President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS

Speaking at an online event hosted by local fund manager Ninety One, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) senior representative for SA, Montfort Mlachila, touched on familiar themes.

Almost a week after the lender granted SA a R70bn loan to help finance its response to the Covid-19 crisis, one can only wonder what its leaders would have made of the headlines that have since ensued, with the ANC back in self-destruct mode that has taken infighting up more than a little notch.

One TV station, eNCA, has a day of running commentary on what it calls SA’s “corruption emergency” after the explosion of scandals around the procurement of personal protective equipment that cuts to the heart of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office.

Much has been written, including by Ramaphosa, about the corruption itself and the immorality of taking advantage of what is clearly SA’s worst humanitarian and economic crisis in about a century.

The question is what, if anything, will be done. And reports coming out of the weekend meeting of the national executive committee (NEC) are far from reassuring, despite it declaring itself “embarrassed” by members who had damaged the “moral standing of the ANC”.

What is clear is that Ramaphosa is head of a disunited party, with all indications that his opponents have the upper hand. Discussions on the scandal were said to be split along the usual factional party lines. Bloomberg reported that the president had favoured an investigation led by one of his predecessors as head of state, Kgalema Motlanthe, only to be overruled.

So if the president can’t win on what should be a clear-cut case, what are the chances that the country and wider world will see the reforms Mlachila says are needed to get the economy going and generate the kind of growth SA needs to stabilise its debt trajectory?

The IMF gets caricatured, based on its history, as being only concerned with pointless and dangerous austerity at the expense of promoting the economy.

At the Tuesday webinar, Mlachila struck a different note.

“The pay-off from growth is so much more than the pay-off from fiscal consolidation,” he said, adding that while fiscal consolidation is necessary, it isn’t sufficient — and too much of it could be harmful.

A key to growth, he said, is to revive business, which could be done by the country speaking with one voice, and delivering some concrete progress that could then change the conversation. “And once investors and consumers see things are changing, it can be a virtuous circle,” Mlachila said.

Long on ideas, longer on politics

It has already been noted that SA doesn’t have a shortage of ideas and advice on what needs to be done to get the economy going. What is holding it back is the politics, and Ramaphosa is failing to show that he has the courage to make decisive moves and wrest control from his opponents within the ANC.

Unfortunately for him, and the rest of us, time is not on his side. As we are not party to the discussions in the NEC, the cabinet or the coronavirus command council, we can’t be sure how much leadership is being shown by the man who likes to govern by committee. So it’s hard to analyse how much influence he has had on some of the strange decisions made.

One thing that is clear is they haven’t done his standing with the people of SA any good and much of the goodwill that characterised the early days of the lockdown has been eroded.

For a former businessman who was supposed to lead the country out of an era of extended underperformance, his apparent lack of care over the economic and social damage, the latest being SAB’s decision to halt R5bn of planned investment in SA, caused by these policies has been nothing short of astounding, if only because it helps his enemies and harms him.

The nature of the Nasrec contest and outcome always meant that Ramaphosa’s hold on power was going to be tenuous. It’ll be extra bad news for the country if he also loses the public.

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