A year of missed opportunities

11th December 2015 By: Terence Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

A year of missed  opportunities

On a number of fronts, 2015 has been a year of own goals and missed opportunities for South Africa.

The biggest own goal came right at the end of the year, with President Jacob Zuma's shock axing on Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene only days after the country's credit rating narrowly escaped being junked.

But it formed part of an unhappy trend of own goals, epitomised in the economic terrain by the high profile visa debacle, where the road to tourism hell was paved by seemingly good child-protection intentions. Maddeningly, the misalignment between intentions and outcomes was flagged early on, raising questions about the real motives behind the misadventure.

Sadly, there were many more, from the atrocious governance breakdown at South African Airways, which seemed to precipitate Nene's firing, to the jamming of communications in Parliament, and the flouting of the rule of law by allowing Sudan President Omar al-Bashir to leave the country in contravention of a court order.

In fact, the phrase ‘annus horribilis’ is arguably too sympathetic a descriptor of the year past.

But the missed opportunities are equally concerning, particularly on the economic front. Take the two areas of the electronic tolling (e-toll) of Gauteng’s motorways and energy.

True, a new e-toll dispensation was announced in May. But implementation has been so indecisive that it is becoming hard to imagine compliance levels ever reaching the necessary thresholds.

Such ineffectual enforcement will eventually result in a situation where either a new payment solution has to be found, or government will need to turn to taxpayers to address the widening hole in the South African National Roads Agency Limited’s finances. In light of the prevailing fiscal limitations, the former is surely increasingly likely.

In the energy milieu, meanwhile, decision-making has been either nonexistent or nontransparent. Without question, breathing space for such decisions was created by the decline in electricity demand. However, the space has not been used effectively to make some of the long overdue choices needed to place the electricity sector, in particular, on a firmer footing.

The year is not yet over and perhaps there is still time to release the updated Integrated Resources Plan for electricity, the Gas Utilisation Master Plan and the Integrated Energy Plan. But surely these should all have been published months ago so as to ensure thorough public consultation ahead of eventual determinations. It’s a serious lapse, bordering on the irresponsible.

There has admittedly been some progress in stabilising State-owned electricity utility Eskom, with the new leadership team seemingly able to concentrate on the operations without having to continually look over its shoulder to dodge political and governance slings and arrows. The Independent Power Producer Office has also continued to deliver. However, long-term policy certainty remains far too elusive for a sector whose effective functioning is so critical to the country’s future growth and development prospects.

Given the hostile external economic climate, 2015 should really have been all about ‘fixing the roof in those areas where the sun was still shining’. Instead, it is going to be a case of scrambling in 2016 to pick up the pieces after the inevitable storms.