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

It was more than 19 months ago that President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his first state of the nation address, announced that he would form an economic advisory council “to ensure greater coherence and consistency in the implementation of economic policy”.

This, the president said in those heady days of Ramaphoria, would “ensure that we are better equipped to respond to continuously changing economic circumstances”. That the members were only unveiled on Friday is not a good sign, and is symbolic of how slowly the wheels of government turn.

The council contains some impressive names and the country having access to their combined brain power can only be a good thing. Among the standout names are Mariana Mazzucato, an economist from University College London, who has gained prominence with innovative thinking about the role of government in directing innovation and economic growth.  

With the country’s well-documented economic ills, from low growth to record unemployment and the lack of readiness to produce workers for a rapidly changing economic order, our government is certainly in need of fresh thinking.

The rest of the panel is made up of familiar names, some of whom have advised government before on a wide range of issues including policies on energy, land and the minimum wage.

That is probably where Ramaphosa’s initiative will attract a fair amount of criticism and scepticism. Over the past 25 years is there a country that has had as many advisory committees and war rooms as SA? And what happens afterwards? Most of their recommendations have never seen the light of day, often disappearing into the black hole that is the never-ending contestation and consensus seeking within the ANC, SACP and Cosatu alliance.

It is no surprise that South Africans have what one could call council fatigue. As we have seen with the strategy document finance minister Tito Mboweni released in August, the alliance partners’ natural instinct is to just say no. Reading that document, it is clear what needs to be done and why we will be locked in a low-growth environment for the foreseeable future if action is not taken.

So if one wanted to be cynical one would look at the council’s mandate to facilitate “the development and implementation of economic policies that spur inclusive growth” and conclude that this is already a nonstarter.

SA is not the only country to have such a council. Perhaps the best-known one is in the US, which dates back to the 1940s and whose past chairs include Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, both of whom have also headed the US Federal Reserve. Its objectives are similar to Ramaphosa’s council in that, in addition to advising the president on macroeconomic policy, it seeks to ensure departments act in line with the objective of the executive.

There is a pressing need for this in SA, where different arms of the state often seem to work, almost intentionally, to sabotage what government says it wants to achieve.

One glaring example is home affairs and its archaic approach to immigration, which makes it hard even for CEOs of foreign companies to live and work in SA, whereas recent speeches by Ramaphosa have emphasised the need to attract investment and skills. The problem is that these issues have been well flagged, and the question that will be asked is why we need yet another committee to tell us what we already know.

The people of SA are crying out for action, and the danger with the latest committee is that it will be seen as just another example of the government kicking the difficult, and not-so-difficult, decisions down the road. South Africans want the government to get on with its core business of governing, and stop outsourcing leadership to committees.

Action was needed on these issues in February 2018, and well before. We can’t afford to wait for yet another report that’s likely to end up gathering dust.