Thursday, November 20, 2008

GIBS Forecast 2009: Feedback

Last night (Wed, 20 November, 2008) my father and I attended a fascinating debate hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science. GIBS has presented a number of fora this year which I have blogged about in my feedback articles, including:

Last night was a GIBS signature event, Forecast 2009, which is an annual debate about what the new year will bring. It attempts to read the tea leaves of business, politics and the global dynamics that will affect our country in the near future.

The debate was chaired by Cape High Court Judge Dennis Davis and the panelists included:
  1. Azar Jammine - Chief Economist at Econometrix
  2. Mduduzi Mbada - Special advisor to the Premier of Gauteng
  3. Raenette Taljaard - Director of the Helen Suzman Foundation
  4. Mamphela Ramphele - Anthropologist, medical doctor and businesswoman
  5. Gill Marcus - Non-executive chairperson of the ABSA group


Azar Jammine and Mdudzi Mbada

1.) Azar Jammine was guardedly optimistic about the economic outlook for next year. He cited the weekend's G20 meeting which signaled a positive sense of inclusiveness for developing nations. Jammine noted that many were disappointed with the summit and the lack of concrete outcomes at the end of it. "But," he remarked dryly, "how do you solve 25 years of excess over a weekend?". He also noted that we are not going to see practical measures until the latter part of next year.

Jammine was confident that SA was going to "weather the current downturn possibly a little better than other countries." He cited the upcoming 2010 World Cup as evidence of this.

He also noted that consumers were going to get a break from all of the pressures of hyper-growth such as excessive fuel prices and strains on public infrastructure. Good news is that the cost of petrol is likely to come down by around R1.50 next month, he said.

Jammine ended by reminding the audience that "It doesn't mean we are going to have a boom year, but we can prevent ourselves from falling into full-scale recession."

The Econometrix director gave an articulate presentation, but I felt that he understated the threats that are looming for SA on the economic front. Needless cynicism should be avoided, but I don't know if the breezy optimism of Dr. Jammine's is appropriate either considering the right mess that the world's financial markets are in at the moment.


2.) Mdudzi Mbada filled in for his boss, the newly installed Premier of Gauteng, Paul Mashatile, who was attending an imbizo. I thought Mbada gave a modest performance, but perhaps I am being unkind because the quality of the panel was very high indeed.

Mbada cited several of the major projects that the Gauteng provincial government is involved in including infrastructure improvements in Soweto, sustaining the current trajectory of the World Cup planning and tackling unemployment. He talked about the need to "involve stakeholders" and to create "labour-absorbing" projects and to "respond holistically to crime". He even boasted of the stability in the provincial government, which I found interesting considering that the previous Premier recently felt compelled to step down!

This was official-speak of the dullest kind and it was concerning to see the lack of engagement with ideas or a willingness to recognise many of the grave social ills facing our province. Unfortunately, Mbada was stuck in a very narrow development paradigm, one that favours checking off the bullet points rather than articulating what policy will mean for people in real terms.


Raenette Taljaard

3.) Raenette Taljaard spoke next, and began by focusing on how our political lexicon has exploded over the last two years. New terms such as 'Pre-Polokwane,' 'Post-Polokwane', 'Pre-Recall' [of the President], 'Post-Recall', 'Pre-Cope' (and maybe next year, 'post-Cope'?) have all become common-place.

Taljaard also talked about the numerous shifts and changes of parties repositioning themselves and the new entry of Cope throwing things wide open. Referring to the SA National Convention, and specifically the "substantive re-launch of the Democratic Alliance" she said that "the proof of the pudding will be in the eating when we see the electoral lists".

She also noted the incredible spill-over of the Obama effect and how it has energised particularly young people to register to vote in upcoming elections in various parts of the world, and most notably at home.

For me, Taljaard's most revealing comment was that a generation of so-called "born-frees" will be voting for the first time in this election and that they will be "a new market with shifting loyalties and allegiances." She also cited recent surveys that are indicating the growing number of independent voters whose ballots will be up for grabs in 2009.

The biggest thing to watch out for, she said, was the very real possibility of coalition governments in at least four or five provinces in South Africa next year. This could really shake things up, especially considering the fact that provinces are allowed to draw up their own basic constitutions, which I didn't know.

She closed by saying that it will be of interest to see whether or not the blurring of party and state that we have witnessed in the recent past will be deepened by the new electoral threats or if it will recede. It could go either way was her summation.


4.) Mamphela Ramphele stole the show with her irreverent style and thoughtful comments. She spoke about Polokwane (her home town) as "the beginning of us aspiring to democracy. People were hoping for a split in the alliance, but it has gone the other way and is no longer ideological."

"The split has also ushered in the notion of legitimate opposition whereas before you could just be dismissed as DA. Now part of the family has moved into the illegitimate space."

"Whenever they are called, the coming elections will be like no other in the history of SA. Not just post-1994, but our entire history. This is a big plus, and we should really congratulate ourselves."

"But... but we have huge ghosts that are haunting every one of the political parties. We are all spooked about talking about race and class and gender. They are really frightening goggas! The dream is not deferred as Mark Gevisser says, but it is spooked by ghosts."

Dr. Ramphele also hoped for a more politically mature 2009, saying that she was sick of the paternalistic approach that many of our politicians take towards the polity. Rather, leaders are servants on behalf of the rest of us and real leadership should start with you and I. We must recognise that we have developed some very bad habits since 1994 and we have rested on our laurels. We must ask ourselves why we have allowed the active demobilization of civil society to happen. The private sector too has failed as a sector to uphold its responsibility. She observed that "No democracy in the world functions without a vigorous citizenry."


Dennis Davis, Mamphela Ramphele and Gill Marcus

5.) Gill Marcus offered a more sober view than some of the other panelists about the future prospects of South Africa saying that "we can have the best of intentions for 2009, but we are underestimating the gravity of the situation."

She noted that Europe and America are on the cusp of a major recession and that there are predictions of a negative growth rate of 4% in two quarters next year. In America they are looking at 1 in 10 home-owners having foreclosures on their houses.

If you look at certain East European states we are talking about country failures here, not just banks. The IMF simply doesn't have enough money to rectify the situation.

There are also major questions about global food capacity. For instance, Marcus noted that South Korea has just taken a lease on tens of thousands of hectares of land in Madagascar for agricultural cultivation. That is the cost they are prepared to pay to meet their food needs.

Add to this the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which suck up major human and financial resources and you have a pretty volatile world.

To think that this will not affect us is naive at best. "My argument is not pessimistic." she said "It's about recognising the problems and responding to them positively."


Overall, the level of debate was rigorous and many people came away with plenty of questions about our future - as well as some glimmers of answers. A big thank you to Nick Binedell and his team at GIBS for helping us to make sense of 2008 as it unfolded - what a year it was. Many things are uncertain in 2009, but what we can expect is the same level of contribution to our public life from this institution.


Photos by David Ansara

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