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Respectfully, I disagree with a foreign correspondent who recently accused South Africans of participating in “all sorts of wild speculation about the political instability that could follow [the ANC losing its overall majority]”. The writer didn’t furnish any examples, which is a pity because discerning between legitimate examination of the scenarios and wild speculation is the trick.

A worst-case political scenario — a coalition that includes some kind of bilious mix of whatever the ANC looks like after a beating from the electorate, the EFF or MK — is quite plausible if you cast an eye over any of the polling that is freely available. The polls seem to coalesce around the shocking idea that the ANC’s baseline support now sits at around 40%. From 57.5% in 2019, that’s the kind of swing that risks whiplash and is why nobody seems to quite believe it, myself among them.

It could be that I have fallen foul of the SA commentariat’s most common mistake — analysis by wishful thinking — in this case that an orderly transition to a coalition democracy is imminent. Either way, the consequences of the EFF or the MK in government would be catastrophic for what remains of our economy and social fabric. Let me remind you that they still want to nationalise “without compensation” (steal at gunpoint) land, banks, mines and “other strategic sectors of the economy”.

I feel like this stratospherically bad outcome justifies a moment of apprehension for people who call this country home, and some running of scenarios by which this country might, or might not, be set on fire by a mob of blackshirts. Voters will be heard this May, and the more we talk about the consequences, the better.

SA has always been a splendid canvas for the projections of other people. For years, and still today, we contended with what has been rather acidly described as “rainbowism”, the kumbaya narrative that was never true, remains elusive and has long since evaporated from our more advanced domestic discourse.

Examples of innovation, inequality, racial integration, racial conflagration, economic tragedy and unimaginable progress can all be proved beyond doubt if you use the right lens. As in photography, so it is in journalism. SA can tell your story for you. That’s why it’s important to beware of those who hold a camera. I am one of them (so beware of me too) and cynicism is one of my KPIs. Without it I would believe what I’m told.

One of the things I’m being told is that things are getting better, and specifically that they are getting better with regard to the three horsemen of our current economic apocalypse: energy, logistics and crime.

Famously, the president has teamed up with a mixture of business organisations to address the problems that bedevil the state, all of which have ministries, departments and ministers, and which hoover hundreds of billions of rand out of the economy every year. For example, there may be a department of public enterprises, a department of minerals & energy and an electricity ministry, but there is also the national energy crisis committee, and there is a sense that we must acknowledge that these crises are in retreat because of these interventions.

I’m not convinced. Reduced load-shedding is convenient but it does not represent a good news story. It merely shows that Eskom, in debt to the tune of half a trillion rand, more than half of which the state has shouldered in our names, has been abandoned by its major customers. It means companies and wealthy households have taken on the huge costs of shedding their dependence on Eskom and are now having to pay the actual cost of energy.

For those of us still hooked up to the dying coal fleet, there has been no improvement in the energy availability factor, which languishes today at about 55%, much like it did at this time last year and the year before. The Energy Regulation Amendment Bill is highly unlikely to pass this parliament and will be at the mercy of whatever the National Council of Provinces looks like after the election.

At Transnet, new (and competent) management has just shown its customers what a bill for 15 years of looting and mismanagement might look like. The state logistics giant, also R50bn in the hole, has just published a fee structure under which it proposes private enterprises can use its network. Miners and other heavy users of logistics have long had opinions on how Transnet should be run — and rightly so — but now they’re getting to see the actual cost of the risk, and of fixing and running a vast and complex logistics network. They are understandably less than thrilled at the price tag, which, on first flush, appears to be simply unworkable for the miners.

A public-private partnership at one of the Port of Durban’s piers with International Container Terminal Services of the Philippines has yet to move a single container, and Transnet has taken almost a year to complete a financial due diligence. It is reasonable to question the appetite for public-private partnerships in the government as much as it is reasonable to wonder whether these concepts will survive a coalition government.

It seems clear to me that we can’t address our problems unless we have a set of shared facts. It is very much in the interests of the government (and the president in particular), the consultants and a handful of CEOs and bankers to make it seem as though things are improving dramatically. I have little doubt that a great deal of good work is being done by some very committed and competent people in the presidency to address the various cancers at the heart of our economy and prosperity.

Let us remember to remain cynical, though. It’s election season and it’s not just the politicians who have something to sell. Sometimes there is no riddle, and the truth is as it seems — which is to say still not that great and with risks ahead about which it is right to worry.

• Parker is Business Day editor-in-chief.














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