South Africa’s Sedulous Cyril Bettors
South African stocks and bonds after gaining momentum on Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa’s win as ANC head postponing a sovereign ratings downgrade, were further buoyed as President Zuma was forced to resign before the end of his term in 2019 on overwhelmingly member vote. He had tried to fend off immediate departure by agreeing on a comprehensive corruption inquiry, in light of bribery and favoritism disclosures around the influential Gupta family, which had reportedly engineered cabinet appointments. Representation of their interests claimed another scalp when a prominent London public relations firm was abandoned by clients and employees after it was found to be behind a racist social media campaign, which was described as “ setting back black-white-Indian relations a decade.” The President made his final stand ahead of the scheduled state of the nation speech before ceding power to his former deputy, a wealthy business executive who has advocated investor-friendly economic and monetary policies. He struggled to control the timing of his departure as hundreds of money laundering and corruption counts are outstanding from serial investigations. Among the sensitive issues at the top of Ramaphosa’s agenda going into the next elections are land redistribution, the new mining code and the heavy household debt load. On farmland, party activists advocate forced seizure and transfer along neighboring Zimbabwe’s lines, since voluntary commercial deals have been slow to evolve under the original program. The latest proposed black empowerment provisions for mining had increased mandatory stakes to 30% and were fought by the main industry association as prices and production seek to rebound. Although the Big 4 banks have a global reputation as well-managed and conservative, supervisors are scrambling to come to terms with the extent of small enterprise and personal uncollateralized lending at exorbitant rates, often through specialist providers ultimately tied to the mainstream system. Retailer Shoprite, a leading stock, was fined for pushing expensive customer credit without proper warnings, and the government is not in position to mount a rescue with public debt already at 50% of GDP on anemic 1% growth. Foreign investors have steered clear of the mess with non-financial picks and buying bonds instead with real 4% yields, but central bank credibility is at stake over reducing individual and household leverage with unemployment stuck officially at 25% and the transition period to new polls likely to inject more uncertainty.
Cross border ties with Zimbabwe also feature prominently in the mix over coming months as President Mnangagwa, another forced successor, promises free elections with international observers, an end to indigenization laws prohibiting majority foreign ownership, and reconciliation with Western official lenders including the IMF and World Bank where massive arrears have accumulated. In December Finance Minister Chinamasa outlined initial plans in the budget emphasizing anti-corruption crackdowns but otherwise vague on potential privatization of hundreds of loss-making companies and elimination of the recent shunned “bond notes” introduced to address real hard currency scarcity. Banks have less than $50 million in US dollars and rand to support $6.5 billion in deposits, according to estimates, and even the central bank is long overdue for recapitalization as bilateral and multilateral creditors including the Chinese look for historic heavy lifting.