Podcasts from the Edge

Peter Bruce, veteran South African newspaper editor and commentator, interviews the country's social and political leaders and experts in a weekly effort to explain what is actually going on in this complicated country. Bruce's interviews are about making events easy to understand for people with little time to listen.

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The system is broken

Donald MacKay, director of XA International Trade Advisers in Johannesburg is arguably the most knowledgeable outsider on the inner workings of South African Byzantine trade policy mechanisms — the matrix between the International Trade Administration Commission, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, the National Treasury and the South African Revenue Service is pretty much impenetrable but MacKay has stared at it long enough to know that something is going badly wrong. XA has just published a report describing the extent to which investigations for decisions on applications by South African employers for import duty rebates or for the removal of duties, are running over the normal six months.

Some are now nearly two years old. Many more than a year old. In total, some R2.1bn of duties paid are the subject of complaint and possible legal action as a result, of duties being imposed unfairly by the Dtic and Sars. Some are for the import of products that are not even made in South Africa and are therefore not capable of being protected. This is part of the madness of central planning, of Dtic minister Ebrahim Patel’s “localisation” policies. “The process seems to be broken at the moment,” MacKay tells Peter Bruce in this edition of Podcasts from the Edge.

That would be an understatement. Patel has been forced to lift punitive anti-dumping duties on chicken imports because his protection of the local industry has allowed it to overcharge for local chicken, starving the poor of vital protein. The cost of importing an electrically-powered car is still cripplingly high though, even though fuel costs have risen even more quickly than foods. And now the minister plans to try to ban the export of scrap. It is a popular move because it plays to the myth of infrastructure being stolen for export but, in fact, if it already almost impossible to export scrap and the last time it was banned, in 2020, the assault on our infrastructure reached an all time high.

Helen Zille on the ANC polling below 40%

Sunday’s cracking headline in Rapport, “ANC falls below 40%” is the result of the ANC’s own polling, chair of the DA Federal Executive and former party leader Helen Zille reminds Peter Bruce in this edition of Podcasts from the Edge. Indeed, Rapport appears to have seen two polls, an internal ANC one warning of a “freefall” in electoral support ahead of the 2024 elections and a “confidential” poll putting the ruling party at 38 per cent on a 56 per cent turnout if the elections were held today. That same confidential poll puts the DA at 27 per cent, which Zille says she thinks is somewhat ambitious.

But, she says, the party is doing well among black voters despite recent losses of black leaders, and insists that the DA’s “blue values” are there to appeal to black voters. Recent polls, met with some scepticism among the commentariat, have the DA regaining ground lost in 2019 despite an Ipsos poll on Monday that put it at 11 per cent.

“Ipsos always gets the DA wrong,” says Zille. She doesn’t rule out a coalition with the ANC after 2024 even though “the ANC wants to be in government to loot”. But one mistake is not about to be repeated. There’ll be no deals with the EFF. In Nelson Mandela Bay, where the DA and smaller parties have put together a minority coalition to unseat a plainly incompetent ANC executive (provided the EFF doesn’t prevent it), Zille says EFF leaders are insisting she and DA leader John Steenhuisen negotiate directly with them. She absolutely refuses to do that.

What did we need most — education or skills?

The head of Investec’s corporate social investment programme, Setlogane Manchidi, sits atop a R90m-R100m budget each year to do some good out of the glare of analysts or the advertising department. And he does.
He tells Peter Bruce in this edition of Podcasts from the Edge that at any one time he is in the lives of up to 4,000 young citizens at school, university and entering working life. His programme organises extra math and science classes at schools, provides bursaries to good universities and chaperones its charges into the world of work and enterprise.
But, in a way, education is an easy choice. Much of the R10bn corporate SA spend on CSI every year goes to education. It’s an easy choice. But it excludes practically, skills, which, arguably, we need more than mathematicians.
Listen as the pair discuss research that suggests fast growing economies such as China and Thailand have on average lower educational outcomes than slower ones.
What are we missing? Have we misunderstood the transmission of skills and the importance of a society being able to do a wide variety of things? Skills are passed between humans in a way that an education may not.
We have, laments Manchidi, abandoned apprenticeships. Our convention is that everything has to be a university or it doesn’t count. That’s got to be wrong. President Cyril Ramaphosa should talk to people like Setlogane Manchidi before he signs off on the next social compact. Details matter.

Will the ANC go quietly in 2024?

Veteran South African editor and commentator Tim du Plessis tells Peter Bruce in this edition of Podcasts from the Edge that he worries that ANC may not accept the result of a 2024 general election in which it loses badly. This is a party that knows only liberation struggle and state power, he says.
Opposition is foreign territory. In fact, since it lost power in the Western Cape, its only real experience of a major loss of power, the ANC in the province has withered on the vine and is all but dysfunctional. There’s also the worrying precedent of former ANC president hiding the contents of a report into the 2002 election in Zimbabwe, which Robert Mugabe stole until he was forced to punish it. And the Independent Electoral Commission’s handling of elections generally, Du Plessis notes dryly, is not improving. This is a kept debate for the next few years as the ANC edges towards an election loss. What may matter is how big it is.

Flights of Fancy

The Competition Commission is investigating three (yes, three, that’s all it takes) complaints that South Africa’s domestic airlines are overcharging since the collapse of Comair at the end of May. Air travel expert and consultant Linden Birns tell Peter Bruce in this edition of Podcasts from the Edge that he doubts the investigation will find much to complain about. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed the price of jetfuel to $151 a barrel, a full 78% higher than it was a year ago. What’s an airline to do? As it is, with SAA a shadow of its former self, no SA Express, no Mango, no Kulula, no British Airways there’s about 35% less capacity domestically now, says Birns. Yes, there might of been periods when our skies have been overtraded but whether there’s room for a new airline, or whether the current players add capacity the fact is demand is growing.

Lines in the sand

Change is coming to South African politics, former DA federal chairman and now Eastern Cape Provincial Chairman for ActionSA, Athol Trollip, tells Peter Bruce on this edition of Podcasts From the Edge. The thing is to get the ANC out of power. But Trollip is no starry-eyed idealist. Only coalitions can feasibly replace the ANC at the next election in 2024 and he knows probably better than anyone how difficult coalitions can be. Forced by conscience to fire his corrupt deputy in Nelson Mandela Bay, Trollip was himself then upended when his coalition partner turned on him. So how to get it right? Does the public have a right to know in advance who would coalesce with whom? Or to be consulted afterwards? Will independent candidates make a difference in 2024?

Gqeberha 2022 is not Cape Town 2018

"We need political stability to get to economic stability," Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber CEO Denise van Huyssteen tells Peter Bruce as they chart their way through Gqeberha's approaching water crisis. Yes while there is no water already in many City taps, and while some local dams have run dry due to years of drought, the fact is Gqeberha has a water management problem rather than an absence of water. The problem is politics. The city has been run by unstable and squabbling coalitions since 2016, chasing the last remaining engineers and artisans out of their jobs. Now the chickens have come home to roost. In theory, enough water can be pumped in the city from the Gariep Dam hundreds of kilometers away but work is behind schedule and key pump stations don't work. Load shedding doesn't help. Van Huyssteen has finally persuaded the council to allow business to fix leaking pipes, broken sub stations and other infrastructure but its late in the day. If this doesn't work, nothing will.

Not a moment too soon

People have been celebrating with some relief the publication of Songezo Zibi’s new book, Manifesto. It’s been a long time coming and with characteristic reticence, former Business Day Editor Zibi tells former Business Day Editor Peter Bruce in this episode of Podcasts from the Edge that he still isn’t quite ready to say quite what his new future will look like. Getting the book done was just the start but Manifesto at least makes his intentions clear. “It is Herculean,” he says of the job of forging a new think tank, the Rivonia Circle, and of creating a possibly new institution. But, he says, “in this respect, I have decided to take every step necessary to ensure that what I say here (in the book) does indeed take place”. In other words, there’s a new political party/formation/something on the horizon and it promises to be exciting. Zibi is young and smart and deeply contemptuous of our current political choices. He believes though that there is a vast mass of voters looking for an alternative to the status quo come the 2024 general elections, the ANC, the DA and the EFF. He is going to go and find them.

In six weeks Cyril can save South Africa

Whatever your politics, there’s no doubt that Eskom’s unreliable power supply, the worsening condition of its kit and the prospect of a complete Eskom system failure are the single biggest barriers to investment and growth in South Africa. Something radical has to be done and it has to be done now. And the amazing thing is it can easily be done. We just need leadership. Prof Mark Swilling, among many things the current chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, has a simple plan he puts to Peter Bruce in this episode of Podcasts from the Edge: Put all arguments about coal and other fossil fuels aside for 24 months, clear all regulatory and ideological barriers aside, and for two years build and install 10 000MW of renewable power... wind and solar. And 5 000MW of battery storage. Once that’s done there will simply be no more load shedding and Eskom and start maintaining its plant the way it should be maintained. “I think we have a six week window to make a strategic decision that would preempt a disaster being triggered by some kind of national semi-collapse or total collapse,” he warns. And only President Cyril Ramaphosa can make it happen.

Let's try not to pass gas

As business and the State lean towards gas as an intermediate fuel between our current dependence on coal and our future commitment to renewable energy, some voices are being raised about the futility of inventing, building and paying for an entirely new energy infrastructure to power South Africa, only for it to be abandoned for renewables by 2020.
In other words, natural gas, by the time we are burning it for electricity, will be obsolete and hideously expensive.
Listen as Peter Bruce quizzes amaBhungane veteran Susan Comrie on her pioneering recent reporting on the "burning" question of the moment. How much gas will we actually need?
As it turns out, very little. If any. Why bother?
Should we not be moving directly from coal to renewables, asks Bruce: "In South Africa," says Comrie, "we have this idea that resources are the things that we mine out of the ground. But we have incredible resources around us like solar and wind and for a country with such an endowment, to not be using that is a kind of moral and economic madness."

Too complicated to contemplate?

Peter Bruce asks South Africa’s busiest and arguably most influential agriculture and land advisor, Wandile Sihlobo, why the newly-released Agriculture and Agro-processing Masterplan is so complicated. Does he really expect this ANC government to be able to do any of the things the plan says the state will do? In this edition of Podcasts from the Edge Bruce and Sihlobo go back and talk about what has to be fixed before farming can be fixed. Its a lot. The sewerage in Idutywa might be one problem but farming is different — it’s about history and land and the people that have it and the people that want it. What’s fair and how we get there? Ultimately it's about trust. Sihlobo is a positive guy…

Just, please, stop talking and get on with it

Goldfield CEO Chris Griffith tells Peter Bruce in this episode of Podcasts from the Edge that he thinks South Africa is still investable but that the state makes too many plans that it doesn’t implement. On the cusp of switching on a 50MW renewable power project to help power close to 30 per cent of Goldfields' South Deep mine on the Witwatersrand, he reckons the goal would be enough renewable to make it 100%. Investors want it. Banks want it. "Going green won’t reflect in your revenue,” he says. “It’ll be in your share price.”

In this wide ranging conversation on of South Africa’s top industrialists reveals his picks for South Africa’s future energy mix. Gas? Nuclear? Listen in….

64 episodes

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