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Picture: 123RF/NUPEAN PRUPRONG
Picture: 123RF/NUPEAN PRUPRONG

It is abundantly clear that capital and expertise need to be poured into SA’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) if they are to fulfil their purpose (once defined, if ever we can agree what that is).

Whatever we may think, and however diverse and charged those opinions may be, finding the right solution to SA’s SOE problem is an essential foundation for broader socioeconomic prosperity.

Telling each other what to do simply isn’t working. It serves only to widen the (already wide) chasm between us. The gap between public and private sector thinking is made only worse by how convinced both sides are that they are right. It’s almost impossible to imagine designing a bridge, let alone building one. But we have no choice.

Prescribed assets, or prescription of any kind, will not go down well. But I do remain of the view that there is a (small, 5%, say) space for compulsory investment at an appropriate yield in infrastructure and other specific state projects in the interests of the general economy and population at large.

Direct project investment is another matter entirely. Guided by the principle of direct vested interest (rather than dictate), there is plenty of capital available in the private sector that could be directed into “own-interest” projects that overlap with the government’s goals.

Practically all private sector businesses depend, to a greater or lesser extent, on a functional, if not efficient, government infrastructure and service delivery capacity, whether physical like the railways, ports and roads or technological such as the internet, spectrum allocation or a secure national payments system.

Getting our act together in solving the problems of the whole system may take too long and require too much consensus (elusive so far) and may never happen. Decay never sleeps.

What if the rules changed to allow everyone to just muck in and get things done? If you’d like your fresh citrus to be delivered to London on time for the morning markets, the delivery channel must be world class. The same argument applies to our vast mining outputs, all the way through to sophisticated manufactured goods. We have to get them to market on time at a competitive price. That isn’t happening. We can fix it.

Go ahead, build it, or repair it ... insert a functional piece into the countrywide infrastructure puzzle. Commercial equations of economic fairness that will facilitate this or encourage it are not difficult to solve. Maybe the initial capital investment should be tax incentivised, if not totally deductible? Maybe a revenue-share agreement with government could work? Maybe the asset can revert to the government once a reasonable return has been achieved?

Or maybe, finally, we can solve the perpetual public-private partnership puzzle? All the while government will enjoy increased tax revenue and the country will benefit from increased foreign currency inflows (where export capacity is enhanced).

No Public Finance Management Act. No tenders. Rationally motivated, private-sector vested interests investment will be enough. Let business sense prevail. Let the intelligent application of business acumen by those who will directly  benefit from the outcome make it work.

If properly co-ordinated (by an appropriate body with decision-making capability and proved expertise in these things) these little pieces of vested interest development will add up to a shared, countrywide infrastructure that works.

There are no boundaries to this thinking. From generating electricity at an individual or community level to repairing anything from the potholes to the ports or our arterial commercial corridors, this could work. Imagine the employment, imagine the mood!

This stuff is not difficult to solve in rational debate, guided by common purpose. Yet it is impossible, apparently, to solve politically, no matter the coalitions. We coalesce to be in charge, it seems, not to get things done.

I doubt any of this will require rocket scientists to figure out once common purpose has set aside political ambition, but if it does, we have plenty of those among us.

• Barnes, a former SA Post Office CEO, has had more than 30 years of experience in various capacities in the financial sector.

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