Should South Africa Follow the Law of the Jungle … or the Doctrine of Odious Debt?

South Africa’s fierce debates over the costs and benefits of a proposed International Monetary Fund (IMF) bail out of $4.2 billion unveil the country’s massive weaknesses and potential strengths, at a time food protests have moved from the slums of Cape Town to the Johannesburg Central Business District.

Unemployment already at 40% before the Covid-19 lockdown has soared, and food prices are rising now at an annualized inflation rate of nearly 60%. In response, the state has both increased welfare payments slightly, and deployed army troops to augment the police force – up from 2280 a month ago to 76,000 today. So too have municipal crackdowns on land occupations created more homelessness in the three main cities, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

For the two thirds of sixty million South Africans who live under a realistic poverty line of $80/month, the misery is just barely offset by a new $18/month welfare gift aimed at reaching six to eight million facing immediate economic ruin (albeit with an onerous means test); an average $15 monthly augmentation of a $23 Child Support Grant that 12.5 million children receive; and a $13 monthly boost to the $88 state pension for 3.6 million South Africans older than 65.

How would a foreign loan help, given that the Reserve Bank could easily boost state finances by direct bond purchases – as indeed already occurred on a small scale in late March when the private sector failed to buy Treasury bills at auction?

In his “Law of the Jungle” essay criticizing “alternatives, punted by the Left, to relief funding from the IMF and World Bank,” the cranky best-selling author RW Johnson misleads readers about the character of a foreign debt policy debate that South Africa needs to engage with far more openly (as are many other countries). Johnson is also ethically challenged when on behalf of the World Bank, he spin-doctors corruption financing, especially to the giant parastatal firms Eskom and Transnet.

South Africa’s foreign debt trap looms

The debate should be about whether, on the one hand, to borrow $5 billion in coming weeks from the IMF and allied multilateral lenders (including two set up since 2014 by the Brazil-Russia-India-China-SA BRICS bloc); or on the other, to conserve increasingly scarce foreign exchange by carefully declaring force majeure on repayment of a far greater amount: the international bankers’ “Odious Debt” (a legal term meaning “clearly against the interests of the population”).

Today, $185 billion in foreign debt is owed by the South African state, parastatals and private sector, which the SA Reserve Bank is responsible for acquiring foreign exchange (forex) to service. This is a massive increase from the $22 billion the new democracy faced in 1994.

A full debt audit – similar to Ecuador’s, 15 years ago – is required, to judge what the subsequent loans were used for. In 2009, the foreign debt was only $79 billion; a full $100 billion of additional foreign debt was contracted during what are termed the “nine lost years” of Jacob Zuma, before he was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa two years ago.

In 2009 the foreign debt/GDP ratio was 22% and today it is 67%. (Apartheid president PW Botha was forced into default in 1985 when the same ratio was only 41%.)

The debate is not about defaulting on domestically-owed government debt, which no one has suggested (contrary to Johnson’s allegation). Nor is it really about onerous conditionality, either, since the IMF’s Rapid Credit Relief loan would technically come with pressure only to improve SA’s “Balance of Payments”* – although yes, critics point out that all new foreign debt adds additional pressure to toe the New York credit rating agencies’ line (one unconscionably hostile to the vitally-needed fiscal stimulus that will protect South Africa from the Covid-19 pandemic).

Inexorably losing its forex, the government may in any case need to declare to foreign creditors a force majeure (inability to honor a contract due to “an act of God”), as did Eskom in April against suppliers of both coal and renewable energy due to declining electricity demand.

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s most recent world economy report, $6 billion in liquid assets fled South Africa between late January and mid-April, thus reducing even further the Reserve Bank’s reserves, which were down to $45 billion in February, the last count available.

So this is the time to pose tough questions about South Africa’s dwindling forex. Who could disagree that repaying corrupt foreign lenders should take a back seat to health-related imports and other critical inputs that are not yet Proudly South African (given that the localization of manufacturing production again called for by Ramaphosa on April 21 is really only just beginning)? (Even toothpicks I buy at any of the main shops are still “made in China,” eish.)

The exchange controls defense mechanism

Indeed, given the scale of the economic catastrophe unfolding, it would be sensible to immediately tighten existing exchange controls, so as to both have forex space to lower interest rates (without sabotage in the form of a run on the currency), and to assure that interest, profits and dividends normally paid abroad, are in future redirected into local accounts.

Such capital controls – including what was in 2008-09 a 75% local-content requirement for institutional investors (but is today 70%) – allowed South Africa to survive the world’s last financial meltdown, as commentators typically at opposite ends of the spectrum like multi-billionaire Johann Rupert and leading SA Communist Party intellectual Jeremy Cronin could agree at the time.

British economist John Maynard Keynes put it simply: “In my view the whole management of the domestic economy depends on being free to have the appropriate rate of interest without reference to the rates prevailing elsewhere in the world. Capital controls is a corollary to this.”

For South Africa to rebuild a sufficiently strong capital control defense mechanism now would entail, at minimum, setting up a Finrand-type dual-rate payment system, to penalize firms’ outflows. Recall that the Reserve Bank implemented this system from 1985-95 to avoid a full-fledged economic meltdown.

That was the period when democracy was turbulently birthed, so the Finrand protective device was vital, given how few of the major investors controlling inflows and outflows of finance initially trusted Nelson Mandela and his team.

Questioning – not coddling – financial corruption

A substantial share of the current foreign debt’s legitimacy really should be questioned, just as the Jubilee South Africa movement led by Anglican Archbishops Desmond Tutu and Njongonkulu Ndungane condemned repayment of residual apartheid loans more than two decades ago. Mandela also expressed regret about repaying apartheid-era debt instead of meeting society’s basic needs.

Moreover, Johnson neglected to remind readers that a huge share of the last dozen years’ foreign debt rise was used to finance Eskom’s two new coal-fired mega-projects, Medupi and Kusile (both to be 4800 MegaWatts strong when finally completed, the largest under construction anywhere). They were so obviously criminal as to attract U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution. (Because of South African prosecutorial sloth, instead of paying its $19 million fine to the South African taxpayers and electricity consumers, in 2015 Japanese energy corporation Hitachi settled out of court with the U.S. government’s Securities and Exchange Commission, so Washington got the stash.)

The Medupi power plant was funded partly by a $3.75 billion World Bank loan, as well as by the African Development Bank and BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) between 2008-19, while Kusile’s Hitachi boilers were partly financed by the China Development Bank in 2018. Demands to default on this particular Odious Debt come from leading trade unionists, investigative journalists, governance researchers and economic justice campaigners.

Corruption-addled Medupi is the most extreme case not only because it is the single largest mega-project in South African history, but because it involved massive, openly-acknowledged bribery of the ruling party, so brazen that even Business Day newspaper advocated against the World Bank loan to Eskom. The loan was the Bank’s largest ever, granted on commercial terms during the presidency of the bizarre neoconservative Robert Zoellick.

Johnson downplays such graft with racist insinuations: “Doubtless the Bank knew there was much corruption surrounding the project but that is unfortunately all too often the case in the Third World and law and order is the responsibility of the host government, not the Bank.”

To be sure, the World Bank cared little for law and order in this case. Its so-called “Vice President-Integrity” at the time was none other than a South African, Leonard McCarthy, whose incriminating “Spy Tapes” phone calls in 2007-08 allowed prosecutors to plausibly claim him biased, and let Zuma off the hook for 783 counts of corruption. Without acknowledging his own conflict of interest (having failed to bring Eskom to book during years running the Scorpions), McCarthy flippantly dismissed a 2015 complaint against Hitachi by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Subsequent evidence of $10 billion worth of Eskom corruption, in large part implicating Bank-financed activities at Medupi, went uninvestigated by McCarthy and his successor.

For those with even slightly stronger ethical sensibilities than Johnson and McCarthy, there are many other areas where South Africa’s foreign debt can be questioned. The National Prosecuting Agency (NPA) this week finally took on a middleman firm, Regiments, for facilitating Transnet corruption. By logic the prosecution will extend to Regiment’s links to the China Development Bank.

Non-western financial ‘alternatives’?

In March 2013 at the BRICS Durban summit, the Beijing bank announced its intention to finance $5 billion worth of the notorious China South Rail locomotives, corruption which cost Transnet customers at least $800 million (only a fraction of which has been repaid by the Beijing firm).

As for the BRICS NDB as an “alternative,” no thanks. In 2016, the NDB also agreed to a major Eskom loan, one which floundered, as NDB vice president Lesley Maasdorp confessed to Euromoney last year, due to its corrupt character (but the NDB rebooted it in 2018 anyway).

Another notable NDB loan to South Africa in 2018 was to expand Transnet’s Durban port-petrochemical complex, but it too was foiled by blatant corruption involving an Italian construction company and the city’s most infamous tender fraudster. And in 2019, the NDB not only financed further work on Medupi, but lent to the TransCaledon Tunnel Authority, which is responsible for the pipes linking the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to Johannesburg. The deal is tainted by Basotho swindler Masupha Sole, who returned to power there in 2012, following a nine-year jail sentence after his Swiss bank account full of multinational corporate bribes was uncovered.

And as I’ve found during more than a dozen enquiries, there is simply no capacity or political will within the BRICS – especially the NDB Ombuds office – to consider, much less resolve, these corruption-financing embarrassments.

South Africa should join the club questioning Odious Debt

In arguing the case for public debt default on international loans, the world’s foremost expert, Eric Toussaint, is optimistic: “The call for suspension or the cancellation of debt payments has come to the fore again in the context of the global health crisis. In mid-March, a dozen former Latin American presidents launched an appeal to this effect. On 23 March, a large majority of members of the National Assembly of Ecuador called for a union of Latin American governments to suspend debt payments.”

Although Ecuadoran president Lenin Moreno – who is rather too close to Donald Trump – rejected his parliament’s recommendation, the same spirit of debt rebellion motivates some African governments, according to Toussaint: “ At the end of March, representatives of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa, which includes 6 countries, asked for the cancellation of their countries’ external debt. On 4 April, Senegal’s President Macky Sall called for the cancellation of Africa’s public debt.”

Quito has long been a leader in demanding creditor co-liability (or what corporations term a “troubled debt restructuring” in which banks also take a “haircut”). In 2005, Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa repudiated Odious Debt to Norway due mainly to Norgy corruption in shipping finance, and four other countries including Egypt and Sierra Leone likewise were found to owe Oslo illegitimate debt which was then cancelled.

South Africa’s foreign debt is even more riddled with multilateral financial fraud. South Africa suffers Illicit Financial Flow thievery amounting to $10-25 bn/year according to insiders. The Washington-based NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing alone cost South Africa $22 billion in 2017. And the recorded net loss of licit financial flows (profit, dividend and interest transfers) in 2019 was nearly $14 billion.

Illegal outflows typically occur in league with local corporations, which PwC has regularly determined (through biannual international executive surveys) harbor the world’s most prolific economic criminals.

However there is recent good news: the 2020 PwC survey on economic crime rated South African corporations as now tied for second most corrupt, with Chinese firms. Indians are leading, and four slovenly Western host countries also made the top ten list.

If the foreign debt resulting from such scamming is not recognized by Treasury and the Reserve Bank as illegitimate and robustly acted upon, the critical danger is that the Covid-19 crisis will compel yet more financing from the corrupt multilateral and bilateral banks to pay for these outflows, thus locking in the old loans.

In short, borrowing anew would substantially weaken the option of defaulting on dubious debt from the same Bretton Woods Institutions, African Development Bank, BRICS NDB and private-sector banks.

How dubious? Recall how World Bank president David Malpass explained his own SA loan officers’ work (mainly on Medupi), when in 2017 testifying to the U.S. Congress, 18 months prior to beginning his current job (i.e., speaking honestly):

Malpass: “They’re often corrupt in their lending practices, and they don’t get the benefit to the actual people in the countries. They get the benefit to the people who fly in on a first-class airplane ticket to give advice to the government officials in the country, that flow of money is large, but not so much the actual benefit to normal people within poor countries, and that’s what I’d like to see change.”

Rep. Maxine Waters: “Do you have an example of that?”

Malpass: “Well, for example, we have countries such as South Africa that are deteriorating rapidly as their government is unable to provide efficiency and effectiveness… South Africa is heavily indebted and not making progress and is not being well served by its relationships with international financial institutions.”

Default on Odious Debt, don’t indebt future generations further!

There are scores of historical precedents (not limited to pandemics) when governments recognized international loans as illegitimate or simply unrepayable. Former U.S. banking regulator Bill Black remarked in 2013, “It is common for nations to default on debt when they are in a debt-trap that would lock them in deep poverty. Scores of nations that found themselves in debt-traps defaulted on their debts in modern times.”

A new wave of foreign loan defaults is inevitable, and will occur in coming months, just as happened during four prior waves in history – the 1830s, 1870s, 1930s and 1980s-90s – when at least a third of indebted countries defaulted.

Sovereign defaults, 1820-2015

Germany ranked among these scofflaws on four occasions, and Turkey eight times, Austria and Greece seven times, and Spain six times, along with even more default episodes by Latin American countries. South Africa also defaulted three times: 1985, 1989 and 1993.

The first step to a carefully managed default would be to defer repayment of unrepayable interest coming due. That’s exactly what Africa’s finance ministers will have to consider, because a month ago they called for “the waiver of all interest payments, estimated at US$44 billion for 2020, and the possible extension of the waiver to the medium term.”

But the two main sets of creditors on the continent – the Bretton Woods Institutions and Beijing – are supplying terribly inadequate debt relief. Compared to the 2000-13 era of massive IMF lending and Special Drawing Rights (SDR) issuance, very little is being done to ramp up global financial governance. Blame for this goes to the narrow geopolitical interests of Trump and Narendra Modi, whose finance ministers vetoed new SDRs at the IMF’s semi-annual Fconvention last week.

Regardless, all the evidence suggests that it would be wise to avoid further Bretton Woods Institution encumbrances, since so many IMF and Bank interventions in South Africa dating to 1951 have done far more harm than good.

One reason for extreme caution is the high cost of any foreign loan – even at 1% in US$ – once currency depreciation is considered. The January-April decline of the Rand from R14/$ to the R18.6/$ level today would have shot the effective real Annual Percentage Rate on any foreign loan taken out then to a level higher than 80%.

Sure, the currency probably won’t fall as fast in coming months and years, but recent negatively-priced oil futures make it risky to bet on any currency reliant upon commodity prices. (South Africa’s exports of minerals are around half the economy’s traditional exports, and will be more in the period ahead, and in dollar terms have crashed significantly since their January peaks, with the exception of gold.)

As BRICS NDB president KV Kamath quite correctly told Russia Today in 2015, “The effective costs of borrowing in hard currencies, for any of us developing countries, appears low. It appears to be 2 to 2.5 percent. But when you add the exchange loss, the weakening of the currency over time, you end up paying 12, 13, 14 percent. So that’s your true cost.”

Above all, avoid the IMF and World Bank

There are both good and bad reasons for the anti-IMF dissent that continues rising from the SA Federation of Trade Unions (albeit not the larger Congress of SA Trade Unions), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Communist Party and even the Tripartite Alliance secretariat. The latter was recently “very concerned by the suggestions, conveyed through the minister of finance, that South Africa should approach the IMF or the World Bank for ‘assistance’.”

Such grumbling became so loud that on April 24, finance minister Tito Mboweni openly denied that IMF staff were “horrible people in Washington who carry stones to break people’s bones.”

Yet IMFers have carried those very stones to South Africa repeatedly, generously financing apartheid nine times from 1957-93, during its hours of greatest need. As former Treasury official Cyrus Rustumjee has documented, these included credits immediately following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre of 69 non-violent protesters who after burning their Dompasses received police bullets in their back. Two other loans followed suppression of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 when more than 1000 children were murdered by the police, and the 1982 gold price crash (by 70%).

The final apartheid loan in 1993, as leading political economists Vishnu Padayachee and Ben Fine recall, “was not really needed for balance of payments reasons, but rather that it was a signal of the IMF’s ‘stamp of approval’ … in effect encouraging private international lending, trade and investment to the country.”

That approval was based on promises that the late-apartheid regime and the more conservative faction of the ANC certainly did agree upon: scrapping of import surcharges, which proved catastrophic for many local firms; a falling government deficit/GDP ratio; and a drop in workers’ real wages. Business Day’s lead reporter, Greta Steyn, explained: “The ANC wants to create an almost utopian society, described in the RDP. But it has to build that society while keeping its promises to the IMF.”

Likewise the World Bank’s loans here from 1951-67 supported apartheid’s worst features: discriminatory power supply via its largest borrower, Eskom, that started as coal and ended up as electricity in white but never black African households; and the migrant labor system, via borrower Transnet’s rail lines stretching into bantustans, that gave multinational corporations the highest profit rates on earth during apartheid’s heydays.

Speaking of politics, consider another reason for shunning the Bretton Woods twins, as argued last year by former Business Day editor Peter Bruce: “No one should want the IMF in here [because] the political effect is frightening. The current government is immediately replaced by its own party and then, as austerity bites and the years of survival pass, the ANC shrivels and the EFF grows. An IMF bailout 100% fuels populism.”

In sum, the corrupt lending by the Bretton Woods Institutions, as confessed by the current World Bank president, is just one of the signals that their South African portfolio needs voetsek closure. Freeing up billions of dollars by repudiating incontrovertibly corrupt debt is surely a more sensible way forward than adding more to our childrens’ and future generations’ terrible, terrible burden, which is to carve out a decent life after cleaning up our incalculable economic, ecological and now epidemiological messes.

* The Balance of Payments records the “current account” of net trade in goods and services, earnings on cross-border investments, transfer payments, and the “capital account” of capital and foreign aid flows.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: