Economist Dr Iraj Abedian:
“The private sector is SA’s only hope of pulling ourselves out of the ditch.”
South Africa is in crisis, and the private sector is the only sector that can change this. This is according to Dr Iraj Abedian, professor of economics, former chief economist of Standard Bank and CEO of Pan African Investment and Research Services speaking at an event co-sponsored by The Finance Team on Thursday 5 October 2017, he described South Africa having “an oblivious government with an economy on the brink.”
South Africa faces a global climate of uncertainty and nervousness. Gross fixed capital formation was in negative territory in four out of the past six quarters. The rand has weakened recently, despite a temporary uptick. According to a recent report from the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, business confidence is the lowest it has been in 32 years. Rising public debt now constitutes the biggest risk within the economy.
With all of these factors combined, if our GDP grows more than 0.5% this year “it will be almost miraculous,” said Abedian.
In his opinion, South Africa’s biggest threat is not the economic climate but the state capture that is permeating so much of our government and the private sector.
“Believe it or not, from a purely economic point of view, South Africa is not in a bad space,” said Abedian. “The structure of the economy is not vulnerable … it’s just got a rotten government and a whole lot of bad businesses. The economy is suffering under our people.”
The so-called “Gupta Leaks”, a recent spate of revelations alleging sinister and corrupt relations between political leaders and business owners have contributed to a huge loss in confidence. The parallel factions that have arisen in the ANC have led to policy uncertainty, a key consideration for investors and rating agencies. A fierce, at times even violent battle for leadership is underway in the governing party, growing more and more heated as its December conference approaches. For the first time since democracy, the ANC is not the foregone winner of the next national elections, and international investors are skittish about the changes that could usher in.
Add to this the fact that South Africa has been downgraded to junk status by both Fitch and S&P rating agencies. If Moody’s — which currently has South Africa sitting at one notch above junk with a negative outlook – joins its peers in a ‘junk’ outlook on the country, it will have massive effects on the country’s cash reserves. Bondholders will be legally required to withdraw from South Africa within 6-12 months. New investors will likely come in, but at a worse rate and on less favourable terms.
“Investors and consumers have lost confidence,” said Abedian. “All businesses are in a very uncertain, very doubtful, volatile state of mind. At the moment … business [is] in a state of what, at best, maybe a holding pattern. But that’s not the way to grow an economy.”
So how do we steer the country – and the economy – in a new direction? By leveraging our strongest asset, said Abedian.
“From a global perspective the comparative advantage of South Africa is not its government, not its resources; it’s the strength of its private sector.”
The private sector and its investment in the South African economy “is the only hope that we have of pulling ourselves out of the ditch we are in,” he said.
But this means clearing out the rot, so to speak. It starts with business holding itself to a higher level of accountability – as investors, drivers of growth and purveyors of ethical norms. It means becoming corporate activists, said Abedian, who recently resigned from the board of Munich Re because of the company’s continued engagement with audit firm KPMG after they were implicated in the Gupta Leaks.
The private sector “has to stop being sheepish. It has to be a real ethical social stakeholder.”