South Africans don’t think often enough of the counterfactual narratives on what a slightly different set of assumptions would lead to.
Take for instance department of mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s comments last week that the department is not responsible for the abysmal Fraser ranking of SA among mining jurisdictions. On one overly simplistic level he is, of course, right. The department isn’t surveyed as part of this sentiment-based indicator of mining executives.
Yet to say the department is not responsible is preposterous. What the minister was doing was essentially throwing down the political gauntlet to the new Minerals Council boss, barely a day into the job.
The alternative narratives in taking the minister’s line just make no sense. If the department is doing nothing wrong and SA executives are just too lazy to promote SA as a mining destination, one would have to seriously question their rationality — which would make no sense. In fact, the industry could have arguably gone out of its way for too long to paper over the cracks with diplomatic language in the mining-doing-business environment.
The other option, one might argue, is that mining executives should back SA more based on nationalistic loyalties. Yet this would misunderstand these companies as global in nature. The survey is designed to offset this bias.
The reality is more mundane: the department creates the environment, which affects the sentiment that appears in the survey.
The minister’s line, however, is just one of many glimpses emerging of where the narrative and communications lines will focus before next year’s elections: others must be blamed.
The worst line is the one, which everyone from the president down has uttered, that the population should understand that load-shedding is simply the result of too much demand from too much good electrification work the ANC government has done in the past 25 years.
If this were true, it would mean that there would be no role for the government in planning to meet demand, and that having such a policy role in thinking about supply is not their job. It would also mean that the responsibility should be on the electorate to cut back on usage.
These are obviously preposterous. Demand policy — including electrification — is a public good. So is the separate concern of the government to ensure appropriate energy planning and an appropriate energy system mechanism to get megawatts on grid fast enough through whatever efficient means it can set up.
This supply-side goal has not been reached due to many failures over 25 years that the government is now swiftly correcting through the national energy crisis committee, but that will take time to boost supply.
More of these problematic narratives will emerge in the next year. The awkward question is whether the electorate will buy them.
In an emotive environment with a strong lack of trust and historical party stickiness (the largest vote choice will be for a party, particularly the ANC, versus not voting), such messages, as bizarre as they are, can well have an effect. Indeed, the lesson always must be: don’t overplay the downside in the ANC. The polling and by-election results reinforce that point, and hence even if my baseline is that the ANC gets 47% next year, the probability of a nose above 50% is now meaningfully higher than it was in the fourth quarter of 2022.
But narratives come unstuck when real things have to be done. And we may well see more of that in future. The National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill just passed by the National Assembly portfolio committee on health will become unstuck as many legal challenge mount after it is eventually passed. The ability to pass legislation that is likely to be so fraught with legal issues regarding constitutional powers and the effects on individuals such as medical aid holders is quite something.
Similarly, the Electoral Amendment Bill may well prove problematic. I am still sceptical that it will be used in the elections in 2024 rather than drowning under legal challenges due to the biases it produces.
Despite getting rid of the pointless state of disaster, the desire to squeeze through all manner of procurements on an emergency basis for new power may well become unstuck legally. Karpowership remains the most obvious example. Like other problematic narratives that issue has now taken on a life of its own, pitting the forces of good versus evil against each other — though whom one puts in each of those buckets might well differ depending on the political constituency being asked.
I commented earlier this year that a “simple” 2022 had given way to a more contested 2023, and indeed that contested 2023 might give way to a fraught, desperate and noisy 2024 as layers of PR and spin have to be cut away from all sides to see what is going on underneath. This morass for at least a year longer is what is keeping markets negative here. There is not an easy end point or off-ramp.
Still, we can construct a range of narratives. After we get through the winter peak, inflation will be about two percentage points lower, and let’s say that the Brics summit is moved or is virtual — then the dynamic may well improve somewhat, with recertification of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) looking risky but with a path through.
Equally, however, we might see markets sceptical on the amount of reform taking place; inflation stickier; the Fed or others still having to hike rates; Russian President Vladimir Putin having been to SA; and Agoa recertification looking shaky.
The problem is that the probabilities of these two quite different scenarios are about similar, which markets and investors struggle with. All of this suggests that things remain uncertain until there is clarity.
Such clarity won’t be helped by the noise to come. But there are calm voices to listen to, such as last week’s Operation Vulindlela update. Some anchor points need to be held onto through this period, even if they will take time to bear full fruit.
Until then, batten down the hatches.
• Peter Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Intellidex. This article first appeared in Business Day.