/John Steenhuisen: We need fewer wishbones and more backbones

John Steenhuisen: We need fewer wishbones and more backbones

2019-11-10 06:00

I have no doubt President Cyril Ramaphosa knows what needs to be done in order to rein in our spending, curb our massive debt and bring back investment. But the fact that he can’t do any of it is worrying, writes John Steenhuisen.

Ronald Reagan, a
man known for his ability to wrap insights in memorable one-liners, once
quipped: “Many a man has failed
because he had his wishbone where his backbone should have been.” That’s
something we know all about here in South Africa.

If our economy –
and indeed our country – could be built on wishes and intentions alone, we’d be
unstoppable. If we could lay all the promises of imminent investment, of imminent
jobs and of imminent arrests end-to-end, they’d circle the globe. But when it
comes to turning those promises into reality we are always left wanting.

The reason for
this is that it’s hard, and particularly in an organisation like the ANC that has
been built around patronage and quid
pro quo arrangements. There are simply too many people and groups that
need to be constantly pleased and placated, and more often than not what they
want is the polar opposite of what our country needs.

The reality is,
one has to choose between the narrow interests of the few and the broad
interests of the country. There is no version that satisfies both. And this
requires a president who can serve his country before his party, even when it
is hard. Someone who can stand up to the very people and alliance partners who
helped put him in his job. Someone who can say “no” when he has to. A
president with a firm backbone.

Take the Treasury
document on growth and reform released by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni a few
months ago. In its original guise it was a breath of fresh air. While far from
a comprehensive plan for economic reform, it contained enough interventions to
make people across the spectrum sit up and pay attention. For the first time in
years this government had produced a collection of ideas around the economy
that earned praise from friend and foe alike. If implemented, the plan would
have stemmed some of the bleeding and nudged us back in the right direction.

But that didn’t
last, of course. By the time the unionists and the communists were done with it,
the plan was a pale imitation of itself. The biggest of these backtracks was
Mboweni’s retreat on the proposal to sell off Eskom’s coal power stations in
order to try and stabilise the state utility’s gargantuan debt. It was an
excellent idea, which is why it was immediately shot down by the powerful
unions. This is where the finance minister needed his president to step in and
defend the proposal – to show some fortitude in the face of this anti-growth
hostility. But there was nothing, and so Mboweni was beaten into retreat.

It now remains to
be seen whether other areas of Mboweni’s plan will suffer the same fate when
challenged by the unions. One of these is his proposal to end the extension of
collective bargaining agreements to parties that weren’t part of the bargaining
process – something the DA has been advocating for years. Again, this is set to
put him on a collision course with the unions, and again he will need the
support of his president. Will this happen? Not likely, if his track record is
anything to go by.

I have no doubt President
Cyril Ramaphosa knows what needs to be done in order to rein in our spending,
curb our massive debt and bring back investment. But the fact that he can’t do
any of it is worrying. He has just been wooing investors at the Second South
Africa Investment Conference in Sandton, telling them how South Africa is open
for business and alive with possibilities. But without meaningful reforms, all
of that is just the stuff of wishbones.

He knows we need
to dramatically cut our public sector wage bill, and along with this we need to
trim the bloated Eskom workforce. But will he risk the wrath of the public
sector unions and make these cuts? Not likely.

He knows that one
of the biggest drivers of our high youth unemployment is the woeful state of
our basic education, and that the blame for much of this can be laid squarely
at the feet of Sadtu. Will he then clip their wings in order to ensure
accountability and higher standards in our classrooms? Not likely. Instead we
will be sold fantasies about coding classes and tablets and high tech
classrooms.

He knows that the
reason for our weak and inefficient state, including our hollowed-out
state-owned companies, is the ANC’s practice of cadre deployment where people
are rewarded with positions purely based on loyalty. But will he put an end to
this and prioritise the building of a capable state? Not likely. One only has
to look at the makeup of his latest investment envoy – Jeff Radebe, Derek
Hanekom and Elizabeth Thabethe – along with his new head of investment
infrastructure, Kgosientso Ramokgopa, to see this cadre recycling project in
all its glory.

And now there is
yet another decision awaiting the president which could have massive
ramifications for our export market to the USA. Lying on his desk, waiting to
be signed into law, is the flawed Copyright Amendment Bill. In its current form
it offers very little protection to intellectual property rights and, as such,
has placed our participation in the United States’ Generalised System of
Preferences (GSP) at risk. Should we lose access to this preferential trade
scheme because of an inability to protect copyright, we stand to lose in excess
of R12bn in exports and potentially thousands of jobs.

President
Ramaphosa knows this risk. He has been informed that the USA is reviewing its
agreement with us because of this bill, and yet it has sat on his desk for over
six months. It is critical that the bill is sent back to Parliament so that it
can be fixed in order to save our trade agreement with the USA. Will he do
this? Frankly, I’m not convinced he will.

It’s great that we
have these investment conferences. It’s great that our president talks a good
game about attracting new direct foreign investment, and sets off on roadshows
where he hopes to sell South Africa as a profitable and safe place to do
business. But none of that means a thing if he cannot swap out his wishbone for
a backbone and make the tough calls on the crucial reforms.

– John Steenhuisen is leader of the opposition in Parliament and parliamentary leader of the DA.

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