Big business’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a problem of incentives in South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the global economy, causing havoc and leaving many economies teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse. Moreover, the arrival of a second and now third wave of infections and a further mutation of the virus is driving the economy further into peril and uncertainty. The announcement by Cyril Ramaphosa, back in March 2019, that two of South Africa’s wealthiest families and the pinnacle of big business, the Rupert and Oppenheimer families, would be donating R1 billion each was met with admiration from all corners of the country. These commitments have since been matched by the Motsepe group of companies and Naspers, donating R1.5 billion. To date, the fund has amassed over R3.22 billion in pledges from a wide array of private, public, and political donors.

Responses of this type are understandable when combining the already bleak outlook for the South African economy with a significant and potentially catastrophic supply shock. However, a question that may be playing on many South Africans minds is: why, given the fact that South Africa’s economy has long struggled with growth and several structural issues, is this response from big business only coming now in the face of a global pandemic? An easy answer may be that there has not yet been an event of this magnitude for big business to respond. However, a counter to this argument is that businesses should continuously be re-investing their profits regardless of the economy’s health.

South Africa has a long history of the inefficient use of profits, which favours hording cash and conducting unproductive investments such as mergers and acquisitions. These uses of profits are a direct result of the skewed incentives facing the agents of many large companies. For instance, many CEOs are incentivised through sizeable bonus packages to maximise the shareholders’ value rather than focusing on the long-term health and sustainability of the business. This short-term view causes CEOs to opt to retain earnings rather than embark on risky research, development, and innovation endeavours that often fail but may result in enormous payoffs if they succeed economically and socially. Short-termism is a result of a corruption of the idea of value creation where price is associated too closely with true value, nuturing an entrenched system of extraction that contributrs to worsening economic and social conditions. This is something the professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Value, Mariana Mazzucato laments in her book The Value of Everything.

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Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision to refrain from increasing the country’s extensive social grant payments—which now reach 18 million impoverished citizens—beyond the growth in inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a larger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt—which has now breached 80% of the debt/GDP ratio—and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30%.

Those familiar with the financialization scholarship pertaining to developing countries—that strand which portrays the global financial markets as a force that can alter committed policy trajectories on a whim (Koelble, 2004), as well as the more nuanced literature (Mosley, 2000; Hager, 2017; Streeck, 2014; Ansari, 2017)—may recognize the Treasury’s framing of South Africa’s fiscal dilemma. However, as much of the international development literature on industrial upgrading and state policy has noted (Wade, 2018; Alami, 2019; Rodrik, 2006), there is a third option available to policy-makers in developing countries beyond the binary of debt build-up vs. austerity; namely, comprehensive, employment generating state-led development.

This is precisely the case I make in my new book, published by Palgrave (2021), Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions. In addition to documenting the onset of a financialized accumulation regime in post-apartheid South Africa since the democratic transition and the ANC’s adoption of economic liberalization, the monograph also highlights the missed opportunities that could have allowed the country to embark on a self-sustaining path of industrial up-grading, inclusive development, and internal revenue generation. Such missed opportunities include the early rejection by party leaders of the heterodox “Macro-Economic Research Group” (MERG) policy cluster, the removal of the trade unions from broader macro-policy-making processes, the rejection of a modest reconstruction and wealth tax, and the abandonment of much of the “Reconstruction and Development Program” (RDP) platform in favor of the orthodox “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” (GEAR) package in 1996. Had some of these missed opportunities been pursued, South African state officials would likely be in a much better position to currently adopt expansionary fiscal policies, and perhaps could have lifted their citizens out of poverty via inclusive development instead of cash-transfers.

Yet, as my monograph further documents, since the democratic transition Treasury officials have continued, despite recommendations from other government ministries such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to veto or oppose heterodox policy proposals that could potentially offer South Africa a path away from the current neoliberal quagmire. Such proposed polices include capital controls, export taxes on raw materials, the utilization of foreign exchange reserves to capitalize State-Owned-Enterprises (SOEs), and targeting specific industrial sectors for subsidies and state promotion.

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“Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings

A few years ago, during a year of ethnographic fieldwork with young un(der)employed men in a poor shack settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I found myself sitting in Senzo’s one-room shack on a foldout camping chair. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. Popular R&B music was blaring into the air from the nearby tavern. Senzo sat on his double bed. Soon after I arrived, Senzo handed me an ornate invitation with gold foil on the sides and his name on it. It was an invitation to the wedding of his cousin that was set to take place the following weekend. I asked Senzo if he planned to go. “I’m not going”, he told me, explaining that he had declined the invitation because, as he put it, “I don’t want to put more pressure on myself” describing the difficulties he already had paying rent, keeping up with outstanding debts, and supporting his girlfriend and children. Going to the wedding would require him to buy a fancy suit and a gift for the couple. This required money he didn’t have. The “pressure” Senzo described was not just the monetary cost of attending the wedding. It was also the feeling (what Senzo called “stress”) of being overburdened by competing demands on his money including buying consumer items, sending his children to good schools, and supporting family members. To understand the continuous “pressure” young men like Senzo face requires we give attention to the changing nature of work and the changing world of families in contemporary South Africa. As I show below the pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives. As such, I show how the   “income-demands gap” (a key catalyst of “pressure”) in young men’s lives is produced in and through specific (increasingly temporary rather than enduring) social relations and ties. 

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When does state-permeated capitalism work?

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In recent years, state capitalism has become an important buzzword in the development economics discussion (again). In view of the very different ways in which this term is used, Ilias Alami and Adam Dixon recently highlighted the dangers of using the term too loosely in an article in Competition and Change. In view of its recent popularity, state capitalism could suffer a similar fate to the terms “neoliberalism” or “financialisation” by becoming a very loose rallying cry without any significant analytical value. To overcome this problematic situation, Alami and Dixon propose that future research should (1) develop a theory of the capitalist state, (2) circumscribe the time horizons of state capitalism, and (3) locate state capitalism more precisely in territorial and geographical terms.

Although I am not sure whether the genius can be put back into the bottle by developing a unified theory of the state (too many different theoretical traditions are involved by now), I am very sympathetic to the latter two demands. Our recently published book “State-permeated Capitalism in Large Emerging Economies” (Routledge) is a modest contribution to the latter goals. It deals with the economic development of Brazil, India, China and South Africa between 2000 and 2015. Departing from a comparative capitalism perspective, we have developed an ideal type of state-permeated capitalism as opposed to liberal, coordinated and dependent capitalism – and examined to what extent large emerging markets are approaching this ideal type. Read More »

Facing a liquidity tsunami? Profit, risk, and discipline in emerging markets

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In April 2012, at the White House on her first visit to the United States since her election in 2010, Brazilian president Brazil Dilma Rousseff scolded advanced capitalist economies for unleashing a ‘tsunami de liquidez’, a ‘liquidity tsunami’, onto the developing world. The expression liquidity tsunami suggests that the sheer scale and volume of financial capital flows to developing and emerging markets had become an issue. It indicates that these quantities were overwhelming and could trigger devastating damages. 

This in itself is puzzling. Have we not been told by development economists and practitioners that financial capital flowing into the poorer areas of the world economy is something good and desirable? That one of the main causes of underdevelopment is actually the lack of capital and domestic savings in developing countries, and that this should be compensated with foreign capital inflows? Following this line of reasoning, vast swathes of financial capital flowing into emerging markets surely should be seen as a boon.

And there was some truth to that. The capital flow bonanza from the mid-2000s to late 2013 (coupled with the primary commodity super-cycle) did deliver some benefits to emerging markets. It helped governments fund themselves at better conditions. It provided the material basis for significant redistribution via a number of social policies. It contributed to economic growth performances much higher than over the previous decade. It also made a minority of people much richer in a very short period of time. In sum, the capital flow boom temporarily helped deliver some economic and social gains, and this was instrumental in consolidating social contracts between governments and their populations.Read More »

Thinking politically about capital controls: a class perspective

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The recent global financial crisis sparked renewed debates, both within academia and policy-making circles, about regulating highly mobile cross-border money-capital flows. A particular type of policy tool has received considerable attention: capital controls (CC). Within mainstream economics and policy-oriented circles (including policy-makers in central banks, finance ministries, and international organisations such as the IMF and the G20) there has been a growing recognition that unregulated cross-border money-capital flows can considerably disrupt capital accumulation, and debates have accordingly focused on the potential role and effectiveness of temporary CC in limiting the destabilising potential of those flows, while maintaining a long-term commitment to an open capital-account and free capital mobility.[1] By contrast, the Left (including organised labour, progressive economists, and civil society organisations) has been largely critical of capital-account liberalisation, and has denounced its detrimental effects in terms of constraining policy options for development and long-term industrial development.[2]Read More »

The BRICS and a Changing World

This July and August, I led an international group of experts in preparing an Economic Report on the role of the BRICS countries (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa) in the world economy and international development.  The Report was commissioned as an input to the Summit of BRICS countries that took place in early September 2017 in Xiamen, China.

It surveys the BRICS countries’ sizable contribution to global growth, trade and investment, evaluates the prospects for this to continue in the future, and explores the possible role that these countries can play in bolstering the global economy, in reshaping international economic arrangements and in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals and to international development generally. An important conclusion in the report is that continued BRICS growth as well as policy initiatives can substantially benefit other developing countries (the report uses the IMF category of Emerging Market and Developing Countries, or EMDCs) – and developed countries too.  I will  be pleased if the report will be circulated widely, and welcome all reactions.Read More »

Small and Medium Enterprise Development: A Case of Hamlet without the Prince

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Towards the end of 2016, something remarkable happened in the relationship between the private sector and state in South Africa. In an effort to keep the big three rating agencies from downgrading the country’s the sovereign credit rating to “junk status” the CEO Initiative was convened at the request of the President and his Deputy and led by the then Minister of Finance. The initiative’s initial goals were to prevent a sovereign rating downgrade and to stimulate inclusive and sustainable growth. To achieve this, three work streams were established: a fund for small and medium sized enterprises (SME), a youth employment scheme, and an investment intervention team. This post critically assesses the theoretical basis for SME development as a tool for inclusive growth.Read More »