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Quartering the SA economy

Quartering the SA economy

by Cees Bruggemans

Do you also perhaps feel at times as if something wants to pull you apart (indeed tear you limb from limb)? There may be some truth in it, seeing it  also seems to be happening to the larger economy.

In our personal circumstances it may be pesty work, fearful debts, legal challenges and family demands that are pulling us in opposing directions, giving the sensation of being quartered.

In the case of the economy you may think it is Zuma, Zille, Juju and Wasp or Agang (take your pick) that are doing the horses work. And you wouldn't be wrong regarding our politics.

But I have purely impersonal economic forces in mind. So my four quartering horses are, firstly, the US Fed changing its monetary stance and thereby injecting renewed turbulence into global markets as risk/reward keeps repricing after the excesses of recent years.

This could possibly still last some years, catching out the most exposed Emerging Market (EM) Fragiles with their domestic indiscipline, very large current account deficits and foreign funding needs. In our case, it may still imply a further weakening of the Rand into bigger undervaluation.

Secondly, it is the overheated Chinese financial system being subjected to greater domestic discipline, in the process cooling off its commodity import demand and speculation, further reinforced by actual shifts in growth targets and growth composition. Between them, these various Chinese forces, though not really catastrophic for Chinese growth or finances, are nonetheless forcing a robust reassessment and adjustment in commodity supply calculations globally, with key prices (copper, iron ore) tailing off as market shortfalls turn into sizeable commodity surpluses.

This is not welcomed by those EM commodity producers with the biggest reliance on Chinese metal imports. South Africa today sends over 10% of its exports to China, equivalent to 2.8% of GDP. Over 95% of this is in the form of commodities, putting over 2.5% of our GDP at risk.

This is as big a real economy risk for us as is the Fed's financial disruption one.

Thirdly, turning domestically, it isn't so much that our politics are actively lethal to the economy (theirs is more a passive impact of doing too little, such as not actively implementing a much more forceful infrastructure rollout instead of just endlessly talking about it) as that something very specific is really cutting our industrial sinews.

That something is clearly our constrained electricity supply. Already into its 7th year of flat earth, it starves energy supply to mining, heavy industry and other large scale users, curtailing the scale of their operations, restraining output (GDP) but also exports, and restraining any expansion plans such entities may have, explaining a large part of what is keeping our GDP growth rate down and our export recovery pitiful compared to our EM peers.

Fourthly, there is our unionized labour and its apparent suicide mission.

It may have started slowly, as long ago as 2005 according to labour market analyst Andrew Levy, but a wave of strike action has been building up that seemingly is still gathering force, becoming marked by more lengthy and violent strikes as it proceeds.

This has been most notable in platinum mining these past two years, with an old established union (NUM) torn to shreds by newcomer AMCU and it proceeding into a deadly embrace with mine owners from which this time there can be no victory, not even when supposedly snatched from the jaws of total defeat.

The mines involved have explained that the labour demands made cannot be met and that the alternative is mine closures, job losses, and accelerated mechanisation and shifting of operations to more promising regions in the country, even if this takes time.

The union, purportedly standing for its 80 000 members, refuses to hear this message, sticking to its guns of seeking a more than doubling of entry wages.

Indeed, it has been mentioned that this isn't and never was about wages. It is about a social dispensation that the strike leaders want fundamentally changed. In that process, they are trying to move a brick wall. The mining companies apparently have no choice but to face down the union in equal measure and for ultimately the same reason. This is no way to change the social dispensation.

Only the Labour Minister now apparently has the power to break the impasse by making a "determination" (telling both parties what the deal will be, with both in the national interest apparently then having to conform and play ball).

Yet the present moment is so inconvenient. It is a crying shame.

Government is currently engaged in preparing for a general election in May and really hasn't got the time or inclination to make unpopular decisions. Even if the mining minister has reportedly encouraged the mine owners to act more strongly in a legal sense, president Zuma has pleasantly indicated government being in favour of any amicable solutions unions and mine owners may come up with, thereby for now washing his hands of the whole sorry business.

Meanwhile, SA is losing 10 000 ounces of platinum production each working day and the above-ground stocks of metal mined and accumulated in better times has steadily dwindled. As these stockpiles run out shortly, the country will finally start hurting its exports at the rate of R150m a working day (or nearly R40bn annualised).

And that is just affected Rustenburg platinum.         

Ahead probably loom yet bigger union battles, also in other industries, as Numsa is about to leave Cosatu and start its own labour federation and a new political party focusing on worker interests, and potentially on the far, far left of the political system, drawing lifeblood from the ANC.

Rolling mass action, still gathering in intensity as every new wage round in affected sectors of the economy are disrupted in turn, presumably will detract yet more from achieving a return to more normal growth conditions in the economy. Instead of being focused on attaining our long-term average growth of 3.5%, never mind more ambitious targets of  5%-7%, we seem mired in a growth trap of our own making nearer 2% (if that much), and progressively digging in for a long siege, as if there is no national interest to worry about.

Getting that sense of being tarred, feathered and quartered? You may not be imagining it. Just don't think it is just the party politics doing it to you. Bigger economic forces are at work here, both globally beyond our reach, and what we ourselves (some of us) actively bring to this quartering party.

Fragile exposed indeed.