Will South Africa Make It?
As a global investing rule, a good leader is one of a country's most valuable assets. Without someone skillfully shepherding the flock, a wealth of resources often goes to waste. (Read my last column in Worth on Angola for evidence). A nation's leader, after all, is like a company's chief executive officer. They call the shots, they establish an entire nation's hopes and dreams.
Such leaders are few and far between but when they can successfully execute that vision, prosperous times often follow. That's good news not only for the people of the country but for investors who put their money in that leader's hands.
Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, is one of those rare leaders. It's been about seven years since Apartheid, the rigid segregation imposed by the white government, was dismantled. And they've done there what's taken at least a generation in other places.
I know, I grew up in Alabama at a time when a white-dominated segregated society was being forced to accept integration of white and black communities. It wasn't always a smooth transition. Suspicion and fear permeated the society and it took years - even generations - before people really learned to live comfortably together. As I spent a month driving through South Africa's many cities and villages, I was amazed to discover little to no racial tension. I found virtually no trace of underlying hostility towards the white community.
The credit goes to Mandela, who masterfully guided the nation through the delicate transition. Unlike so many of the leaders who took over African nations only to use their power and position for profit and gain, Mandela is a man who truly believes in the future of his country. Mandela exudes a magical power in South Africa and when he speaks of South Africa as a 'rainbow country' filled with people of many different cultures and ethnicity, he's not just spouting political rhetoric.
Mandela stepped down in 1999 and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, the former vice president. Mbeki, 57, has a background in economics and is described by many as the architect of South Africa's economic policies. He is a quieter, more bookish man than the outspoken Mandela. And he has a tough act to follow. So far, though, I have been impressed with him and believe he only echoes Mandela's vision for South Africa.
South Africa, after all, has a lot to offer. With a population of over 40 million, it is the most highly industrialized African country. It's economy accounts for 40 percent of all of sub-Saharan Africa's total gross domestic product. It's stock market, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, ranks among the largest in the world. In fact, the trading volume on the JSX has increased from 5.2 billion shares at the end of 1995 to 43.1 billion at the end of 1999.
South Africa's most valuable assets are its wealth of natural resources. In addition to being the world's largest producer of gold, platinum and chromium, it's a major exporter of agricultural products such as corn, wheat and sugar cane.
In sharp contrast to other rapidly emerging countries, both Mandela and Mbeki have tried to base the nation's economy on fiscal responsibility. In 1996, the government released its macroeconomic strategy, 'Growth, Employment and Redistribution,' a policy geared towards privatization of state-run agencies, reduction of tariffs and subsidies for new and foreign investors. While slowly cutting out the bureaucracy and red tape that discouraged foreign investment, Mandela and Mbeki have courted foreign businesses to open up shop in South Africa. By lowering the prime rate more than 10 points over the past few years, the central bank has helped spur development. Cranes and construction sites dot the landscape. Cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg are teeming with fashionable new shops and stores that didn't exist when I was here before.
While the economy still has a way to go, the efforts appear to be paying off: After barely budging through 1998, South Africa's GDP is expected to grow 3.5 percent in 2001. The budget deficit, which sits around 3 percent of GDP, is half what it was in the early 1990s.
Given my endorsement for what Mandela and Mbeki have done, one might think I believe South Africa is a great investment opportunity. Not quite. While I have complete faith in the country's top leadership, South Africa has a ways to go.
Crime is rampant. In fact, crime has gotten so bad in Johannesburg that even the stock market is moving its offices to the upscale suburb of Sandton. South Africa's minister of safety and security recently ordered a moratorium on the release of crime statistics, saying the country was revamping its collection and analysis methods. My guess is he's hiding the bad news.
Unemployment is more than 30 percent. AIDS isn't just a problem, it's an outright epidemic. As many as 10 million South Africans -- nearly one quarter the population -- are likely to die from the disease in the next 10 to 15 years.
The government has its problems, too. While Mandela and Mbeki are good, honest men, serious corruption plague the middle and local levels of government. We heard many reports about how nurses in hospitals and clinics around the country were not qualified but rather simply bought their credentials from local officials. Ditto for teachers and pilots who were able to fake their way through exams or buy licenses on the black market.
The education system needs lots of work, too. On my last trip, I visited Alexandra, one of the segregated townships set up during Apartheid. At the time, the schools were in dreadful condition, windows were broken, classrooms had no desks, library shelves were barren.
Nearly a decade later, nothing has changed. The teachers are unhappy because the principals, once fellow teachers, are now political appointees more interested in climbing the ranks of office than in bettering the school system. A recent study of 20 countries in Africa found that South Africa's fourth graders ranked at the bottom.
Those South Africans, both white and black, who do manage to get an education, often leave the country for better opportunities. As I have discovered around the world, the best and brightest often vote with their feet and leave their homelands if they know they can do better elsewhere.
Many of the colonialists who were in power in Africa spent a great deal of money on roads and highways. When the countries gained their independence, the corrupt leaders of the African countries let the roads deteriorate. Zambia and the Congo used to have solid infrastructures; now they are starting to disappear. The same thing appears to be happening in South Africa. Not surprisingly given our mode of travel, I pay close attention to roads and although infrastructure development is part of South Africa's new economic policy, it's roads and infrastructure are in poor condition. The government director of transport even confessed the government was spending only half what was needed to properly keep up infrastructure.
And while the government is encouraging foreign countries to invest and open businesses, many are hamstrung by a host of new laws designed to protect the workers. For instance, the South African government has instituted a policy of affirmative action similar to the one in place in the U.S. I spoke to foreign CEOs who said the affirmative action law made it virtually impossible for them to fire anyone if they weren't working hard enough or even didn't show up to work. The only recourse the managers had was to reward those who work hard with bonuses and raises, while ignoring the laggards. For businessmen, the choice is now whether to set up an operation in places like South Africa where such laws exist or in a place like Brazil or Taiwan where the laws are much more liberal. I met the head of a large Asian manufacturer who opted to open a plant in the tiny neighboring country of Swaziland because such affirmative action laws had crippled his other local businesses.
The currency also is a major concern. Despite all the proper fiscal policies, the currency, the rand, is down 12 percent since the beginning of this year. Some point the finger at the strong dollar. Others say it is the result of Zimbabwe, South Africa's neighbor, which is the midst of an economic and political crisis. Roughly half of South Africa's economy depends on trade, much of it with its neighbors. Currency markets are like a thermometer, they tell me a country has a fever but they don't reveal the cause.
Surprisingly, South Africa's army is one of the largest in Africa, second only to Egypt's. Why does it need such a huge army with no visible threat? I think the money would be better spent on education or the infrastructure.
Despite my faith in the country's leadership, I ultimately couldn't find a compelling investment. The security industry is the one business that seems to be thriving. I saw armored cars, secure parking areas and hired guards everywhere. Unfortunately, I did not find a way to invest. A smart entrepreneur might do well in the tourist industry, as there are beautiful beaches and South Africa's own version of wine country in the Stelenbash region. Game parks and casinos are opening all the time.
The nation clearly faces challenges. It's a test to see whether the best intentions of its wise leaders like Mandela and Mbeki will trickle down to the entire country. South Africa could have gone the way of so many other newly independent nations. The leaders could have spent the country into bankruptcy or even worse, plundered for their own personal gain. But these wise and thoughtful leaders have clearly taken steps in the right direction. For now, there's still a long road ahead.