Bruggemans: Plumbing in stalled SA economy needs a great big flush

Cees Bruggemans
Cees Bruggemans

By Cees Bruggemans    

We all have something very basic in common, people, buildings and economies. As Bill Bryson might say, “it’s the plumbing, stupid”.

Without good plumbing you are nowhere. But is it only good plumbing, or also the water supply? For without a good flushing you are still up-creek with a downwind problem.

And the main point Bill made in his long, entertaining, insightful book, it is functional plumbing that made possible modern high-rise urban civilization. Without it, we would still be scurrying around like rats in filth.

This should make you think, as it did me. Welcome to supply and demand. With plumbing in the role of supply, water acting as demand, and a good healthy flushing being their interplay. Over and over again.

What this has got to do with your Sunday lunch? Basically everything, literally (if you wait long enough) but also conceptionally. And that is the extraordinary challenge of the global moment, as much in Europe, where Draghi this month went to next level, raising the black flag (“no quarter”), but also in South Africa where we remain pre-black flag raising and where a good flushing, cleaning the national bowls, remains only a very good dream but little else.

At least we can claim to have the superior toilet reading list, every organ of state, central, provincial, local, reportedly now having to start off any official document with homage to the the National Development Plan, the new Industrial Plan, the new Trade Plan, the New Growth Path, and many more such  planning tomes worthy of classy toilets, provided one is economic literate and badly constipated (for there is a lot of reading to be done here, a mere twitter won’t do, even if it would give the gist in a single word reflective of its functional surroundings).

Imagine getting a one-word twitter message, followed by a request to guess my location. Nose-deep in the new National Trade Plan or Industrial Plan would not be top of mind, right? Only for the cognoscenti (those in the know).

As to the European plumbing problem, as a warm-up so the speak, to the far more intricate and entangled SA one, Draghi was wonderfully sharp earlier this month, as any good plumber has to be when confronted with blocked drains.

Pushing more water down the pipe on its own won’t do, comprehendi? That only makes the brown stuff more oily and inclined to go where it shouldn’t, such as getting into and polluting the underground water, as in the fracking Karoo, although this can be highly motivational, such as making for bubbly asset markets.

A blocked drain is a structural problem. So if labour regulations and other legislation have become so convoluted that they block the drain, disallowing good flushing, and keeping up proceedings, for nobody can get through anymore but you still got to go with regular urgency, you are better advised to migrate next door to another country with better plumbing and superior water pressure.

Or you can get stuck in, get your arms dirty up to your armpits, in any case for some people their natural state, and do something useful about it. Like you do for cobwebs . Blow them away.

There is far too much “old” thinking whose time is gone, now merely blocking up the national drains. It should make way for “new” thinking, of which there is plenty in the world if you know where to look. In other words migrating wholesale into the 21st century rather than remaining mired in the 19th or 20th. Very challenging, that, seeing that few give up cherished ideas easily, however outmoded.

This was a very insightful message from a world class plumber. Throwing more water (monetary liquidity or fiscal money) at the problem in isolation will achieve essentially nothing more than making the situation yet more slippery but little else.

You got to physically unblock the stoppage. If this sounds like your Sunday roast indigestion, so much the better, for the parallel is there, but it too requires good plumbing and water supply to be addressed, your own and the building you are in.

In the case of Europe, things get a little complicated, for the plumber looking after the liquidity supply is charmingly Italian, the one in charge of fiscal money is rustic German (and very, very austere), and the crew having to clear the drain blockage are French, Italian, and more peripherals than you got fingers and toes, and all rather unwilling to get their Sunday’s Best soiled.

Some crew, mostly speaking funny English like their new Polish convener to make themselves commonly understood. But “Merde!” passionately said anyone understands. Push, Bro, push.

So there we have the European supply-and-demand challenge in a nutshell.

As to the SA economy, this might be even more challenging. At least most Europeans now know and acknowledge they have a problem. But many constipated South Africans often give me the impression of not having passed the diagnostic stage (even though some have heard everything they need to know, the mark of a superior plumber whose cheerful motto says it all – “We Shuffle Best”).

The SA economy should take a leaf out of that European book and the ready-made Draghi prescription. First unblock the drain by structurally reforming it. As this will be very hard, tiring, thirsty work, it makes sense to provide a regular, generous supply of refreshments to make the medicine go down (though  perhaps no quite the spoonful of sugar Julie Andrews had in mind).

So there are important supportive roles for monetary liquidity, fiscal money and lusty financial markets.

Above all it needs agreement and willingness to act, every member of the plumbing crew intimately knowing their task and fulfilling their destiny and Mandate Under Heaven. After which the glorious moment to open the slush gates once again! Nothing quite compares, some say. But that might just be due to a lack of imagination.



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