PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: Will SA be going forward or just accelerating into a wall?

This column was first published in Business Day

What happens when the state of the nation address either falls flat or is implemented?

There are two distinct paths before the country. The choice has become more stark because President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech was a public relations win and scored quite well on the policy front (despite being rather too long), given the specificity of its promises. It thus raises expectations and sets the bar higher than it might otherwise have been.

Indeed, the impression given by the speech was almost of the administration accelerating forwards, possibly into an implementation wall. Such a crash would have profound economic and political consequences.

The problem for the presidency is that nothing that was said in the speech matters except its implementation. Business sentiment is not only weak here but is glued to the floor as a result of ingrained scepticism from past broken promises.

This is not to say that small strategic victories shouldn’t be recognised. One can easily imagine the effort required simply to get the “obvious” statements on the future path of energy policy into the speech, or the ability to mention the Tito Paper at all. These things led to some of the warm fuzzy.

We should also recognise some parts of the speech that may well stretch reality. The number of shovel-ready infrastructure projects, or even just mentioning the public sector wage bill, would be taking a risk if they are shown not to work out.

Yet implementation is going to be hard. It will really test this sentence at the end of the speech which was the key about which the whole thing rotated: “With an efficient and capable machinery now in place at the centre of government, we will focus on the most urgent reforms and intervene where necessary to ensure implementation.”

It is far from clear that this has been true until now. Segmentation between communications, policy and implementation creates problems; so too does a department of planning, monitoring & evaluation that seems to struggle to provide real-time feedback on what is going right or wrong across government. Put simply, information travelling upwards from the bottom to the top, and then accountability from the top back down, is broken.

This is ultimately where the state of the nation address will live or die. The energy policy section of the speech is likely to be the most problematic, both practically and politically.

First, the delays and mistakes made in policy so far have had no consequence management. For instance, the idea that somehow you need to finish round four of the renewable energy independent power producer procurement (REIPPP) before you can start the next round is wrong and should have seen a counter-reaction from high up.

Second, a lack of urgency, because of capacity problems and vested-interest management, should have been stamped on straight away.

Third, speed is needed, and it is not clear from Ramaphosa’s speech that this is understood. In PR terms, you could have had regular public reports back of action taken by the energy war room, yet there has been no sound from them. Equally, the frequent mention of a three-to-12 month period from “notice to proceed” is misleading for the emergency energy procurement round as it may well take six to 12 months to reach this stage through various regulatory approvals.

The presidency will be tested for its capacity to “intervene where necessary to ensure implementation” in the event of further delays or go-slows.

If there are clear signs of the presidency intervening to clear out the political and ideological glue from the department of mineral resources & energy, then business sentiment may well be shocked to the upside if implementation then occurs.

The same applies if momentum around auctioning of the wholesale open access network (known as WOAN) does actually happen. Ramaphosa’s speech referred to this auction happening this year, but this area too is a complex mix of ideology and vested interests.

It is now or never for implementation, especially with the budget coming up next week and the ability to gazette change at any time. Some hard choices over how cadres are deployed in government may well have to be made if there is to be real consequence management for inaction.

The window is closing before the 2022 ANC elective fight gets under way, and it is then that the president’s factional enemies will use the lack of implementation as a weapon.

• Attard Montalto is head of capital markets research at Intellidex.