Clem Sunter I The world and South Africa in the 2020s: The latest flags, scenarios and probabilities

What is in store for the human race in the 2020s? Clem Sunter gives us an idea. (iStock)
What is in store for the human race in the 2020s? Clem Sunter gives us an idea. (iStock)

There have always been two crossroads for South Africa to take the High Road in the long run. The first was political and successfully navigated towards the end of the last century. However, the second crossroads was economic and is where we stand right now having had almost 10 years of disappointing GDP growth and even a recession, writes Clem Sunter.

Just over 32 years ago in 1987, I published a book entitled The World and South Africa in the 1990s based on the research of a scenario team put together by my company, Anglo American.

Among the global trends captured were the ageing and relatively stagnant population of the rich old millions, living in the West and Japan, versus the dynamic population growth of the poor young billions living in the rest of the world.

Also foreseen was the transformation of the way we live and communicate by the development of new products in the field of microelectronics and computers. But the ace in the pack was the possibility of major changes to the status of the Soviet Union as a result of the financial hardship it faced if the arms race continued.

For South Africa, we played the "High Road" scenario where proper negotiations between the real leaders of the major parties would produce a political settlement that allowed the country to return to the world stage.

However, we made it clear that in the long run a thriving economy in which everyone participated was a precondition for the country to become a winning nation.

It was a fruitful exercise because, against all expectations, the Soviet Union disappeared as the 1990s began and South Africa did become a political democracy in 1994.

Meanwhile, the internet, mobile devices and latterly social media have upended our lives. The power of scenario planning was revealed as a wonderful way of imagining the unimaginable in advance of it actually happening.

Subsequently, a very different example confirmed the validity of the technique. The Mind of a Fox, a book published in June 2001 and written jointly by Chantell Ilbury and myself, contained a letter to George Bush in which we said that his greatest threat at the time was a massive terrorist strike on a Western city.

9/11 occurred three months later to the astonishment of America and the world at large, but came as no surprise to us. The signs were there but were not appreciated by the experts.

So here we are about to enter the 2020s. What are the flags and scenarios now that may dominate our existence in the next 10 years? Will the 20s roar like they did in the last century or will the outcome be different? I will start with the flags changing the global game as we speak.

The global flags

The most important flag to watch is the ongoing relationship between America and China. They have such different cultures and systems of government that it is unclear whether things are going to get better or worse.

The unrest in Hong Kong is an added complication. They are the world's two biggest economies by far and, while it will take a long time for China to match America's military prowess, its overall economy could overtake America's by the 2030s. China will still have a lower income per head but the power it exerts in world affairs will be strengthened immeasurably.

The second flag is the anti-establishment feeling sweeping the world aided and abetted by social media. Local uprisings against corruption and maladministration are featuring on all continents as is a rise in nationalism which runs counter to the forces of globalisation that reshaped the global economy in the last century. We could be moving back into a fragmented world.

The third flag is around the new Cold War between Russia and the West over the annexation of Crimea. There is also the unfinished business that America has with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal and Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Nuclear rivalry persists between India and Pakistan. Hence, a major war cannot be ruled out during the 2020s; but one has to say that communication between the world's leaders is so much better than it was at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in the last century. Errors of judgement should be rarer.

The fourth flag relates to the easy money policies in place since the financial crash in 2008. It has led to a resurgence in all forms of debt and the phenomenon of negative interest rates. Inflation has remained low so these policies have not been challenged by the markets. Is the Goldilocks strategy being pursued by central banks, of not being too hot or cold with the supply and cost of money, sustainable or will it end in tears?

The fifth flag is the one that can potentially be the most earth-shattering. Are we going to see the full impact of climate change with droughts, fires, floods and rising sea levels coming into play and suggesting that the planet will become uninhabitable much sooner than we anticipated? The importance of this flag is that it will require international cooperation on a scale that has never been seen before to bring it back down the flagpole. On the positive side, it can spark a huge wave of new products associated with clean energy, on a par with microelectronics and the internet revolution.

The global scenarios

My odds-on choice for the global horse race in the 2020s is the "Gilded Cage" scenario in which the rich old millions in the West continue to erect barricades against the poor young billions in order to stop illegal immigration. Global economic growth rates will remain subdued as the restraints placed on the free movement of goods and people bite into the supply chains of international and local businesses. Otherwise, the world remains a peaceful place but it will certainly not be a giddy repeat of the 1920s.

There are three outsiders in the race: "Besieged Planet" where the natural environment becomes such a catastrophe that nations have to overcome their differences to survive and emergency meetings at the UN become the norm; "Bloodbath" where we see another war around the ownership of nuclear weapons, which overshadows all the conflicts currently taking place; and "Forked Lightning" where we have another market crash because the world is filled with too much debt.

Keep the shock scenarios in mind as you assess the direction the flags are taking us in.

The South African flags

Now let's focus on South Africa in the 2020s. The first and second flags influencing the future are interrelated: the battle against corruption and the improvement in quality of infrastructure. The latter refers not only to state-owned enterprises and physical infrastructure like roads and ports, but also to national education and health. For a country to win, it needs a sound platform on which to launch its strategy of moving up the rankings in the Premier League of nations. China recognised this in 1978.

The third flag is around the effectiveness and integrity of the country's leadership along with the setting of an inspirational vision which puts all South Africans first and which can only be achieved through co-operation. I believe that Cyril Ramaphosa has started down the path of turning this flag green. Although the pace of reform is frustrating to some people, there is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new era.

The fourth flag is about building on the pockets of excellence that this country already possesses in so many different fields. It is about using them as examples for poorer performing institutions to escape mediocrity by raising their game too. We are not starting from scratch.

The fifth flag is the critical one. It is about encouraging entrepreneurship and small business development throughout this country because it is the only way of reducing the hideous unemployment rate and giving ordinary people genuine economic freedom. Collaboration between the formal and informal sectors of the economy will be required to make this happen.

The last flag is around land reform. The issue needs to be settled in a way that provides an equitable solution for all our citizens while maintaining the high level of productivity and quality of agricultural products for which South Africa is renowned. The possible effects of climate change must also be figured into the equation.

The South African scenarios

As I implied at the beginning of this article, there have always been two crossroads for South Africa to take the High Road in the long run. The first was political and successfully navigated towards the end of the last century. However, the second crossroads was economic and is where we stand right now having had almost 10 years of disappointing GDP growth and even a recession.

I am prepared to follow the instinct of my colleagues in the 1980s. Despite all the negative feelings at the time about the country's prospects locally and overseas, they maintained that the door was opening for the High Road to prevail. At present, the pessimists are back in fashion but as I mentioned earlier there is a new game in town and we are still the most sophisticated economy in Africa. Thus, I give a return to the High Road trajectory, with all the flags I talked about turning green, a heads-up with a probability of 80%.

Nevertheless, that leaves a 20% probability for South Africa descending down the "Low Road" to a Waste Land- a future which nobody in his or her right mind desires in a world that is getting tougher by the day.

Let me finish by posing a question: if we can win the Rugby World Cup three times, surely it is not asking too much of this country to take the High Road twice when its future is on the line? When push comes to shove, ordinary South Africans can do extraordinary things!

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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