South Africa opposition leader says economy is now in excellent hands

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It’s not often that a political opposition leader is so positive about his or her ruling counterpart.

But Mmusi Maimane, leader of South Africa’s main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA), is keen to praise the appointment of new President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“I wish him well, I hope he succeeds at his job,” Maimane told CNBC in an interview last week.

Ramaphosa assumed office last month after South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) finally loosened scandal-ridden former President Jacob Zuma’s grip on power. Ramaphosa legitimizes South African politics, Maimane explained. “I’m glad that (Ramaphosa has) been elected because suddenly we can contest on the terrain of policy,” he said.

Maimane himself is the charismatic black chief of a party traditionally associated with South Africa’s white minority population. Elected to the leadership in 2015, he is known for his youth and skill as an orator.

Despite the ANC’s stronghold on South African politics since 1994’s first election after the ending of apartheid, the DA has made gains with each vote, most recently winning nearly 27 percent of the electorate in 2016’s local government elections.

“Maimane benefits from his age (he is 37) in a country where younger voters (the fastest-growing political constituency) increasingly are disillusioned with the older generation of politicians who they feel are detached from the issues younger people face,” William Attwell, practice leader for sub-Saharan Africa at advisory firm Frontier Strategy Group, told CNBC via e-mail.

Good news for South Africa’s economic growth
Maimane’s sanguine outlook on Ramaphosa’s leadership extends to the president’s picks to run South Africa’s economy, as announced in a cabinet reshuffle in late February. New Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene is “excellent,” while Pravin Gordhan, who is to head the Department of Public Enterprises is capable of doing an “admirable job for South Africa,” he said. Both Nene and Gordhan have previously served as finance ministers.

But, Maimane added the caveat that “they need to have the freedoms to be able to achieve what they need to achieve.”

Zuma’s tenure as president was plagued by corruption scandals, all while the country’s once promising economy struggled. According to data out last month, unemployment was measured at 26.7 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, with nearly 31 percent of black South Africans between 15 to 24 not in education, employment or training.

While a contingent of the ANC backs Ramaphosa and his tough stance on graft, there are supporters of Zuma that still remain, notably David Mabuza, Ramaphosa’s recently appointed deputy president.

Some of the ANC’s remaining senior politicians are implicated in corruption scandals of their own. “We haven’t had a Jacob Zuma problem as much as we’ve also had an ANC problem,” Maimane argued.

But, green shoots may be starting to emerge for South Africa’s economy at least. Gross domestic product growth for the fourth quarter of 2017 was higher than expected at 3.1 percent, up from the 2.3 percent of the three months prior.

“The question (for Ramaphosa) is whether or not he can grow the economy sufficiently,” Maimane said. “53 percent of people in South Africa live below the poverty line,” he detailed.

Shrinking the South African state
The DA’s own economic policy advocates trimming the fat off the South African state in numerous ways, including privatizing the country’s multiple struggling state-owned enterprises, shrinking the size of the cabinet and freezing salary hikes for middle and higher tier management in the civil service.

Maimane also spoke of setting up a year long internship scheme for young people and scrapping plans to build nuclear power plants in South Africa, anticipated to cost up to $100 billion.

He described February’s annual budget, in which a sales tax was raised for the first time in 25 years, as “the laziest route” to improving the country’s economy.

Aspirations of significant power in a political environment as one sided as that of South Africa can seem futile, but Maimane is still optimistic.

“We’ve started already to govern in more places and cities, and our long-term project is to govern in provinces and then govern nationally,” Maimane said. The DA’s slow but steady ascension in recent years means that it now controls the major cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Tshwane.

“You’ve got to offer South Africans an alternative,” he said.

For Maimane, the story of South Africa’s ANC is one told repeatedly by history. National liberation movements “start off as parties of the poor and end up being defenders of the elite… They mismanage the economy and end up with a citizenship that’s not only unemployed, but unemployable on a skills basis,” he said.

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