Interpreting the political messages from cyberspace

June 26th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

Cyberspace has revealed the modus operandi of a group of SA businesses that have excelled (if that is the right term) at doing business with the SA government. We now know just how profitable these favoured procurement exercises have been.

The large modern state, which includes state owned business enterprises with genuine monopoly powers, has significant economic powers to contract for goods and services from private suppliers. Such contracts, we would surely agree, should be determined in an objective way and be subject to genuine competition for such potentially valuable business opportunities.

If objectivity is not to be the guiding principle, the waste incurred is not only in the form of hard-earned tax revenues or borrowing powers supported by the tax base. It also means a sacrifice of the alternative benefits that might have been better provided for – including spending on the least advantaged of society. That officials of government, responsible for such negotiations, might directly benefit from such contracts, is always a possibility, to be guarded against by appropriately vigilant and transparent procedures.

Government practice, anywhere in the world, does not always conform to best practice. A case can therefore be made for not only better, and more honest government, but also for less government. This argues for a smaller, less intrusive role for government as a supplier of goods and services (as opposed to funder of benefits). This would leave space for private hospitals or private schools, for example, to compete for demanding patients or pupils, funded partly or fully by the taxpayer. It would also call for the privatisation of public enterprises, with the proceeds used to pay off government borrowing.

In some societies the degree of corruption can be such as to not only destroy the practice of good government itself, but to undermine the efficiency of the greater economy. Economic growth itself, of the inclusive kind, becomes much more difficult to realise and is replaced by exclusive growth that benefits mainly those in power and their politically-favoured hangers on.

One term that describes such a failing economic system is ‘state capture’. Another is crony capitalism. South Africa is in grave danger of more crony capitalism and of undermining the growth prospects for our economy and benefits for the poor that a competitive market led economy could deliver.

Cyberspace has also revealed that the notion of ‘white monopoly capitalism’ is a creation of a PR company employed by the same group of SA businesses that have benefited so greatly from state largesse. But the notion of white monopoly capital is a politically and racially charged canard. It is an attack on well-established enterprises that compete actively and effectively for customers and employees, and which effectively service their stakeholders – who are mostly black South Africans. If these enterprises are JSE-listed enterprises, their shareowners will be pension or retirement funds, the beneficiaries of which will increasingly be black South Africans. It is convenient for crony SA capitalists and their supporters to ignore such ownership claims in conventional measures of empowerment.

Any constraints on these established businesses to compete freely for customers, skills or capital will harm their many owners, customers and employees. It will also harm the employment and income prospects of many poor South Africans. And by reducing the growth of the economy, they limit the tax base that could be used to support them.

How Orwellian it is to find the enemy in established businesses that are the most capable and competitive element of our economic structure. Arguments are raised to increase the scope for crony capitalism, rather than diminish it. The newly released Mining Charter is unfortunately a charter for more crony capitalism. However its terms of engagement make it very unlikely that more capital will be allocated to risky exploration or mining developments. Giving up 50% or more of the upside in any venture, for no protection on the downside, is a severe impediment to risk taking. Not only will potential employment or income or taxes from mining in SA be sacrificed, the very few intended beneficiaries (the potential cronies) will find the takings hard to realise – if there is no investment. 23 June 2017

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of Investec Wealth & Investment.

The author makes the full case for genuine capitalism in South Africa in his recently published book, ‘Get South Africa Going’ – Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2017.