In the last months of the Year of Covid-19, the world experienced a massive resurgent wave. It wasn’t a wave of deaths by coronavirus, but a lockdown tsunami engulfing individual and civil liberties. The excess deaths caused by governments’ decisions to relegate non-Covid health issues to the realm of non-essential treatments, also become more and more visible for those who have eyes to see and those who have ears to hear…
Another heaving wave – poverty due to the swelling unemployment and enterprise demise that the lockdown measures and the autocratic disruption of economic life brought about – also gained momentum. The impact thereof is certain to dwarf that of the virus itself.
If the worldwide death toll of 1.359 million attributed to Covid-19 is divided by the daily average global death toll of 158 085 (for 2019) and one fills the annual calendar according to deaths by cause, the feared pandemic with its vicious waves is closer to a ripple than a tsunami. EOSA developed a Cause of Death Calendar that shows:
Two recent key government speeches gave rise to two important questions:
Is the inability of the government to effectively implement its policies & plans (?) worse than its inability to table concrete action plans, underpinned by clear strategies, designs, milestones, budgets and target dates?
The president’s tabling of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) was lame and lacked detail, whilst the Minister of Finance’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) left one with a feeling there is not much grasp within the collective government on how to prevent SA from slipping rapidly, if not tumbling, down the slope.
Instead of rekindling confidence and inspiration, vague and mixed messages fuelled doubt and a disbelief that the government can prevent SA from boarding the proverbial bus to Argentina (debt default). I put the following three arguments to illustrate this assessment:
Will the government stand solidly behind Mboweni’s strategy of freezing public sector wages for three years when they cannot deal with the much easier route to stop financing the effectively bankrupt SAA? Recall also how Pravin Gordhan in 2018 (knowing well that Eskom was not only overstaffed, but the personnel besides overpaid) overruled the Eskom Board and management when they had decided on a zero salary increase as part of addressing the Eskom viability issue.
Can one rely (trust would be too much to ask) on the government’s undertaking to reign in public expenditure? This, when they had failed multiple times to table a comprehensive plan on how to deal with Eskom’s debt and the growing debt burdens of other State-owned Enterprises (SOEs).
How is the “growth through infrastructure roll-out” approach different from numerous previous attempts – since the days of Thabo Mbeki – to strengthen the country’s economic fibre by infrastructure investments announcements, with the emphasis on announcements?
Flipchart notes or a detailed plan?
The Enterprise Observatory of SA reckons four fundamental problems underpin the ERRP and the MTBPS:
If Ramaphosa’s bold plan to restart the economy was a film, the premiere already proved it’s not an ‘out-of-the-box’ blockbuster that will rake in Oscars for economic growth and sustainable job creation. Growth through state-led infrastructure development XXI is a lame sequel fit for an infamous Razzie award.
Like its predecessor – the lengthy National Development Plan – the Economic Reconstruction & Recovery Plan (ERRP) is a sure box office flop.
The ERRP announced by the president after lengthy consultation processes with big business and big labour states “Non-implementation of the ERRP could lead to loss of economic capacity, including collapse of the supply capacity, consumer and business confidence, the labour market and increased vulnerability of the poor. The overall plan aims to mitigate these risks”.
This script suggests its authors live in a make-believe reality: South Africans, whether tax payers or the growing number of unemployed, know consumer and business confidence and employment are not waiting for collapse through the non-implementation of a plan. It has collapsed already and was meticulously crafted by the very same government now purporting to be capable of getting the economy firing on all cylinders again.
SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter’s biggest headache is not the gaping R300 billion crater in tax income this financial year or the growing Everest of assessed losses for companies that will impact negatively on CIT for years to come. His biggest problem is how to convince taxpayers to sustain a government that under the pretext of “a better life for all” has served up a toxic mix of corruption, wastage, mismanagement and anti-growth policies.
In addition, the very same government has doggedly pursued a lockdown strategy not underpinned by much logic that could yield any outcome other than a severe economic disaster with long term humanitarian effects. These effects include shortened lifespans, poverty related deaths, and deaths from medical conditions the government deemed non-essential. The toll of this inept strategy will in all likelihood dwarf the real Covid 19 death toll.
Lockdown has mowed down millions of jobs and several hundred thousand businesses. Those that survived have been severely crippled: they have a radically reduced income, have run up losses or have achieved less than half their previous taxable income.
One recalls the words of Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa, whose theology and philosophy influenced ancient as well as modern thought: “Without justice, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers?”
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
The prolonged lock-down has been a roaring success: not in enabling the public health system with “sufficient beds, ventilators and staff” for the inevitable “Covid-peak”, but in empowering organised crime syndicates.
Not only did the ban on the transportation and sale of liquor and cigarettes provide an unprecedented window of opportunity for already existing smuggling networks to strengthen their production and supply chain networks, they were wholeheartedly supported by the government to expand their client base exponentially.
The government by decree stopped the legal trade in liquor and cigarettes, effectively providing a protected oligopoly for the smuggling networks. Since there was no competition, they hiked their prices. That saw:
cigarette cartons that would cost around R450 before lock-down selling at anything between R1 500 to R2 000;
Gordons Gin selling at four times the pre-lockdown price, and
A litre red Robertson box-wine fetching R1 400, easily beating some of the prices achieved by top wines at the Nederburg Auction.
Patel hounded Dischem, but the smugglers, spazas & tenderpreneurs were the price hikers