Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

SA business leaders are becoming frustrated with the pace of reform under President Cyril Ramaphosa. His cabinet choices and spending pledges haven’t helped.

His ascension to national leader in February last year was greeted with so-called “Ramaphoria”, as the rand and government bonds surged on expectations he would reform the struggling economy, crack down on corruption, and replace non-performing cabinet members.

Much of that rally was relief at seeing the end of Jacob Zuma’s nine-year tenure marked by corruption and few policy decisions. Since the end of the month Ramaphosa took power, the rand has declined 20% against the dollar.

Patience for change in the business community is running out. Some key corporate figures say the cabinet Ramaphosa named after his May election victory hasn’t brought in enough fresh ideas, while his state of the nation address (Sona) in June was seen as full of feel-good spending pledges and no detail on funding.

“Very tough decisions have to be taken. We have not yet seen any willingness to take those decisions. Time lines are short and pressures intense,” said Martin Kingston, executive chair of Rothschild & Co’s SA unit and vice-president of the country’s main business lobby. “As a country we want to have our cake and eat it, and everyone else’s cake.”

Bullet trains

While Ramaphosa vowed to save the struggling state power utility Eskom, he also promised bullet trains and a new city. This as most municipalities struggle to provide basic services such as housing and sanitation, and after SA’s economy posted its biggest quarterly contraction in a decade and investor confidence slid to near multi-year lows. The last-remaining investment grade rating at Moody’s Investors Service is under threat.

Kingston’s sentiments were echoed by three CEOs of large companies and a senior business association leader, all of whom declined to be identified as their organisations haven’t publicly commented. They all said Ramaphosa had been forced to compromise because of his narrow victory in a 2017 party election, and the opposition he faces from a faction within the ruling ANC that’s still loyal to Zuma.

Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko didn’t answer a call to her cellphone.

Chief among the business leaders’ concerns are the appointments to head the education and labour ministries. Both posts are seen as key in a nation with one of the world’s worst-performing educational systems, a gaping skills shortage despite a 27% unemployment rate, and rigid labour laws that make it difficult to hire and fire workers and which have boosted the power of unions.

Labour leader

Angie Motshekga, who has run the education portfolio since 2009, was re-appointed to the post, while Thulas Nxesi, a former leader of the main teachers’ union, was moved to the department of labour and employment. Nxesi had been criticised for defending irregular government spending on Zuma’s private home while he was public works minister. A union leader is unlikely to ease labour laws to make it easier to do business, the business leaders said.

Ebrahim Patel, who’s economic development role was expanded to include trade and industry, had been criticised by some corporate leaders for intervening in the takeover of local retailer Massmart Holdings by US giant Wal-Mart to demand concessions.

Even two appointments that have been welcomed by business — bringing back Tito Mboweni as finance minister and Pravin Gordhan to public enterprises — are seen as short-term postings.

Mboweni has said he doesn’t want to stay in the position for too long and Gordhan has been attacked by the EFF and the country’s anti-graft ombudsman for decisions while heading Sars a decade ago. Even though they are regarded as sound economic choices, few major reforms have been made since they were first appointed last year.

Job cuts?

Concern over the cabinet among the business leaders was compounded by Ramaphosa’s spending pledges in his June 20 speech. While he pledged to accelerate R230bn in support for Eskom, he didn’t mention the job cuts and efficiency improvements the utility’s management says are needed.

Christiaan Schutte, the CEO of SA’s biggest poultry producer, Astral Foods, was “flabbergasted” by talk of bullet trains and new cities when municipalities can’t provide basic services. In May, Astral said the inability of a municipality to supply one of its plants with water would cut profit by R85m.

Of the 28 ministers Ramaphosa appointed, only six hadn’t served in cabinet before.

“We have many of the same economic players in similar or expanded portfolios,” Kingston said. “However, we don’t necessarily want the same policies. We have high hopes for meaningful change and urgent decision-making and action.”