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Here we go again

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Gigaba (1 of 1)

Late last night, South African president Jacob Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas as Minister and Deputy Minister of Finance, and appointed Malusi Gigaba (pictured) and Sifiso Buthelezi in their place. With this move, he has gained the keys to Treasury. Aside from Finance ministry, Zuma appointed 18 new ministers and deputy ministers, including Fikile Mbalula, the former Minister of Sport, as Minister of Police. Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development, whose incompetence was recently exposed when her actions risked the well-being of 17 million South Africans, remains in her portfolio.

It all sounds so familiar. In December 2015, Zuma fired then Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene and replaced him with Desmond van Rooyen. After the rand plummeted more than 5%, Zuma was forced to reverse his decision and appoint Pravin Gordhan in the position three days later.

I wrote a post immediately after the appointment of Van Rooyen. Most of the points I raised there are now valid again. Zuma has captured Treasury – with a Zuma-loyalist in charge, he can now sign off on projects that benefit him and his backers, the Guptas.

The question, again, is what to do. And again I have to say, I don’t know. I see calls on social media for mass action, but I am not too sure Zuma and his cronies would pay much attention. Blog posts, I fear, will also not have much of an impact. What I will do, however, is to encourage Treasury employees, many who are brilliant economists and also good friends, to remain in office, despite the obvious challenges that they will face with a Zuma-loyalist at the helm. How long, though, can one remain honourable and incorruptible in an environment where you might become complicit in whatever shady nuclear or other deals Zuma has up his sleeve?

What this reminds me of is a tweet by veteran Zimbabwean businessman Trevor Ncube:

If something doesn’t happen soon to reverse this process of decline – and this can only happen when Zuma is gone, although that will only be a start – we risk destroying the progress we’ve made since 1994. The irresponsible actions of last night will hurt the economy badly, from a weakening currency (which has already fallen by more than 3%) to almost definite downgrade, which means more money spent on paying loans than building roads, houses and clinics. And if Zuma’s pet projects, like a nuclear deal with Russia, is signed, the cost for South African taxpayers – and the opportunity costs for South Africa’s poor – will be horrific.

Prepare for a bumpy ride.

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How to get good politicians

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South African President Jacob Zuma visit Berlin

Politicians can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone: balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision that should guide policy-making. Members of parliament act upon this vision, designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership get elected.

That is the theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member who gets selected for higher honours. Some economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up: Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector. (In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative advantage at entering public life.) These selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words, according to this model, it is society’s ‘chancers’ that are more likely to end up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the private sector.

Competency in public office is, of course, is not the only goal of a parliamentary system. Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic make-up of society-at-large – is also a key concern. But competency and representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate. Take the following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens, whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job – competency often trumps representation.

A new NBER Working paper – Who Becomes a Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off. Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an ‘inclusive meritocracy’ is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency and representation correlate in public office. They find that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly because there is ‘strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status.

These results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is a combination of ‘well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic motivation to serve in uncompensated ones’. In other words, a political party in South Africa that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions, are likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties to ‘represent various segments of society’. Political competition is good. Third, the ‘availability of talent across social classes’. This, they argue, is perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.

This reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras fixated on the gowns and glamour of South Africa’s political elite. How do the levels of competency in our parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other countries?

Let’s just look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in Law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, has a Master’s degree in Political Science. Former US president Barack Obama graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence-degree magna cum laude from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.

Politics is messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political party system and broad access to quality education. South Africa, unfortunately, is still a long way from meeting these criteria.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 March.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 24, 2017 at 07:35

Voice Day

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Voting opens at Stellenbosch Town Hall on 3 Aug 2016 in the local municipal elections.

Voting opened at 7h00 at Stellenbosch Town Hall in the local municipal elections.

In Afrikaans, the same word is used for ‘vote’ and ‘voice’ – stem. Today South Africans vote in the local government elections. But it is more than that: it is a day that they will voice their hopes, frustrations, and visions for a better South Africa.

Because, 22 years into democracy, there is now more than ever a need to signal to the ruling alliance that they cannot take their tenure for granted. There is no doubt that those in power have become too emboldened by their own success; weak political competition has provided fertile ground for corruption and mismanagement. As always, the squandering of public funds has hurt the poorest the most.

Although this won’t be an election about macro policy, the failure of the ANC (since Zuma) to stimulate growth (and its incompetence to root out corruption) will deliver more votes for the two opposition parties, the DA and the EFF. The two central questions are: which opposition party will voters prefer, and how many will make the switch? The two parties are run by young men with very different visions of a future South Africa.

In this election, the question should be which of the two can provide the services that constituents deserve. But a careful consideration of this question, unfortunately, is probably not how most of us make decisions. This is not unique to South Africa, of course. As this John Oliver excerpt shows, feelings, nowadays, trump facts. Also: see Brexit.

Today’s municipal elections will be especially heavily contested in three metropolitan areas: Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg. If an opposition party (or a coalition of opposition parties) secures a win in these major cities, especially in Tshwane and Johannesburg, it will signal a fundamental shift in politics in South Africa. But don’t underestimate the resolve of the ruling ANC: the liberation movement continue to be a powerful brand for most South Africans, despite the actions of the man in charge.

Today is stemdag in South Africa. It is a day to vote, yes, but, most importantly, it is a day to make our voices heard.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 3, 2016 at 08:14

Land reform: a political not economic problem

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Two sides of land reform? Photo by Robin Hammond, National Geographic.

Commercial or subsistence depends on political and not economic objectives. Photo by Robin Hammond, National Geographic.

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti kicked off the Land Tenure Summit yesterday by making several statements about land reform that has left me perplexed. Reported here, the minister said that “privately-owned land is a serious problem”, that “we want to correct a particular South African historical problem”, that “it cannot be that the worker will work forever and at the end of their time on earth, have nothing to show for it. It is not right, it cannot be right” and again promoted the department’s radical plan to give half of each farm to the labourers working on it.

The distribution and productivity of land is the most serious political issue facing South Africa. The alienation of Khoesan lands by European settlers had already started soon after Van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa, but it was really the expropriation of land in the nineteenth century (as British settlers arrived in the Eastern Cape and the Voortrekkers moved into the interior of the country) that has created a legacy of injustice. By 1913 when the Land Act was signed, black South Africans (and those living in neighbouring colonies like Basotholand, Bechuanaland and Southern Rhodesia) had lost large territories of their most fertile land. The Land Act consolidated this expropriation, and even may have prevented further expropriation (see my earlier post on this).

There is no doubt that redress is needed. The question, really, is how to affect this redress. The reason Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters did so well in the recent elections was because he pushed the land reform agenda to priority number one, and he had a plan. The EFF wants “expropriation of land without compensation for equitable redistribution” and propose a system whereby the “State should, through its legislative capacity transfer all land to the state, which will administer and use land for sustainable-development purposes. This transfer should happen without compensation, and should apply to all South Africans, black and white.” The State will then lease the land for 25 years.

My suspicion is that performance of the EFF in the recent elections has forced the ANC’s hand, and they’ve come up with their own plan for land redistribution. The plan will force commercial farmers to cede 50% of their farms to their workers. This is not the forum to critique these plans in detail, but I can point to others who have done so. Read this, and this. My field of expertise is economic history, not agriculture, and so my only recourse is to look at land expropriation in history. It is not a story to smile about: during the process of collectivisation in the Soviet Union, at least 4 million people died of starvation alone, and the recent land reform in Zimbabwe has resulted in large declines in production, malnourishment and close to 4 million Zimbabweans emigrating to other countries, notably South Africa.

Yet knowing that something has failed in the past – and even knowing that it will fail again – is usually not enough reason for politicians not to attempt it again. In the absence of alternatives, my sense is that black voters will be happy to go along with any plan to redress land, because it will by implication by more fair than the counterfactual, which is to continue the status quo. (This reminds me of why the National Party won the 1948 elections. The ‘racial issue’ had come to dominate the national agenda after the Second World War but the United Party under Jan Smuts had not articulated a clear plan to tackle this issue. Instead, DF Malan proposed a clear plan of separation, of apartheid. Sometimes all you need to win is a plan, even if it is a bad one.)

So what are the alternatives to the Minister’s proposed plan? It depends on your objectives. If the only criterion is to redress past injustice, land expropriation, either fully or, as the Minister suggests, partially, seems like a solution, right? But what are the consequences of such a policy? One can only speculate, but it is likely that commercial farms will see large-scale disinvestment. Farm prices will collapse, forcing other farmers, who have used their land as collateral for loans, to also sell their properties. Movable assets will be sold to provide some capital for a new life in the city. (Other perverse outcomes: expect more golf courses, light industry parks, gated communities and rural retirement villages, and conservation parks and holiday resorts as farmers shift into other industries not affected by the policies.)

Little of this will benefit the new owners. Land is only as useful as the capital investments on it, and without capital (or, at least, new investment in the farm), many of the new owners will find it increasingly difficult to continue the earlier outputs. The state can help, of course, but the state is not a bank who can easily make decisions about which risks to take and which to avoid. (See my earlier post on Tito Mboweni’s plans for a state bank.) Where the new owners are not former workers, an even more serious issue arises: skills and experience. Farming is an increasingly scientific industry. Our agricultural colleges are simply not producing enough graduates nor would they have the experience to take over the immediate operation of large-scale commercial farms producing for the export market. Learning-by-doing is really the only option, which is why this opinion piece by Peter Curle is a useful read. He suggests that the principles of successful BEE transactions could easily be applied to the agricultural sector. This would mean that farmers are able to choose their black shareholders, train them, and be partly responsible for – and benefit from – their success. That is a system that gets incentives right.

The government could, of course, also take another approach. Given that the agricultural sector employs large numbers of unskilled labour (and has the potential to employ more), it could focus on improving the productivity of existing farmers. To do this, the most obvious thing is to identify the currently most unproductive land. That turns out to be communal and state land, not privately-owned land. (And certainly not foreign-owned land, which seems to get all the blame, but is in fact a tiny share of land owned in South Africa.) The power of traditional leaders, however, prevent such communal or traditional lands from being used more productively. In a recent working paper, Daniel de Kadt, PhD-student at MIT, explains why these traditional leaders continue to have such a powerful hold on the ANC:

We argue that traditional leaders, whose power depends on the state, may be incentivized to strategically support political parties who can guarantee their survival and provide them with rents. We study this quid pro quo in the Apartheid-era Bantustans of South Africa. We show that an alignment between the state party and the chiefs maps to increased political support for the party. Further, we provide quantitative evidence consistent with chiefs acting as clientelistic brokers. Our results suggest that chiefs boost African National Congress (ANC) vote-share by 8.2 percentage points in the Bantustans. This translates into roughly 4.5% of the ANC’s total vote-share, and a distortion in the national vote of 2.5 percentage points. This distortion is pivotal in determining whether the ANC is able to alter South Africa’s constitution.

You could also translate it thus: The poorest of the poor South Africans live in Bantustans on communal lands. They, however, are being held ransom by their chiefs who are in cahoots with the ANC, who rely on their support for 2.5 percentage points in each election.

To eradicate the legacy of colonial land expropriation, a thriving agricultural sector is key. The problem is not “privately-owned land”, as the Minister seems to think. Policies that affect commercial farms will only hurt workers and the consumers of cheap food, exactly those people that suffered because of the initial land expropriation. The solution lies in tackling the unproductive, communal lands that is currently held by chiefs or the state. If these areas can prosper, not only will it pull millions of poor South Africans out of poverty, but it will create the necessary skills and capital to allow faster land reform elsewhere. Yet this most important step is unlikely to occur any time soon. That is because poverty alleviation and real redress is not an economic problem, but a political one.

Is inequality good or bad?

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Voltaire: Equality is therefore both the most natural of things, as well as the most unreal. Photographed by Johan Fourie in the Pantheon, Paris

Voltaire: “Equality is therefore both the most natural of things, as well as the most unreal.”
Photographed by Johan Fourie in the Pantheon, Paris (2013)

On 7 May South Africans will vote in the country’s fourth democratic elections, 20 years after the demise of apartheid. While there is little doubt about which party will win the elections, and who will be president, there is a general sense of frustration about the slow progress South Africa has made, especially in the last five years, to deliver on the promises of the post-apartheid government. Job creation will be, as always, central to most political parties election rhetoric: from the EFF (“creation of sustainable jobs“), the DA (“South Africans need REAL jobs“) and the ANC (as reflected in Zuma’s State of the Nation Address).

Yet job creation is the means to tackle a much deeper, more striking feature of the South African landscape: inequality. The pervasive difference in living standards that remain 20 years after the end of apartheid – between those living and working in cities and those in rural areas, between those with a good education and those without, and, unfortunately still, between black and white South Africans – is the conundrum that fixates much of our attention. And even though the EFF would want you to believe different, there are unfortunately no easy answers: a massive, state-led industrialisation programme, as history shows, exacerbates inequality, even though the faces of those in power may change. The ANC and DA, instead, propose to grow the economy piecemeal, by implementing market-oriented policies (with differences in emphasis), provide jobs (through the private and public sector), and raise all boats, so to speak. A less radical plan, but also a more proven one.

But regardless of which policies we implement, is it realistic to expect inequality to decline? Sure, some policies may reduce poverty, increase employment, but will it really reduce inequality? And, more fundamentally, should it?

A lengthy debate in the Daily Maverick recently centred around this question: Is inequality a bad thing? Johann Redelinghuys first argued that ‘inequality cannot be fixed’, so we shouldn’t even try to implement policies to attempt to do so. In response, Marelise van der Merwe argued that ‘inequality can and should be fixed’. It is fascinating to also read the comments section, although with the proviso that this is a biased sample of South African public (more educated, and more liberal). This debate mirrors a much broader literature in Economics, dating back at least to Adam Smith, who, many forget, was also critical of societal inequalities. (So, too, were other notable thinkers of the Enlightenment. See Voltaire’s quote above.) But with rising income inequalities globally over the last two decades, notably in China and the US, economists have had to think a lot more about this issue (see Branko Milanovic for more on this issue).

As a positive, inequality creates incentives to work hard. I remember reading a news article a few years ago about a new housing project in the North West province. The government had decided to build several dozen houses after protests by the inhabitants of a small town. One of the commentators on the news site wrote a remarkable story, which went something like this: I was born into a similar township as these individuals. When my friends stayed out late at night, my mother would force me to stay indoors, and study by candle light. I managed to do this for most of my high school career and, when I was the only one to get a C in matric, was fortunate to get a scholarship to go to varsity. It was hard. I failed one year, but finally succeeded with my engineering degree. I found a job, got married, bought my first house, which I’ll have to pay for the next 20 years. Now my friends in the township just got their houses for free. Is that fair?

As Redelinghuys notes, not all of us are born with equal ability, or skill, or determination. Some will rise faster than others, either because they work hard or because they are lucky. In a society where the incentives for self-advanced are removed – like communist societies – innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, the reason we’ve been able to improve living standards over the last 200 years, dies. If equality of outcome sounds like a great idea, travel to a former communist country that has remained closed to the market (like Cuba). It’s not a great place to live.

But – we are not born equal for other reasons too. Not only do we differ in ability, skill, and other human traits, we also differ because of historical reasons. Some of us happen to be born into a household where both parents have a university education. Others happen to be born into a household on communal land in the former homelands. Some of us happen to be born into a household with a single parent. Others happen to be born into a family with no income earners. Some of us are born more privileged.

These differences in our starting conditions expand over time. Wealthier parents can afford good nutrition, can send their kids to good schools, and even make sure that these schools are run well. They can provide the necessary health care, they can travel together, they can watch their weekend sport (and pay for sport tours, and equipment, and a school with good sport facilities). As these differences expand, so do our levels of income inequality, further deepening the divide. These high levels of inequality are bad, as Daron Acemoglu argues, for three reasons

First, people’s well-being [happiness] may directly depend on inequality, for example, because they view a highly unequal society as unfair or because the utility loss due to low status of the have-nots may be greater than the utility gain due to the higher status of the haves. Second and more importantly, equality of opportunity may be harder to achieve in an unequal society … Third and most importantly, inequality impacts politics. Economic power tends to beget political power even in democratic and pluralistic societies.

Severe inequality of the kind we have in South Africa is bad because it removes peoples ability to compete fairly. Two Spanish economists expand on this in a new paper published in the Journal of Development Economics. Gustavo Marrero and Juan Rodriquez suggest that a country’s inequality can be divided into ‘inequality of opportunity (IO)’ and ‘inequality of effort (IE)’. These two types of inequality affect growth through opposite channels, so the relationship between income inequality and growth is positive or negative depending on which component is larger. They test this proposal using inequality-of-opportunity measures computed from a US database for 23 states of the U.S. in 1980 and 1990. As hypothesised, they find a negative relationship between inequality of opportunity and growth, and a positive relationship between inequality of returns to effort and growth.

In essence, Johann Redelinghuys believes that South Africa’s levels of severe inequality is the result of inequalities of effort: that poor people are poor because they are generally less hard-working and unambitious. In contrast, Marelise van der Merwe believes we are an unequal society mostly because the lottery of life predetermine one’s ability to rise to a high standard of living. As she notes anecdotally, “if you’re white and have money, you can be a drunk moron flunking on the bones of your ass for most of high school and as long as our marvellous education system pushes you through matric you can probably get into some kind of college and blubber your way into a job.”

Empirical evidence of our survey and census data suggests that Van der Merwe is much closer to the truth: with a few variables, including race, parental education and location, none of which any of us have control over, researchers are able to predict a person’s future income level fairly accurately. It’s not even only about race anymore: A black girl, born into a female-headed household in the rural Eastern Cape, will have a much lower income and living standard when she is 20 years old, than a black boy, born to parents with a university education in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Note that this statistical probability disregards that individual’s own effort, ability or determination to succeed. Inequalities of opportunity still trump inequalities of effort in South Africa, and by a long way.

The challenge is to design and implement policies that increase equalities of opportunity without decreasing inequalities of effort — policies that level the playing field without without changing the rules for some and not for others. Pure redistribution, of the sort the EFF propose, is unlikely to work. Here’s Larry Summers in the FT yesterday:

If income could be redistributed without damping economic growth, there would be a compelling case for reducing incomes at the top and transferring the proceeds to those in the middle and at the bottom. Unfortunately this is not the case. It is easy to think of policies that would have reduced the earning power of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg by making it more difficult to start and profit from a business. But it is much harder to see how such policies would raise the incomes of the rest of the population. Such policies would surely hurt them as consumers by depriving them of the fruits of technological progress.

Summers proposes to redress inequality through market forces, notably the fiscal system:

It is ironic that those who profess the most enthusiasm for market forces are least enthusiastic about curbing tax benefits for the wealthy. Sooner or later inequality will have to be addressed. Much better that it be done by letting free markets operate and then working to improve the result. Policies that aim instead to thwart market forces rarely work, and usually fall victim to the law of unintended consequences.

To what extend the South African tax system can redress the inequalities of the past (without thwarting the incentive to work hard), is a tricky question. What is clear is that we need new ideas. Don’t expect any enlightened answers before May, though.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 17, 2014 at 21:11

Mangaung memories

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ANC delegates show their support. Photo: Daniel Born (TimesLive)

ANC delegates show their support. Photo: Daniel Born (TimesLive)

News from the ANC’s national conference at Mangaung in mid-December focused almost entirely on the leadership battle within the ruling party. Most of the reports that I’ve read, view Jacob Zuma’s victory over Kgalema Mothlanthe as a step backwards for the ANC and for future South Africa or, at least, a directionless step to nowhere (see also my previous post). But a recent Facebook update from a journalism friend who attended the conference, paints a slightly more optimistic picture. TJ Strydom of The Times chatted to dozens of delegates during the conference. “The overwhelming majority of them were smart people with a true passion for South Africa. They laugh deeply and are friendly, hospitable, well-informed, and interested in the world around them.” These are his reasons why South African should be optimistic about Mangaung:

  • nationalisation (in the way the ANC Youth League wanted it) is off the agenda;
  • some the worst opportunists the ANC has produced over the last century is on their way out: cheers Mbalula, Mathale, and Phosa;
  • those crazy populists – you know who – are not allowed to join the organisation again;
  • land reform will be less severe than many expected and will certainly not emulate our northern neighbour;
  • the most inclusive development plan that the country has ever had – the NDP – was accepted and its implementation is now being fast-tracked;
  • ANC members that are accused of corruption (and other such crimes) will be suspended from public office;
  • South Africa will have its best ever vice-president by 2014 (Cyril Ramaphosa)

“The focus has shifted from a simple redistribution agenda to a development agenda. This is not the vague concept of the ‘development state’, though. There is a plan. Many pundits suggested that the NDP will be torpedoed at the conference. It wasn’t. In fact, it was approved with no significant changes at the highest level as a blueprint for the next 20 years. More importantly, the NDP was ranked higher than the short-term growth plans such as the New Growth Path and the Industrial Action Plan.”

“Of course there are blind spots. We don’t know what the new tax on mines will be like. Perhaps Kgalema Mothlathe will resign soon. The ANC still has a deep mistrust of the media. But for the first time in many years the ANC is willing to accept its own faults. Every organisation has them. It’s in all South Africans interest that they sort them out. And I think they will.”

Written by Johan Fourie

December 24, 2012 at 07:27

The road from Mangaung

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Econ3x3The ANC’s Mangaung Conference won’t be remembered for its policy debates. Indeed, the greatest triumph of Jacob Zuma, the re-elected leader, has been to steer away from policy debates and shift the focus to the personality traits of its leaders. Zuma’s speeches have been filled with promises to satisfy all constituents. So, too, has the composition of the NEC.

This is, of course, not new. The left-wing win at Polokwane in 2007 resulted in large political shifts in the ANC culminating in the forced resignation of then-president Thabo Mbeki. But for all its political revolutions, very little changed in terms of economic policy. Yes, there was an (internal ANC) investigation about the nationalisation of the mines. Land redistribution remains on the agenda. But Mbeki, Manuel and Mboweni’s policies persisted, even though all three were redeployed.

That these policies were maintained is not the issue; in fact, they are still considered to be the cause for the rapid poverty reduction of the late 2000s and a contributor to macroeconomic stability. What is problematic is that the demand for policy dialogue on microeconomic issues has diminished. New ideas such as a labour subsidy, export taxes, national health insurance, and measuring teacher competency have all been recently touted by various government officials as ways to speed South Africa’s economic growth or improve the country’s highly unequal income distribution. But a forum to discuss these ideas outside the corridors of Luthuli House have remained absent.

This is, of course, not only a demand-side problem, i.e. the fault of government or the electorate. Academic economists in South Africa have largely avoided engaging with policy debates on these national issues. Sure, there is some interaction with National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank. But any attempt to find an informed discussion by leading South African economists about the causes of unemployment and the ways to solve it would be fruitless. Or an estimate of the economic impact of immigration into South Africa. Or the impact of child nutrition programmes at school. Or the role of Special Economic Development Zones. There are good reasons for this: the incentives for academic economists are highly skewed towards publishing, and publishing requires expanding the frontiers of science, not debating topics discussed in Econ 101 courses. As one example, Stan du Plessis delivered his 2011 Presidential Speech at the Economics Society of South Africa conference on the topic of nationalisation. It’s an excellent read, but as far as I know, it has not been accepted for publication.

What is needed, then, is a forum where economists are encouraged to discuss economic policies, and where these ideas can feed into policy debates in government and the media. Frederick Fourie (no relation), former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (and with a PhD in Economics at Harvard), has taken up the challenge. He – and his excellent team – has created Econ3x3.org where they hope to offer regular contributions from South Africa’s foremost economists on relevant economic issues. The screenshot above, with contributions by Haroon Bhorat on labour markets, Fourie on unemployment and Anthony Black on industrial policy, shows why this is long overdue: these contributions distil the essence of these important issues in non-technical language that should be accessible to a wide audience.

At Mangaung, Trevor Manuel said that a lack of understanding of economic fundamentals by ANC members sidetracked important debates. Let’s hope that Econ3x3 can begin the conversation.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 22, 2012 at 07:57