JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa will need to call on all his dealmaking skills to overhaul ailing state-owned firms and tackle land reform if he wants to capitalize on Moody’s decision not to downgrade the country’s debt to junk.
Moody’s said its decision to keep South Africa’s rating at investment grade reflected its view the country’s institutions would regain strength under more transparent and predictable policies - though the new government had to stay on track.
Since replacing Jacob Zuma in February, Ramaphosa has reappointed the finance minister his predecessor fired in 2015, sacked some ministers allied to Zuma, put another respected former finance minister in charge of struggling state-owned firms and suspended the head of the revenue service.
“It’s a big deal,” political analyst Ralph Mathekga said about Moody’s decision. “What he has been able to achieve in two months is to reverse some of Zuma’s influence in key sectors. The message he sent is: ‘I can do more’.”
After his whirlwind start, Ramaphosa’s challenges now include keeping the unions on side as the government overhauls cash-strapped national carrier South African Airways (SAA) and heavily indebted state power utility Eskom.
Perhaps his stiffest test will be to push through land expropriation, as promised, to address racial disparities in ownership - while keeping the left wing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) on board and not scaring off investors.
Parliament passed a motion last month seeking to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation. Ramaphosa has promised to speed up the transfer of land to black people, but has stressed the need to preserve food security.
“A big deliverable is to initiate the land debate under his leadership to control the narrative and discourse. Should he fail to do this, he runs the risk of undoing the good work already done,” said Daniel Silke, director of Political Futures Consultancy.
Ramaphosa’s negotiating skills have been respected for decades, ever since Nelson Mandela turned to the former trade union boss to lead the successful negotiations to end white minority rule.
More recently, Ramaphosa had to strike a fine balance between applying pressure on Zuma to go, while still affording him a dignified exit. Now, same analysts say land reform is Ramaphosa’s litmus test.
“Are we over-estimating Ramaphosa’s ability to deal with this land issue? It is undoubtedly one of his biggest challenges. Investors are worried about this and watching him very closely,” said independent political analyst Nic Borain.
When it comes to South Africa’s struggling state-run companies, Ramaphosa will need to perform a similar balancing act and he has already named respected former finance minister Pravin Gordhan as minister of public enterprises.
Eskom and SAA are both weighed down by massive wage bills but the country’s powerful unions are likely to dig in their heels at any attempt to cut jobs, especially with elections looming in 2019.
Influential labor leaders, sections of the ANC and the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters are also likely to balk at any moves to partially privatize the companies, which is one strategy backed by the Treasury.
South African Airways runs one of Africa’s biggest fleets but years of operational losses have left it on the brink of bankruptcy. It needed a bailout in July to repay debt and 20 billion rand ($2 billion) in state guarantees to keep it afloat.
Eskom received a 5-billion rand loan in February from the state’s Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which holds a large amount of government bonds and ranks as Africa’s biggest investment fund, or it would have defaulted on its debts.
“There is going to be some tension when these job cuts are announced. It is a delicate balance because it could impact the support base of the party ahead of next year’s elections,” said Borain.
Still, Ramaphosa has already taken the politically risky step of raising value-added tax (VAT) for the first time since apartheid to try to reduce the budget deficit and analysts say he is unlikely to back down on reforms.
“He did not give in to populism on the VAT; this was a good example of him having to do something unpopular but necessary,” Borain said. “He is known to be a good negotiator.”
Finance minister Nhlanhla Nene expressed hope on Monday that S&P Global Ratings and Fitch might also look favorably on South Africa during upcoming reviews, saying investors he had met at a roadshow in London before Moody’s decision were upbeat.
S&P downgraded South African local currency debt to “junk” in November citing a deterioration in the economic outlook and public finances. Fitch cut its rating in April to sub-investment grade after Zuma fired Gordhan as finance minister. S&P will publish its review on May 25. Fitch has not given a date.
“I want to call this a honeymoon phase - and it is for that reason that we cannot be complacent about it,” Nene told Talk Radio 702.
($1 = 11.6627 rand)
Editing by David Clarke