Skills more important for the economy than splitting fine or frizzy hair: it’s education, not race, that counts

Johannes Wessels (@johannesEOSA1)

A tumult about a shampoo advertisement diverted attention from the biggest economic decline under the ANC government to date. A quarterly GDP figure that confirmed the country is plunging into poverty got less attention than a Clicks advertisement. The deteriorating economy will entrench the country in the bottom half of the Economic Complexity Index (ECI), making it less and less attractive as a destiny for both skills and capital.

Splitting “frizzy and dull” hairs from “fine and flat”, however, is apparently for South Africans far more important than worrying about an additional three million unemployed or thousands of businesses pushed into the abyss of loss and debt. Reading Figure 1 (ECI data) reminds of the typical good-news, bad-news joke: the bad news is that SA has slipped from the top third of countries to the middle third. The good news is that this ranking is far better than where the country is heading for. The ECI, developed by Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard and Cesar Hidalgo of MIT, measures the productive capabilities of large economic systems, whether cities, regions, or countries and is based on the knowledge accumulated in a population that gives expression to the diversity and complexity of economic activities. 

Almost simultaneously with the DA’s embrace of non-racialism as a pillar of their redress strategy that will not use race as a yardstick to address inequality, the 2020 Q2 GDP demolition figure was released. The throttling of the economy by the government’s lockdown strategy made far less ripples than what TREsemmé claims to smoothen out in frizzy hair.

The commentariat treated the DA like TREsemme

It was not only the Twitterati that underplayed the economic news: the same sentiments dominated in serious opinion pieces and radio and TV talk shows. And the commentariat effectively placed the DA in the same box as TREsemmé:

  • Carol Paton, editor at large of Business Live, reckons race will matter forever and lamented the DA’s policy removal of race-based redress “since that will affirm suspicions that the DA is a party whose real agenda is to defend white privilege by denying that such privilege exists at all”. 
  • Stephen Grootes, radio presenter and Maverick columnist, echoed that “firm evidence and the lived experience of South Africans” indicate whites are rich and blacks are poor.

A Coalition of the Offended encompassing inter alia Julius Malema, the Daily Maverick, Justice Malala and Twitters’ @BiancavanWyk16 emerged: all deeply shocked and emotionally wounded, found Clicks’ sacking of an executive and suspension of selling TREsemmé insufficient.

Some called for “attacks” on Clicks stores and the malls that provide rental space for Clicks. Others demanded a sort of #BlackHairMatters kneeling, some were just happy to find something to be unhappy about and some considered the actions of others in the coalition either overboard or underwhelming.

Whilst one can understand that the EFF, the ANC and a plethora of beneficiaries or wannabe-beneficiaries of BEE, are obsessed with affirmative action, expropriation without compensation and preferential procurement mechanisms enabling hiked prices, it remains amazing that leading commentators such as Paton and Grootes ignore the hard evidence that race is not the best proxy for measuring inequality and that the application of race fails to target those really at the bottom of the pit. 

Way back, Census 2011 already provided evidence that education is a far more reliable marker.

Race as a marker for household income inequality weighed and found wanting

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The economy at an irreversible tipping point, caving in like the Antarctic ice shelf?

Johannes Wessels
@johannesEOSA1

The South African economy now resembles the slow-melting Antarctic ice shelves where a sudden instability and crumbling emerge, causing a dramatic cave-in of these buttresses and an inevitable and unrelenting acceleration of glacial flows into the sea. It is as if the long period years of economic melting caused by poor policies, public service inefficiencies and rampant corruption have brought the country to an irreversible tipping point.

The Helmond Glacier in Greenland

There are signals of a sudden surge in movement in the destabilisation of trust and hope in a better future.  This has already triggered an acceleration in the erosion of both the country’s productive knowledge and its capital base.  

Fund managers of local financial service providers told EOSA of a substantial increase in local investors exiting local equities and investment instruments, shifting their investments off-shore.

And wealth managers of European banks who have escaped the January northern winters to visit their South African clientele, remarked that in almost every meeting with clients they were asked whether they do not know of someone in Europe who may be interested in a South African golf estate villa, seaside mansions or Lowveld game farm. They do not easily get interest from South Africans to invest in real estate here.

“We are open for business” is an irritating toddler tune

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Betting on the “good ANC guys”: Building sand castles in an hourglass

Johannes Wessels
@johannesEOSA1

The perception of numerous commentators and business leaders that South Africans should mobilise behind president Cyril Ramaphosa, Pravin Gordhan and Tito Mboweni to support the “good guys” in the ANC to ensure an economic recovery, is not only simplistic: it is utterly naive.

It is also not new. It is a rehash of the theme of the 1970s when the National Party was assessed as comprising good guys (the verligtes) and bad guys (the verkramptes) with many commentators arguing the case to support the verligtes. The person who eventually took the quantum leap with a definite break with apartheid (F W de Klerk) was not counted amongst the verligtes. He was seen as rather conservative and a natural choice to chair the Ministerial Council for White “Own Affairs”.

Verlig-verkramp focused primarily on how Nationalist MPs were oriented on apartheid. That analysis had no eyes for another fundamental division: The PW Botha approach with the security structures of the military and national intelligence as key players versus those who preferred a civil-oriented approach with parliament in the fulcrum. De Klerk belonged to the latter faction. Botha and the securocrats had commenced talks and interaction with both Nelson Mandela (then in Pollsmoor) and the ANC in exile, but De Klerk was largely uninformed and excluded from these discussions.

Playing whilst the resource base is shrinking…

Verlig-verkramp was an insufficient perspective to detect the person who would make the decisive break with apartheid.

Now, many commentators and business leaders still cling to the hope for action and clear policy direction, contrary to what is happening in reality. The hope that “Ramaphosa knows what is required” is based on viewing the ANC as comprising a “good ANC” and a “bad ANC” and that the good guys will restore the country to a golden growth path. Treasury’s document on economic policy is clung to as a lifebuoy.

The good guys are supposedly led by Ramaphosa, Mboweni, Pravin Gordhan and Gwede Mantashe, with the bad guys represented by Ace Magashule, Faith Muthambi, Supra Mahumapelo and others.

This cowboys-and-crooks-perspective is naïve. It also fails on at least four grounds. 

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Treasury’s document: Small shift in common sense; no giant leap in ideology

Johannes Wessels
@johannesEOSA1

Will the most important Government document on economic policy since the ANC threw GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution Policy) into reverse, namely Treasury’s “Economic transformation, inclusive growth, and competitiveness: Towards an Economic Strategy for South Africa”, convince both Moody’s and potential investors that South Africa is a stable investment destination?

Since its release end August, the Treasury document attracted both support and condemnation. For some it signals a first ray of the much-delayed New Dawn promised by Ramaphosa’s 2017 manifesto; for others, a total onslaught on worker’s rights and a selling out to the forces of unbridled capitalism. 

Much bolder than the elaborate National Development Plan (NDP) that received mere lip service during the Zuma-Ramaphosa era from 2014 – 2018, Treasury’s document bluntly concludes:   

The current state of the South African economy is unsustainable. Low economic growth entrenches poverty and inequality… Addressing our economic challenges requires an immediate focus on policies that will raise South Africa’s potential growth.”

Ideological drift sand

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Ramaphorian air spray no longer conceals the stench of a decaying economy

Johannes Wessels
@johannesEOSA1

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s commitment to revitalise the economy reminds one almost of president Zuma’s commitment to combat corruption: spraying air freshener to divert attention from a rotting carcass.

Read instructions on the can for effective application…

The person who promised in his New Dawn manifesto a growth rate of 3% in 2018 through “an unrelenting focus on economic growth” has delivered after 18 months a growth rate of 1.3% in 2018 and negative growth up to date for 2019. Some people would say low growth is still growth, however economic growth below the population growth rate impoverishes the population.

He presides over an economy in worse shape than when he assumed power: one characterised by:

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SA enterprise sector critically ill

Johannes Wessels

@johannesEOSA1

The formal South African Enterprise Sector is critically ill. Were the company tax returns of the 768 000 companies combined and submitted as that of a single entity (say SA Amalgamated (Pty) Ltd) there would not have been any Company Income Tax (CIT) payable to SARS for three consecutive tax years.

SARS data on Company Income Tax (CIT) confirms the private sector is in a dismal state. In the tax years 2014 – 2016 assessed joint losses of all companies surpassed joint taxable income by R445 billion.

SARS data on CIT from 2007 to 2016 on assessed CIT returns bring the following to the fore (see Figure 1 below):

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