FW de Klerk Memorial Lecture | Robin Renwick: South Africa is in need of another new beginning

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Nelson Mandela and FW pictured in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2004.
Nelson Mandela and FW pictured in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2004.
Touchline Photo/Getty Images

On Friday evening, the FW de Klerk Foundation held its inaugural memorial lecture. It was delivered by Lord Robin Renwick, who was the British ambassador to South Africa in the period leading up to Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Here is an edited extract from Lord Renwick's speech.


What are the respects in which South Africa, very obviously, is in need of another new beginning?

Clearly, things have not worked out as Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk had hoped. Mandela would be distraught at the fact that basic state education remains scarcely any better than it was in the era of "Bantu Education," with South Africa ranking among the very lowest numeracy and literacy rates in Africa. 

This is what should concern us all most of all, for there could be no more catastrophic failure than this. It is no use pretending to care deeply about the poor and the disadvantaged if they are denied the opportunity to be educated and thereby to develop skills that help them to live a normal life and get a job.

The reason for this abysmal performance is well known. The teachers’ union, aligned with the ruling party, will not permit any performance testing of the teachers, a vast number of whom do not have any skills and cannot be dismissed, even though an alarming number of them don't even bother to turn up for work. 

How can this be permitted to continue? Please ask any party standing in the next elections what they intend to do about it.

Unemployment worse than ever 

Mandela would be, and FW was no less, distressed at the fact that, nearly 30 years on, unemployment is worse than ever, approaching 40%. Being able to earn one's living is a vitally important element in human dignity. And mass unemployment is a mass breeding ground for crime. It leads, for instance, to the infrastructure theft that is contributing to the crippling of the economy. 

The ruling party's solution to this is to think of replacing the social grants on which, currently, the staggering number of 18 million people depend on a "basic income grant," which is liable to prove unaffordable and which, anyway, will not solve the problem. It can only be solved by creating employment, which much of the government does not understand how to do. In Britain, we have just managed, thank goodness, to get rid of a Prime Minister who also believed in fantasy economics to be replaced by someone who doesn't.

Self-inflicted fiasco

The most vivid demonstration of incompetence affecting virtually all South Africans has been the so–called "load shedding", i.e power cuts, crippling also the economy. This has been an entirely self–inflicted fiasco, as successive ANC energy ministers, including the present one, have fought tooth and nail against the only possible solution, which was to permit the private sector to make up the power deficit that the government couldn't. For many years, the miners and other private companies have been demanding the right to generate their own power and to sell any surplus to the grid.

Here at least, there are some reasons to be hopeful, as the government has had to give in to economic reality. The independent power producers will help to fill the power deficit, though not, probably, for several years. Meanwhile, Minister Gwede Mantashe is talking about creating a second state-run energy company. Even the world's best satirist, Zapiro, would find it hard to make this up.

READ | Eskom 2.0: Mantashe moving with speed on plan for new state-owned electricity utility

Despite the surge in commodity prices, mining output and the numbers employed in mining have been shrinking steadily in South Africa, due partly to declining grades, but just as much to the performance of the Department of Mineral Affairs. Those wanting to invest in mining in South Africa have experienced from them, especially under Zuma, such a combination of arrogance, incompetence and corruption that South Africa currently is rated in the bottom 10 of countries in the world in attractiveness for mining investment. 

The government's attempt to insist on re-empowerment when empowerment partners sold their shares was an additional disincentive to invest, now overturned by the courts. The delays in obtaining permits remain never-ending. Despite the country's massive mineral resources, South Africa currently is attracting less than 1% of world expenditure on exploration. Just as devastating is the fact that, due to the dire state of Transnet, there has been an alarming loss of export and tax revenues as mining companies cannot get a lot of their export production to or through the ports.

Where is the service delivery 

A host of ANC-governed municipalities have failed the most elementary requirements in terms of service delivery, while regions like the Eastern Cape have become bywords for the failure of basic services, including health. The fact that so many of these municipalities do not pay their electricity bills has compounded Eskom's problems.

Mandela was colour blind, and the "old ANC" or true ANC leaders I knew and admired were committed to non-racialism. Positive transformation depends on the accelerated training of hitherto disadvantaged South Africans to gain the necessary management skills. Today, the government, dissatisfied with its lack of control over the private sector, is about to mandate that employment must reflect the make-up of the population, thereby introducing racial quotas on an epic scale, irrespective of qualifications or competence, mirroring the disaster inflicted on Eskom by encouraging the departure of large numbers of competent engineers because they were the wrong colour. 

Given the draconian penalties for non-compliance (10% of a company's turnover), Dis-Chem is not going to be alone in calling a halt to the recruitment of white South Africans. The (possibly unintended) effect will be to reinforce the conviction of well-qualified young white professionals that they in future, are going to be disadvantaged, causing you to suffer a further loss of skills as they are sought after elsewhere. Meanwhile, Andre de Ruyter, a highly competent CEO appointed as head of Eskom to cope with the mess inherited from his predecessors, comes under attack inter alia as being too pale for such a task.

Foreign policy 

When Russia launched its imperialist invasion of Ukraine, which posed no conceivable threat to Moscow, International Relations minister Naledi Pandor condemned it, only to be disavowed by the Presidency in response to remonstrances from the Russian ambassador. Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine have met with no condemnation from your government, while at the UN, your spokesmen have been suggesting that the invasion was justified. Does South Africa really not object to the threatened use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

Your president shortly will be embarking on a State Visit to the United Kingdom, where there is a fund of goodwill towards this country and towards him personally, but not on this issue.

The South African economy is forecast to grow at less than 2% per annum over the next three years. The persistence of such low rates of growth renders it well nigh impossible to improve living standards overall. The determination to cling to state control makes sense only if you have a competent state that, except for the Reserve Bank and the National Treasury, does not exist in South Africa. 

No one who has been obliged to struggle with the rest of your bureaucracy will feel able to contest this. This problem of competence, or the lack of it, was compounded by the ANC doctrine of "deployment", ensuring that a vast number of people in the swollen bureaucracy, all the state agencies and the state-owned enterprises are unqualified or underqualified for the positions they hold. 

READ | IN-DEPTH:  Ukraine UN vote - ‘SA’s foreign policy suits autocrats and despots’ - expert

In the 2022 State of the Nation Address, the president said that "the task of government is to create the conditions that will enable the private sector - both big and small - to emerge, to grow, to access new markets, to create new products and to hire more employees". He also has declared (against the convictions of many in his own party) that "jobs are created by business, not government".

This has been tried before, and it worked. From 1994 to 2008, under Mandela and Mbeki, pro-growth policies were pursued, with the economy growing at around 4% and unemployment down to half the level it is now, only then to be abandoned and not yet really resumed since.

Current pessimism within South Africa could easily be overcome if the president actually felt able to do what he has said. But that would require a change of both people and policies. Appointments would need, for the first time, to be made on merit rather than to satisfy the various factions of the ruling party. If the President’s idea is to partner with business, it would be desirable to appoint Ministers who actually believe in doing so. 

Achieving more rapid economic growth also would depend on a change of policies. As with the National Party when FW became its leader, the ANC has within it many verligtes who genuinely want to change the direction of their country and return to the values of Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. But it also has within it just as many verkramptes, who want things to continue as they are or to align more with the Economic Freedom Fighters, who want to tear up the Constitution.

According to Julius Malema, on his return from holidaying on a yacht in Ibiza, they also believe that violence will be necessary to achieve transformation. Allying with or seeking to emulate them would render you uninvestable, thereby achieving for you a Venezuela-style outcome - without the oil.

The chances of any improvement will depend on overcoming the ANC's antipathy to the private sector and addiction to state-owned enterprises that have failed, which proved so easy for the Guptas to loot, and will go on failing unless private sector help is enlisted to save them. Normal businesses are subject to a more demanding discipline, which is that they go out of business if they do not perform. Since public and private sector partnerships have become the norm around the world, it is bizarre to find them untried in South Africa.

The addiction to failing SOEs is attributed to a supposed commitment to socialism. But the main reason is rather the patronage they confer on the state, and hence the ruling party. 

A classic example of this near-terminal decline is that of Transnet, which now is in as parlous a state as Eskom. Apart from increasing problems with the rail network, they have proved incapable of operating South Africa's ports to anything like international standards. The turnaround times for loading and unloading shipping are dismal as compared, for instance, with nearby Maputo, which, like many other African ports, is operated by DP World and Grindrod. South African exporters have been reduced to diverting huge volumes of traffic by road to Maputo. 

Offshore oil production 

So why not bail out Transnet by inviting commercial port operators to manage South African ports? And why not mandate the mining companies to take over the operation of the main coal and iron ore export lines, as they do in Australia. 

Such ideas, of course, will be just as fiercely resisted as independent power producers were, but will end up having to be agreed, as you are fast approaching just as desperate a state for Transnet as you have for Eskom. The state would continue to own the infrastructure, but this would represent the kind of state and private sector partnership that would help you to overcome economic stagnation. 

A glimmer of hope is now said to exist in the prospects for offshore oil exploration and production, which also has been delayed interminably by the Department of Energy, while Mozambique has forged ahead and Namibia has been trying to. A first offshore production licence is supposed to be close to being issued. How can it make sense for South Africa to continue, almost alone in doing so, in making it as difficult as possible for international oil and gas companies to help the country to benefit from its offshore oil and gas reserves, including the tax revenues that would result from doing so?

A further reason for hope has been the demonstration by your premier, Alan Winde, and his colleagues in the Western Cape that the dream of better government is not a mirage, but definitely achievable. It is not my opinion, but a fact attested by all the relevant audit reports that service delivery in the Democratic Alliance-controlled municipalities has been markedly better than in those controlled by others. The difference with the Eastern Cape is like night and day. 

We all know about the party's travails in working with black South African leaders. But whether or not people wish to vote for the DA in national elections, it is hard to argue against their success at other levels of government or against their achievements in working with, rather than against, the private sector. The results have been an impressive performance by the Western Cape economy and a new trek, this time in the opposite direction - back from the Transvaal to the Cape.

Decline of the ANC on the cards? 

The ANC will try by all possible means to avoid a coalition with the DA, and that may be mutual, but unless your government adopts genuinely pro-business policies more like theirs, you will never achieve a significant reduction in unemployment or growth in the average incomes of all South Africans, which cannot be attained by simply continuing with existing policies. 

It appears more likely than not that Cyril Ramaphosa will be re-elected as ANC president. Whenever he departs, that will accelerate the decline of the ANC. He is by nature a conciliator, though he had the courage to save you all from five more years of Jacob Zuma, when not many thought he could win. Many of his more hopeful supporters have been disappointed by his performance since, which keeps being explained as due to the fact that he is a prisoner of his party. But at last, he has asserted himself over independent power producers. Without him, his party would be risking an electoral fiasco. So let's hope that he will start asserting himself on other issues.

But your hopes of a better future also will depend on the reputable opposition parties uniting behind the need to defend the Constitution and cooperating more effectively nationally, not just locally, to offer a more credible alternative to never-ending rule by the same party, regardless of its performance.

The fragmented opposition parties have some important points in common in their critique of the status quo. They do not share the obsession with state control, and need to seek to form some sort of common front if they wish to avoid the ruling party, on losing its majority, simply seeking to co-opt a smaller party or two, without changing self-defeating policies. Ruling parties are only likely to reform themselves when threatened by a loss of power – or after it.

- Lord Renwick of Clifton KCMG and was British Ambassador to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released. He was a friend of both Mandela and FW de Klerk. 


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