Double dip, double trouble

29 September 2011 - 02:11 By Brendan Boyle

Would-be president Tokyo Sexwale warned this week that the gathering global economic storm could be the second stage of a full-blown double-dip recession.

If it is, it is likely to be reaching its peak when the African National Congress gathers for its policy conference in May next year.

With the ANC leadership struggle being waged largely on the basis of the most simple rhetoric, that is a scary prospect because we could see current and future leaders using populism in their fight for power at exactly the moment when the country needs the wisest leadership it has needed at any time since liberation in 1994.

Julius Malema's "economic freedom in our time" campaign has obvious appeal to the millions who feel left out by the post-apartheid business boom that has made some blacks and whites so obscenely wealthy that they have to invent new ways, like multimillion-rand birthday parties and instant car collections, to spend their fortunes.

The premise of the youth league's pitch for power is the dangerous assumption that wealth is something freely available, but that the elite has chosen not so much to keep it all for themselves as to actively deny others access to their club.

Malema reminds me sometimes of a day I spent following Ronnie Kasrils on the campaign trail in Soweto ahead of the 1994 election. We spent some time with four women sitting on upturned paint barrels in a back yard, talking about housing.

One them insisted - and the others clucked and nodded in agreement - that there was an empty house somewhere with her name on it. I tested the idea because it shook me and I found that she really did believe there were thousands of empty houses beyond some hill which the ANC would allocate within days of coming to power.

Malema recently has sounded a bit like that woman in his speeches about employment. He speaks as if the jobs are there - it's just that business, backed by the current ANC leadership, refuses for some reason to hand them out.

I am not attacking Malema personally on this one. He represents a widely held concern and just fans it for the opportunistic comfort of his clique. But underpinning whatever he does believe about the potential to create employment must be a conviction that money is more or less infinite; that if we don't have it, we could either print it or borrow it to hand out as grants, subsidies or start-up capital for entrepreneurs.

Contrast that with the policies of Trevor Manuel when he was the minister of finance and of Pravin Gordhan, who now heads the Treasury. Manuel was slightly more of a market fundamentalist than Gordhan, but it is just a matter of degree.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Manuel might have slightly overplayed the fiscal stability thing and been a little too slow to take the risks that even his international advisory panel of corporate bigwigs repeatedly urged him to consider. He was trying, however, to establish a culture of fiscal discipline and he was doing it in the face of a left wing of the alliance more inclined towards Malema's current view.

Manuel needed to locate the economic debate on a safe stage and he did that very well.

Gordhan has since guided Gill Marcus - a real Wise Owl of South African economics - to the hot seat at the central bank and armed her with a mandate slightly more friendly to job creation than Tito Mboweni's brief was from Manuel.

The consequence of those changes at the helm is that the current team probably will be quicker to take advantage of fiscal and monetary opportunities that might arise in the future.

At the moment, however, there are only challenges. As the roller coaster begins its second swoop towards recession, Gordhan and Marcus will have less room to react than they and their predecessors had when the first round struck in 2007 and raged on through the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

Against considerable opposition from some who now congratulate him for his foresight, Manuel had launched his counter-cyclical fiscal strategy by 2003.

Despite cabinet colleagues baying for more money to throw at often ill-considered projects that would please their political constituents - or just create tender opportunities for their cronies - he insisted on harvesting some of the windfall from the long post-apartheid boom and storing it away against the inevitable slowdown in economic and revenue growth.

Manuel decided to spend less and to save more. When growth slipped into contraction, it went far beyond the cyclical swing that he had anticipated, but at least Gordhan did have a handy stash to allocate to stimulatory government expenditure, which helped to cushion the effects of the global crash for those least able to protect themselves. He even continued to increase the social grants that had made South Africa a welfare state.

Now the savings accounts are empty. The annual revenue overruns that made Manuel's job relatively easy have dried up.

The cupboard is bare and, by the time the ANC goes to its next conference, the demand for relief from those still unemployed and those who will recently have become unemployed probably will have grown to a roar.

The second phase of a double dip would be harder to manage than the first and the government would have far fewer resources to use.

South Africa will need wise leadership next year even more than it needed it when we allowed the ANC to foist Jacob Zuma upon us.

Malema, or his successor in the struggle for economic freedom in our time, will be offering Mugabe-style quick fixes, Zuma will be flailing about without an idea to cling to - as he has always done - and the voices of reason will be cries carried away in the storm.

Or Sexwale could be wrong and there is no double dip in our future.