This local agricultural economist was called on to advise the president twice – and he's only 29!

2020-01-31 17:28
Wandile Sihlobo (PHOTO: Instagram)

Wandile Sihlobo (PHOTO: Instagram)

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This local agricultural economist was called on to advise the president twice – and he's only 29!

Gabisile Ngcobo

Imagine it: your phone rings and when you pick it up you discover it’s a call from the highest office in the land. The president desperately needs your help, you’re told. He’s counting on you to advise him on issues that will have major consequences for all South Africans.

This has happened to Wandile Sihlobo not just once but twice. The young agricultural economist was included in the panel that was formed last year to advise the president on land reform and he obviously did a great job because when President Cyril Ramaphosa was assembling his new 18-member economic advisory council, Sihlobo got another call.

And little wonder even though he’s only 29, he’s already made a name for himself in his field. In addition to being chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), he’s well known for the columns he writes for national newspaper Business Day.

But never in a million years would he have imagined the president was among his thousands of readers. When Sihlobo met Ramaphosa for the first-time last year while serving on the land panel, he was amazed to discover the president had read some of his opinion pieces.

He describes Ramaphosa as warm and encouraging. “He has a positive outlook. He’s a great person.” But when Sihlobo and other members of the new economic advisory council recently assembled at Tuynhuys, the president’s office in Cape Town, for their first meeting, Ramaphosa warned them they had their work cut out for them “Poverty is rife, with nearly half the population considered chronically poor,” he said. “Unemployment remains stubbornly high.”

What’s more, business confidence had reached “historic lows”. Now it’s up to Sihlobo and the other members of the president’s economic dream team to come up with a plan.

Sihlobo doesn’t seem daunted by the scope of the task. He tells us at the moment he and other members of the highlevel team, which includes renowned economists, university professors and a former bank governor, are in the brainstorming phase. “More things will be crystallised as time goes on,” he says as he chats to us at his office at Agbiz in Pretoria. He talks about other members of the panel as though they’re celebrities.

“I never thought I’d be working in the same panel as Benno Ndulu [ former governor of the bank of Tanzania] – in fact, all of them,” says Sihlobo, who earlier this year was included in the Mail & Guardian’s list of Top 200 Young South Africans. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d be where he is today. He grew up with his mom and aunts in the Eastern Cape while his dad worked in a factory in Gauteng.

“Many people don’t know that I know how to herd cattle,” he says. But he had his heart set on becoming a chartered accountant, so he enrolled to study for a BCom at the University of Fort Hare. Yet within his first week he realised he’d made a mistake, so he switched to a BSc in economics and agricultural economics. “Economics was more interesting because you have politics. At that time

people were talking about global food prices, and I love storytelling,” he says. Wandile went on to do a Master of Science degree in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University – and found himself being courted with job offers before he’d even finished his thesis.

While studying he attended a conference where he found himself seated behind Grain SA CEO Jannie de Villiers. “I ended up talking to him and he gave me his business card,” Sihlobo recalls. Soon after their meeting he joined Grain SA as an economist. It was his job to keep an eye on the market and make forecasts. “There was a period when I was the only guy responsible for grain markets and that was at the time when we had droughts in 2015/2016. We were doing projections and many people depended on that information.” It was a difficult time for him because he was new and still finding his feet, he says.

 “I had a lot of sleepless nights because I was also finishing my thesis.” In 2016 he moved to Pretoria to take up his current post at Agbiz. He lives not far from his office and likes to jog after work to unwind. Most of his nights are spent reading and writing about issues related to his field. “If I don’t write, I’ll go crazy.” In between his demanding work and serving on presidential advisory panels, he’s also written a book about South Africa’s agricultural economy. “It helps when you’re single because you have a lot of time,” he says.

When he first started submitting his columns back in 2015, he found writing a struggle. “It took me three weeks to write my first 800-word piece and it included a lot of graphs.” Luckily before submitting it he showed it to fellow economist Xhanti Payi. “He was like, ‘You can’t send things like this!’,” Sihlobo says with a chuckle. “I now write them in less than 30 minutes.” He writes on a wide range of subjects relating to agriculture, including how to boost job creation and increase black participation in the sector.

Sihlobo thinks he might have been the first to sound the alarm on the 2015 drought that led to five out of nine provinces being declared agricultural disaster areas.

He’s also given his readers plenty of food for thought with his columns on land reform. In an essay published on news website Quartz in March last year, he argued that blanket land expropriation without compensation could send South Africa down the same road as Zimbabwe. Sihlobo says the mistake most South Africans make is to reduce the land reform question to the single issue of expropriation without compensation.

“It’s much broader and more complex and we’re not going to be able to solve it in the short term,” he says. In July, parliament voted in favour of establishing a multiparty committee to introduce legislation that will allow the constitution to be amended to allow for expropriation without compensation. This will probably be finalised in 2020.

Sihlobo says the cabinet is still reflecting on the report he and other members of the land reform panel submitted to Ramaphosa earlier this year to decide which ideas to implement. “The thing that’s occupying everyone’s mind is the question of how to create jobs and grow the economy while at the same time dealing with restorative justice,” he says.

If we are to move forward, all the stakeholders need to have a common vision, he adds. It’s all about coming to the table to look at what’s best for the future. “But I trust and have confidence in our leaders.” And with people like Sihlobo offering advice, it seems Ramaphosa and his team will be well equipped to do what needs to be done.

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