Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

OVER the holiday period, I came across a Bloomberg television interview with Bill Heinecke, a US-born Thai businessman. At first, it was a run-of-the-mill interview for an entrepreneur: tell us about your childhood businesses, how did you finance your first business, what drives you, and so on. But my ears pricked up when he was asked about surviving the Asian financial crisis, which nearly destroyed his fortune. Heinecke’s businesses, many of them in tourism, also survived the 2004 tsunami, severe acute respiratory syndrome, political coups and flooding.

In an ideal world, governments would try to minimise the afflictions, particularly human-made, that distort the business environment. In reality, this state is the lot of many entrepreneurs in crisis-ridden countries.

There seem to be two kinds of emerging countries. In the first kind, business has to deal with the known challenges of underdevelopment, such as broken infrastructure, low levels of human capital and weak institutions. Then there is a second kind of emerging market, one that is occasionally rocked by major crises: hyperinflation, conflict and natural disasters that are amplified by human mismanagement. However innovative and wily entrepreneurs might be, it is very difficult to thrive in the second kind of emerging market. We seem to be headed that way.

We enter 2016 on a far less steady footing than we did 2015, and even that wasn’t a good sight. But at the start of 2015, it was at least understood that government spending decisions were taken in a transparent manner and were guided by a wish to maintain fiscal prudence and secure the country’s economic sovereignty. I am not one of those who sees an International Monetary Fund bailout around the corner, but we shouldn’t even be discussing the economy in these terms. SA was not on the path to becoming that kind of emerging market. But here we are today.

If we are lucky, the new finance minister will pull off a masterful showing next month. He or she (I’m done with names) will have to contend with increased spending pressures in the face of tight revenue. The minister has to find money to get the National Health Insurance scheme truly going, as the African National Congress’s national general council resolved last year. The Cabinet has given its go-ahead for the nuclear procurement process to start.

Whatever the financing mechanisms, there will be significant budgetary effect in the medium term. Add to that the tertiary education funding gap and other as-yet-unknown demands in a local government election year, and you see how tough it will be to deliver and maintain a prudent budget. This will be the year for damage control. Some state-owned enterprises remain in a critical condition, the ever-widening trust gap between business and government needs tending, and it is an election year.

The real work of building the SA of tomorrow, with new sources of wealth and jobs, is becoming harder. The next frontier for economic policy making should have been tackling the structural impediments to growth and innovation. Unfortunately, the country remains stuck on securing its macro-economic fundamentals, a project that many had thought was largely accomplished.

To build a new business in this environment requires an even greater appetite for risk than is already required of entrepreneurs. The probability of failure increases to levels where it is a deterrent. The barriers to entry into the economy are already high due to challenges accessing finance, skills and infrastructure and the exclusionary practices in large segments of the economy.

In addition, unpredictable governance, unstable macroeconomic fundamentals and a rising cost of credit raise the barriers to entry even higher. This is a recipe for reversing the fragile gains of the past 22 years.

• Makhaya is the CEO of Makhaya Advisory