South Africans are fond of debating whether public or private sector failings are the bigger problem. It does not take too long to realise that they are really talking about race.
This is evident as the country faces an unusual scandal – one involving a private company called Steinhoff. The multinational furniture company is in trouble after German investigators began looking into it, for allegedly doctoring financial information to mislead the markets.
This was not the first time fingers were pointed at a private company. Auditors KPMG have been accused of unethical practice on behalf of the Gupta family who are linked to President Jacob Zuma and are accused of using money to influence government appointments and policies. Media conglomerate Naspers is also facing corruption accusations. Its subsidiary MultiChoice is accused of paying large sums to the formerly Gupta-owned television channel ANN7 in the hope of influencing government decisions.
But Steinhoff stands out because it does most to shake the confidence of one side of the argument and to get the other claiming it is vindicated. For much of the past few years, corruption has been seen almost exclusively as a public sector problem. Attention has focused on Zuma and his relationship with the Guptas. The private sector (Gupta-owned firms excepted) has, by default, been painted as a corruption-free zone.
The KPMG and Naspers cases may involve prominent private firms, but are seen by the national debate as yet another sign of the Guptas’ baleful influence. The villains remain the same and so does the problem: public sector corruption.
Steinhoff is a different matter entirely. The state plays no role at all and the company is a pillar of the private economy. Its leadership is overwhelmingly white and its attitude to the post-apartheid government seems to range from indifference to scepticism.
No wonder that its failings have been gleefully seized upon by people who insist that private sector corruption is as big a problem as its public equivalent. Or that many of the people who usually insist that public corruption is the problem have reacted to Steinhoff with shock.
On the surface, this sounds like the standard debate in most democracies over the past few decades in which one side favours letting business do as it pleases and the other wants it to be reined in by the state. But, in a country in which whites remain dominant in private business while blacks largely control the government, it is really about the country’s racial divides.
Colour of merit
Apartheid was underpinned by strong beliefs in white superiority – these don’t simply melt away because political rules change. People are used to seeing one racial group in skilled jobs, giving orders to the other: inevitably, this becomes seen as natural and so being white is associated with merit, being black with lacking it.
Since 1994, when policies promoting black advancement in business and the professions were adopted, this is often expressed in the view that black people in senior positions are there because they were given a free pass by the system, not because they deserve it.
This way of thinking also shapes attitudes to government and business. For those used to the racial pecking order of the past, government is run by people who hold posts because they are black, not because they are competent. Business continues to be run mainly by people who were judged to be competent in the past and who are therefore assumed now to be honest and to know what they are doing. Calls to assign more government functions to businesses or business people are often a way of saying that white people or black people approved by them should be running the country.
This attitude is particularly evident in how people in the suburbs react to private monopolies or dominant corporations.
Government departments are almost always associated with waiting in long lines for surly officials who have no idea what they are doing. In most cases, this is a caricature; in some, the Department of Home Affairs passport office for example, it is flat wrong. But similar long waits, indifference to customers and incompetence at the dominant digital television corporation or one of the mobile phone companies is accepted cheerfully as normal business practice.
Delighted black voices
Black people are perfectly well aware of these attitudes. This is why those who insist that the private sector is as bad if not worse than its public equivalent are almost always black. And why many black voices are delighted at what has happened at Steinhoff because it shows that a pillar of white business can behave at least as badly as black government.
It also explains why many white people have reacted to Steinhoff with such shock – and why Steinhoff happened in the first place.
The editor of the country’s leading business daily, Tim Cohen, has pointed out that Steinhoff’s failings should not have been a surprise since several market analysts warned a while ago that something was amiss and were ignored. He offered some explanations but, given the realities described here, the most likely answer is that no-one believed the specialist nay-sayers because they assumed that a major white-owned company must know what it is doing and that the critics must have an axe to grind.
Cohen also ran into trouble on social media for suggesting that reduced capacity at state regulators allowed Steinhoff to happen. Predictably, black people felt (wrongly in his view) that they were being blamed for white business failings.
There is another explanation for the regulators’ inaction. It is that they were not eager to look into a large white-owned company because they feared that this would be seen as yet another case in which incompetent black people wanted to bully competent whites. It is standard in the South African debate that any attempt by government, however mild, to intervene in business is branded a threat to the market economy so it would hardly be surprising if regulators feared this.
Correcting wrong perceptions
The Steinhoff scandal would do South Africa a huge service if it made the point that corruption and mismanagement have nothing to do with race. It would also help if it alerted everyone in the marketplace to watch as carefully over private companies as they do over government departments.
But, given how entrenched racial attitudes are, it is more likely that it will be dismissed as a once-off freak by those who assume that white led business is always competent and as further evidence of white prejudice by black people reacting to the label often stuck to them. If that happens, some private businesses will continue to get away with behaviour which would never be tolerated in government.
Wittingly or unwittingly, South Africa’s Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s medium term budget policy statement places him – and champions of the market economy inside and outside the African National Congress – in a strong position and opens the way for real economic change. Whether the opportunity is taken is, of course, another matter.
Gigaba revealed that the government’s revenue shortfall is two thirds higher than expected, spending is growing, as is the deficit which will not, as promised, stabilise next financial year. And growth projections are down from a poor 1.3% to a negligible 0.7%.
The minister announced no new measures which are likely to turn the situation around and another set of ratings agency downgrades seem inevitable. This is partly because the agencies take their cue from domestic economists and business people, all of whom see a downgrade as inevitable. The only rational response is surely that the economy is in a downward spiral and that the minister cannot or will not do anything about it.
Perhaps. But there is another way of looking at the speech which sees many of these negatives as potential economic game changers.
One reason for seeing an opportunity for change is that the speech provides more than enough grounds to begin two of the tasks which must be confronted if the economy is to turn around in a sustainable way. It provides a powerful lever for everyone who wants to resist patronage projects. And the scale of the problem does send a signal to all economic actors that a sense of crisis – the acknowledgement that the economy must change course if it’s to grow and include more people – is needed and that negotiations to change the economy are essential.
Gigaba’s speech made it clear that the argument that money is simply not available is now an understatement. One casualty might be the nuclear power project on which President Jacob Zuma and his faction seem to have set their hearts. There have been suggestions that Zuma’s primary objective in his most recent cabinet reshuffle was to insert a loyal person into the energy portfolio so that he could make the nuclear deal happen.
Gigaba is now signalling that there is no money for the project and so the reshuffle’s purpose may have been undone.
And the argument for structural change, not mere tweaking, is much stronger now than before the speech. The harsh realities he explicitly set out mean that any finance minister who wanted to shut the door on patronage, begin cleaning up state owned enterprises and kick-starting talks with other key players, such as the private sector, is in a very powerful position. This could open the way for bargaining between all the economic interests on how to grow the economy and open it up to those who are excluded.
It does not mean that Gigaba will take the opportunity. The fact that he kicked the can of change down the road during his speech, proposing no new plans for change – and that he has already granted South African Airways a bailout – seem to show that his apparent desire to please everyone leaves him ill-equipped to take any of the steps suggested here.
But, if we assume – as many people who observe him do – that Gigaba’s chief goal is to advance his political career, the numbers he quoted today suggest that he is unlikely to do that unless he can show that he did something to change the realities he described. It’s possible that the minister knows that these realities won’t change unless he takes some decisive steps.
Stage set for trade-offs?
The speech offers no solutions but it can hardly be accused of ignoring or concealing the problem. On the contrary, Gigaba made a great deal of his refusal to “sugar coat” the problem. Insisting that South Africans must know how bad it is, he added that citizens needed to understand the “challenges” because only then
(will) we … know what to do … as well as what trade-offs must be made in the public interest.
That sounds very much like an attempt to set the stage for some unpopular decisions and for engaging with key economic actors on what trade offs should be made. Clearly, a minister who hopes to please as many people as possible is not going to initiate major changes without very solid backing – the speech may well have been an attempt to get that backing.
So Gigaba could be trying to set the stage for a process in which the awful state of the economy enables him to gain support from key economic actors to introduce the “trades off” he promised.
Of course, the minister may have no plans to use his leverage in this way. But, if so, the speech may have provided an important lever to those who would want him to do so. It clearly was an invitation to private economic interests to engage.
If businesses take Gigaba up on the offer, they may well find themselves in a more powerful position than they imagined, given the state of public finances and of the economy. They certainly have economic reality on their side and, since the minister is not zealously attached to either of the African National Congress factions, he may well be inclined to support them if the alternative seems likely to promise his political ruin.
The speech showed that the economy is in crisis – it needs to change direction if it’s to serve the country’s needs. Whatever the minister decides to do, its effect will depend on how those in society who have an interest in that change choose to react. The stakes are clearly too high for them to fold their hands and wait for the minister to act.
State owned enterprises are vital to many economies, but are particularly vital to those seeking economic development.
This is true in South Africa too. Which makes it odd that the South African government – and much of the policy debate – never sees any value in trying to work out what role they should play in growth and development.
Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s interest in selling off government shares in telecommunications group Telkom, to bail out South African Airways is the latest example of a trend in which state owned enterprises are seen as useful pawns in government plans but not as national assets whose use should be thought through carefully.
The importance of South African state owned enterprises was spelled out in a 2015 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development policy brief. It estimated that their revenues correspond to 8.7% of the country’s gross domestic product. They also, it found, play a vital role in providing services:
The population’s access to water, electricity, sanitation and transportation is almost entirely dependent on the state, operating through corporate vehicles. They are concentrated in strategic sectors – infrastructure, transport, energy and water – and are “among the main sources of employment” in cities.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development might also have mentioned that State owned enterprises are also a key source of racial change. According to the 2016/17 report of the Commission for Employment Equity, black people occupy just under 75% of top management jobs in state owned enterprises – black Africans 57%. In the private sector, the figure is 24.5 % - only 10.8% are black African.
Given this, one might expect that the government would make it a priority to work out what the most appropriate role for parastatals is in the economy’s development. But it isn’t a priority – nor has it ever been.
Rule of short termism
State owned enterprises have been seen as a route to private investment, enrichment for the connected or a site for political battles but never as a key element in the development mix.
In fairness, private interests have shown no great interest in debating the role of state owned enterprises either. They have preferred taking sweeping positions for or against privatisation. But, given state owned enterprise’s role in governance, government should take the lead in thinking through what State owned enterprises should do.
The reality is different. Gigaba’s interest in selling off government holdings in state owned enterprises has much more to do with pressures for patronage than placing privatisation back on the agenda some 15 years after president Thabo Mbeki was forced to ditch it. It would be a strange turn if appeasing demands for public money revives a market friendly option which Mbeki had to abandon. And it certainly would not suggest a government committed to finding a development role for state owned enterprises.
It seems that the Mbeki government wanted to sell off shares in state owned enterprises not because it had a considered view that this would achieve the goals parastatals were designed to serve. The motive, rather, seemed to be to enhance private investor confidence and state revenues. Many might support these goals. But neither has to do with a long-term view on the contribution these enterprises could make to the economy.
A balancing act
Nor has Gigaba revived privatisation because he and his advisors have thought through the role for state owned enterprises which his predecessors ignored. He is, rather, trying to balance the two pressures he has faced since he became minister earlier this year.
On the one hand, he does not want to become the latest finance minister to face pressure for not giving a state owned enterprise what it needs. On the other, he does not want to preside over a second round of rating downgrades because he spent money the government did not have. The only way to square the circle is to sell off shares in one state owned enterprise (Telkom) to pay for the bailout in another, South African Airways. The government’s stake in Telkom is over 39%.
It’s hard to see how this strategy is sustainable. The South African Airways bailout request will not be the last. And it’s clearly not workable to keep on selling off national assets whenever state owned enterprises want cash injections. Nor is this likely to protect the minister from political flak. There is sure to be principled opposition to the strategy and patronage politicians will also notice that the prospective piggy bank is being sold off and will rebel.
But even if Gigaba does manage to bring off the trick, it’s obvious that this move has everything to do with balancing political pressures and nothing to do with a development strategy.
Between Mbeki’s strategic retreat and Gigaba’s strategic balancing act, state owned enterprises have not been quiet backwaters. They have been, and still are, key battlegrounds in the war between the ruling party factions as officials and politicians in its patronage group try to turn them into vehicles for making deals and accumulating goodies while their opponents try to stop them.
Lately, this battle has been played out in parliament – first over the South African Broadcasting Corporation, now over state owned power utility Eskom. South African Airways has been a battleground throughout and other state owned enterprises have been quieter sites of conflict.
Economy pays the price
This trench warfare, in which both factions seeking control of the ANC make gains after pitched battles but neither ever wins the war, may shape the future of the ANC and government’s role in the economy. But again, the issue here is a political fight for power, not considered positions on the role of state owned enterprises.
The economy pays an obvious price for this failure to care about their development role – missed opportunities for growth and the exclusion of many who go without wages and salaries. But, given the factionalised nature of politics, which is likely to continue, it is unrealistic to expect serious thinking from the politicians on the role that state owned enterprises can play in growth and inclusion.
This makes it urgent that private interests take this issue much more seriously, replacing the stereotyped debate with considered proposals for change. State owned enterprises are too important to be relegated to pieces on a chessboard. But nothing is likely to change until everyone with an interest in the economy’s future develops ideas on how state owned enterprises fit in and presses politicians to take notice.
Making economies work for more people is a political task, not a technical exercise. The World Bank has just conceded this – without meaning to do so.
In theory, they are right. In practice, the bank may be recognising that the politics which shape it made it impossible for it to achieve the development which it promised for the poor.
The change was outlined in an April speech by bank President Jim Yong Kim, and is discussed in a recent document spelling out the bank’s vision for 2030. It’s meant to change it from a lender for development into a broker which will unlock “trillions” of dollars in private investment. It will seek to help countries by advising them on the policy and governance changes they need to make to attract the money. So the Bank will become a conduit for private investment, not public development funding.
The Bank does not say it is giving up on public funding. But its document declares that:
Only where market solutions are not possible … would official and public resources be applied.
So public development funding will be used only where it cannot attract private investors to poorer countries. Since Kim insists it can unlock “trillions” of dollars which can transform developing countries, it seems unlikely to reach for public funding in a hurry. So it seeks now to act as a broker for private investment, not public development.
Increased poverty and conflict
The bank’s critics point out that private funding wants returns, not less poverty. They warn that relying on it for development will increase poverty and conflict. Ironically, they are repeating criticism that Kim made when he was a development practitioner – that development was being shaped by the agendas of private funders.
In principle, the shift does abdicate the World Bank’s mandate. It was a product of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference where its architects, John Maynard Keynes, Henry Morgenthau and Harry Dexter White, all saw an important public sector role in correcting some of the market’s impact. The bank was an instrument of that public role - one of its functions was “counter cyclical” public funding to stimulate economic activity when dips in the business cycle depressed markets.
The bank’s shift abandons this role and places the fate of the global poor largely in the hands of private wealth. It seeks not to find ways in which private money can serve public needs but how public needs can shift to meet the demands of private money.
It could be seen as the final abandonment of wealthy countries’ obligation to the rest of the planet, US President Donald Trump’s “America First” translated into a development strategy.
But in practice, it’s debatable whether the shift will change much in the life of the world’s poor.
A role to markets
The role the World Bank’s architects had in mind may describe what it did at the beginning when it funded the revival of war-torn Europe. But, when it began to fund development in poor countries, it gave a role to markets well beyond anything its inventors would have endorsed.
In Africa, it demanded Structural Adjustment Programmes which cut back sharply on public welfare and, in the view of critics (such as Kim in his previous incarnation), caused great suffering. Its determination to ensure that funds went only to the most desperate (cutting the funding burden) once prompted it to recommend, in Tunisia, a biscuit so unpleasant that only the very hungry would eat it. The World Bank’s private finance arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), whose role will be strengthened by the shift, was fingered as the chief cause of that suffering.
So the bank behaved in much the same way and for much the same reasons as its critics fear it will behave now.
It and its supporters insist it made a positive impact: they cite data showing a marked drop in global poverty and say it contributed to this. But the figures are hotly debated. Even if they are accurate, there is no clear evidence that the bank helped make them happen. Nor has it created a world in which many more people find a settled role in the economy.
So the bank’s new role may, therefore, be simply its old one, but now with an accurate product description.
This may overstate the case: the bank has, at times, made a serious attempt to listen to critics and to become a conduit of development, not pain. But it was never able to adjust as an organisation – it would often endorse criticisms in theory but not translate them into practice. And so it did not become an effective development engine. The bank’s current shift has probably been prompted by its declining role as a development funder, as poorer countries discover other sources of finance.
More finance, but more expensive
The bank failed to do what it promised because it reduced development, a political task, to a technical exercise. It did this because its own political constraints ruled out an effective role.
Effective campaigns against poverty and inequality happen for one of two reasons. Either elites decide it’s in their interests to fight them or, in democracies, poorer citizens use their vote and their rights to achieve change.
Neither condition applied to the World Bank. Its decisions are not made democratically because votes are allocated in proportion to capital invested, not the number of people a government represents. America always appoints the bank president because it provides most of the capital and has most of the votes.
The Bretton Woods trio did not see that the New Deal, the US programme in response to the Great Depression in 1933, had worked partly because it had a solid base of democratic support and that democracy was essential to the development they sought. In the absence of democracy, the elites have decided what the bank should do. Since the focus shifted from Europe to the rest of the world, they have shown little interest in changing a state of affairs from which they benefit.
It’s this political context which has caught up with the bank, first reducing its role and then forcing it to give up on public funding to fight poverty. Ironically, the critics who insisted that it take politics seriously have been vindicated in a way they did not intend or expect. Challenged to recognise politics’ role in development, it has done so by concluding that the politics which govern how it works make an effective role in development impossible.
What kind of financial system is sure to collapse if the central bank cares about people’s well-being?
The recommendation by South Africa’s Public Protector that the Reserve Bank’s mandate change, says much about Busisiwe Mkhwebane, none of it flattering. It says just as much about mainstream economic debate - and none of that is flattering either.
Mkhwebane recommended that the central bank’s constitutional mandate, which makes protecting the currency its primary goal, be changed to one which requires it to “promote balanced and sustainable economic growth while ensuring that the socio-economic well-being of the citizens are protected”. She also said the constitution should require the bank “to achieve meaningful socio-economic transformation”.
This triggered a wave of protests, as well as an announcement from the South African Reserve Bank that it would take the matter to court. The Reserve Bank had no option. The constitutional court has ruled that the Public Protector’s findings are binding unless they are challenged in court. Her recommendation wildly exceeded what she is allowed to do by the constitution – or democratic good sense - and the Reserve Bank could not allow it to stand.
Democratic constitutions are changed by large majorities of the people or their elected representatives – not by individuals. By making a binding recommendation that the constitution be changed, Mkhwebane signalled that she either doesn’t understand – or does not care – for democracy.
Her report is also very useful to a faction of the governing party which wants to deflect charges of state capture by claiming that white monopoly capital already controls the state. There are real questions about the fitness for office of a Public Protector whose report seems more interested in protecting connected politicians and business people than with taking the people’s will seriously.
But the reaction did not stop at insisting that Mkhwebane has no business telling the people what the constitution should say. Much of it objected not only to her saying what the Reserve Bank’s mandate should be, but to anyone at all doing that.
An important debate
The prize for the wildest reaction went to the commentator who declared that Mkhwebane’s ideas on the Bank’s mandate were inspired by someone who denied that the Nazi genocide happened. Others stopped short of tarring constitutional change with the same brush as mass murder but were united in claiming that to suggest that the Reserve Bank’s mandate be broadened is “economically illiterate” and deeply damaging.
Absa, who was the subject of a separate finding by the public protector on the issue of a controversial bailout, asked a court to rule that her proposed change posed a “serious risk to the financial system”. For its part the rating agency Standard & Poor’s, happy as ever to police the boundaries of economic correctness, warned that any interference with the Reserve Bank’s independence could trigger new downgrades.
To insist that anyone who proposes changing the Reserve Bank’s mandate is economically damaging and stupid is as contemptuous of democracy and dangerous to the economy as Mkhwebane’s excess. It is undemocratic because it seeks to close down policy debate by declaring that only one view of the Reserve Bank’s mandate can ensure a healthy economy. It is dangerous because it blocks the search for economic remedies by seeking to bully even those who propose only mild changes to what the country now has.
The idea that the Reserve Bank should have a broader mandate is neither radical nor dangerous. The most famous central bank, the US Federal Reserve, has a broader mandate. Its dual mandate requires it to seek maximum employment as well as price stability.
The Australian equivalent’s mandate includes “maintenance of full employment and economic prosperity and welfare of the people”. The European Central Bank, famed for its love of austerity, has a mandate to seek “sustainable growth”.
And the the Bank of England’s website says that, subject to its goal of price stability, it aims to support the government’s economic objectives.
In South Africa, not only has the view that the central bank’s mandate is too restrictive been repeated periodically but it may well have been implemented for a while. In 2010, then finance minister Pravin Gordhan wrote to then Reserve Bank governor, Gill Marcus, proposing a mandate which included growth and employment. Marcus reacted positively, which suggests that the bank acted on Gordhan’s letter. The financial system survived.
The US, European and Australian financial systems have also not collapsed. Their mandates have not triggered a downgrade and no one has accused these societies of economic illiteracy.
So either double standards are being applied or we are being told that restrictive central bank mandates are essential only if countries are in particular parts of the world (such as Africa) and governed by particular types of people (Africans).
And why does a change in the Bank’s mandate undermine its independence? A central bank loses its independence if politicians (or anyone else) can tell it what to do, not if its mandate changes.
For all its flaws, the Public Protector’s proposal would retain the Reserve Bank’s independence, leaving it to the bank to decide what promotes the “well-being” of the people or “transformation”.
Closing down debate is common
None of this means that the Reserve Bank’s mandate must change. Or that central bank independence must go. But it does mean that no one should be discouraged from debating the issue, as people routinely do in other democracies and market economies. What, besides that prejudice which we prettify by the term Afropessimism, explains the insistence that we may not debate what is freely discussed in most other places?
Closing down debate in this way is common in South Africa. It also lies behind complaints of policy uncertainty which does not mean, as it does elsewhere, that government keeps changing its mind and sending mixed messages – the macro-economic framework has been stable for more than two decades. It means, rather, that some people – who some others may take seriously – raise policy ideas the economic mainstream does not like.
This demand that people can say anything they like about economic policy as long as the mainstream likes it too offers a misleading view of the economy. It says that there is nothing wrong with it except political interference and that it will flourish if politicians simply leave alone what is done now.
The contrary evidence is offered by mainstream organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the South African Reserve Bank itself which have shown that the current economic rut is a product of problems in the private economy as well as what government does.
This means that the economy must change. This, in turn, requires new ideas. They will not emerge unless everything is up for debate and ideas are not silenced because they trigger the fears and prejudices of a few.