LONDON LETTER: Raise a glass to better times

ABOUT five years ago, I came to a painful conclusion.

South Africa, a country I love, would no longer be the giant of Africa. It would be just another dot on a map. Nigeria would be the new continental colossus.

This was not because I got an email from Mr Ripoff Khulu, the alleged distant cousin of an alleged Nigerian Cabinet Minister, promising me untold wealth if I bought a bargain-basement oil well in the Niger Delta.

Nor that I would be the proud owner of a Lagos whiskey distillery if I kindly handed over my bank details to Mr Skam Maningi, allegedly the President’s alleged best friend’s wife’s alleged brother.

No, it was because Nigeria was getting its act together – despite one of their boom exports being extremely witty but fraudulent emails.

I was not alone. Jim O’Neill, an economist with Goldman Sachs who coined the acronym BRIC nations (Brazil, India, Russia, China), predicted that the next generation of economic powerhouses would be the MINTs – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.

O’Neil is infinitely more qualified than me to give an analysis, but five years ago South Africa was sadly going nowhere.

Crime was rampant, the rand exchange rate was chump change, education standards were tumbling faster than burning schools, infrastructure was crumbling with rolling blackouts, while the Guptas were accused of ‘state capture’.

In short, it was supremely difficult to be an optimist, even from my trivial vantage point 6 000km away.

Then two things happened. Robert Mugabe was booted out, followed soon afterwards by Jacob Zuma.

The whole dynamic of the region suddenly – and massively – changed.

So… I’m relieved to predict Nigeria, MINT or otherwise, will never be the giant of Africa. It will always be South Africa.

There are several reason for this, not just because I wish it to be true. Perhaps the key one is that at current birth rates Nigeria will be more populous than China by the end of this century.

Reflect on that – a country not much bigger than Texas will have more people than central Asia. It’s almost impossible for that to happen without conflicts over resources.

Also, Nigeria is the West African epicentre of a particularly volatile area. Boko Haram, for example, is a huge and growing terrorist problem in the north-east of the country.

Although Boko is a local insurgency – it wants to topple the Nigerian government, not the world – it is linked to equally ominous organisations such as Al Qaida in the Maghreb, Al Murabitoon and Al Shabaab, all of which have ISIS connections.

Compare that to South Africa, with prosperous Namibia and Botswana as neighbours, alongside now-peaceful Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

The reason for West African volatility, ironically, is that it is awash with minerals.

The DRC alone has an estimated US$24-trillion in untapped wealth. Much of that is rare earth minerals, the stuff in cellphones and computers, but there is also one other wildcard: uranium.

To say that is strategic is like saying the Sahara is hot. Uranium is key in nuclear technology, and in a basic powder form called yellowcake it can theoretically be used to make cheap radioactive bombs.

That’s catnip to terror movements.

South Africa also has vast reserves of uranium, but it is a stable country. Not even in the darkest days of President Zuma did anyone seriously think there would be a descent into anarchy. I hope I am wrong, but I cannot say that with the same conviction for parts of West Africa.

But if you think my conclusions as a Z-grade pundit are puerile, I reckon my prediction is at least as plausible as O’Neil’s.

He made the MINT economic powerhouse forecast in 2013. Since then, Mexico has become a narco-state, Turkey is a de facto dictatorship, and Indonesia has the same insurgency problems as Nigeria. So it doesn’t look like he’s exactly backing winning nags.

Also, unlike O’Neil, I base my predictions on South Africa’s supremacy on two irrefutable facts; soon after Ramaphosa was appointed President, the miracle of rain fell in Cape Town. He also is a fly-fisherman, which to me is the ultimate accolade.

So, let’s raise a glass to better days.

Graham Spence

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