PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: Manifestos show no-one has a magic wand to fix key issues after polls

Poor Operation Vulindlela and various reform efforts have had no free lunch of a sentiment-led early boost to growth, with sceptical corporates and investors waiting for the actual impact of reforms.

As such, while we are certainly beyond the peak of load-shedding (in stage peaks over sustained periods or in TWh/year), no quarter will be given in terms of higher momentum of growth yet.

This is not to say meaningful underlying signs of resilience are not emerging. Cutting through the Sars PR on their role in boosting revenue collection, there are signs of a stronger-than-expected tax take. Indeed much of the market was deeply sceptical at the medium-term budget policy statement last year and even at the budget in February that the pencilled-in forecasts could be met. Similarly, trade data continues to keep its head above water, albeit with no momentum from it yet given Transnet’s dramas, which will take some time to fix.

But all this is minimal and not a vision of driving GDP per capita higher with decent momentum.

In many emerging markets, elections bring growth spurts as portfolio inflows give new administrations the benefit of the doubt and expect positive change from a stale status quo. It seems unlikely this will happen after May.

The interesting thought experiment that readers should perhaps do while sipping their Monday morning coffee is ponder if there would be more portfolio inflows with an ANC majority with an ANC/smaller party coalition or with an ANC-led government of national unity involving the DA. (The way that the MK Party is taking votes from the IFP, ANC and EFF actually means the moonshot pact coalition seems to still look like a busted flush nationally and perhaps isn’t worth considering.)

There isn’t an obvious answer to this question. Each permutation involves a fair amount of madness and drama — either internally within the ANC and its various factions and alliance partners or externally between the ANC and various coalition partners. Also, in all high-probability scenarios, the ANC remains the largest party and has come far in the past five years to (reluctantly) accept the need for reform, the role of the private sector, and to push out its more extreme elements (into other parties in part).

“Ah! But we’ve been on a study tour around the world!” each party is fond of saying. Mistra has written a commendable doorstop tome on coalitions that the ANC in particular likes to point to. Both these concepts are laughable. Coalitions come down to raw politics that are particular to the place and the raw personalities of those involved, their ability to manage each other across party lines, and their ability to manage their own internal dramas and factions. The IFP, EFF and DA all have complex internal factional structures that the media and analysts ignore because everyone has been so obsessed with the ANC for so long. People are still shocked when I produce pretty schematics of other parties’ internal factional structures. Sure, there may well be lessons one can draw from elsewhere, but they are also common sense — but nothing will get in the way of an embassy-funded study tour.

Nuanced view

Evidence from metros is not good for any party involved. It has highlighted the transactional nature of many parties such as the Patriotic Alliance, EFF and ActionSA and the limited capacity the DA has outside the Western Cape. We also see a strong lack of policy wonkery from all parties at a subnational level.

We shouldn’t forget deep problems in many areas that provinces control, yet opposition parties seem to have exceptionally limited insights or plans here. (The DA in KwaZulu-Natal seems to be the exception with a nuanced provincial policy view — with lessons learnt from power in the Western Cape — though it oddly hasn’t replicated this elsewhere, such as in Gauteng).

It has been hard for business and investors to get their teeth into opposition parties’ manifestos, which seem to have merged into a similar mass. Excluding some empowerment and fringe ideas in the ANC manifesto, there is remarkable overlap even with the ANC. The opposition view is just an amorphous, “We’ll do stuff better!”.

What does this even mean? There are reams of text in the manifestos about better public services and more capacity and no corruption. One ends up yawning. This stuff is stupidly hard to turn around and takes a long time. They all might well be successful (the ANC of course is saying it is doing the same — and it is, to a degree). But the deep mycelial networks in the public sector were severed by state capture, the removal or exit of many good people, and wage restraints. A lack of reward, recognition and fulfilment in the wider public service has led to the tyranny of incompetence about which Jonny Steinberg wrote eloquently in these pages last week (indeed an issue that many investors who just rock up at Treasury or the Reserve Bank never see face-to-face).

Opposition parties and even the ANC will, therefore, need time to turn this boat — they are starting from rock bottom in terms of capacity and public sector culture. No real shock is possible, therefore, on this front after the election.

Would corruption be lower under an ANC/DA coalition than under one between the ANC and a smaller party? Possibly, but only at the national level, with much graft continuing at lower levels of government. And trying to remove corruption might well imperil coalition stability as the ANC fights back internally to maintain its access to the “taps”.

Opposition parties will also have to be grown up and not flounce out of coalitions on the slightest whiff of corruption. They will be entering a swamp, and the job is the medium-run prize of cleaning it up — not trying to ensure there is zero corruption from the first day. This requires a change of thinking about how metros work in coalition. Investors will not reward opposition leaders who blow everything up on the second day of a coalition because they suddenly discover they are in a swamp.

Decent reformists

Little can also be meaningfully done quickly on the fiscal front given the constraints after the election. Similarly key reform ideas are already fully on the table — no meaningfully different Energy Action Plan 2.0 or Freight Logistics Roadmap 2.0 exist that are different enough from what’s already on the table to provide a shock to sentiment.

It is also hard to see business and investors latching onto personalities. Most opposition parties, and in particular the DA, are not campaigning on personalities and the notion of “this person in this role will make things better” (the exceptions are some of the proto parties with personality figureheads, but even then only in the imagined role as president). There is nothing then for people to grab hold of and imagine a different tomorrow after the election. The ANC already has decent reformists (albeit too few).

Overall, the message is the same as before (sorry — please go back to sipping your morning coffee). Patience is needed for the positives that can emerge from coalitions to become evident and we are unlikely to get much of a boost immediately postelection except the removal of some uncertainty risk premiums.


Peter Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Krutham, a SA research-led consulting company.

This article first appeared in Business Day.