South Africa: The Weak Link In The BRICS’ Economic Engine

South Africa may have put the "S" in BRICS, but unlike the other members of the emerging nations' group, it is facing weak growth and structural disadvantages that include apartheid’s legacy and the toll of AIDS on economic reju

Trouble over Johannesburg (Derek Keats)
Trouble over Johannesburg (Derek Keats)
Sébastien Hervieu

JOHANNESBURG - Praving Gordhan, the South African Finance Minister, is presenting the country's budget to parliament this week. He will be busy explaining how he will finance a 300-billion-rand (30 billion euros) investment program designed to modernize the railroad system and the country's port over the next seven years.

The world's number one producer of platinum and the fourth-largest gold producer, South Africa wants to export its precious metals more efficiently in a bid to jumpstart the sector on which the country has long built its economic power. South Africa was the continent's strongest economy, but it lost some ground in 2011.

In April, South Africa will celebrate its first year as a member of the BRICS team. But economic growth rates in Brazil, Russia, India and China dwarf that of South Africa. For the past five years, the average yearly growth rate has been just 2.7% and the International Monetary Fund is expecting a 2.5% GDP hike in 2012 (compared with sub-Saharan Africa's 5.5%), mostly due to the economic downturn in Europe, where more than a third of South African exports go.

Goolam Ballim, a chief economist at the South African Standard Bank, warned that the country was entering "a period of light stagflation" (weak growth coupled with high inflation and unemployment). In January, the Fitch ratings agency downgraded the country's economic outlook because "its economy can't create enough jobs."

Despite a small decrease, the unemployment rate was still at 23.9% in 2011, and even 35.4% if you take into account those who stopped looking for a job. The government pledged to spend 9 billion rands (900 millions euros) over three years to create five million jobs by 2020.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who's been repeatedly criticized for his lack of vision and inefficiency, is hoping his investment policy will create a positive shock. But in the public as well as the private sector, South Africa is piling on disadvantages.

The country is cruelly lacking qualified labor. Some 800,000 job offers for engineers and other high-level positions aren't being filled. The consequences of apartheid, during which the state spent about 10 times more on a white child's education than on that of a black one, are still felt today. Though the government now spends 20% of its budget in education, the funds are often misused.

On average, the country has three social benefit recipients for only one taxpayer and corruption is eating away at the administration. In exchange for bribes, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) leaders have made a habit of offering contracts to "friendly" companies who then overcharge for their services.

The CEO Confidence Index is at its lowest in two years. Though the successful 2010 soccer World Cup improved the country's image in investors' eyes, corruption, a high crime rate and power outages are still worrying. The debate over a potential nationalization of the country's mines, as well as a new labor code, haven't done much to ease the fears. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu,) a major ANC ally, has refused to weaken workers rights while employers say the cost of labor in South Africa is too high.

The country also has one of the world's lowest small business creation rates. In May 2009, Trevor Manuel, then Finance Minister, said apartheid had killed entrepreneurial spirit among black people.

And then there is the "AIDS effect" on the economy. In a study published in January, the South African Institute of Race Relations showed that because of AIDS, the country only had 50.6 million people instead of 55 million. "If the 15 to 49-year-olds, the most affected age group but also the most productive, continue to die young, there will be social and economic consequences for the country."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Derek Keats

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!