It is time to make good on your mandate and act decisively, Mr President


Dear President Ramaphosa,

This is not a letter about what you should say in your state of the nation address.

It is a letter about transformational leadership, making history and generating opportunities.

Mr President, your country is crying out for transformational political leadership.

While I have no special insight into the internal dynamics of your party, I am aware that there are individuals and factions who oppose you, and who may even seek to remove you at the end of your first term.

Beyond these acute threats, I am also aware that – like all politicians everywhere – you have a number of constituencies to manage, including the tripartite alliance and the unwieldy and fractious broad church making up the members of your party.

Despite these challenges, I would ask you to consider this fact: Fortune favours the brave.

I disagree with all those warning you to tread carefully, lest you be deposed.

No, Mr President. Forge ahead; it is your enemies who must tread carefully.

You will never have more political capital than you do today, in the first year of your term in office.

You won an election mandate last year in spite of your party, not because of it.

You are in charge. Tough decisions have been deferred for too long. You will not be able to govern by consensus.

If I may be so audacious as to give you some advice: I suspect – although I’ll be ecstatic if you prove me wrong – that you do not yet have a grand vision to announce this week.

You have been too busy firefighting Eskom and SAA over the past few months.

Take one last kick of the ball into touch.

Here’s how: August marks the eighth anniversary of the launch of the National Development Plan.

Promise the nation that you will unveil Vision 2030 2.0 as the country’s new grand vision.

Tell us that a slimmer, more practical document is being prepared that will give clear marching orders to all government officials and stakeholders.

Tell us that it will form the basis for coordination between ministers and government departments, and measure their performance.

The work of SOEs should focus on making the economy competitive and supporting transformation.

The stated aspirations of our new grand strategy – to achieve rapid growth and inclusive, sustainable development within 10 years – should fit on one or two pages, and should be easily understood by all, be they eight or 80 years old.

Business needs to make concessions. With so much inequality, the most privileged among us must sacrifice first.

Wage restraint, employee representation on boards and increased black ownership targets should be on the table. More proposals should be solicited.

Labour needs to make concessions.

Union leaders must start engaging on the need to improve and sustain productivity, and make concessions on both the frequency of strike activity and on wage demands if employees benefit from an extended employee share ownership plan.

Increase the pay for experienced teachers and principals, and you will see stronger performance and consequence management.

Government needs to make concessions.

It was great to hear Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe tell those attending last week’s Mining Indaba that companies would be able to generate their own electricity, with minimal red tape.

State-owned enterprises (SOEs) should be opened up to competition, as Treasury’s draft strategy proposes.

Close SOEs that can be better run by the private sector. Empower managers to right-size these businesses.

The days of SOEs as job reservation schemes are over. It is foolish to make the economy uncompetitive merely to save a few companies.

The work of SOEs should focus on making the economy competitive and supporting transformation.

Create a national fund to retrain retrenched workers and pay them a stipend while they study, or give them grants to start businesses.

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Is that R100 billion Unemployment Insurance Fund surplus still there? Return it directly to workers to provide relief and some economic stimulus.

Government must commit to moving at the speed that society needs, instead of suffocating our economy with years of the same regulatory processes.

Increase the country’s telecommunications spectrum this year. If anyone lags at this, their heads should roll.

The National Prosecuting Authority should act against low-hanging fruit, such as those fingered for malfeasance at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.

Above all, the new national development strategy should commit to two things: being world class in a number of areas, and some moonshot goals.

When it comes to excellence in a sector, South Africa should be associated as the go-to place.

The country was once the go-to place for mining. It should be again.

And tourism? You’ve set a target of 21 million visitors by 2030. Let’s get there earlier.

Let’s address the costs that these visitors have to fork out to get here, along with the proper marketing of South Africa.

We also need to tackle crime and how it affects people’s perceptions of our country.

Fund the home affairs department properly. Think like a business.

When international travellers arrive at OR Tambo airport and find few immigration counters open because of the department’s meagre staff budget, how many billions does the country lose when these same travellers return to their countries and bemoan their experience of transiting through South Africa, yet rave about Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Singapore?

Fast-track the overhaul of ports of entry. Beitbridge is the biggest gateway to the Southern African Development Community; establish an efficient, one-stop border post at Beitbridge that is pleasant for travellers and truckers alike, and that serves as a model for the rest of Africa.

Finally, moonshot goals: 6% growth in South Africa by 2025; 80% of our kids being adept at reading for meaning within five years; 100 000 township kids being trained in app development and software coding in three years (like École 42, a teacherless coding school in Paris with no qualification requirements).

Let’s build a single, fast metro – combining the Gautrain and Metrorail – that links Gauteng with affordable housing at key nodes as part of an integrated, mixed-use development plan.

Let’s build waterfront canals in Durban to rival Dubai and Miami.

Let’s form public-private partnerships to establish world-class competence in solar plant production (with storage) and electric vehicle battery manufacturing within five years.

Let’s convince Elon Musk to build a Gigafactory SA.

Mr. President, consider the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke, who argued for a trustee model, whereby your constituency accepts that it has elected you for your knowledge, experience and judgement.

As a leader, consider the mandate you have been given and all points of view – and then, crucially, make decisions you believe to be in the public interest.

Set us on a path to rapid inclusive development, and no conference will depose you. You will be remembered alongside Madiba, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and China’s Deng Xiaoping – enlightened nation-builders all, who chose the opportunity to change the course of history over any small, mundane calculus of political survival.

  • Isaacs is a political economist and the managing director of Zehuti Advisory

Follow him on Twitter @mandlalisaacs

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