FINANCE Minister Tito Mboweni.
FINANCE Minister Tito Mboweni.

SA needs a real plan, not the rhetoric from Davos

By Andrew Bahlmann Time of article published Jan 23, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - Ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said he was confident that the government delegation attending would present a strong investment case for South Africa. And he should be.

At the highest levels, the government has become really good at telling a good story. 

Successive ministers - even the good guys who might not have actually believed it - have been doing this for years.

The problem has never been the telling of a good story. Rather, it’s the lack of a credible plan that international investors have seen right through.

In fact, I am rather surprised that we have been able to keep the likes of Moody’s at bay for so long.

Growth forecasts from the National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) have consistently been too optimistic. When an already low 1.4percent SARB GDP growth forecast for this year is cut to 1.2percent not even a month into the year, there is clearly trouble.

South Africa currently faces the material challenge of attracting direct foreign investment, while at the same time trying to keep the ship afloat.

Unfortunately, the barbarians are at the gate and we need a plan. No more rhetoric! We need a tactical where-the-rubber-hits-the-road plan, that will start creating traction in the direction of economic recovery - something the international market will start believing. This is the only way we will restore credibility, and begin to change international investor perceptions.

These investors are all too aware that our creaking, large deeply indebted state-owned enterprises, threaten to plunge our economy into further chaos.

At least President Cyril Ramaphosa has succeeded in forcing SAA into a structured business-rescue process. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any money to help keep the airline operating.

In years gone by, the Treasury would’ve rubber-stamped guarantees or advanced bailouts. The cupboard looks bare.

It is Eskom, though, that is the great unknown. Mboweni said he would be frank about our challenges at Davos and at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London.

It’s easy to be negative about the outlook for South Africa, more so given the negative sentiment from overseas. Daily we (and those international investors) are bombarded with negative statistics and news.

These negative statistics represent our reality. This is a good place to start.

Is Eskom a challenge? Absolutely. Are successful businesses still trading despite these challenges? Yes. Is the reliability of power a challenge in other developing markets? Definitely.

As business owners, we can’t simply sit around and hope for the Eskom challenges to go away soon. Concerns around issues such as reliable power supply, labour and policy uncertainty have existed for years.

I recall international acquirers flagging certain of these in our engagements as far back as 2013. Let us rather educate the international market around our ability to trade, despite these challenges.

This doesn’t sit on the shoulders of the government only. As business stakeholders in this country of unlimited potential, we have an obligation to make ourselves more competitive internationally.

And we must accept that there might be short-term pain to trade through this phase, and step up to the plate to play our part in rebuilding this economy.

We must realise that there are many very attractive investments opportunities in other developing economies, so if we don’t really make an effort to truly analyse and understand what is scaring people away and start mitigating these concerns, then we need to live with the lack of new investors in our markets.

Let’s move beyond the stage-managed headline figures such as the R1.2trillion committed at the president’s second Investment Conference last year.

We - and foreign investors - know a lot of the capital being committed by business South Africa is not new investment. We need new, fresh capital.

Increases in sustainable employment can only be driven by business (by growing the economy). These investments don’t have to be billions or tens of billions at a time.

The tranches of a few hundred million at a time quickly add up.

Perhaps the subtle change in messaging telegraphed by Mboweni signals a new approach by the government. We can only hope. Let’s embrace our challenges and focus on what’s next.

Andrew Bahlmann is the managing director: Deal Leaders Africa.

BUSINESS REPORT 

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