SA’s ‘Perpetual Crisis’ on the world stage: Corruption, theft, and a nation in danger

This article by Bloomberg Opinion contributor, Richard Cookson, discusses the current state of South Africa, highlighting its ongoing problems with corruption, theft, and power blackouts. Despite initial hopes for change under President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected in 2018, the country continues to face economic and social challenges. The article also notes the country’s high unemployment rate, capital flight, and a weak currency. Additionally, South Africa’s foreign policy is unlikely to win over investors, with recent naval exercises with China and Russia raising concerns. The article concludes that South Africa fits into a pattern of corruption and conflict that plagues many sub-Saharan African countries, with the ANC’s grip on power slipping and coalition government becoming a likely outcome in the 2024 elections.

By Richard Cookson*

What with banking crises and market gyrations on both side of the Atlantic, you probably haven’t noticed what’s going on in South Africa. But if you think you’ve got it bad, spare a thought for South Africans, where things seem only to go from bad to dreadful. A called-for national shutdown last week by the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters, the country’s third largest political party, was a bit of a damp squib. But you shouldn’t for one minute think that its grievances aren’t shared by all South Africans, whose lives are blighted by power blackouts of up to 10 hours a day and corruption on a Homeric scale. 

Richard Cookson corruption
Richard Cookson

The two, you might not be surprised to hear, are connected. Some local commentators think the country a failed state. Not yet, it isn’t, but  it is in danger of going that way. 

Things were supposed to be very different under Cyril Ramaphosa. I remember well the euphoria in financial markets that accompanied his election as president in February 2018. My inbox was stuffed with notes from strategists and commentators, every one claiming that this was a turning point for South Africa after the endemic corruption in the years of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. You would have had to have been particularly heartless not to hope for such an outcome. But I thought it very unlikely. 

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The reason is that South Africa’s dominant post-apartheid leitmotifs have been corruption and theft. If, under Zuma, they thundered loudly, under Ramaphosa they have been less brassy but no less forceful. Hence, the more or less perpetual crisis that now afflicts the country. Crime is rampant. The police are widely reported to take bribes. Companies routinely pay politicians for contracts. Basic services, such as sanitation and water, are often unavailable. In a 2020 audit of the 257 municipalities, only 27 received a clean bill of health from the Auditor General.

The country’s crisis is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the rolling and constant power blackouts afflicting much of the country. André de Ruyter, until recently the chief executive of Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd, the country’s electricity monopoly, publicly blamed theft and corruption for the constant blackouts. In a blunt interview last month, he described the African National Congress, the party that has dominated South African politics since the end of apartheid, as a kleptocracy. Having already handed in his notice in frustration in December, de Ruyter said he was poisoned and then, after a damning interview, immediately forced out of his job. Some in the ANC now accuse him of treason. Somehow that feels the wrong way round to me. 

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With corruption and theft seeping into every corner of the economy is it any wonder that unemployment in South Africa, especially among the young, is stubbornly dreadful, its growth rate so aenimic and capital so anxious to flee? At last count, the unemployment rate was almost 33%. It will probably get worse: South Africa’s economy shrank 1.3% in fourth quarter compared with the third and the outlook implies more of the same. Looked at on a 12-month rolling average, capital has flowed out of its debt markets every quarter for the four years, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. The numbers are similarly dreadful for its equity markets. With capital flowing out and a current-account deficit, its currency is flailing. Despite periodic bouts of enthusiasm, its trade-weighted currency has gone in only one direction: down. 

Nor is South Africa’s foreign policy likely to win over investors. Its recent naval exercises with China and Russia were either a principled, though alarming, show of an independent foreign policy or reflected the willingness of both countries to buy their way into Africa by splashing cash around. Neither looks good. 

South Africa fits into a wearyingly and depressing pattern. Since gaining independence, almost all sub-Saharan countries have been riddled with conflict, often tribal, and brazen corruption. The only real exception, Botswana, is mostly comprised of one tribe, the tswana. But as a region, sub-Saharan Africa ranks at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, below that bastion of probity, Latin America. Why sub-Saharan Africa has done so dismally is moot. Although South Africa ranks higher than most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa on Transparency’s scale, its score has been dropping in recent years. It now rates South Africa at the same level as when Zuma was forced to resign. 

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I doubt that Ramaphosa is so very different to the rest of the ANC, whatever he says in public. He was, lest we forget, the deputy president under Zuma. He is still being investigated over a bizarre tale as to why, in 2020, he didn’t report the theft of up to $4 million of cash stuffed into sofas at one of his farms.

The next general elections are in 2024. Once utterly dominant, the ANC’s share of the vote has slipped below 40%. But for various reasons none of the other parties grips the popular imagination and, for now, the most likely outcome in South Africa’s proportional representation electoral system is a coalition government. At best, coalition government might mean a few more checks on the worst instincts of the ANC. All that means is that South Africa disintegrates more slowly. 

*Richard Cookson was head of research and fund manager at Rubicon Fund Management. Previously, he was chief investment officer at Citi Private Bank and head of asset-allocation research at HSBC.

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