Disgraceful timekeeping, but at least they saved my bacon.

What Minister Patel looks like when things go badly wrong

By John Fraser

How long does it take you to eat breakfast? Having been to a boarding school where if you didn’t shovel it down, you might be too late to get seconds, I can eat fast. I really don’t need an hour to scoff down a fry-up.

So it was frustrating when today’s breakfast briefing with tardy Trade, Industry, and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel started over an hour late.

The invitation had been for 8.30. It kicked off just after 9.30. Lots of journalists, business leaders, and my new chum – the Norwegian Ambassador – were left kicking our heels.

The Minister himself didn’t pitch. Instead, he turned up on a wobbly video link from Cape Town. And, boy was it wobbly. He came and went. We may be in the 4th Industrial Revolution, but these technicians hadn’t reached the first.

The event’s aim was to give some flavour of the preparations for the President’s Fifth Investment Conference, which is due to take place next week.

Ramaphosa has been seeking a total of R1.2 trillion over 5 years, and he will probably get there next week when the current cycle ends.

He has done reasonably well in previous conferences, and it seems investments are still taking place – including some from state organs that would have happened anyway, but are likely to inflate the total.

The catering at the far-from brief briefing breakfast at the Maslow Hotel was not the finest I have eaten, but it was OK. To my relief, there was bacon. A bit dry, but better dry than never.

I find the efforts to appease the pork-hating Muslims an affront to those of us with a Christian heritage and always look out for the bacon.

So while you could have tried a bit harder to serve really appetising food, at least you were able to appease my dietary requirements, Mr Maslow.

Shame there was no wine list, but I accept that public money should not be squandered before noon on damaging journalists’ livers.

Patel’s message was a positive one – previous investment pledges are now coming on stream, and it won’t be hard to crash through the target at the investment conference.

In his hide-and-seek video appearance, the Minister accepted the damage that SA’s power crisis is having on investments – and noted that Covid hasn’t helped much either.

However, he suggested that most investors are accepting assurances that the government is sorting out the mess.

And with every cloud having a silver lining, there will be a surge in green energy investments in the next five-year cycle – where the total target will be doubled.

Despite efforts by a government communications official to disqualify me from asking a totally legitimate question, I asked when Patel will be announcing his plans to support efforts by SA’s auto industry to transit to Electric Vehicles (EVs).

While failing to answer the question (at great length) the minister noted the EU has been buggering about on its own targets, and as this is an important export market for SA, he is following suit.

One wonders, though, what is happening behind the scenes. There does not seem to be much appetite by the Treasury to incentivise production, and Patel warned that even if there is a desire to produce more EVs for the SA market, this might boost demand for electricity and make SA’s current electricity problem even more problematic.

As I suggested to my Norwegian chum, a few solar panels on the roof of your garage, linked to some storage, and maybe also using the car’s battery as part of the mix, might facilitate Eskom-free charging.

In response to another question, Patel voiced his concerns about SA’s inefficient visa regime. We tend to show the red card rather than the red carpet – even to top executives seeking to work here.

He said his own officials will try to help to sort this out, which is to be welcomed. As with so much else, the government has been pretty useless, over an incredibly long period, in resolving this problem.

So, it is on to next week’s Presidential Investment Conference, where one can only hope the audiovisual technicians will be less useless.

Expect a catwalk of pledging investors, lining up to have their pictures taken shaking hands with our President.

Will they save the country’s bacon? Will the conference sizzle with excitement?

Watch this space.

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