Five weeks to go and still no growth policy
Last week the minister of trade and industry, Rob Davies, told the Cape Town Press Club that the forthcoming election would be a kind of referendum on Cyril Ramaphosa. A strong showing for the African National Congress (ANC), Dr Davies indicated, would give President Ramaphosa a mandate to lead a process of reform and change.
Only a fortnight ago, a senior economist at Morgan Stanley wrote of a "general perception" that Mr Ramaphosa "needs a decisive victory to push through structural reforms". Even though the economist also warned against a belief that the gates of structural reform would suddenly open after the elections, many economic commentators and journalists persist in the view that Mr Ramaphosa has a reform agenda which he will push through after he has received a strong mandate in the election.
The political editor of Business Day wrote in mid-January that with a "new mandate" Mr Ramaphosa would implement "new ways" of "growing the economy". In mid-December, the Financial Mail reported "experts" as saying that Mr Ramaphosa was "waiting to see what kind of mandate the election provides before making significant policy moves".
A strong ANC showing would certainly be a "mandate" for expropriation without compensation, for persisting with the proposed national health insurance system, and even for nationalising the South African Reserve Bank. But you can hardly also claim a "mandate" for the measures necessary to speed up growth if you do not explain beforehand what measures you are contemplating.
Quite obviously, Mr Ramaphosa does have a reform agenda in that he is trying to remedy some of the deficiencies at state-owned enterprises, repair the prosecuting and taxing authorities, expose corruption, and then perhaps even see some of the culprits sitting in the dock. But there is no indication that he also has the kind of agenda that will put the economy on a sustained path of even moderate, never mind rapid, growth.
You can make promises about securing billions in investment, generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs, even elevating South Africa's ranking on the World Bank's ease-of-doing-business index, but without even hinting at what you will do to achieve all this, you cannot claim a mandate for all the tough policy measures and legislative amendments that will be necessary.
Playing one's cards close to one's chest, even dissembling, are necessary political arts. But so is educating one's following, one of the things that distinguishes leaders from managers. Essential to implementing reform is creating a constituency for it. Yet Mr Ramaphosa has let a whole year slip by without even trying to do this.
This column, and some of my colleagues at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), have been sceptical about Mr Ramaphosa and his supposed reform agenda ever since he succeeded to the leadership of his party and of the country. That was more than a year ago, long enough for him to have proved us wrong. He has not done so, yet a view persists that the more votes the ANC gets in the coming election the more likely it will be that Mr Ramaphosa will suddenly reveal himself as a liberal reformer.
You know that economic commentators are scraping the barrel for signs of reformist drive when they highlight Mr Ramaphosa's promises on "early childhood development" and on handing out "tablet devices in schools" as some of the "most radical and positive" sets of proposals in his state-of-the-nation address earlier this year.
Some of these economic commentators may find it difficult to come clean about their growing scepticism. One result of this reluctance is that they help to perpetuate the idea that Mr Ramaphosa is a great reformer. The South African business community, habitually naive when it comes to politics, still seems to have faith in Mr Ramaphosa, which will no doubt translate into votes (and perhaps money) for the ANC.
This continuing faith rests on four assumptions: that Mr Ramaphosa grasps the fundamental point that his own party's dirigiste policies are what stand in the way of faster growth; that he has the leadership qualities and political courage necessary to reverse direction; that the ANC would follow him if he tried; and that a strong showing for the ANC in the election on 8th May will strengthen him rather than the factions in his party who oppose him.
These assumptions are all open to question. So is the persistent belief that the "long game" President Ramaphosa claims to be playing is one that will liberalise the economy rather than subject it to ever-increasing state control.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.