Seize the new year

Justice Malala

Having survived the turbulence of 2008, many South Africans are wary of the new year and what it will bring. But if ever there was a time to take advantage of the abundant opportunities in our country, then the year 2009 is it.

“How?” you may ask. After all, we face the prospect of a turbulent and uncertain election. Zimbabwe to the north of us continues to bleed. And the global and domestic economy seems to hit new lows all the time.

Well, here’s something. It is at times like these that those whose views are long term, and whose planning is grounded on the key principles of patience and courage, who can and will make a success of the year 2009 and beyond.

Politically, South Africa enters a period of intense contestation. This should not be a cause for worry. We should celebrate. After the 2009 election South Africa will be into its fourth post-apartheid president. That is an incredible record in Africa and the world! We will have had four presidents in just 15 years.

Plus, we have a strong new opposition building up nicely. Plurality is guaranteed, and contestation guarantees that politicians will be motivated to deliver. So what does all this mean? Our democracy is taking root and firming up. The system is not just holding, it is improving.

Former state president FW de Klerk said in Durban in early December that it was true that the country was living in an era of doom, despondency and enormous problems. However, he said he saw positive signs for the future.

“As we did before in 1994, I feel we have a capacity to do so again. We succeeded in resolving our problems by peaceful means when everybody expected war and violence.

“We have one of the best constitutions in the world. We should be proud of this constitution, which provides the framework for a functioning multiparty democracy, independent courts and other institutions that stand for [the] advancement of human rights,” the Mercury newspaper quoted him as saying.

He made the point that South Africa had already held three elections and that two presidents had relinquished their power through constitutional means since 1994. Crucially, De Klerk said that although former president Thabo Mbeki had left under difficult conditions, even that had been done constitutionally.

“These are all signs of growing constitutional maturity. Our democracy is growing up and there are open debates which will take us to robust contestations,” he said.

De Klerk then said it was up to all South Africans, irrespective of race or colour, to take what God had given to the country and to ensure that children would look back at this time and say that those were the years when South Africans came together, grasped the opportunities and made the country great.

But what about the weakening economy and business? Globally it is clear that those who start thinking long term today will be the ones who survive and thrive. Chris DeWolfe, co-founder of the US internet phenomenon MySpace, recently said that the economic downturn means digital media start-ups are on the market at knock-down prices.

It is the same here. Across the economy, bargains abound. If ever there was a time for a merger, acquisition or a black economic empowerment deal, then it is now. In three years many will look back at this period as a time when we should have picked up the bargains that abound.

South African companies also face boom times ahead if they take opportunities that face them. Michael Power, senior strategist with Investec Asset Management, said recently that with the US facing the prospect of a protracted recession and the Asian economies turning their focus from exports to domestic growth, South Africa businesses like Naspers, South AfricaB Miller and Standard Bank are likely to benefit.

“I like what Naspers is doing in places like China and Brazil, South AfricaB have a good footprint in China and if one looks at where Richemont’s growth comes from, it comes from Asia,” said Power.

He said China will continue to be a large consumer of resources and commodities firms able to add value to their resources, like Kumba, will benefit. “I also see opportunities for platinum companies involved in downstream processing, and even businesses such as Illovo.”

And here’s another thing: South African banks have not faced the same liquidity problems as institutions in the United States and Europe largely due to exchange controls that limited foreign exposure. We should congratulate ourselves for this: we did a good job.

Sure, there will be turbulence in 2009. But I believe we have entered probably the most exciting period of our young democracy. The political space is opening up and the economic terrain abounds with bargains and opportunity. Carpe diem! Happy new year!

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel e.tv and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.