The new leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) was not proposing any “major” changes to South Africa’s economic policies, but secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said on Tuesday that it would be untrue to assert that there would be no policy change.
Speaking at an event organised by the National Business Initiative in Sandton, he said the dynamic would be one of “continuity and change”, should the ANC prevail as anticipated in the 2009 election.
Sharing a podium with Wendy Luhabe, the wife of Mbhazima Shilowa, who has thrown in his lot with Mosiuoa Lokota’s ANC breakaway party, provisionally known as the Congress of the People, Mantashe explained that this would involve the retention policies that have worked, while changing those that had not.
His comments came as Standard & Poor's followed Fitch in cutting its outlook on South Africa's BBB+ credit rating to “negative” from “stable” on concern about the effect of slower world economic growth on the South African economy and its currency.
In its earlier commentary, Fitch raised concern that “in the event of a recession, the political commitment to the current economic policy framework could be tested”.
This commentary was rebuffed by South Africa’s Treasury DG Lesetja Kganyago, who told Business Day that he did not think that the rating agency’s assessment was "well-grounded".
Mantashe, who is seen as a key figure in the so-called post-Polokwane leadership, argued that any changes that could arise would be “a question of emphasis”, adding that the focus would be on the creation and retention of decent work.
The key shift could be towards a more assertive and active industrial policy, which Mantashe argued would seek to prioritise high-potential or underdeveloped sectors for direct State support.
He stressed, though, that this policy would not be based on import substitution, but on providing the incentives necessary to support the growth and development of “competitive” businesses.
However, he also strongly backed the controversial notion of picking winners, dismissing generalised industrial incentives as “Father Christmas giveaways”.
This is likely to raise some concern among those policymakers who believe governments should avoid targeting industries for particular support, particularly given the propensity for cronyism and for the creation of so-called “national champions”, whose protection from competition does not always yield commensurate social and economic returns.
Mantashe also outlined a more substantial role for South Africa’s development finance institution’s (DFIs), such as the Industrial Development Corporation and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, which he said were currently constrained by the ongoing demand for financial self-sufficiency.
In fact, he indicated that there could be instances where the DFIs should be allowed to lean on the fiscus in order to deliver developmental projects that would not be viable under their current restraints.