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Q&A Sessions: A focused recovery plan will guide us — Trudi Makhaya

Economist Trudi Makhaya had to turn down the advisory role President Cyril Ramaphosa (then deputy president) offered her in 2014. At the time, she had just left her job at the Competition Commission, and wanted to focus on her consultancy firm and raising her daughter. The opportunity presented itself again in 2018 — and this time around, the stars were aligned and Makhaya took the job. 

What is it like to work with Ramaphosa? Does he make jokes? 

(Makhaya laughs.) Yes, he does make jokes. You’ve probably heard all of them. He listens also. He is very engaging and likes to consult with different people. As an adviser, we both engage separately as an office — and sometimes you are in meetings together. So, at least once a week, we will be in several sessions together. 

A few people say the length of the lockdown has further hurt our economy. What are your thoughts, especially as someone who has the president’s ear?

If you compare South Africa’s performance (-17.1% growth on a year-on-year basis) versus other countries, some countries performed worse than us like Peru (-30.2%), Spain, the United Kingdom, Tunisia, France and Mexico. Yet these countries have had very different types of lockdowns, with some, like the UK, very reluctant to take containment measures at first. So there isn’t a simple relationship between lockdowns and the severity of the decline. 

What complicates the picture for South Africa is that we were already in a recession when Covid-19 hit and our public finances were in a poor state. This means that what should have been a temporary shock could have long-term consequences.

A focused recovery plan — with emphasis on infrastructure, energy security, progressively greening our economy and trading with our continent, underpinned by structural reform — will guide us as we rebuild the economy. The president always reminds us that the key is implementation, implementation, implementation.

Was this the role you always envisioned yourself occupying one day? 

No. People think that economists have a lot of options in terms of places to work. Well, we kind of do, but at the same time, we don’t. So you can go to work for a bank. I did not want to do that. You can work for the government; I had done that. Maybe a nonprofit organisation or going back to academia? 

I mean, I thought I would be a lawyer. My first degree was a BCom in law and economics. But then I decided to take the economics route. Then I had another plan: honours, masters, all that. Then I changed my mind somewhere, and I did an MBA. So I adjusted the plan. But, of course, it’s a great honour. It’s so rare that you do not really think about it. There are only so many people who can be an economic adviser to the deputy or president. 

With all these turns in your life, how did you stick to goals and plans?

I think it’s essential to have a five-year outlook, even if it’s not going to happen exactly that way. It’s a useful guide, especially now that I am working for a political principal. As an adviser, your term is tied to their term. So obviously when his term ends, I will have to go. Or even before, if he makes changes to his team. So I suppose I think about it in scenarios.

Was it a scenario for you to be the youngest-ever economic adviser to the president, and what does that mean to you? 

I’m 42 years old. I had just turned 40 when I was appointed. Growing up as an only child in a close-knit family, I was the fly on the wall in my grandmother’s and mother’s social circles. So I don’t see age. It is an honour to have been given the space to take on such a role. We have witnessed across the world the rise of younger leaders, even as heads of state in countries such as France, Canada, New Zealand and Finland. Relative youth can be an advantage if it is not undermined and if institutions are ready for a new approach and new ideas. It’s also vital to avoid self-sabotage — some young leaders are prone to make a spectacle of themselves in an artificial performance of “youthful radicalism”. As a younger person, I do baulk at the protocol and excessive formalism, and I hope I don’t get penalised for that.

Your family has played a pivotal role in your life, from your upbringing in Hammanskraal, to the strong women who raised you, and being a mother as well. How has this influenced you?

I grew up in a period of great political violence, upheaval and then change. Leboneng, the peri-urban village in Temba where I grew up, was very quiet. We had big plots, and, in families in which the adults were employed or had small businesses, life could be comfortable. 

But the force of the homeland government was always palpable. There were many instances of young people being viciously beaten up for speaking up. My mother took time off her teaching career in the 1980s and went to the University of Zululand. There were student uprisings and heart-rending bloodshed. There was no internet, no cellphones, so we got fragments of news and lived with the terror of not knowing how she was faring.

From my mother, whom I live with now, I learned the value of loyalty and commitment. She would move the earth for her students and the young people in the community. She was always learning and trying to further her qualifications. The way she ran our home in Leboneng was also inspiring — managing the vegetable garden, the tenants at the back, some micro-enterprise venture cooking on the sidelines — she is quite a force.

Personally, how have you dealt with Covid-19? Do you ever feel like this is too much?  

So, I live with my mom, and she jokes about it. None of this is new for people who lived in Leboneng, she would say. You live far apart from your neighbour. You did not really travel. So I suppose as a small-town girl, I do not feel the rage I would experience if I grew up in Rosebank. I think there your whole life depends on getting out. But I do feel a lot of personal panic at times. 

You are also an avid writer and reader. What are your three favourite books?

I will give you five. Bessie Head’s Maru. It is a moving book that shows the pervasiveness of prejudice. Phyllis Ntantala’s A Life’s Mosaic is a beautiful autobiography from the perspective of a politically engaged, educated, black South African woman. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace for challenging me to engage with a fundamentally different view of the South African project. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for the scale of the story and the artistry, and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for capturing the nuances of class and place. 

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