The devil in Patrick Bond’s policy time machine


SHOULD South Africa “undo Mandela’s economic deals”? Is Mandela’s economic miracle a chimera? Political economist Patrick Bond certainly thinks so, unfortunately alongside other critics of the Mandela era, he also appears unable to explain exactly what those compromises were and how Mandela himself was involved. There is no evidence that Mandela personally benefited from any alleged “deals with the devil” financial or otherwise, instead Bond provides a policy grab-bag, which he disingenuously calls the “dozen devils”.

His piece could more appropriately be titled, “if I could build a time-machine, this is how I would have run the country”. At the outset, one should state that Mandela was not an economist but rather an attorney by profession.

As a politician and founder of modern South Africa, he was responsible for ushering in an era of democracy and also signing off on the Bill of Rights, no mean feat considering the terrible period which had come before.

His administration and the subsequent Mbeki administration, presided over the longest post-war boom in South African history. A period which came to an end in 2009.

Bond lists the following “dozen biggest devils” that he claims, hobbled Mandela’s economic legacy, to which I attach my own [comments], please feel free to draw your own conclusions.

  1. “The repayment of the US$25 billion apartheid-era foreign debt. This denied Mandela money to pay for basic needs of apartheid’s victims.” If you were one of the supporters of the Jubilee campaign against apartheid debt, campaigning alongside the late Dennis Brutus for the annulment of the apartheid regime’s accounts, like me, you would have been very disappointed. Mandela’s hands unfortunately were tied by international bankers, since a pre-requisite for accessing capital markets and finance, like any business, was repaying the loans taken out by the previous owner or regime. South Africa was not granted any leeway here, so strike one on a simple point of fact.
  2. “Giving the South African Reserve Bank formal independence. This resulted in the insulation of the central bank’s officials from democratic accountability. It led to high interest rates and the deregulation of exchange controls.” Bit of a red-herring if you ask me (excuse the pun), there are really three parts to this assertion. Firstly independence does not mean absence of state control, rather, it stems from the idea of a separation of powers, in this case independence from interference by the executive. Do we really want an executive with keys to the treasury printing money whenever it feels so inclined? The latest debacle surrounding the appointment of the finance minister by the president provides a good case as to why the Reserve Bank and Treasury should not be beholden to any particular branch of the state, not least the party.  Second, high interest rates are a factor of the currency, not simply policy, as we see today. We currently have the same repo rate as Papua New Guinea. All nations with higher interest rates such as Brazil and Russia are performing badly. Should our interest rates come down, Investec’s Brian Kantor certainly thinks so. Thirdly deregulation of exchange controls was an absolute necessity in order for finance to flow back into the country, luckily it did, and we experienced the longest post-war boom period  in South African history, which came to an abrupt end in 2009. Was Mandela involved in any of these policy decisions? More likely it was Thabo Mbeki.
  3. Borrowing $850 million from the International Monetary Fund in December 1993, with tough conditions persisting for years. These included rapid scrapping of import surcharges that had protected local industries, state spending cuts, lower public sector salaries and a decrease in wages across the board. So far as the IMF loan is concerned, I couldn’t agree more, but then where else would the country have borrowed the money? South Africa’s finances were in a precarious state in 1993, the IMF loan is arguably a factor of the interim administration under FW de Klerk. So far as the big bang opening up of our economy to international competition is concerned, nobody expected the sanctions-era to last forever, and not all surcharges were scrapped, we have only begun eliminating them, as the Agoa trade war confirms. Did the state cut spending? This allegation isn’t backed up with empirical data, on the contrary it would appear spending was ramped up, South Africa under Zuma currently spends 40% of its budget on salaries, so no Mr Bond, you’re demonstrably wrong. Decrease in wages? This one is debatable with the rand depreciation, wage value also decreases.
  4. “Reappointing apartheid’s finance minister Derek Keys and Reserve Bank governor Chris Stals, who retained neoliberal policies.” Bond may have a point here but these appointments were really short-lived, since the ancien regime was quickly followed by Trevor Manual and Tito Mboweni, two home-grown black politicians. The main allegation could be better stated — Why did Mandela with very little political room, fail to make a clean break from the ancien regime, instead choosing a slow segue into the new era? This undoubtedly was a tough compromise which came out of CODESA. Did all this translate into retaining neoliberal policies? Not if one looks at the dirigiste economy, the many failed command-style, statist policies kept on by the ANC to the country’s detriment, one has only to look at the fate of SAA, Telkom, Eskom and other state (public-private partnership) monopolies, arguably worsened by listing on the market.
  5. “Joining the World Trade Organisation on adverse terms, as a “transitional”, not developing economy. This led to the destruction of many clothing, textiles, appliances and other labour-intensive firms. ” I can’t argue here, how were the terms adverse and what does Bond mean, would appear to be nothing more than a semantic quibble attached to the same gripe under point 3, since we still get preferential treatment in terms of tariffs and trade via Agoa, as a developing nation. How is Mandela responsible for the World Trade Organisation?
  6. “Lowering primary corporate taxes from 48% to 29% and maintaining countless white people’s and corporate privileges.” This one is a real chestnut, should the ANC have maintained high corporate taxes which would have further exacerbated capital flight? Lower rates resulted in an influx of corporate business, what would a better rate be, 35%? That the ANC protected the interests of various white persons and their corporate interests is one of life’s minor tragedies, I have only to point to the ongoing problem with Naspers. So plus 1 for Bond.
  7. “Privatising parts of the state, such as Telkom, the state-owned telecommunications company.” Privatisation without elimination of the underlying monopoly is the real sin. The State via the PIC maintains a  major shareholding in these entities, thus the correct phrase would be ‘partial privatisation’. Yes, the sorry tale of Telkom and SBC Malaysia is really an example of what can go horribly wrong when you have ‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians’.
  8. Relaxing exchange controls. This led to sustained outflows to rich people’s overseas accounts and a persistent current account deficit even during periods of trade surplus, and raising interest rates to unprecedented levels” South Africa now has more assets abroad in terms of value than inside the country, a result of relaxing exchange controls, the results can be seen in positive dividend inflows from abroad which fund business and contribute to the country, despite the economic climate. As for the deficit, running a deficit has been a policy of the ruling party for over two decades.
  9. “Adopting the neoliberal macroeconomic policy Gear. This policy not only failed on its own terms, it also caused developmental austerity.” If providing citizens with RDP homes in terms of Gear is a “neoliberal policy” then I am all in favour of neoliberalism, Bond once again demonstrating that he can’t see the wood for the trees. Is Gear responsible for “developmental austerity”? Would appreciate if Bond could expurgate on this point, since it appears to be a contradiction in terms.
  10. “Giving property rights dominance in the constitution, thereby limiting its usefulness for redress.” If Bond could supply us with a working alternative then by all means, but how does one create a legal system without property law and without removing the necessary distinction in law between those with title deeds and those without, and what about the pickle of stolen goods? There is nobody who seriously thinks the way forward is outright theft, though many would want to see greater redistribution of wealth. How to achieve this, if not via a social wage, rent stabilisation, income equalisation and a generous housing allowance?
  11. Approving the “demutualisation” of the two mega-insurers Old Mutual and Sanlam. It was the privatisation of historic mutual wealth for current share owners.” Bond merely demonstrates he doesn’t understand insurance, a mutual fund is for the mutual benefit of its members, when a fund demutualises, members receive a lump sum payout, usually with an option to invest the proceeds in another scheme, this has nothing to do with public money, Bond is thus wrong once again.
  12. “Permitting most of South Africa’s ten biggest companies to move their headquarters and primary listings abroad in the late 1990s. The results are permanent balance of payments deficits and corporate disloyalty to the society.” Comes down to a question of loyalty, should corporates be allowed to move their headquarters? Does it matter if a stock is primarily listed in rands or in a foreign currency? Stock in foreign currency strangely acts to help our balance of payments, the more so when our currency is devalued because of bad leadership and policy issues. None of the businesses one would assume Bond refers to have actually left the country. Building a Berlin wall isn’t conducive to business, if we can’t keep corporate headquarters here, we need to ask ourselves why, instead of bemoaning the fact that like many East Germans, corporates find life in the West preferable to living under a Marxist dictatorship. Again, all surely a question of corporate governance, and nothing to do with Mandela’s legacy?

UPDATE: Patrick Bond, interviewed on Radio 702 

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