Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

A MAJOR editorial project I was hoping to pursue this year was to demystify the economy and to show the real link between it and political decision-making.

I wanted to help cultivate a different understanding of the concept of "capital", and how using the word in a politically and socially loathsome tone doesn’t help anyone. I believe this is important because much social and political friction arises out of the poor state of our economy. Its asymmetries and our historical ideological conditioning virtually ensure that we often diverge where we should converge to find solutions.

At the heart of the misdirection of discourse about policy and political economy decision-making is ignorance, wilful and otherwise, of evidence that may give us valuable insights. For instance, it is hardly the case that we are honest about the link between failure to complete matric and unemployment.

Yet, political rhetoric would suggest that jobs can be "created" without mentioning sustainable, productive economic activity growth in specific areas or sectors. I do not recall ever hearing any politician stating the obvious — that we must work to provide new opportunities in areas in which people without matric can work.

To me, this suggests reinvigorating the primary sectors, such as agriculture, and then the services economy, which requires short-term training, such as tourism. I wanted us to interrogate whether economic and industrial policy responses to the jobless growth problem took this constant reality into account.

I wanted us to question in detail why businesses are not investing and are "sitting on R500bn of cash", as the cynical accusation goes.

I wanted to understand why capitalists, whose core pursuit is profit, would walk away from the opportunity to make more money. What kind of capitalists are these?

The easy and catchy argument is to say they want to spite a "black" government so it can fail and the Democratic Alliance can take over the country to serve the interests of whites.

Another implies an international conspiracy to "reverse the revolutionary gains" of the past 21 years.

To demonstrate my point about the importance of pursuing this editorial project, let us probe a simple, living example.

I come from Mqanduli, in the Eastern Cape. Between Mqanduli and Elliotdale we have Coffee Bay, Hole-in-the-Wall and Haven, among other prime seaside tourism assets. The roads to each have been in a terrible state for many years, although work is now under way to build new roads.

There is no reliable, clean running water and no sewerage works yet, but a major project is in progress.

Let us assume you are a significant player in the hotel and hospitality sector. You desperately want to build a large resort near Coffee Bay so that local and overseas tourists can spend their time there. This would create jobs in engineering, maintenance, cleaning, restaurant and other related activities. This would be good for the two-flights-a-day Mthatha Airport and for Mthatha itself.

None of this could happen because of the road and water issues, as well as the policy framework that accelerates commercial activity in the area while protecting the environment.

The soils to and around these areas are fertile for agriculture, including livestock farming. Even in an El Nino year such as this one, rain continues to fall. Eastern Cape agriculture MEC Mlibo Qoboshiyane is doing sterling work, but needs more resources and assistance.

Let us go back to two issues: the accusation that "white" business is not investing and "job creation". Let us also examine the government’s core economic policy focus and compare resources allocated through subsidies and incentives to see if they facilitate the kind of economic activity that would build a viable economic ecosystem in forgotten Mqanduli.

When we make the issue one of ideology and race, are we proposing that a rich, black businessperson would build a hotel where tourists cannot travel or comfortably stay?

Are we happy that the quantum of incentives available is tilted towards heavy industrial development requiring very skilled labour but far fewer jobs created per R1m spent — such as mineral beneficiation?

Do we ever talk about whether it is still viable to invest in heavy industry, which by definition munches electricity and spews carbon intensively? Our electricity prices are rising rapidly and so are labour expenses and taxes to punish the resultant pollution. The profit margins therefrom are now virtually gone, especially with commodity prices such as they are. So who must invest where profit is increasingly a dream?

Such stories are neither sexy nor sensational, but they are important for those who care, and I believe many of our readers do or should.

In following my instinct as an editor and pursuing this, I invariably apparently upset some "core" readers, who say they want to read mainly about what companies are doing.

I have sat in research groups where they say this in my presence, so I know this is not a lie. Yet I know that, like most of us, they are caught in a bubble that is centred on the short-term issues in their individual lives.

I believe an institution such as Business Day should push such information in their direction so their horizons may widen, enabling them to better question investment decisions made by companies.

Yet more are bitter with me for not attacking "white monopoly capital", an ideological disposition they are entitled to.

I am, of course, aware of the racial and male nature of our economy and often write about it, but my position demands that I also care about topics that help us realise opportunities in the real economy.

This is the tragedy of our time, discourse that carries more big ideological words than big ideas. I hope the future will be different.