Ciaran talks on SAFm radio about the spread of Durban’s construction mafia to Joburg.
This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
It’s a shakedown that’s been going on for several years in KwaZulu-Natal, but is now rearing its head in Johannesburg. Local community gangs, often armed, threaten to shut down construction sites unless they are given 30% of the work.
“The mafia is particularly prevalent in the Durban metro area, which is why I will no longer work in this area,” says a construction manager who asked not to be named. “I was previously working on a construction site in Pietermaritzburg and these guys would turn up every day, cocking an AK47 in front on my office. You have little option but to agree to their terms, which means 30% of our sub-contractors are imposed on us.”
The so-called construction mafia has organised itself into business forums, one of which is the Delangokubona Business Forum, reportedly comprising more than 3 000 members, according to the Sunday Tribune.
The gangs usually demand that construction managers employ their members, often at extortionate rates – in one case, a construction company was ordered to employ a bricklayer at R2.50 a brick when the going market rate is R0.80 a brick. Several sites have had to let other workers go to make room for the so-called mafia workers, who frequently lack the skills needed for the jobs. Nor are they necessarily local. Equipment and materials are reported to have been stolen in some instances when Forum workers have been employed.
Peter Barnard, a partner at Cox Yeats Attorneys, has won around 30 court interdicts against multiple business forums on behalf of construction firms in KwaZulu-Natal.
“It seems that this all started in February 2016 when a crowd stormed into the Durban mayor’s office demanding that local suppliers and contractors be given work,” he says.
“From what I understand, they left that meeting with the impression that local suppliers and contractors would be awarded 30% of government construction contracts. They obviously misunderstood what was being conveyed. The new Regulations to the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act, which govern most state projects, are complicated and don’t create an automatic entitlement to work.
“They obviously heard what they wanted to – and have proceeded on the basis that they are entitled to 30% of all work on projects. From about March 2016, ‘business forums’ started hitting construction sites and demanding work.”
Barnard says that virtually every major development and Project in KwaZulu-Natal has been affected by one or more forums.
The “construction mafia” rejects accusations of thuggery, claiming to be fulfilling government’s mantra of radical economic transformation by ensuring that 30% of sub-contracting work is given to locals.
Recently, construction of the Oceans Hotel in Umhlanga, backed by businessman Vivian Reddy, was shut down for several months after work was disrupted by Forum members. Last year WBHO downed tools for several weeks on the R1,8bn expansion of the Suncoast Casino when Forum members stormed on site demanding a slice of the action. One manager with a major construction firm confirmed that the mafia has now appeared on construction sites in the north of Johannesburg.
Some site supervisors and managers have started toting guns in self-defence after numerous instances of on-site assault. In some cases, site managers have been shot at or threatened.
Several construction firms have had to approach the courts to interdict the Business Forum from intimidating or harassing construction workers. Among the companies awarded interdicts against the group are Tongaat Hulett Developments, Vumani Civils CC, WK Construction SA and Water Bles Investments. The interdicts prevent members of the Delangokubona Forum from intimidating or harassing workers at the Sibaya Precinct development in Umdloti.
The troubling aspect is that the intimidation tactics appear to be working.
Many firms are forced to enter into negotiations and reach a settlement with the various business forums. Construction projects with a 15% profit margin cannot afford time delays, given the highly geared nature of these projects. Delays add to the costs, so companies will often prefer to come to an accommodation with Forum members rather than run the risk of further disruption and intimidation.
Local government officials and police have promised to stamp out such instances of thuggery, but construction managers say the city government in Durban is sending out mixed signals, promoting “radical economic transformation” on the one hand, while promising to stamp out thuggery on the other.
“The difficulty that companies have is that they are already employing locals and complying with the law,” says Barnard. “They have to meet government requirements to be awarded the tenders and projects in the first place. Then, after moving onto site, they now have another group, or several of them, coming in and demanding that they be employed. If they don’t get what they want, they often shut the site down.”
Some site managers say the police will respond only when a serious crime such as assault is involved. Barnard says the interdicts awarded by the Durban High Court include an action to compel the SA Police Services to do whatever is necessary to give effect to the court orders. “The SAPS have been very good in executing on these orders, and that has helped bring some order to the situation.”
One construction executive who asked not to be named says that although his company won an interdict against the business forum, it proved difficult to serve on the individuals involved. “So although we won the interdict, this did not stop them. Many of the people who were intimidating us were not even local. We then started working with the local community and explained that these people were trying to take their jobs. It was at this point that things started to quieten down.”
A water project for eThekwini Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal has been repeatedly disrupted by business forum members, despite an interdict being awarded to the contractors. “We are hoping for a final order that will allow the SAPS to make an arrest in this case,” says Barnard, adding that this would be the first such order that he is aware of.
There is a danger that some struggling construction firms will be put out of business by these mafia-style tactics. It remains to be seen how forcefully police in other parts of the country deal with cases of intimidation as the mafia spreads from Durban.
This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
Michael Hudson is regarded by many as one of the world’s best economists because of his willingness to pierce the veil of deceit that passes for modern economic wisdom. His latest book J is for Junk Economics exposes much of modern economic thought as pure propaganda.
Michael Hudson is regarded by many as one of the world’s best economists because of his willingness to pierce the veil of deceit that passes for modern economic wisdom.
In 2006 he warned of the coming mortgage bubble as an inevitable result of the debt explosion, but his warnings were brushed off as the murmurings of a spoiler.
J is for Junk Economics is his latest work, and is a follow-up to his previous book, Killing the Host. Junk Economics is discomfiting to those who profess to understand free markets. It is a full frontal attack on modern banking, monopoly privilege and the so-called rentier class that has siphoned wealth away from the working and middle classes to the already wealthy.
“The 2008 banking and junk mortgage crisis saw the United States and Europe save banks and bondholders, not their economies. While governments spent trillions on bailouts and ‘quantitative easing’ to save large creditors and speculators from losses on their bad loans and gambles, public and private infrastructure has been left to crumble and median wages are drifting down.”
The printing of new money in the form of “quantitative easing” is fire-hosed into the stock, real estate and bond markets to keep asset prices aloft.
Junk economics says Hudson, is the cover for all this. Dressed up in scientific jargon, it is little more than propaganda calculated to redistribute wealth upwards, reversing the policies urged by 19th century classical economists and reformers.
Hudson is an advocate of debt Jubilees of biblical reference, where unpayable debt was simply written off – usually by rulers seeking recruits for a new war or large-scale public works programme. The ravages of compound interest guarantee that our current debt burden can never be repaid, other than by more and more money printing. But that always ends in catastrophe, and is in fact the poison that has killed civilisations from Babylon to Greece and Rome.
The way we measure gross domestic product is fictionalised by the inclusion of unearned income such as interest and rent paid to the FIRE sector – finance, insurance and real estate. Exclude these rentiers (as they were known a century ago) and our GDP figures come crashing down. Hudson distinguishes between the “real economy” of factories and commerce from the financialised economy, though it is the latter which is exalted as the engine of economic growth. This is how the US economy has been deindustrialised, as factories moved to low wage countries such as China.
What about the perceived wisdom of budget surpluses so popular among World Bank types? Hudson points out that budget surpluses are achieved by raising taxes or cutting back public spending, “taking money out of the economy to pay bondholders.” Paying down public debt sucks money out of the economy, just as consumers servicing their bank loans leads to debt deflation.
Just as commercial banks create money electronically by lending, governments can do the same thing. Government budget deficits spend money into the economy, which is not inflationary when labour and resources are unemployed. This is in contrast to neoliberal economists who preach austerity, followed by bank bailouts when their disastrous policies inflate financial bubbles to the benefit of their constituency of bankers and bondholders. He fires broadsides at modern economists for enabling the dispossession of the 99%, and smears the Nobel Economic Prize is a PR campaign for “neoliberal junk economics”.
Tough stuff, but immensely entertaining. “It is time to throw down the gauntlet and accuse the rentier financial class deceptions of being what they are: economic fictions,” writes Hudson.
J is for Junk Economics is a dictionary of sorts, explaining the theories of Adam Smith to John Mills. Even the word “free market” has been twisted by modern interlopers to mean freedom to extract unearned rent or income. This is where Hudson is at his best. “To deter regulation, taxation or nationalisation – and even to gain public subsidy and government guarantees – lobbyists for the FIRE sector depict rent and interest as reflecting their recipients’ contribution to wealth, not their privileges to extract economic rent from the economy.”
Banks and real estate speculators derive unearned “rent” from the overall improvement in property values. A new access road funded by taxpayers increases the overall value of properties in the area. Banks and speculators extract this value in the form of higher mortgage payments and commissions. The phenomenon was well known in the 19th century by Karl Marx and classical economists such as John Stuart Mill. The recommended solution to this was for governments to tax the increase in land values away, rather than hand it over to rentiers, and reinvest this back into the community to promote further prosperity. To count this unearned rent as part of national income is to pretend that banks are providing a real economic product (as opposed to bank lending for a factory, for example, which leads to tangible economic output).
Another misconception tackled by Hudson is the notion that classical economists such as Adam Smith stood for free markets and opposed government interference. What they actually opposed were governments controlled by the landlord aristocracy dominating tax policy, resulting in Britain’s House of Lords taxing labour and industry instead of land and finance.
At a time when there is discussion of starting a state-owned bank in SA, the architects should be required to read this book rather than listen to the solicitations of bankers. China’s state-owned banking system, long derided by Western analysts for its abstruse accounting, has been a major pillar of that country’s economic miracle. Rather than taxpayer-funded bailouts, as occur in the West when banks fail, Chinese banks simply write down debt.
You can watch some of Hudson’s debates and presentations on Youtube to get a sense of his staggering knowledge of economic history.
This article first appeared in Moneyweb.
Tens of thousands of illegal miners scramble below ground each day, hoping to pull out half a gram of gold and get to it the surface without being robbed or fleeced.
Try as they might, the government and trade unions are powerless to stop the tens of thousands of zama-zamas who descend each day into the network of discarded mine tunnels underneath Johannesburg, reckoned to run to 160 000 kilometres. That’s four times the circumference of the earth, and virtually impossible to police.
They descend at dawn and resurface at 6pm when the police change shifts. Some will stay underground for days, some for months. There is a supply network that feeds those underground with food, alcohol and batteries. Armed “security guards” protect the entrances to the underground tunnels, charging R50 or more to those who enter. Nothing in life is free. Even these abandoned mines have new landlords.
A few kilometres outside the Benoni CBD to the east of Johannesburg, the authorities made an effort to curtail illegal mining by collapsing some underground entrances. A few weeks later, the entrances were reopened and it was business as usual. There are hundreds of entrances dotted around Johannesburg, and they all belong to someone.
The mining houses long ago abandoned these mines as non-viable, but there is still sufficient gold in them to attract thousands of illegal miners every day. They enter without hard hats, harnesses and the other paraphernalia required to keep them safe. Mines spent hundreds of millions of rands on support infrastructure to prevent roof collapses and provide fresh, cool air. None of this happens in illegal mining.
Most zama-zamas chip away at the gold-bearing reefs with small picks, while the better resourced use explosives. They load the ore into small back-packs and make their way to the surface, dodging the police to get the ore to the above-ground “refineries” where the ore is crushed and the gold extracted from the concentrate using mercury. The mercury is burned off, leaving a small nugget of gold.
These illegal miners have their own equivalent of fishing stories – hard to prove, but amazing if true. Three Zimbabweans working under Modder B mine are reported to have recovered 4.7kgs of gold in three days of work, worth about $200 000 at today’s gold prices. They apparently returned home, squandered the money and are now back underground at Modder B.
But the hardscrabble reality for most is far more sparse than this: the people working the illegal refineries above ground expect to make 0.5-1 gram a day, worth R420/g on the black market operating on the East Rand. Sometimes you hit a sweet spot, where the same amount of rock yields ten or 20 times this amount.
My dear friend Tony Webbstock passed away last Wednesday morning, the result of complications from a decades-long battle with diabetes and – one has to say – poor medicine back in the day when diabetes wasn’t as well understood as it is today. Tony was a warrior with a Christian heart, a genius lawyer who put himself at the service of the people vs the banks.
I could hear it in his voice a few weeks back when I last spoke to him. He sounded strained and weak. He succumbed last week after a long fight with his ailing body. He remained his usual chirpy self, defiant and rebellious to the end. Never once was there a hint of victimhood in his voice.
Tony had been an attorney all his professional life, a devout Christian and champion of the small guy. He never once acted for the banks. With his genius and knowledge of the law, he could have made himself a rich man had he put himself at the service of the banks, but he refused this path. As an attorney, he would only ever act against the banks. Many clients he took on without charge. Whether you were from the townships or suburbs, as long as you were being hounded by the banks, Tony was always available on his phone for a consultation.
In an industry crowded with money grubbers and vultures, Tony stood above them all for his principle and his heart. He could not turn away from the misery and suffering that the banks had inflicted upon ordinary people. After the financial crisis of 2008, it became obvious to Tony that the banks were engaged in the biggest crime of the century. Having spread their confetti money across the land in the years leading up to the crisis, they then started foreclosing and vacuuming up of assets of their customers.
It is a well-known fact that South African law firms will seldom, if ever, act for clients against the banks. This is how they have captured the justice system. Tony was a rare exception, and he was brilliant at it. He knew every nook and cranny of banking and consumer law, and surrounded himself with a team that was without equal, including his son Matt, Stephen May and Leonard Benjamin. In case after case, they schooled the banks in the law that they were abusing.
Tony had fascinating insights into modern banking, the accumulation of four decades of legal battles with the banks. He knew their every trick: failing to properly serve summons on their customers to defeat their ability to put up a defence; illegally loading bank and legal charges onto mortgage bonds; arriving in court with recreated documents, claiming the originals were destroyed in a fire; litigating clients into bankruptcy, the final indignity for those who spent their lives in toil and struggle; bringing claims before the High Court when they should be argued in the Magistrates Courts where legal costs are a fraction of the higher court; failure to attach loan agreements to summonses; unlawful selling of credit and other insurance products and then failing to honour these policies; self-dealing by the banks when they repossess properties for a pittance and then on-sell them to insiders…. The list goes on. Tony had seen it all.
He was unique in that he was not motivated by money. His Christian heart had no place for this. From Timothy in the Bible: “The love of money is the root of all evil…” Tony lived this with conviction and passion. In a broken and troubled world, Tony made a difference. Thousands of people were rescued from ruin by his intervention. He was mostly gentle and kind. I say mostly. When confronted with that miserable breed, debt collectors, he summoned up the tiger and disguised his fair nature with rage, as Shakespeare implores us in Henry V:
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage:
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect.
To hear Tony dispense with debt collectors was a beauty to behold. In battle, this was a guy you wanted in your corner.
The good news is that Tony’s crusade for a fairer world is in good hands. His son Matt, Stephen and Leonard will continue the path that Tony forged. Tony leaves us, his integrity and soul intact, a rare thing to say about any lawyer.
This article first appeared at Acts Online.
SA is over-governed. We have 35 ministers, 37 deputy ministers, and 9 provinces each with their own ministers and administrations. Then there are the 263 municipalities, operating another layer of bureaucracy. Perhaps government should set the pace by scaling back on this boondoggle.
And in case you think this is all well and good, consider that just 49 of the country’s municipalities achieved clean audits in the 2015/16 financial year, according to the Auditor General, Kimi Makwetu.
The AG also reported that Irregular expenditure in municipalities increased by over 50% to R16.81bn, though the figure could be substantially more as a third indicated that the full extent of mis-spending was unknown.
Narius Moloto, president of the Pan African Congress (pictured above right), calls the nine provinces “mini bantustans” and wants to see them scrapped, with the money spent on duplicated administrations spent on job creation and uplifting the poor. The 9 provinces have a combined 430 members of the legislature to look after, not counting their entourages and hangers-on.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) thinks it’s time to scale back on the blue light brigade. “This cabinet is by far one of the biggest in the world with 35 ministers; far bigger than the United States at 15 ministers, Kenya with 18 ministers, and the United Kingdom with 21 ministers,” according to DA spokeswoman Desiree van der Walt.
This year alone, the 35 ministers and 37 deputy ministers are expected to earn R163.5 million, with their ministerial staff (limited to 10 for minister and 6 for deputy ministers) costing a further R1bn.
Is this value for money? The DA has done some decent homework on this subject and concludes that government should set a good example by cutting back on the number of ministers. What do we need a sports minister for, other than to cheer on our soccer team and complain about race quotas not being met? What does our science and technology minister hope to achieve that the private sector cannot? Then we’ve got higher education and basic education. Why 2 ministries (both rather miserable in their academic achievements)?
That’s just one side of this boondoggle. Public Works doled out R188m on 33 properties in Pretoria and Cape Town for the ministers and deputies, a princely R5,7m per property. Another R48m is to be spent in the current fiscal year for 6 more properties – a cost of R8m per property. The R236m spent on ministerial properties could have built 2,000 RDP houses, says the DA.
Then there’s the travel and entertainment budgets coming in at a shade under R300m this year. But the real shocker is the VIP protection services, costing R1,5bn in the current fiscal year, and close to R5bn over the next 3 years.
The DA says part of the problem lies in the ministerial handbook, which provides rather generous staffing and expense limits on ministers and their deputies.
Previous presidents had smaller cabinets. Nelson Mandela – total cabinet size 50 (28 ministers); Thabo Mbeki – total cabinet size 50 (28 ministers); Kgalema Motlanthe – total cabinet size: 47 (28 ministers); Jacob Zuma/Cyril Ramaphosa – total cabinet size 73 (35 ministers).
Says van der Walt: “If the president is serious about helping National Treasury reign in the runaway budget deficit he will have to cut executive spending by finalising a stricter and more frugal ministerial handbook, as well as cutting the overall size of the cabinet.”
This article first appeared at Acts Online.
Thank Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu for higher oil prices, which spiked from around $40 to nearly $80 a barrel after the US president announced last week he was pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal. Israeli prime minister Netanhayu’s signature is all over this.
Oil prices are now at levels last seen in 2014. The fear is that Iran’s oil exports will suffer as a result of renewed US sanctions, resulting in a worldwide shortfall (even though Iran only accounts for 3% of global oil supply).
What this means for SA is rising fuel prices, a weaker balance of payments and higher interest rates. In other words, more poverty. You can thank Trump and Netanyahu for this outrage.
It looks like our hopes for reaching 2% growth this year can now be put to bed. Clive Eggers, head of Investment Analytics at GTC, says if the oil price continues to climb – which it will if the US actions against Iran remain in place – and inflationary pressure builds, the SA Reserve Bank may be forced to raise interest rates to stabilise the economy.
South Africa imports its oil primarily from Saudi-Arabia, Nigeria and Angola. Higher oil prices will contract GDP by 0.3%, and could get worse if oil prices continue to rise – which seems likely.
“Trump’s announcement has essentially put the entire Middle East into a state of flux and risked a potential destabilisation of the area. The other signatories to the agreement have – for now – agreed to maintain the status quo and continue with the deal, though American sanctions would make it very difficult for many global companies – including MTN, Airbus, Total and Peugeot – who resumed doing business in Iran after the original nuclear deal was announced, to continue dealing with Iran,” says Eggers.
SA has strong historical ties with Iran, as it first started importing Iranian oil after World War II and has constructed refineries to accommodate Iranian light crude oil. Until 2011, when sanctions were imposed by the US, SA was the third biggest importer of Iranian oil.
Within days of pulling out of the Iran deal, we were treated to visuals of Israeli troops shooting unarmed Palestinian protesters with live bullets, while 50 miles away in Jerusalem Ivanka Trump was cracking open the champagne to inaugurate the new US embassy building, in defiance of Palestinian claims to the city.
SA’s foreign minister Lindiwe Sisulu immediately recalled her ambassador to Israel in condemnation of the killings. The EFF wants the Israeli mission to SA shut down. The DA and the Jewish Board of Deputies “slammed” the ambassador’s recall, but not the killings, which were merely “regretable”. The Daily Maverick reports on the killing of “peaceful” protesters (note the parenthesis, a craven attempt at even-handedness). Other papers spoke of “clashes” between the Palestinians and Israelis. No. There were no clashes. It was a turkey shoot. This could turn out to be Israel’s Amritsar or Sharpeville moment, a slaughter so ugly that the world can no longer look away.
It’s getting hard to make sense of Donald Trump. It looked for a time as if he was Reagan 2.0, a right-wing pro-business president breathing fire and brimstone who miraculously brought an end to the Cold War with Russia.
Trump is nothing like Reagan. Reagan was more gas than propane. He pulled US troops out of Lebanon after a bomb attack on a US army station in that country, and dialled down the kind of crazy rhetoric were are now hearing whenever the subject of Russia comes up. Reagan, though he invaded Grenada for a bit of weekend sport, still managed to make the world a safer place. Trump may sincerely want better relations with Russia, but he is clearly hostage to the crazies in his government who need enemies to keep military spending faucets on maximum.
He twice ordered the firing of missiles into Syria in the last year over dodgy evidence of chemical attacks by the Syrian military. Netanyahu wants nothing more than to rid the region of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. A weakened Syria suits Israel (don’t imagine for a minute Israel will stop at breaking up Syria – it now has Iran squarely in view). Trump then surrounded himself with some of the most reckless pro-war hawks that had been lurking in the shadows of the Obama administration, bringing the world once again to the brink of a superpower war. Russia has warned that it would retaliate should any of its troops in Syria be harmed. “Brinkmanship” has returned as official US policy after a three decade sojourn, though this time could easily spiral out of control.
In his election campaign, Trump promised better relations with Russia, but has since cycled back from this hopeful talk. Russia’s entry to the Syrian conflict has virtually rid the country of jihadis, changing the dynamics of the region.
It was Trump’s predecessor, Obama, who signed off on the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in return for the latter limiting its nuclear activities. Trump always maintained it was a “bad deal” without offering any sound proof. Netanyahu is leading Trump by the nose with his cartoonish exaggerations of the Iran threat. The International Atomic Energy Agency and US intelligence have on numerous occasions confirmed Iran is in compliance with its nuclear obligations.
Remember this the next time you refuel your car, or have to pay higher interest rates on your mortgage bond.
This article first appeared at Moneyweb.
Former Reserve Bank employee and now senior economist at Efficient Group, Dawie Roodt, says there are 170 billion good reasons why the state would want to get its hands on the assets of the Reserve Bank.
He says last year’s failed attempt by the public protector to alter the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank may be a prelude of what’s to come.
Assets worth R170 billion are reflected on the Reserve Bank’s balance sheet as belonging to the state – most of them unavailable for state spending. The state will have to borrow R224 billion in the current fiscal year to finance its budget, and will be looking for any cash it can lay its hands on.
Of the R170 billion Reserve Bank assets belonging to the state, R70 billion was accumulated when Trevor Manuel was finance minister and tax revenues exceeded budget projections. The economy was powering ahead and foreign inflows meant too much money was in circulation, with the danger that inflation would ratchet out of control. An amount roughly equivalent to R70 billion was transferred from the state to the Reserve Bank to take some of this money out of circulation, but with the agreement that this money could not be used for state spending in the future. It was a smart idea by Treasury, which seems to have anticipated that a future administration would make a claim on this money. These funds now sit on the Reserve Bank balance sheet as a liability to the state.
The Reserve Bank also holds about R100 billion in forex that belongs to Treasury, but this too may only be used for foreign currency transactions, and is not available for domestic state spending.
Roodt says the state would love to get its hands on this money to help solve some of its budgetary constraints: “R170 billion would solve a lot of problems, like SAA, Eskom and other state-owned entities, which have huge debt obligations falling due. I suspect this was the reason the public protector last year brought out a report recommending a change in the Reserve Bank’s mandate. Though this was rejected by the High Court, I believe we may see further attempts to weaken the Reserve Bank.”
Last year public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane attempted to have the Constitution amended to change the Reserve Bank’s mandate, which is to protect the value of the currency. The Constitution also requires the Reserve Bank to perform its functions “independently and without fear, favour or prejudice”, but in consultation with the cabinet.
Mkhwebane also ordered Absa to repay a R1.12 billion Reserve Bank bailout stemming from its acquisition of Bankorp in the 1980s. Absa and the Reserve Bank are opposing this, and the matter is currently before the court. The attempt to alter the bank’s mandate was rejected by the North Gauteng High Court, but Roodt believes that this was not the final attempt to capture the Reserve Bank.
This article first appeared at Lewrockwell.com.
Zimbabwe is best remembered as the country that clocked up a jaw-dropping inflation rate of 231 million percent a year.
That insanity came abruptly to an end in 2009 when the country adopted the US dollar and South African rand as the official means of exchange.
How did it get to this Olympian inflation rate? The same way it always happens, by rampant money printing.
Less well known is what happened immediately after this. The ruling Zanu-PF party lost its outright majority in the 2008 election and was forced to share power with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In came opposition member of parliament Tendai Biti as finance minister, and in a 30 minute speech to parliament he announced the end of virtually any form of government interference in the economy. No more exchange controls, no more price controls, no more import permits needed. Government was getting out of the business of trying to regulate the economy.
Within weeks, shortages of fuel and food had vanished and once-empty supermarkets were stacked to the roof. Inflation, which just a year previously had been doubling every few hours, fell to minus 7 per cent. Within two years, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate was the lowest in the southern Africa region. The economy grew at an average 8% a year over the next four years, albeit off a bombed-out base. Zimbabweans could scarcely recognise the country in which they were living. Entrepreneurs were making money hand over fist. They were buying cars, going on overseas holidays and sending their kids to the best private schools.
This free market experiment came to an end in 2013 when Mugabe won outright control in an election most believe was stolen, and reverted to form, reintroducing exchange and other controls.
If crisis makes its own opportunity, here is a case in point. Zimbabwe had hit such a low ebb, it was ripe for the kind of radical free market economics that frighten the bejeezus out of other countries.
Regulators have an innate fear of anything that moves freely and without hindrance. Take exchange controls, which we Africans have endured our entire lives. South Africa has had exchange controls since the apartheid years, a policy mindlessly extended under the African National Congress-led government.
The great fear is that removing exchange controls will lead to a flight of capital and all the attendant dangers that implies to the balance of payments, inward investment and tax revenue.
Zimbabwe’s experience is quite the opposite. Government tax revenue shot up nearly eight-fold in four years, and there was no shortage of foreign currency. The balance of payments did deteriorate, but this was partially offset by much higher inward investment flows.
MDC opposition member of parliament Eddie Cross, an economist by training, says this flowering of economic prosperity should be heeded by other countries. “We could solve Venezuela’s problems (with inflation and shortages) in an hour,” he told Moneyweb.
That’s right. He is saying we should look at Zimbabwe as a model for economic reform.
Two months ago, Robert Mugabe was deposed in a soft coup after 37 disastrous years at the helm. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, through cut from the same party political cloth as Mugabe, made a decent impression at the recent Davos confab, promising sweeping reforms and respect for democratic outcomes. Though as Cross points out, he hasn’t followed this up with substantive reforms.
Zimbabwe’s next election comes up in June, and there is a real chance the country will have an opposition party in government, or at least a coalition. That holds out the exciting prospect of a free market finance minister such as Tendai Biti once again taking over the country’s purse strings.
If that’s the case, Zimbabwe, with a population among the best educated in Africa, is a miracle waiting to happen. I’d put money on it.
This article first appeared at Moneyweb. Pictured below: Narius Moloto, head of trade union federation (NACTU).
There are now more people receiving social grants in SA than there are people with jobs.
Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s budget highlighted the predicament government finds itself in: there are 17.6 million people receiving grants, against the 16.2 million people with jobs in the country.
In 2001 there were 12.5 million people employed and just 4 million people receiving social grants, according to an Institute of Race Relations survey. The number of people on social grants has exploded more than four-fold in 17 years, while the number of official jobs has gone up just 30% over the same period. Aggravating the situation is the growth in public sector jobs from 2.1m to 2.7m since 2008. Public servants’ salaries – which are more than a third higher than the private sector average – now account for nearly half the annual budget.
“This situation is not sustainable,” Dawie Roodt, chief economist at the Efficient Group, told the Austrian Business Chamber at a post-budget briefing in Sandton last week. “I disagree that this is a conservative or reasonable budget, as some have claimed. It is an awful budget. SA has become a country of social upliftment, rather than a country of economic upliftment. We’re among the most highly taxed countries in the world, and there is no apparent recognition of how we got here or how we are going to get out of this mess.”
Rather than trying to focus on job creation, Roodt says the government should be looking at economic growth as the primary engine of job creation, flanked by privatisation, massive infrastructure development and a world class skills development programme.
Mike Schussler of Economists.co.za says a worrying aspect of the structural dependence being created in the country is that of the roughly 16 million people with jobs, 10 million are in the formal sector and only 7.5 million of those pay tax. “If you add people who are pensioners, we are on our way to having 19m people who are dependent on some form of social grant or pension. This leaves the few who are working to carry the burden. This cannot continue.”
The returns that South Africans receive on their taxes are abysmal. SA learners score among the worst in the world when it comes to maths and science, due in part to the high learners-to-educators ratio: 32 in SA versus 24 for the rest of the world. This is despite spending 22.5% of the budget on education each year. Social assistance will account for R197 billion or nearly 13% of the budget in the coming fiscal year. Coming in just behind this is interest spending, which will swallow R180 billion or 12% of the budget.
Narius Moloto (pictured above), leader of the Pan African Congress and secretary-general of trade union federation Nactu (National Council of Trade Unions), says while the tax base is becoming smaller, government welfare grants are ballooning out of control – a situation that is unsustainable, even in the short term: “The cash grants system is another form of political patronage and does not encourage upward progression in the economy. The way it is structured at present entrenches dependency. With some of this money that is being spent on social grants, we could have established cooperatives and micro-enterprises in poor communities with a view to permanently weaning them off welfare. That’s not happening and the programmes aimed at job creation are not working.”
One quick way to cut spending is to eliminate the provinces, which are little more than super-Bantustans with mini-presidents, says Moloto. “SA is over-administered. There’s huge duplication between national, provincial and local government. We can save billions a year by eliminating this duplication.