Ramaphosa's lions are hunting – but will they feed?

British Prime Minister Theresa May met with President Cyril Ramaphosa at 10 Downing Street. (Supplied, Presidency)
British Prime Minister Theresa May met with President Cyril Ramaphosa at 10 Downing Street. (Supplied, Presidency)

Terence Corrigan

One of the big items at the box office next year is certain to be the live action remake of Disney's The Lion King.

If it follows the original animated classic, the storyline will be predictable but uplifting: a benevolent ruler is overthrown, a bad one takes over; the young hero-heir is exiled, discovers his true self with a little help from his quirky allies, returns to the kingdom – by then reduced to penury – and deposes the tyrant. Cue the relief of a rain shower and the dawning of an era of peace and plenty. (Although, in the animated version at least, it is never made clear how the Pridelands recover from ruin and desolation to become the lush kingdom over which King Simba and Queen Nala come to reign.)  

It seems we may have stolen a march on that. The astute reader may be able see a symmetry between the Disney storyline and South African's recent history. (The even more astute reader might note the hyena motif common to both.)

Hoping to bridge the narrative gap between the climactic battle between Simba and Scar (Nasrec standing in for Pride Rock?), and the prosperity of the 'new dawn', President Cyril Ramaphosa announced this week that a team of envoys is to set out to attract investment to the country.

As the popular tagline has it, the lions will go out hunting.

Their task is an urgent one. South Africa's economic performance in recent years has been uninspiring, to say the least. Since 2008, real annual GDP growth has never exceeded 3.3% – and since 2014, it has failed to reach 2%. The South African Reserve Bank expects little improvement, with growth for 2018 predicted at some 1.7%.

This is radically short of the 5.4% envisaged by South Africa's National Development Plan (NDP), and even further from the 8% that the World Bank now calculates will be needed if the NDP's goals are to be achieved. All of this implies serious, real-world consequences for South Africa's people, not least those who are unemployed and poor.

Shifting these numbers will be fundamental to South Africa's future, not just its economic prosperity, but its prospects for social inclusion and cohesion.

Their task will also be a difficult one. Not only has South Africa failed to grow at the necessary rates, but a welcoming business environment is something that has eluded the country. Shifting, burdensome relations have long been a problem, and the depredations of the past few years have done great damage to our institutions.

As Dr Mark Mobius, then of Franklin Templeton Investments, commented a few years ago: "They've got to make South Africa a much more attractive place for investment… I'm not only talking about foreign investment. I'm talking about local investment."

While any number of government policies recognise just how important a conducive business environment is, action to achieve this has been far from stellar.

Government policy choices – something over which it exercises real and direct control – frequently pull in the other direction. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of this than government's intention to introduce a policy of expropriation without compensation. While phrased at this time in an idiom of land reform, this is a measure that will quite likely establish a precedent for intrusion into the property rights (and thus the assets) both of individuals and businesses.

Over the past decade, there have been well in excess of 20 distinct attempts to alter policy or legislation to grant the state a freer hand in relation to property. Foreign investors, for their part, have been concerned about the repeal of the country's bilateral investment treaties, and what this could imply for them.

Indeed, this is already a serious consideration for investors. Last month, it was reported that an investment roadshow under Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene to showcase South Africa abroad was dogged by concerns about this turn of policy.

It is also perhaps noteworthy that President Ramaphosa has not chosen as his envoys members of his executive, but rather distinguished figures from politics and business – such as the market-friendly former finance minister Trevor Manuel – to go on this hunt. (Well, Simba relied on Timon and Pumba…)

While few could dispute their suitability for this role, there remains the nagging question about just how committed the president's actual cabinet will be to the message they spread. It is likely to be an uncomfortable contradiction. (Those of us who saw Lion King 2 know that Simba had to get rid of some of the old guard upon taking office.)

All of this will make for a complicated and difficult safari for Ramaphosa's lions as they prowl the international Pridelands looking for investors. In a large, wide world, with many opportunities, the deficiencies and heady ideology at home may just mean – to channel Queen Sarabi – that "the herds have moved on".

- Terence Corrigan is a Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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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