South Africa: exacerbating structural problems
South Africa’s growth outlook is still unfavourable; in the short-term, growth will be held back by low investor confidence, while in the medium run structural weaknesses in areas such as infrastructure, labour and competition will need to be addressed. However, dealing with these issues is currently difficult due both financial and political challenges.
Strengths (+) and weaknesses (-)
(+) Strong institutions and deep financial markets
South Africa has strong institutions and rather sophisticated financial markets. That has attracted large volumes of foreign capital and rendered South Africa the gateway to investing in the rest of the continent.
(-) Structural growth constraints
A large infrastructure (especially energy) deficit, rigid producer and labour markets and skills shortages constrain South Africa’s potential economic growth.
(-) Poor development
The South African society is highly prone to unrest due to widespread poverty and one of the highest levels of inequality. The young (48% of the population) are thereby often jobless (50% youth unemployment) and are politically disengaged (only 1/3 registered for voting).
(-) Large twin deficit
South Africa’s financing needs are high on the back of a structural and large twin deficit. Therefore, the country is susceptible to domestic and global market sentiment, especially since net direct investment flows fall short of covering the current account deficit.
1. Growth remains subdued amidst low investment and sluggish consumption growth
Economic growth is expected to increase somewhat in 2015 to about 1.8% y-o-y, up from 1.5% in 2014. This leaves growth substantially below levels achieved in 2010 and 2011 (figure 1). Growth is particularly low because fixed investment has stagnated; on corporate side the country ‘s mounting structural constraints and a worsening policy environment hold back investment. Residential investment is held back by strict lending criteria of banks and higher personal tax rates. Consumption therefore remains the primary growth driver in the current and next year. However, a tariff increase and the weakening of the rand (figure 2) have contributed to a slowdown of consumption growth.
Due to rapid increases in the government’s social and wage commitments the government has so far failed to realise the planned fiscal consolidation. As the government has again been postponing this consolidation we expect a positive contribution of government consumption to growth next year. The external picture is mixed. The current account is expected to improve somewhat (figure 3), as the weak rand supports exports, but may be equally hurt by the Chinese slowdown (13% of exports go to China) and weakness on commodity markets. The fact that the current account deficit is to a large extent financed by debt could pose risks. However, as foreign liabilities are to large extent denominated in local currency while the currency has depreciated the net international investment position improved to -4% of GDP in 2013.The risk of strikes in the mining sector remains substantial, despite a recent agreement between the sector and unions.
2. Electricity shortages hurt exports
South Africa’s electricity shortages are increasingly affecting the real economy as demand for power keeps growing. After years of underinvestment in the nation’s power supply, demand for electricity has been outstripping supply since the start of the year, resulting in blackouts. These are particularly detrimental to the mining industry, which uses 15% of all electricity for drilling and pumping water from mines. The manufacturing sector also suffers from the blackouts. This hurts exports, with mineral exports making up 60% of total exports, thereby widening the current account gap, but is also bad for the country’s perceived business climate. South Africa’s national power utility Eskom is trying to increase the power supply by building two new power plants, the Medupi and Kusile plans, which are nearing completion after serious delays in the past. First power (800 MW) from Medupi is expected to come on line by the end of 2015; Kusile will follow later in 2016. Further investment in capacity and the degraded infrastructure is constrained by a USD21 billion financing gap on the part of Eskom.
3. Zuma could still face prosecution but threat to political stability is limited
President Jacob Zuma continues to suffer fallout from corruption scandals. Corruption charges against Zuma, which were initially dropped in 2009 by then head of the prosecutor Mokotedi Mpshe, but that judgement has now been called into question by the same office. Meanwhile, occasional anti-corruption marches take place, though these are unlikely to have significant political consequences. Despite all the recent trouble for Zuma and his ANC, the country’s politics are stable and the ANC managed to secure 62 percent of the national vote in last year’s general elections. There is little political momentum for addressing some of the structural challenges, as prospects for labour reform, deregulation of producer markets and improvement of electricity and infrastructure remain unfavourable. This weighs negatively on the medium term economic outlook.
South Africa is the second largest economy in Sub Sahara Africa. The country is the world’s largest platinum producer and one of the largest gold producers. Mining products bring in a lot of FX but also expose South Africa to volatility in these markets. Overall, the economy is relatively developed and diversified. However, market inefficiencies such as monopolistic structures in many sectors, a dysfunctional labour market and skills mismatch hamper the development of the private sector and keep unemployment at high levels of 25.1% in 2014 (35% including discouraged workers). The society is characterized by a huge inequalities (e.g. centres of economic activity are far from the poor and inaccessible due to high transportation costs). Corruption and capacity constraints have limited the impact of higher spending on development. Despite the introduction of a social benefits system that covers 30% of the population, poverty and inequality are pervasive. Crime rates are some of the highest in the world and South Africa hosts the largest number of HIV infected people (6m).
In 1994, South Africa abolished apartheid in favour of majority rule. A new constitution was adopted. The country is characterized by a robust separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, and independent institutions such as the Supreme Court. Under the Zuma administration, there has been a weakening of the anti-corruption framework. Political pressure on the judiciary and the media has increased, signals a decline of the quality of public governance. South Africa plays a leading role in regional security and economic initiatives.