SA’s downgrade by Moody’s Investors Service reminds us that the Covid-19 crisis is not the only dread threat that confronts the country. The loss of our last investment-grade rating was probably inevitable, even without a public health emergency, and the factors that have brought it about will remain with us long after the pandemic has subsided.

These are well known — the public sector wage bill, labour market policy, energy supply, mismanaged state-owned enterprises and so on — and have been for years. Policymakers have chosen to ignore them. Indeed, the government has sometimes chosen to exacerbate these problems. It was noteworthy that Moody’s specifically referred to “uncertainty over property rights generated by the planned land reform”.

Expropriation without compensation (EWC) presents nothing of value to SA’s land reform programme but it makes a profound ideological point. That it has contributed beyond question to imposing very real economic costs is now beyond debate.

It is heartening that President Cyril Ramaphosa is reportedly now committed to moving “more boldly on the structural reforms programme”. However, one might recall that he has stressed the importance of reform in the past. In light of the damage inflicted by the pandemic and the downgrade, whether or not EWC remains a government priority will be a key indicator of whether or not substantive reform is on the way.

Terence Corrigan
Institute of Race Relations

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