Email of the day on South Africa reportedly from Clem Sauter:
Comment of the Day

July 19 2021

Commentary by Eoin Treacy

Email of the day on South Africa reportedly from Clem Sauter:

“Dear friends,

Many of you outside of South Africa are wondering what is really going on. So here is a very simple outline. The thing is obviously far more complex and nuanced than can be set out in a brief note but this will give you some picture of what is really happening.

Following the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa, South Africa did really well economically until about 2008. That was also the year that Jacob Zuma was elected president of the ANC. At that point in time, some of us had a sense of disquiet already. But little did any of us understand then the extent of the corruption and weakening of government institutions that would follow. We have no clear idea of the extent of what was stolen during the Jacob Zuma years, other than that it is a stupendous sum of money which this country certainly cannot afford. Eventually however the internal tide within the ANC started to slowly turn against Jacob Zuma. On 18 December 2017 Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as the president of the ANC (and also subsequently became the president of South Africa). But it was a very narrow margin of victory.

The thing about Cyril Ramaphosa is that he is fundamentally a principled man. And certainly, determined to clean up the history of corruption we have seen since 2008. Various steps have been taken by him and the ANC under his guidance to give effect to this. One of the things that was done was to establish a commission chaired by Raymond Zondo, who is the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa. The purpose of this commission was to investigate the corruption issues and to expose them to the light of day.

Jacob Zuma was required to appear in front of the commission. He effectively refused to do so. He was ordered by the Constitutional Court to do so. He defied the order of the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court in turn ordered his imprisonment for a period of 15 months for contempt of court. This, whatever you call it, is fundamentally the rule of law in action.

Initially there was resistance to imprisonment by Jacob Zuma and his supporters. A week ago, however Jacob Zuma submitted himself to imprisonment. And then all hell broke loose.

What you need to understand is that Jacob Zuma has his powerbase in KwaZulu Natal, where the riots have been at their worst. This is also, as the name will tell you, the home territory of the Zulu nation. And Jacob Zuma is a prominent figure in the Zulu nation. Within the Jacob Zuma camp, individuals set about instigating the so-called protests, riots and looting that you have seen in the media. To a significant extent they leveraged the problems of poverty and inequality in South Africa to achieve their ends. Very often in this country we have areas where many very poor people are resident adjacent to commercial complexes. This was an ideal combination to exploit. In addition to that there are the existing fissures along race lines that exist in our society which were also available to leverage. Audio files doing the rounds encouraged people to attack and destroy what are perceived to be white and white owned businesses. In the end though, many black businesspeople also suffered considerable losses.

The gameplan was to create a situation which would force the hand of the current government. Ideally, it would result in an overreaction by the security forces, with the result that many of the poor and vulnerable would be killed (which is what happened at Marikana a few years back). If that occurred, it would likely force the resignation or removal of Cyril Ramaphosa as president. Meaning the Jacob Zuma camp would have achieved their objective. This is one reason why the security forces have been so careful not to use excessive force in dealing with the riots and the looters.

While there is still a lot of instability in KwaZulu Natal and certain pockets in Gauteng, what is now starting to emerge quite clearly is that the gambit by the Jacob Zuma camp has failed. South African society of all walks has turned its face against this insurrection. In effect, an attempted coup has failed.

South Africans are a strange nation in many ways. They argue and fight amongst themselves but when pushed to the edge, they always pull together for the common good. This has happened again and again over the decades.

This has been perhaps a necessary test of our democracy and of the rule of law. Make no mistake but that South Africa has many very real challenges. But South Africa will pass through this and will put the locust years behind it.”

Eoin Treacy's view

South Africa is a country of contrasts but it will survive as long people are willing to pull together during times of crisis. The significant threat to the rule of law that arose last week was a major challenge. The restraint shown by the armed forces, at least so far, is to be welcomed and highlights the fact that there are government institutions capable of acting responsibly and effectively. South Africa’s greatest institutional strength is the independence of the judiciary and a free press. Threats to both these pillars of governance never cease to arise but as long as they survive there is the potential for bounce backs following crises.

The wider emerging markets sector is taking a beating at present because the more contagious Delta variant is spreading quickly among unvaccinated populations. The news last week that the Sinovac vaccine will be supplemented with the Pfizer/Biontech/Fosun MRNA version in China raises questions for all the countries that accepted China’s gifts less than effective vaccines. ASEAN in particular is challenged by the Delta variant because so many countries successfully skirted the initial round of infections.

That’s weighing on perceptions of emerging market growth potential and boosting demand for the Dollar. The underperformance of China’s tech companies is also weighing on the MSCI Emerging Markets ETF which is the primary benchmark for most emerging markets institutional investors.

The ETF is now testing the region of the trend mean and will need to bounce soon if the trend is to remain consistent.

The iShares MSCI South Africa ETF broke below its trend mean today suggesting we are not at the end of this crisis just yet.

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