Editorial: Finger remains on downgrade trigger

The country dodged something of a fiscal bullet on Friday, although the finger of the global ratings agencies remains on the trigger.

S&P Global Ratings was the last of the big three to deliver its review of South Africa’s investment credentials. It did so ahead of the weekend.

Like its peers, Moody’s and Fitch, last month, it spared us a treacherous fall into junk bond status, while sticking to its ominously “negative” outlook.

It may feel like a champagne-popping moment but, in fact, hard work is still needed. Anaemic growth and government’s galloping public debt remain millstones around the neck.

These are areas which investors want more certainty around, not just reassurances of better prospects (which have been coming aplenty) but actual signs that the economy is ready to expand.

For now, those omens are elusive. The most recent employment figures attest to the difficult growth environment. There is a long way to go. But apart from the obvious economic worries, the ratings agencies are increasingly speaking out about political risk to the investment environment.

Given the kind of year we have had, this fear justifiably looms larger in the firmament for 2017.

The ANC has a big 12 months ahead of it and President Jacob Zuma will be no less a centrifugal force at the core of events as he has been for the better part of the last decade.

What becomes imperative now is whether the party stalwarts, who can foresee the imminent destruction, have it within themselves and as a collective to get a grip on things before they blow apart.

Zuma will deny it but he remains a fiscal liability. You won’t hear it put that way by the ratings agencies, but it all points to one man.

So while all of us grapple with this nuclear-sized problem, those who have been selling the positive story of what South Africa could become have their work cut out for them. Yet double down they must, because the reprieves generously afforded us in recent weeks are unlikely to be on offer again.

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