Can Mamphela Ramphele crack South Africa’s political mould?

Coming in from the political cold will be no easy task.

Today, Mamphela Ramphele will launch a new political party – Agang SA. The launch, to be held at the Pretoria showground – now renamed the ‘Tshwane Events Centre’ - promises to be a glittering event. It will feature some of South Africa’s top musicians including Mi Casa, G Force and the Soweto String Quartet.

Dr Ramphele (she holds a medical degree) issued a press release promising: “This is a momentous week for Agang SA as we prepare for the launch of our party on Saturday. Agang offers the prospect of restoring the promise of freedom and a hope for the future that is striking a chord with people across the country.”

But this is the middle of the South African winter; appropriately enough the supporters of the new party have been asked to bring blankets. Perhaps it is a warning Dr Ramphele should take to heart herself; coming in from the political cold will be no easy task.

Agang (the word means ‘build’ in Sotho) will join a very long list of registered political parties. South Africa may have been a true democracy for just 20 years, but it has spawned a vast number of parties; 137 nationally and even more if local parties are included.

Many are tiny, with the African National Congress of President Jacob Zuma towering over them all. In the last election in 2009 the ANC won 65.9% of the vote and took 264 of the 400 seats in parliament.

So what hope for Dr Ramphele?

On the plus side, she had a long history of fighting apartheid. Some portray her as no more than a partner of the legendary Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, but her activism was much more than that. She led the movement’s community development programmes. The apartheid government banished her to a small town between 1977 to 1984. When apartheid ended Dr Ramphele took a success of key jobs, including Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. She later became one of four Managing Directors of the World Bank. So Dr Ramphele enters politics with credibility and experience.

All of which makes it a little difficult to understand why she is regarded with such scepticism by much of the South African media and the wider chattering classes. Her critics point to a number of weaknesses in her position.

In a searing attack on her, the commentator R W Johnson suggested that Dr Ramphele is something of a dilettante, flitting between jobs. More damagingly, he quoted several of her former colleagues as accusing her of having a dictatorial managerial style and poor judgement. “Bank insiders said that ‘within weeks’ it was clear that the Bank's President, James Wolfensohn, had made a mistake - and that he knew it. The problem was that Ramphele was too senior in the Bank ‘for anyone to cover for her’.” Johnson suggests that the World Bank was only too pleased to see the back of her, when her term was up.

Returning to South Africa from Washington, Dr Ramphele took a series of high-paid directorships and began to consider moving back into politics. Lengthy talks with Helen Zille, leader of the official opposition and her old friend from the University of Cape Town, finally collapsed in 2012. Her talks with the Democratic Alliance had made progress and Zille had even offered to stand down as party leader in favour of Dr Ramphele. But at this point Ramphele upped the ante. She insisted that the DA should be ‘dissolved’ and a new party formed. This was impossible for Zille to accept, since it would have meant all the DA’s elected representatives would have lost their seats.

Speaking in London this week, Helen Zille insisted the two women were still on good terms, but that further talks on any re-alignment of South African politics would have to wait until after the next election, due in the middle of next year.

The ANC is watching the launch of Agang with some nervousness. The new party is likely to erode its hitherto impregnable electoral position. So too could the launch of a new party by the former leader of the ANC youth league, Julius Malema. It is rumoured that Dr Ramphele has raised as much as $20 million from American backers and the ANC had already used this against her. Gwede Mantashe, ANC Secretary General, not too subtly questioned Dr Ramphele’s patriotism: “We are hoping against hope that it is not an American initiative aimed at destabilising our country. Our worry is that when this initiative was announced, the foundation was in the US. We are very much alive to concerns by Western powers that liberation movements in Africa are too powerful.”

Damaging as these jibes may be, they do not go to the heart of Agang’s potential weakness – which is Dr Ramphele herself. Despite her obvious qualities, even her supporters wonder whether she really has the stamina for the long, tortuous road ahead.  She admits this will be a novel experience. “I'm not a street fighter,” Dr Ramphele said recently. “I've always played by the rules. I'm still going to play by the rules.”

These are admirable sentiments, but South African politics can be crude, dirty and – at times – violent. Will Dr Ramphele really have the stomach for the fight?

Mamphela Ramphele. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?