Editorial Board

South Africa Needs a New Direction

Unless something changes, it's on the fast track to an economic disaster.

"Radical economic transformation" won't help.

Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

The International Monetary Fund just pointed out that “South Africa’s vulnerabilities have become more pronounced.” That’s one way of putting it. A potentially prosperous and dynamic economy is on the fast track to ruin. Altering its course will take real political reform.

Unemployment has risen five percentage points since 2008, to a hope-crushing 28 percent. The country’s population is expanding faster than its economy, which lately has grown at less than half the rate of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. And its inequality is among the highest in the world.

QuickTake South Africa

These are the fruits of failed economic policy. Yet far from grasping the need for change, at a recent conclave of the ruling African National Congress, President Jacob Zuma championed ideas for entrenching his dominance and enriching his supporters. He’s trying to engineer the succession of his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as head of the ANC. And he’s pushing his program for “radical economic transformation” -- a toxic brew of all-too-radical populist policies.

Zuma wants, among other things, to change the constitution to let the government expropriate land without compensation, for the benefit of the black majority. He wants to force the country’s beleaguered mining companies to transfer more shares, and the proceeds from a levy on revenues, to black investors. His allies want to change the mandate of South Africa’s respected central bank to have it focus on “the socioeconomic well-being of the citizens” rather than on stable prices. That maneuver is a traditional precursor to subordinating the central bank to political control -- and Zimbabwe shows where that can lead.

Measures of this kind, damaging in themselves, will scare off foreign investors and stoke disorder and corruption. Zuma cannot be unaware of the risk. He’s unlikely to have forgotten the recent downgrade of the country’s debt, following his firing of a respected finance minister in March. With investors’ confidence in the economy sinking, his zeal for more economic setbacks seems undimmed.

Public dissatisfaction with the economy and anger over Zuma’s many scandals have already taken a toll on the ANC’s political fortunes. Hardly a day passes without some revelation about the president’s cronyism or new twist in his long-running effort to squelch previous charges of personal corruption.

If party reformers want to restore the ANC’s credibility, they need to defend the independence and integrity of South Africa’s financial and judicial institutions. If they want to revitalize the economy, they need to expose floundering state enterprises to competition and address the corruption and inefficiency that have caused the country to sink in global business rankings. If they really want to empower black South Africans, they should focus less on creating sweet deals for shareholders and more on fixing a failing educational system and enabling first-time job-seekers to join the workforce.

Calls for Zuma’s resignation are mounting, but have so far gone unheeded. His party has balked at the need for change. Sadly for South Africans, their president is better at staying in power than using it for the country’s benefit.  

    --Editorial: James Gibney, Clive Crook

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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