloated Eskom workforce. But will he risk the wrath of the public sector unions and make these cuts? Not likely.

He knows that one of the biggest drivers of our high youth unemployment is the woeful state of our basic education, and that the blame for much of this can be laid squarely at the feet of Sadtu. Will he then clip their wings in order to ensure accountability and higher standards in our classrooms? Not likely. Instead we will be sold fantasies about coding classes and tablets and high tech classrooms.

He knows that the reason for our weak and inefficient state, including our hollowed-out state-owned companies, is the ANC's practice of cadre deployment where people are rewarded with positions purely based on loyalty. But will he put an end to this and prioritise the building of a capable state? Not likely. One only has to look at the makeup of his latest investment envoy – Jeff Radebe, Derek Hanekom and Elizabeth Thabethe – along with his new head of investment infrastructure, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, to see this cadre recycling project in all its glory.

And now there is yet another decision awaiting the president which could have massive ramifications for our export market to the USA. Lying on his desk, waiting to be signed into law, is the flawed Copyright Amendment Bill. In its current form it offers very little protection to intellectual property rights and, as such, has placed our participation in the United States' Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) at risk. Should we lose access to this preferential trade scheme because of an inability to protect copyright, we stand to lose in excess of R12bn in exports and potentially thousands of jobs.

President Ramaphosa knows this risk. He has been informed that the USA is reviewing its agreement with us because of this bill, and yet it has sat on his desk for over six months. It is critical that the bill is sent back to Parliament so that it can be fixed in order to save our trade agreement with the USA. Will he do this? Frankly, I'm not convinced he will.

It's great that we have these investment conferences. It's great that our president talks a good game about attracting new direct foreign investment, and sets off on roadshows where he hopes to sell South Africa as a profitable and safe place to do business. But none of that means a thing if he cannot swap out his wishbone for a backbone and make the tough calls on the crucial reforms.

- John Steenhuisen is leader of the opposition in Parliament and parliamentary leader of the DA.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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