I’ve been wondering what’s been missing. After a few weeks of many economic headlines, discussions and endless columns before, during and after Pravin Gordhan’s budget speech last week, there’s been a nagging thought that a pivotal point is being missed. After Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission’s report, President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address, and then Gordhan’s generally favourably received budget, I found myself agreeing with Alec Hogg’s assessment that it was a week that our world got changed.
Well, it could be…if we don’t miss the moment.
First and in a nutshell the budget did three important things. It kept the deficit to below expectations, albeit on the back of some good fortune. But that’s a budget for you: estimates, intentions, forecasts, guesses. At the very least it should keep the rating agencies at bay and give breathing space to continue on the intended path of controlling current spending, including disciplining the wage bill. That is the second important feature. The third is the pronounced shift to spending on infra-structure.
The scepticism around the latter is understandable against the background of project planning and capacity constraints, corruption, labour pressures and political intrigues. But this is one area where scepticism should not be allowed to create its own inertia. The benefits are simply too valuable. While the likes of Moody’s may not agree, there is a completely different context to deficits based on infra-structure spending and those created by current spending. The former is like borrowing to build a house; the latter is like using credit to buy groceries. And if you are spending a larger amount on your bond, you clearly are going to be squeezed on what you spend on groceries. By its very nature, greater capital expenditure positively changes the structure of fiscal policy.
Then there are the more obvious benefits: such as creating jobs, encouraging training and skills development, and perhaps even putting pressure on some of the more debilitating features of affirmative action, BEE, and labour inflexibility. I do not understand the scepticism based on the “white elephant argument”, which cites the soccer stadiums as an example. Obviously, expanded economic activity is needed to justify the infra-structure spend, but conversely this expansion won’t happen without power supplies, roads, rail, bridges, and dams to encourage and sustain it.
Just as important is that few things motivate people more than being surrounded by people engaged in work. Some of us can remember the atmosphere and vibrancy that was prevalent in Johannesburg and other cities when, in the sixties to mid-seventies, the city-skylines were proliferated with towering construction cranes. Things were happening. It felt good, buoyant. It was a time of opportunity. It was a time of inspiration. One simply had to be part of it!
And that’s what is missing in South Africa at present.
The budget may have hit for the first time that magical mark of R1trn, (follow this link to see what $1trn looks like) but it lacked magic. It may have been impressive economics, but it lacked inspiration.
Yet, it had many inspirational thoughts. The most important line in the speech was when Gordhan tried to enthuse his audience not to ask what government could do but to ask: “what can I do for my country, my people, our future!”
There were others, but all fell quite flat. Perhaps it is because of his “amiable” and ostensibly “technocratic” personality. But then an arguably more charismatic Zuma also failed to inspire with similar lines in his state of the nation address. One must be careful, of course, not to rely on immortal lines. Gordhan’s “cribbing”, albeit not directly and most likely unintentionally, of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not..” inaugural address detracted from his own sincerity. Memorable sayings such as Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”; Horatio Nelson’s “England expects..” Churchill’s “Never was so much owed..” and Obama’s “Yes, we can” are difficult to repeat in a different context without sounding clichéd.
It may appear trivial, but the finance minister should lose the text reflectors, or learn to use them properly. One does not “read” text off an “autocue” or similar presentation aid without running the risk of appearing to be an inanimate puppet. I first saw the instrument used to great effect by Ronald Reagan in the early 80’s. But then, he was a trained actor well versed into “talking” from a script. These instruments are there to encourage animation. If they don’t do that, then better to stick to a prepared speech.
Inspirational thoughts that have impacted on society have mostly been spawned in a particular context of need. We cannot argue that South Africa at this time has this context in great measure. What is needed is not so much political leadership, but statesmanship. Our hunger for inspiration has been best reflected by the media frenzy that followed the admission of a nonagenarian to hospital for routine treatment. History may have encouraged some to question aspects of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, but we simply cannot deny that he was able to inspire a nation during extremely delicate and difficult times.
Inspiration is essential to entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity – all major drivers in a dynamic economy. Cynicism and scepticism are a deadly poison to inspiration. And perhaps they have gained such a grip on our national psyche that inspiration is mostly still born. We may simply be incapable of seizing the moment.
But here’s the real pity. Inspiration is also an essential ingredient for our own personal success. Indeed it can only happen at an individual level. While the environment may not be conducive to inspiration, we should not make our own personal inspiration dependent on it. Without inspiration we commit aspirational suicide.
So, if you don’t want to miss your own moment and with some apologies to JFK: “Ask not what you can expect out of life. Ask what life can expect out of you.”