Can Trudi Makhaya deliver workable policies?

Shawn Hagedorn writes on the challenge facing President Ramaphosa's new economic advisor

Can Ramaphosa's new economic adviser deliver workable policies?

Trudi Makhaya's writings and credentials, along with her relative youth, confirm that she is a superb choice to advise President Ramaphosa on fixing the economy. Yet blocking her success is nothing less than the need for the national dialogue to be reconcieved.

It is obvious to global experts at the IMF and credit agencies that SA requires sweeping policy reforms to achieve even moderate growth . What no one is keen to unpack is how the policies which must be reformed reflect beliefs that unite the ANC, and are largely shared by big business, and other key role players, including most voters. In effect, SA is constituted under unworkable pretenses.

The importance of management diversity and more equitable outcomes is widely accepted. The core difficulty, which must be clear to someone with Makhaya's economic background, is that there are short- and medium-term trade-offs between maximising growth and accelerating equality. Over the long-haul, the two objectives align, whereas in the nearer-term a balance must be shrewdly managed. This has gone badly.

With 1994 being the starting point, the long-term has arrived evidencing that SA's growth has increasingly under performed most emerging economies. It is now equally clear that SA has never been on a path which would lead to a modest level of poverty even by mid century! With her development economics training, Makhaya must dissect this routinely dodged issue.

The world's many high flying nations of the past quarter century prioritised growth ahead of equality, while SA has increasingly favoured the opposite path. Given the nation's long history of the majority being oppressed, this is politically and morally justifiable – but the results are neither. SA's inequality and poverty prevalence are now entrenched at exceedingly high levels as per capita income growth has been basically flat for a decade. IMF forecasts to 2023 indicate more of the same.

Makhaya appointment was disclosed alongside the announcement that SA will host a major investment conference with the objective of attracting a $100 billion in new investments. Believing foreign investments unlock SA's growth potential is a hold over from the sanctions era. This further highlights the need for a national dialogue reset

Prior to 1994, the economy was designed to benefit a narrow minority and its growth relied heavily on demand for extracted commodities. Thus, a binding constraint was long-term funding commitments for mining and infrastructure projects. The country's all-race democracy now requires the economy cater for a vastly larger population than what SA's considerable resource wealth can underwrite. Meanwhile, prospects for growth in domestic consumption are dim due to over indebted consumers plus few workers are integrated into the faster growing global economy – with tourism being a notable exception.

SA's economy can only sustain high growth by boosting value-added exports. This requires a more refined balance and better coordination between commercially robust policies and politically necessary redistribution. Yet, irrespective of how redistribution efforts are structured, they are taxes. Thus there is a point where over reliance on such measures chokes off growth more than it redistributes income. SA is entering that zone while the percentage of South Africans living at, or only modestly above, a subsistence level has only decreased from about 80% in the early 1990s to around 60% today.

Global investors won't solve SA's growth problems. SA's current rate of fixed investment mobilisation is broadly consistent with its low growth prospects. Economic growth today is largely about technologies having pummeled communication and transport cost thus provoking mutlitudes of cross border trade opportunities. Most countries are now fixated on international trade as fervently as SA is focused on redistribution. That is, SA operates with a different belief system than the majority of nations which are either wealthy or quickly catching up. 

While investors aren't going to solve SA's problems, many will reference how dozens of nations offer far more commercially attractive policy environments. Makhaya must translate such feedback so that SA's policy makers prudently heed the IMF's exhortations for broad policy shifts.

If a foreign company is considering SA as a production centre to serve global consumers, it makes no sense to forego such jobs due to poorly calibrated BEE reflexes. Instead, special dispensations from anti-competitive regulations are required to boost such value-added exports thus reducing poverty and advancing equality.

Makhaya is probably best known for her expertise on competition issues. From a closed economy perspective, her concerns regarding big business dominance in many sectors is logical. As a presidential adviser, she must appreciate that the far greater problem is that SA's economy is too isolated amid a highly integrated global economy. Just as global gorillas, such as Google, often rely on small companies to break into the new markets, SA's giants must get much better at working with SMEs to identify and develop new export channels. Her experience working with angel investors must now inform the policy shifts necessary to transform disconnects and blockages into linkages and growth paths.

That humans became the dominant species traces, in large part, to an ability to form very large, highly adaptivegroups. Transcending kinship based groupings typically required a common threat and shared beliefs. Many nations were formed by the confluence of military needs and religious beliefs. SA is not united by kinship, foreign military threats, or a common religion. Nor does SA have neighbours which serve to challenge it commercially. Rather the country is an isolated outlier, whose enemy is its past, amid a highly integrated global economy.

While expectations of a better future for all was SA's cohesion building glue, the country's near and distant past, its current status, and its future are all expressed by the status and prospects of its median 20 year olds. These young adults are poor and poorly educated while their prospects are dreadful. This was not uncommon in other parts of the world in the early 1990s, but it is today.

With her glistening CV and public profile preceding her, Makhaya can engage SA's older leaders as a highly experienced 40 year old black woman fully aware of the human impact of SA's policy shortfalls. As SA's youth expect a fresh national dialogue and policies to surge opportunities, her perspective should prove ideal. 

Shawn Hagedorn is an independent strategy adviser