South Africa’s track record bodes ill for investment drive

Johannesburg 23-10-18 South African currency, the Rand in a persons hand. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

Johannesburg 23-10-18 South African currency, the Rand in a persons hand. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Oct 19, 2020


JOHANNESBURG - South Africa will be hard pressed to realise its ambitions of attracting R1 trillion ($61 billion) of private investment in infrastructure if its past record is anything to go by.

The investment drive began two years ago and is a key component of an economic blueprint unveiled by President Cyril Ramaphosa last week that aims to revive the coronavirus-battered economy. It envisions the government spending R100 billion on infrastructure, an allocation that’s expected to galvanize 10 times as much private investment within four years.

Yet International Monetary Fund data shows investment as a percentage of South Africa’s gross domestic product has been in decline since 2016 and the Washington-based lender forecasts that the ratio will reach a record low of 13% this year. That compares with 25.4% in Nigeria and 21.5% in Angola.

“Capital-expenditure replacement rates continue to fall well short of what is required to spur a meaningful growth recovery through the fixed-investment channel,” said Jeffrey Schultz, an economist at BNP Paribas South Africa.

The pandemic has made it all the more difficult to effect a turnaround, with companies including Anheuser-Busch InBev SA unit South African Breweries and glass manufacturer Consol Holdings Ltd. shelving expansion plans. Most government-owned companies are also cash-strapped and in no position to embark on a massive investment spree.

“It is going to be an uphill battle to get the investment drive going,” Nicky Weimar, chief economist at Nedbank Group Ltd., said by phone on Friday. “The reality in South Africa’s case is really that government has no track record in delivering infrastructure on budget and on time, and the returns on fixed public investment in South Africa is not only low but it is often negative.”

Ramaphosa hosted conferences in 2018 and 2019 in a bid to drum up investment that secured R664 billion in spending pledges from private and state-owned companies, and data collated by his office shows about a quarter of the money has already been spent.

By the end of June this year, 276 potential investments worth R2.3 trillion had been identified. The following month, 62 priority projects worth R340 billion were gazetted, a process that will allow licensing and other regulatory processes to be fast-tracked, with the construction of several housing developments and roads already underway, according to the presidency.

The Association for Savings and Investment South Africa, an industry body of fund managers and insurers, has said its members are willing to commit funds to viable projects and sees the new, centralized approach taken by government toward development expediting the process.

While the government may describe projects as “shovel ready,” that doesn’t necessarily mean investment flows are imminent, but rather that requests for proposals and information are being issued, Schultz said. That means there could be lags before the spending is reflected in the data, he said.

Weimar is skeptical the state or private companies have sufficient capacity to develop projects on the scale envisioned by the government, because many skilled personnel have emigrated due to a dearth of local projects over the past decade.

“The construction sector is a shadow of what it used to be,” she said.


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