The IMF logo is seen through a flower bed in Washington, DC. Picture: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP
The IMF logo is seen through a flower bed in Washington, DC. Picture: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP

The threat of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, unthinkable a few years ago, may force the government to push through the reforms it needs to rescue the economy.

An expanded bailout for struggling power utility Eskom and calls from other state companies for support have strained SA’s budget, prompting business groups and analysts to warn the country could be pressed to ask the IMF to help keep a lid on ballooning debt.

“The IMF is used as a scare tactic to make the government aware that if we don’t implement the necessary policies, we may be forced to turn” to the fund Thabi Leoka, an independent economist, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “SA’s problems are not insurmountable. We know what we need to do. Our problem is the lack of implementation and political will.”

The Washington-based lender, central bank and the government have said SA doesn’t need IMF help and that authorities can still do what’s needed. While President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC are unlikely to request support, SA biggest business lobby said they may have to unless they act soon to fix the problems at the cash-strapped state-owned electricity company and to remove obstacles to economic growth.

Seeking help from the IMF would be politically dangerous for the ANC as it could be seen as a failure to manage the economy, and being answerable to a foreign institution would give ammunition to opposition parties such as the EFF that advocate wholesale nationalisation.

The possibility of IMF assistance “is in the headlines because people doubt the ability of the state to effect any economic reforms that are urgent and so required for us to deal with the structural problems,” said Lumkile Mondi, an economics lecturer at Wits University. “People have got no confidence, so they’re looking for a third party to help us implement a form of a structural-adjustment programme.”

Business confidence has cooled from the two-year high it reached after Ramaphosa won the leadership of the governing party and took over as president of SA in February 2018. He has pledged to create jobs and make it easier to do business as he seeks to lure $100bn in new investment.

The government will announce a plan to improve the economy within weeks, minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu told reporters on August 8. “There is no need or appetite from the SA government to approach any financial institution for help.”

Ramaphosa convened a meeting of the President’s Co-ordinating Council on Tuesday to assess progress on the economic stimulus and recovery plan that was launched in September.

Budget constraints amid weak economic growth have prompted calls for urgent action.

Eskom has R440bn of debt and is battling to meet demand for electricity from ageing plants. The government’s plan to give it R128bn in assistance over three years will add to state liabilities and widen the fiscal shortfall. Fitch Ratings estimates the budget gap may climb to 6.3% of GDP in 2019, and government debt to 68% of GDP in two years.

That’s at a time when the economy contracted the most in a decade in the first quarter and unemployment climbed to 29%.

Allocating new broadband spectrum and simplifying visa rules to boost tourism and bring in necessary skills are “readily achievable policies” that can boost confidence, the IMF’s resident representative in SA, Montfort Mlachila, said last week. Other measures that could help are more labour-market flexibility and leaner state-owned companies.

There are positives that should delay the need for external support.

SA’s floating exchange rate acts as a buffer to external shocks and gives it the resilience to avoid running into balance-of-payments trouble, said Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa and the Middle East at Standard Chartered Bank. International reserves of almost $50bn and the fact that external debt is mostly rand-denominated, provide additional support, she said.

While Ramaphosa has held investment and jobs summits, at which companies such as Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz pledged to invest and others promised to create 275,000 jobs a year, local businesses have been hesitant to commit, and forecasts for economic growth have declined.

Ramaphosa is contending with “denial politics regarding the seriousness of the financial fundamentals” among some members of his party and must instil a sense of urgency in delivering reforms, analyst Ralph Mathekga said.

If reforms fail, SA will be left with no choice but to seek a bailout, according to Gary van Staden, a senior political analyst at NKC African Economics. However, the government will prefer going to the Brics New Development Bank or other institutions before going to the IMF, he said.