GARETH ACKERMAN: One step forward, two back is not the way ahead
Business is concerned with how new policies and sometimes contradictory regulations are creating uncertainty
That SA has reached a tipping point is no longer in doubt and the time has come for everyone to roll up their sleeves to work together to grow the country, its people and the economy.
This time in 2018, when I spoke at the opening of the annual summit of the Consumer Goods Council of SA (CGCSA), I was cautiously optimistic about the future of our country, largely because of the initiatives launched by President Cyril Ramaphosa to restore institutional integrity and governance across the government and state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and his clarion call for job-creating investment.
Business leaders then reacted positively and have already in various forums suggested practical solutions to move our country forward. While I am an optimistic person — I have to admit, being a businessperson in SA — I am now equally concerned that it seems that for every one step forward, SA is still taking two steps backwards.
I am particularly worried that economic growth remains stagnant and has been low over the past five years, if not longer. The state of the economy was starkly put into perspective when finance minister Tito Mboweni presented the medium-term budget policy statement. Moody’s then changed its outlook on SA from stable to negative.
This is not good news. We can easily lose the remaining investment credit grade, which will be disastrous for our already weak economy. Standards & Poor’s will be releasing its latest ratings report on SA on November 22 2019, and I am not at all optimistic about its assessment of the country.
The performance of SOEs is worrying, to say the least. Eskom in particular is lurching from one crisis to the next. The spectre of load-shedding looms large. That such a key pillar of the SA economy has no qualified CEO is frightening given the magnitude of the problems facing Eskom. We cannot afford a collapse of Eskom. The economy cannot continue to afford the government bailouts of Eskom and other SOEs without affecting other key sectors of the economy, including basic social services.
Regulatory uncertainty and overlap are still concerns for the consumer goods sector. The large number and frequency of new and revised policies results in considerable uncertainty among government officials in implementing policy and related regulations. Regulations enabling policy are also often not adequately researched by officials nor by business.
These are then frequently and substantively changed before being implemented. This is leading to increased policy uncertainty.
There is also evidence of contradictory policy and regulatory objectives across different government departments. This policy uncertainty is creating distrust between government and the business sector in general, at a time when there should be national consensus on how to move the country forward.
SA has many ideas and experts willing to help the government achieve national economic objectives. There is a preoccupation with considering solutions as opposed to implementing them. The government needs to speedily remove impediments to growth, jobs and investment. We hope this message got through to the government at the second investment conference held in Johannesburg.
We need a government that listens to and works in partnership with business. There is enormous goodwill from the private sector, including our CGCSA board and members, who are committed not only to further investment but also to partnership with the government to find solutions to our economic challenges.
CGCSA, which represents the consumer goods sector — the largest employer, which invests billions of rand every year in SA — continues to reach out and work with government departments on policy changes and improvements to facilitate job creation and investment.
We need to increase consultative discussions with the government that result in implementable actions, growth and job creation. Our industry already is the largest employer in SA with more than 2-million employed.
As Ramaphosa said in his weekly presidential letter on November 5, the same teamwork and commitment to a goal demonstrated by the Springboks can be applied to national building and achieve our economic and social goals.
I am reminded of the words of the poem Invictus by William Henley: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
We can overcome the current challenges, but the time to act is now. There is no time for more talk shops. We need to roll up our sleeves and work together to build SA, its people and the economy.
• Ackerman is Pick n Pay chair and cochair of the CGCSA