SA election 2014Today, South Africa goes to the polls.

It’s…not exactly positive. The platinum industry strike continues without an apparent end in sight. Unemployment is floating around the 34% mark – higher than anything under apartheid. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters loom on the periphery with their scarlet berets and confused manifesto, riding what appears to be a rising swell of populist rage that they can claim some role in inciting. The DA, bless them, seem to have lost their way a bit since that Agang-union-break-up debacle. Agang and COPE are dead in the water. And the ANC is going to win – the only real question is, by what margin.

I have also seen some enormously entertaining (albeit horrifying) polling taking place. The Daily Maverick has taken to using tarot card readers and diviners-by-pendulum. I’m not sure whether that’s adding farce to the farce, or if it’s making a statement about the general unreliability of poll forecasters. Either way, it’s interesting. My favourite quote comes from psychic Tash, who communicated with The Daily Maverick through her assistant, Bruna:

“As for COPE, the cards are very dark around them. They fall in the past, which I am unable to read.”

Unable to read the past? It’s called a newspaper, Tash.

Anyway, that aside (and also putting aside Nkandla and etolls – because in the grand scheme of things, other than as tools for rhetoric, those are really not that important), here are the successes and failures of the ANC since 1994.

The wins:

  1. Crime rates have fallen.
  2. South African society is democratic. There is a reasonably large opposition party (the DA), that controls the second richest province – that’s not exactly standard in post-colonial countries
  3. Both the Judiciary and the South African Reserve Bank remain independent, and are still willing to make unpopular decisions (the SARB recently raised interest rates, despite the election). So the politics is kept in check.
  4. When the Nkandla debate was going down, there was no silencing of the public protector. Thuli Madonsela is not afraid to be openly critical of the executive – and that’s certainly not something that you see in the developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
  5. The South African Revenue Service (SARS) is a ridiculously successful tax collector.
  6. A black middle class has emerged, and racial integration in schools, universities, the workplace and just general life is so common that it’s only worth commenting when there’s an obvious exception.
  7. Almost all households (96%) now have access to drinking water, as opposed to only 62% that had access in 1994.
  8. The same goes for electricity: 87% in 2013 versus only 58% in 1994. Of course, there are some supply issues with Eskom – but is that not to be expected? Not only has the percentage of households using electricity gone up, so has the number of households in general… It’s like a double whammy for the existing infrastructure.
  9. Better welfare (there are over 16 million recipients of social welfare grants, as compared to around 3 million in 1994).

The failures:

  1. Inequality is higher than it was in 1994. The collapse of previously sanction-protected industry after the liberalisation of the South African economy was devastating for the unskilled.
  2. The bulk of job creation should have come from small and medium sized enterprises, not the big corporates. But the business climate for SMEs in South Africa is appalling. I mean – appalling. Bank accounts are a rigmarole. Credit is non-existent for the entrepreneurial. Company registration is expensive and long-winded. Labour laws and bargaining councils, in their attempt to protect the existing worker, block the jobs that could be created for the unemployed. Not good.
  3. Corruption deserves a mention – although I’d point out that, in my opinion, railing against corruption is comparable to moaning about our lack of wings. Should we have wings? Maybe. But it is what it is. Corruption is both an obstacle to, and a function of, economic development. The best counter to it is just to get on with the business of growing your business, and the corruption will start to fade of its own accord (Thank God for Bribery and Corruption?).
  4. Education. Wow (South Africa’s Education System. Or Lack Thereof.).

What South Africa Needs

Now here, I may as well be playing with tarot. Because what do I know really? But here are some business-turnaround principles that I would work with:

  1. Small changes have multiplier effects, and often those effects are exponential over time. Unfortunately, most people don’t like change, and they especially dislike change that doesn’t have a big promised pay-off by this time tomorrow. But you need to ignore that, and make the small changes anyway.
  2. You can’t just troubleshoot the immediate problems – because then you’re always on the back foot. You have to set aside some time every day to do a few things that will address some of the longer term problems. Because that means less troubleshooting in the future, which means more time to do the fun stuff like making money.
  3. The solution should not include firing people, because firing people is emotional and it creates conflict. Rather find better ways to use the people that you have. This is good for the (company’s) soul. Retrenchment is a last resort, or for those times when there is someone in the business that is poisonous (ie. they’re bad for the soul).
  4. Usually, it’s worth paying for some advice. Even if you feel like you can’t afford it – you need to weigh that up against whether you can really afford not to.

Which is my way of saying:

  1. The reform needs to come from the ANC itself; and
  2. Education reform has a long-term pay-off. Small business reform has a long-term pay-off. Yes, it may not seem as pressing as the labour laws – but why not start with something that can be successful without too much political cost, and then move on to the less popular reforms when the political will is buoyed up on success?
  3. Also, consider getting some turnaround consultants in. Like Puerto Rico has done. And like Italy did. There’s a lot to be said for technocrats in times where the political will is a bit iffy…

Anyway, happy voting!