Opinion

For the masses burdened by VAT and fuel price rises, it would be nice to know what these investment pledges really mean

29 July 2018 - 00:00

During Thabo Mbeki's first term as president, Nepad was the buzzword. There were various incarnations of the continental plan before the "New Partnership for Africa's Development" took shape.
Mbeki and a few other African leaders championed Nepad, ensuring it was adopted by the AU and promoting it at international forums like the UN.
Nepad was mentioned in almost every government speech and the business community latched on to the dream for Africa's development. The media reported extensively on the Nepad roadshow. There was great hope that the plan would aid Africa's recovery, draw investment, promote good governance and support conflict resolution.
I only stopped to think about this great Nepad belief system after I heard a senior journalist tell his editor: I don't know what the president is saying.
It was true that many of us could sometimes not understand what Mbeki was talking about but were scared to ask in case people - particularly Mbeki himself - thought we were stupid.
So it was quite a shock when an African leader confided that he and some of his peers were also confused about what Mbeki wanted them to do to implement Nepad. He said they went with the flow because they were afraid of Mbeki's reaction and did not want to give the impression that they opposed the plan.It is sad, but hardly surprising, that Nepad fell off the agenda after Mbeki left office.
I thought about the African renaissance that never quite happened when I heard President Cyril Ramaphosa speak repeatedly about his investment drive this week.
In April Ramaphosa announced the ambitious drive to draw $100-billion in investment in five years, and appointed four envoys to chase down foreign and domestic investment.
Since then, the investment campaign has been the centrepiece of Ramaphosa's speeches, even at ANC events, as he believes that once the drive yields results, it will inspire confidence in his leadership. He clearly thinks that this will be one of his legacy projects.
Last month, Ramaphosa hailed the announcement by Mercedes-Benz that it will invest R10-billion in the expansion of its East London plant. During visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he won investment pledges of $10-billion (about R132-billion) from each.
This week, during a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ramaphosa secured another pledge of $14.7-billion in increased investment. At a media briefing during the Brics summit, Trade and Industry Ministry Rob Davies was asked for details about the Chinese investment. He could not give any but mentioned theĀ $2.5-billion loan from the China Development Bank to Eskom, also announced this week.
We can only hope that investment and loans still mean different things, and that we do not have to pay back the "investment" money to the Chinese. But if Davies does not know what these vast amounts of money are pledged towards, how are the rest of us supposed to drink the Kool-Aid?
Ramaphosa seems to get really excited about these big figures, making it sound like happy days are here again. His rhetoric suggests that these pledges mean the economy is turning the corner.But nobody knows what the real-world effect will be from these impressive-sounding commitments. Do they mean more jobs and if so, are these sustainable? Are there conditions attached to these investments? What industries are being targeted? How is business and labour meant to respond? There does not appear to be a cohesive narrative around the investment drive - other than that we are open for business and looking for money.
At the same time, South Africans are becoming restless with the New Dawn hype. In real terms, people's lives have become harder since Ramaphosa took office. We are in the midst of a winter of discontent as the impact of the VAT increase hits home, hiking the price of food, clothing, electricity and communications. Successive fuel price increases have resulted in further escalation in the cost of living.
Ramaphosa's response to the disgruntlement has been to appoint an independent panel to consider "the most effective way to mitigate the impact of the increase in the VAT rate on poor and low-income households". Earlier this month, he said a group of ministers would announce in two weeks a package of economic measures to cushion the public from the crippling effects of fuel price hikes and the VAT increase.Ramaphosa and his Brics counterparts made profound statements this week on where the world was heading and what the five nations needed to do to keep pace with, among other things, the digital revolution.
"Quantum leaps in technology and innovation present enormous opportunities for growth, development and human progress," Ramaphosa said.
It is great that the president has ambitious dreams for our nation. But sometimes leaders get so caught up in their own hype that they become disconnected from the people they serve.
Try not to leave us behind, Mr President.

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