Sunday Times

In low gear, navigating another mountain pass


Does hubris kill? I ask because I’ve been watching my old friend comeuppanc­e at work and it is a beast. An example: you draw up a chicken “Master Plan”, get patted on the back by the president and all and sundry and you put the squeeze on imports because, you know, they’re destroying jobs here and all that. Then suddenly there’s an avian flu outbreak in Gauteng and farms are quarantine­d and there’s a real threat to the supply of chicken.

This just happened, by the way, at a farm near Ekurhuleni. Or you play God and throw away a million doses of a viable Covid vaccine and then announce that, not to worry, you have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and it’s only one shot and fantastica­lly effective even in young people not vulnerable to the coronaviru­s and by the way do register for your injection but so sorry we have to pause all of this because six people in the US have possibly developed blood clots because of it.

You get away with it because you don’t have any vaccines in the country anyway and you haven’t made any promises you can’t break without blaming capitalist greed or vaccine apartheid. But it’s comeuppanc­e nonetheles­s, even though you’ve been enjoying pretending we’re in the middle of a rollout because it makes you feel good. And then you lose a major hospital to fire.

The internal politics of the ANC aside (because they are going his way), at almost every level Cyril Ramaphosa’s government is failing. In local government it is beyond question. And the provincial and national spheres are quite unable to appreciate our relentless descent. It is due almost entirely to the private and informal sectors, and the good nature of the vast majority of its people, that SA still gets things done.

The government can barely make a decision. Does it hide under the table, where the

Road Accident Fund and the SA

Post Office are now officially bankrupt, or stick its head in the clouds, where Port St Johns is to become a new model port city?

At energy, minister Gwede

Mantashe inexplicab­ly caps at just 10MW the amount of electricit­y the private sector is allowed to generate by itself and is under no pressure, in the middle of a monumental energy crisis, to explain why.

At public enterprise­s, the director-general is allowed to launch an attack on “white”

SAA pilots for them defending their contractua­l rights just as public service unions are defending their right to be paid an increase agreed with the state. At the South African Police Service the guy in charge cannot bring himself to hand over documents that might implicate him in a crime.

There is now an actual discussion in the government about whether to disband the department of public enterprise­s. Reports say the president is thinking about returning stateowned companies to their core department­s. The department of transport would resume control over SAA, the railways, pipelines and the ports. Defence would run Denel. Minerals & energy would run Eskom.

None of it bears even imagining, let alone considerin­g. Would it actually be possible to make a bigger mess of SAA or of, say, our ports and of Eskom? I’m afraid, believe it or not, the answer may be “yes it is”.

It won’t happen because it is so obviously insane. But it is helpful because the worst thing not happening gives us an idea of what, consciousl­y or not, Ramaphosa is doing. He is managing our decline, rather like that expensive feature in SUVs that retards the vehicle on a steep downhill. There will be times when it’s rather welcome. That may be where we are now. He can’t stop our decline, not with the cabinet he has appointed and the economic policy choices he has made. We cannot import-substitute our way into growth and jobs. It won’t work now and it never has.

He could, in considerin­g these struggling SOEs, decide that the state should step out of all of them — give their unions a 25% stake, auction the rest to private capital and leave the state with a Golden Share to allow it to veto large acquisitio­ns by foreign buyers. For the sake of transparen­cy, they list in a special category on the JSE.

This won’t happen because there’s no political room for that discussion. That’s nothing new. SA has never been the master of its own destiny. We don’t have an internal market big enough to manufactur­e our way back to solid ground. “You have to embrace the connectedn­ess of everything,” a wise man tells me “otherwise you’re just delaying the inevitable”. And sadly, our politics don’t allow for the creation of a sober consensus about what economic arrangemen­ts we might make to incentivis­e wealth creation while caring for a greater number of our people.

Ramaphosa is managing our decline, rather like that SUV feature that retards the vehicle on a steep downhill

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