Gearing for growth in a changing world

9 December 2010

A group of 20 international journalists got a close-up view of South African transport and energy infrastructure, and heard first-hand about the country’s growth plans, during a week-long visit to the country. John Battersby reports.

The world is changing and South Africa will look increasingly to more integrated African markets and the new economic powers – China, India, Russia and Brazil – for trade and investment to create jobs and accelerate development in the country.

This was the core message of Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel to a group of visiting journalists from China, Russia, Africa, the Middle East and Britain as they got an upfront view of energy and transport infrastructure in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal during a week-long visit to the country.

The “gearing for growth” tour, organised by the International Marketing Council of South Africa, followed the release two weeks ago of a new economic growth path as the country gears up for a more intensive phase of growth following the hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The release has sparked an intense dialogue about the economic model which can achieve a social compact between government, business and labour to best ensure sustainable growth for South Africa in the medium- to long-term.

From Gautrain ride to Durban port tour

The journalists rode on the Gautrain rapid rail link and the Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system in Johannesburg, ascended the sky walk of Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, traversed the extensive container terminals and grain and sugar depots at Africa’s largest port of Durban, and visited the expansive Sasol plant at Secunda in Mpumalanga province.

They heard first-hand from the ministers of Economic Development and Arts and Culture and met with business and civil society leaders. They visited the Competition Commission on the eve of a landmark case defining the extent of its mandate to dismantle cartels with interventionist financial measures.

There were many moments of insight and revelation during the six-day tour, but the moment of truth for many of the visiting journalists came during the tour of Durban harbour by port manager Ricky Bikraj.

“When one sees and experiences the scale of this port you can better appreciate the crucial role of South Africa in the continent’s development,” said Onyekachi Wambu, a Nigerian-born journalist living in the UK who writes a regular column in New African, a London-based magazine.

Ebrahim Patel connects the dots

Another moment of truth came with the 90-minute briefing and question-and-answer session with Minister Patel, which connected the dots for the visiting journalists by drawing together the various strands of the country’s emerging economic framework to balance development and growth for the benefit of all.

“I thought that Minister Patel was hugely impressive,” said Enoch Wambua of the Nation Media Group in Kenya. “He really knows what he is talking about and offers great insight into the future growth trajectory of South Africa and the continent.”

Coming face-to-face with a 71 000-ton sugar mountain at Durban harbour’s sugar terminal was one of the highlights for Nagy Abd El Aziz of Egypt’s independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm.

Egypt recently experienced a sugar shortage and wants to diversify its sources of supply. A deal to import South African sugar was announced during the visit.

The need for Africa to integrate

The need for Africa to integrate trade within the continent and revamp rail and transport systems designed to benefit the former colonial powers rather than serve the continent’s own development was highlighted by Minister Patel.

He contrasted the low 10% market integration in Africa with 50% in Asia and 70% in Europe.

“The continent’s transport links reflect patterns of development designed to exploit natural resources and send them elsewhere to be processed,” he said, highlighting the problem of different rail gauges in different African countries.

He said that the rebuilding of Africa’s infrastructure could not be a South African project but needed to involve the whole continent.

“Our future lies in balanced economic growth across the African continent,” said Patel.

‘The opportunities are huge’

The media tour also highlighted the growing emphasis on renewable energy – such as nuclear and solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells – as a key factor in the country’s future economic growth.

Patel said that while some R800-billion would be spent on energy and transport infrastructure over the next three years, trillions of rands would be spent on energy infrastructure over the next 10 to 20 years.

“The opportunities in South Africa are huge,” said Lu Yingni, an expert in renewable energy who writes for the London-based Reconnect Africa website.

At a dinner hosted by the Financial Times and the International Marketing Council in Johannesburg’s Turbine Hall, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile provided an interesting insight into the role that arts and culture can play as a driver of economic growth.

He cited recent statements by Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has initiated such a process in China, in support of his thesis.

“We want to put the creative industries and cultural heritage at the heart of driving our economy,” he said, citing the role that cultural heritage could play in attracting more tourists.

John Battersby is the UK country manager of the International Marketing Council of South Africa. He accompanied 20 international journalists on the “South Africa Gearing for Growth Media Tour” from 28 November to 5 December 2010.