On April 1 Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) started implementing a set of incentives that should be a welcome relief to the manufacturing and exporting industries in South Africa.
The Ports Regulator of SA determined a 2.76 percent port tariff increase that was far below the requested 18.06 percent sought by Transnet. One would expect the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) and other business organisations to welcome this decision and shower praises on the ports regulator and the minister of transport. On the contrary, Sacci’s March business confidence index reportedly was at 95.7 points, “reflecting volatile sentiment in an unpredictable and uncertain climate”.
Newspapers are dominated by news that projects everything that is wrong with our country, with no glimmer of hope. If you had just woken up from a deep sleep and you were given the press clips of the whole month of March, you would think that our country had changed and resembled the imaginary Free Republic of Abruria, autocratically governed by one man, known only as the Ruler in the Wizard of the Crow, a 2006 novel written by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
One critic describes the role of two characters in the novel, two trusted advisers who are Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Sikiokuu, the Minister of State, who must constantly try to prove their devotion to the Ruler, even as they try to position themselves to accumulate more power. Machokali has plastic surgery on his eyes, having them “enlarged to the size of electric bulbs”, reportedly to be able to see the Ruler’s enemies! This leads Sikiokuu to follow suit and have his ears enlarged, so that he will be able to hear even the most private conversations apparently in order to protect the Ruler. The fad of body augmentation, which has given career boosts to these two powerful ministers, then falls out of fashion when the next fellow has his tongue elongated, a misguided attempt to be able to convey the Ruler’s commands. In the meantime, the Ruler is not aware of the deteriorating state of affairs in his country.
Comments by Mamphela Ramphele that South Africa’s education system is worse today than the “gutter education” that the youth of 1976 gave their lives to overthrow, accompanied by Helen Zille’s accusation that President Jacob Zuma is “sacrificing” the future of children of the Eastern Cape in his bid to retain the presidency of the ANC, will cause an alien to believe that South Africa is similar to the imaginary Free Republic of Abruria.
A New York Times review notes: “As a birthday gift to the Ruler – presented by his deluded ministers on behalf of the nation – plans are made to erect in Abruria the tallest building in the world, a tower that would reach ‘to the very gates of heaven so that the Ruler could call on God daily to say good morning or good evening’.
“As his lackeys pathetically battle for the Ruler’s favour, the tower boondoggle, officially christened ‘Marching to Heaven’, precipitates a nationwide mania that compels tens of thousands of Abrurians to gather in front of the office of the project’s chairman. They form two lines: one filled with suit-clad businessmen seeking construction contracts on this Tower of Babel redux (and happy to pay whatever bribes are necessary); the other filled with poor men desperate for work. All is contingent, of course, on the release of funds from the Global Bank, the neocolonial Santa Claus of strings-attached capital.”
South Africa is not similar to the imaginary Free Republic of Abruria because our country is prosperous, our children go to school, we have plenty of food and other amenities, we have a stable democracy, better health care and on top of that it is a country of dreams and opportunities.
The crass caricatures of this tale do not even lend themselves to the sophisticated context within which our problems occur, and viewing the world in such unsophisticated analogies, though elegant in the satire of Thiong’o, is what leads us to ready stock phrases that are capable of being rolled out at the drop of a hat, with no pause for reflection on the true nature of what is occurring.
Calm reflection on the reality, both good and bad and the dynamic between them that determines the state of our well-being, is required. We are no Free Republic of Abruria. Our institutions are robust. Our economy is perhaps not a stellar example of global recovery, but interest rates are reasonable, the regulatory framework is predictable, growth is steady if not fantastic and consumer debt levels have stabilised.
What is wrong is that we do not have perceptions that are grounded in reality. We are caught between those who see every sign as an evil portent and those who face every criticism or negative comment as a relentless racist attack on black people’s ability to run a society. Neither of these groups reflect the reality we face. We have much to be optimistic about.
Can any of the naysayers point to the number of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries whose banks remained stable throughout the financial crisis and suffered no bank corporate failures? Can any of the reactive self-proclaimed victims of racism claim that we do not have some problems with corruption, service delivery and so on?
Look at the proof before you decide to predict our doom or state of decay.
In his State of the Nation address this year, Zuma said: “We have also been looking at the necessity of reducing port charges, as part of reducing the costs of doing business. The issue of high port charges was one of those raised sharply by the automotive sector in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage during my performance monitoring visit to the sector last year.”
Last week the ports regulator issued the TNPA’s tariff book for 2012/13 tariff year, which states that both parties “have agreed to an arrangement which will result in exporters of manufactured goods receiving a significant decrease in port charges, during the coming year, equal to about R1 billion in total”.
It is two months since the State of the Nation address, a month since port charges were increased by less than half the inflation rate, even less than the raise that business was suggesting in most cases, and less than a week following the R1bn incentive implementation at our ports. The rebate is likely to benefit eleven months of export containers using 2011 export figures. The tariff discount programme for the benefit of exporters shall result in a rebate of between 68 percent and 84 percent depending on the size of the container. Exporters of new South African manufactured vehicles like Toyota and BMW are also going to benefit from a R200 rebate per vehicle. Or do you still want to wait and see before you celebrate?
Transnet’s market demand strategy, according to the State of the Nation address, “will result in the creation of more jobs in the South African economy, as well as increased localisation and black economic empowerment. It will also position South Africa as a regional trans-shipment hub for sub-Saharan Africa and deliver on the Nepad’s regional integration agenda.”
This will only happen if the cost of doing business in South Africa is competitive in comparison with other countries, and the lower port charges are a welcome relief to the economy. It is befitting for business to congratulate the Ports Regulator of SA for aligning the regulatory process with the vision of the minister of transport and the government, thereby making our manufacturing sector and ports globally competitive.
More vessel operators are going to use our ports, thereby giving labour job opportunities arising out of the increasing economic activity at our ports and in the hinterland. Let the good times roll.
Sello Mashao Rasethaba is the chairman of Xpanse Investment, the black economic partner of the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) based in Geneva, Switzerland. MSC is one of the world’s leading shipping lines.