Are you serious, Mr Ramaphosa?

R.W. JOHNSON / President Ramaphosa recently attended President Macron’s Global Finance summit in Paris. Ramaphosa’s speeches to that summit, widely reported in the media here, are worth some consideration for they illustrate only too well what is wrong about official thinking in South Africa.

Ramaphosa started with the usual plea for a reform of global financial institutions – he means the IMF and World Bank – so as to give Africa a larger role in them. Actually Africa has quite a considerable role in them, though always as a borrower and often asking for those debts to be written off. Right now Zambia is asking its foreign lenders to accept a loss of 50% on its bonds, making one wonder why anyone, after that, would ever think of lending to Zambia ?

Indeed, African states have to beware of this sort of thing. For just those reasons commercial banks have all retreated from lending to Africa and their place has been taken largely by pension funds and trade union funds in search of a high yield. It turns out that pensioners and trade unions are a great deal less willing to accept such “haircuts” on their investments and much more likely to sue in order to keep their promised returns. The hedge fund that compelled the Argentines to pay out fully on their bonds has really started something.

Anyway, Ramaphosa wants greater African participation, by which he means he wants to see African directors and executives running these institutions. This is simply not going to happen while Africa remains a large net borrower and a bad repayer and it’s difficult to find any arguments why it should.

Ramaphosa clearly failed to understand this: “It will help us not to participate as unequal cousins in these institutions”, he said. “It will help us to participate fully so that we don’t have a sense that we are beggars.”

This is a curious statement. A lot of the time African states are beggars. They plead for loans, for soft loans at low rates and long terms and then, later, they ask to be forgiven their debt. But Ramaphosa wants them to be spared the awkward feelings this gives them by putting them in charge of lending institutions. This will make them feel better. Apparently it’s all about their feelings. Quite why the rest of the world should think this a good idea is not clear.

All other countries have feelings after all, and Asian countries like China and Vietnam have been growing very fast, not by going to the IMF or World Bank but by squeezing their domestic consumption so they can invest a lot more, which is pretty tough stuff for poor consumers in poor countries. How does Ramaphosa think they feel about this special pleading for Africa ? Almost certainly they despise it and think that countries that behave like that are not to be taken seriously.

Ramaphosa then talked about his Ukraine peace mission. This war has to be ended, he said, not because it’s bad for Russia to invade Ukraine and kill and torture its people but because it’s jolly inconvenient for African countries who want cheap grain and fertiliser from those countries. But Africa has most of the unfarmed arable land in the world and, in turn, most of that African unfarmed arable land is in Southern Africa. So an even cheaper means of providing that grain is at hand: Africa could grow it. Why not do that ? And right here in South Africa we have a rich agricultural area, barely used, in the Eastern Cape. Why not start right there ?

Equally, Zimbabwe used to be a much bigger agricultural producer and it could be again. Zambia too is great farming country. Come to think of it, all the ingredients with which to make fertiliser are plentiful in Africa, so why not make fertiliser too ? And since we’re apparently so concerned about our feelings, don’t you think it would make Africans feel a lot better if they were producing more, being more self-sufficient and even earning more money from exports ?

Ramaphosa then said that over 600 million people in Africa had no access to electricity and “there was a need for the rich nations to invest in mega projects to generate electricity on the continent”. Now hang on, Mr Ramaphosa. When your party came to power South Africa produced a large electricity surplus at the lowest price in the world. Twenty-nine years later, even at hugely higher prices, South Africa is often without electricity.

And when you were Deputy President, you were put in charge of Eskom, Mr Ramaphosa. So that is what you and your party have done, yet you seem to think the solution is for foreign countries to invest huge fortunes here. But if you and your comrades won’t look after your investments or maintain them, why on earth should anyone do that ? It doesn’t make sense.

Moreover, when Africa was colonised there were no power cuts. True, the colonial administrations only produced sufficient power for a limited number of consumers. But as soon as African countries became independent they immediately started having power cuts. This was true even in Zimbabwe where the British had constructed Kariba Dam as a huge farewell present. And while under colonialism Africa hadn’t been a food importer, as soon as African countries became independent they became large food importers. How do we explain these things ?

Nonetheless, Ramaphosa argued that the gigantic Inga dam must be financed and built – “nations that have money must put money into (African) infrastructure projects”. Indeed, that ought to happen right away: “Let’s get that done and then we will be convinced that you are serious”. Ah, so that is the reward for those rich Western countries: we will at last regard them as serious. So it’s all about feelings again. It doesn’t sound like a very substantial reward for the huge amounts of money they would have to spend. Are you really serious, Mr Ramaphosa ?

But hang on, that reminds me. Not long ago, Mr Ramaphosa, you were laying great stress on the need for more infrastuctural investment in South Africa. Everyone agreed and the private sector even said they were keen to find money for that. So what have you actually done for our infrastucture ? I don’t see a whole lot of new roads, dams, power stations and bridges getting built – or even repaired.

Part of the problem, of course, is that you can’t expect anyone to do all that building if construction mafias immediately demand – at gun point – an extra 30%. For which they do absolutely nothing.

On those terms, no one can invest profitably. So the government really has to crack down hard on those extortionist mafias and lock them all up. But that doesn’t seem to be happening at all. I can’t think of even one instance where that has happened. Indeed, in KwaZulu-Natal the provincial housing minister is pleading for builders to get together with those business forums, which is what he calls those mafias. That minister is an ANC man, Mr President.

So I’m very sorry if it’s hurtful for your feelings, Mr Ramaphosa, but since it’s Wimbledon time again, let me quote the immortal words of John McEnroe: “You can’t be serious.”

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