Editorial: Rand buried in consensus politics

The figures are now as unremittingly bleak as the news from the platinum belt. Economic growth of just 0.9% falls far short of expectations; worse, it is a level of activity that will result in more unemployment and poverty.

Labour unrest that has taken new and more challenging forms is compounding the effects of slumping commodity prices. Prolonged misery in Europe – the most important market for things South Africans make, rather than dig out of the ground – is casting a pall over a manufacturing sector that was already struggling with competitiveness. Even the retail sector, which has been riding a wave of credit in recent years, is taking strain.

Meanwhile, signs of stronger recovery in the United States are making South African debt less attractive to investors. Billions are flowing out of our bond market now that its relative yields are less attractive.

That is one reason why the rand has fallen out of bed.

What is to be done?

President Jacob Zuma called a rare press conference on Thursday morning, apparently aimed at answering that question.

One could be forgiven for feeling that he did nothing of the sort.

Talking up investor confidence
These are the concrete steps he announced: meetings have been taking place with unions and mining firms. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – for whom no chalice is too poisoned – will lead more. What they have achieved is far from clear, but business people involved say privately that they are pleased just to get an audience.

Pravin Gordhan, the finance minister, has been "assigned" to continue talking up investor confidence. Which is better than not talking it up.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant "has been tasked with supporting mining companies and unions in ensuring fair labour relations processes that promote order and stability in the sector". Which presumably means more deals to limit lay-offs at companies such as Amplats and Sibanye Gold. This may be the most substantive outcome of the battles that have raged since Marikana (although the National Union of Mineworkers is already claiming that there is no deal with Sibanye).

Meanwhile, Susan Shabangu "will continue with her task of supporting the industry in both policy and operational aspects, to promote certainty and stability in the sector".

And "high on the agenda is the improvement of the living conditions in mining towns, which we committed to as business, government and labour in October last year".

None of this is new, surprising, or feels very urgent. Nor is it adequate, given the scale of the problem.

One should always listen carefully to the president, however, as he has a tendency to bury the lede. If you were looking for a substantial signal on Thursday, you might have fixed on this one: "Given the beginning of the collective bargaining season in both mining and other industries, we call on ­parties to recognise the impact of the ­industrial relations environment on jobs and development. We call for fair and expeditious settlements of wage negotiations that can contribute to the attainment of the country's job ­creation and job-retention goals."

Restraint and consultation
That message is pretty clear: excessive wage demands and more strikes will destroy existing jobs and choke off new ones. That begs the question, however: What is he going to do about it beyond issuing calls for restraint and consultation?

The ANC's union partners ought to be a lever that falls readily to hand, but they are fractured in just about every dimension. The NUM, Motlanthe's alma mater, is so desperate to fend off the challenge of a more militant and ­responsive Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, that it opened the wage round bidding at a barely credible 60%.

And just as Zuma wrapped up his remarks, Zwelinzima Vavi was laying into labour brokers (whom he compared to slave traders), demanding "decent jobs" and insisting on the need for manufacturing growth rather than reliance on the mining sector. Some of that sounds like government policy, but it doesn't sound like a call for a peace-and-growth pact.

Most South Africans would like to see the president show clearer leadership, but simply holding a press briefing is not a substitute for actually having something to say. Indeed, all he did was to put on public display the vague consensus approach to economic policy that has given us four years of drift and dissatisfaction.

And the currency markets reacted swiftly, pushing the rand below 10 to the dollar for the first time since the financial crisis was at its height and the perverse "flight to quality" from emerging markets to US bonds was in full flow.

There are massive forces tugging at our relatively small economy, and serious constraints on macroeconomic policy (interest rates can't readily drop much more and public spending has no room to grow). That doesn't mean the Zuma administration has an excuse for doing nothing. The answers lie in the hard politics of the alliance, the elections and the micro (or "real") economy.

The ANC's electoral hegemony will survive 2014 even if the president announces some hard choices. If he doesn't, another five to 10 years of ­anaemia, with the accompanying growth in joblessness, will likely see it end definitively. The situation is urgent for all of us and the political window of opportunity small. Time to use it.

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