The costly difference between Cyril the farmer and Ramaphosa the president - News24

9 December 2019 - On his assumption of office, many South Africans were hopeful that President Ramaphosa, politician-turned-businessman-turned-politician, would bring the full breadth of his life experience to bear, and would guide the country towards the job-rich prosperity that had proved so elusive. So far, he has not done so.

Terence Corrigan

Reports that President Cyril Ramaphosa has retrenched nearly half the staff on his Ntabanyoni farm in Badplaas, Mpumalanga highlights an uncomfortable reality of South Africa’s economy.

With the stroke of an announcement - delivered by the President himself - 22 workers lost their jobs. Each one so affected is now deprived of an income, and thrown onto the harsh realities of a country with an unemployment rate of 29%.

For those affected - indeed, for anyone concerned about the human faces behind our dreadful numbers, this is tragic.

It is pitiable, made all the more so by the time of the year. One of the farm's former workers, Aaron Mokoena, told Sowetan: "This is the worst Christmas ever where one will have to live as an unemployed person. You know, the President came himself, he told us all that we are going to be retrenched and that was a shock as names were called. For me, it's hard because there are 11 people who depend on me, it was very hard to go home and tell my family that I'm jobless."

The reaction was indignant.

Ramaphosa was one of the country's super-wealthy, at the helm of the state whose supposed priority was to deal with unemployment and poverty, but had contributed to it.

Said one observer on Twitter: "Cyril, seriously? You couldn't just make a plan for them? You're a billionaire. You promised to create millions of jobs but instead you're adding to the millions who suffer the despair of unemployment under your own government."

The farm's manager, meanwhile, described this as a business decision taken in the face of a foot-and-mouth outbreak that had hit business hard.

The choice was between retrenchments and bankruptcy. The farm had followed all legal processes, had paid the workers what was due them, and tried to mitigate the effects on those retrenched, by offering support for skills development. If conditions improved, they would be first in line to take up the jobs that became available.

"It's not nice to retrench people," he added.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of that last comment. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that Mr Ramaphosa – Mr Ramaphosa the businessman, not President Ramaphosa, the head of state – would himself not have felt that way.

After all, he was prepared to deliver the unpleasant news in person.

Nor is there any reason to doubt the reasons proffered for retrenchments. The environment of South Africa's farming economy is a tough one at the best of times.

Drought and associated water security concerns have hit it hard for some time. The foot-and-mouth disease has resulted in a prohibition on South African livestock exports to some of its neighbours and a ban on livestock auctions in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.

Indeed, biosecurity issues like this constitute a major threat to any agricultural endeavour.

In South Africa, it can drive farmers out of business. Speaking on behalf of Agri SA, executive director Omri Van Zyl remarked: "This will have an adverse economic impact on the agricultural sector. The national banning of livestock auctions comes at a time when farmers are already cash-strapped and adds additional pressure on the sustainability of farmers."

Seen from this angle, Mr Ramaphosa's actions, regrettable though they may be, are probably quite rational.

Yet it cannot escape notice that President Ramaphosa - as a politician and statesman - has expressed himself rather differently. In September last year, for example, he told a trade union congress: "In our recent meeting with business, we called upon them not to be too hasty to retrench workers, particularly in these difficult economic conditions. We also said that they should try everything they can to avoid retrenchments, and in a way put a moratorium on retrenchment so that we can rise from these challenging economic conditions."

There is a sharp disjuncture between what he advocated there and his recent actions. But these are in effect two different roles.

President Ramaphosa operates in the world of politics.

In South African terms, it is a world of windy rhetoric, scapegoating, pandering to special interests and the endless evasion of responsibility. A prime signifier of this has been government's approach to its state-owned enterprises, and its deep reluctance to consider retrenchments there.

President Ramaphosa himself has spoken out against doing so at Eskom. The alternative has been to dip into the public kitty, and commit the country to crippling liabilities.

Or the endorsement of policy choices that only undermine the country's prospects. For farmers, nothing is as great a threat as Expropriation without Compensation - a policy drive that offers nothing to address the failings of land reform, but will crash through the constitution as well as investor confidence. It promises only economic dislocation. But for ideological and party political reasons, it enjoys President Ramaphosa's support.

Mr Ramaphosa, the businessman, operates in a world of pragmatism. He understands the incentives and disincentives that attend economic decisions. There are realities which even the most altruistic entrepreneurs cannot afford to ignore. There is a necessary link between income and expenditure. A firm whose costs are not covered by revenue will eventually be driven out of business. So, apparently, was the case with Mr Ramaphosa's farm.

A failure to reconcile these roles has bedevilled South Africa under President Ramaphosa - and, indeed, for decades before. Socio-economic progress, both for the country as a whole and for individual South Africans, demands thriving businesses. It needs practical and pragmatic policy and decision-making. It can benefit from skilful, efficient state services - properly functioning and well-capacitated agencies to manage biosecurity threats would, for instance, be of great value in combating the threat of foot-and-mouth disease.

Attempting to manage economic realities with political remedies is folly.

On his assumption of office, many South Africans were hopeful that President Ramaphosa, politician-turned-businessman-turned-politician, would bring the full breadth of his life experience to bear, and would guide the country towards the job-rich prosperity that had proved so elusive.

So far, he has not done so. He has spoken of the need for tough choices, and while he has made them in his private business affairs, he has been reticent about doing so in office. Those choices are ever more imperative, however difficult they may be.

And, perhaps, with these difficult choices made, the opportunities for the vulnerable in society - like Mr Ramaphosa's former workers - will begin to expand.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations