The future looks … um …?

I attended the opening address of the Road Freight Association (RFA) Convention hoping to find out if the future looks rosy or bleak – and discovered that it’s as clear as mud …

The politician giving the opening address didn’t arrive, which seems to have become par for the course in South Africa. Missing in action this time around was Willies Mchunu, KwaZulu-Natal’s MEC for Transport, who supposedly had the flu. I hope he has since recovered.

It was left to Justice Malala, my favourite political commentator, to step into Mchunu’s shoes. As usual, he didn’t disappoint – with some interesting predictions and a giggle or two (let’s face it, one cannot help but giggle at politics in this country). He reminded us that he addressed the RFA Convention some years ago – and was mocked when he predicted the demise of Julius Malema!

So what does the future hold now – for transport operators and South Africans as a whole? Well, we heard mixed messages, which is why I say everything is as clear as mud. I will get rid of the negative stuff first …

One of the most worrying aspects is that, in the words of Malala: “We don’t know what government will do tomorrow, as evidenced by the e-tolls debacle.” He added: “Right now, you don’t know what transport policy is looking like, and that is dangerous.”

Because of all the uncertainty, companies are hesitant to invest. As Malala said: “R540 billion is sitting on balance sheets in South African companies because these companies are too scared to invest. Companies are sitting on their cash. Imagine how many jobs could be created if that cash was invested in assets, such as trucks?” Imagine that indeed …

There was bleak news when it came to unemployment and taxation, with Malala revealing a shock statistic: “Some 2,2 million South Africans have given up looking for a job – they’re not just unemployed … they see no chance of ever finding work again!”

Because of this, and given the millions of social grants, National Health Plan and other government expenses, we can expect our corporate and personal taxes to rise, warned Malala. Furthermore, the rate of economic growth in this country is disappointing. “We are not growing at the same rate as other parts of the continent,” he noted. Malala also predicts more of a push for black empowerment in various industries, including ours.

Turning specifically to politics, he believes the ANC will never see a two-thirds majority again. “At 100 years old,” he said, “the ANC is facing its biggest threats – mostly internal. The ANC decline will accelerate. The demographics are changing. The young people don’t care about the liberation struggle; they care about their roads and what the government is doing to repair them.”

Malala pointed out that the ANC is becoming increasingly alienated from its base, which largely comprises the poorest of the poor. “By 2024, the ANC may find itself out of power. Virtually all liberation movements anywhere in the world hit a downward turn – 30 years is just about it, then they get kicked out. History is not on the ANC’s side.”

And what of the positives? Well, China is one, according to Malala. “The ANC and this government will get closer and closer to China. It’s worth thinking about. This affiliation will have a huge impact on your industry. There are opportunities for you to work with China,” he urged, adding that the relationship isn’t without its challenges. “They kill people in China and their human rights record is not great … ”

Malala urged operators to focus on Africa: “You need to think seriously about this continent – there is so much opportunity out there. The future may not be so hot in South Africa, but it is looking very good for our continent!”

He also urged us to be mindful of two very positive factors pertaining to South Africa: we don’t have huge debt, and we’ve had four presidents in our new democracy – unlike countries such as Zimbabwe and Libya.

And he suggested, with a smile, that Jacob Zuma detractors shouldn’t rush off into the wide blue yonder. “Just look at Italy, and their president,” he said. “None of the Italians got fed up and emigrated to Perth as a result.”

So – can we make a go of things? Can this industry survive and prosper?

Malala gave us some sobering food for thought together with a few silver linings. With the blinkers off, and the opportunities that exist, I’m going to say yes, we can – but we’re going to have to insist on a few things, such as knowing what our nation’s transport policy looks like. One can’t be fleet-footed when wading through mud.

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