South Africa's growth potential in absence of economic speed bumps

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Author: Daryl Swanepoel




Literature review

  • South African economy: Pre-pandemic (2008-2019)

  • 2020 Pandemic damage

  • 2020 Aftermath

  • Current snapshot

Structural reforms and proposals

  • Mining

  • SMME

  • Manufacturing

  • Construction

  • Tourism

  • Agriculture

  • ICT

Growth potential




South Africa has the building blocks within its borders to support a prosperous and high-growth economy, yet the economy has been limping along since the 2008 financial crash (WB, 2020). The Covid-19 pandemic pummeled the last bit of strength the economy had left right out of it (Dell, 2022). Despite government interventions and special programmes, unemployment and poverty have spiraled to record levels in recent years (Stoddard, 2022).

For an economy to grow, business needs to expand, while putting more spending money in South African wallets. With this in mind, economists and industry experts have long called for government to stop with knee-jerk interventions and implement structural reforms to support sustainable growth instead (Mahlaka, 2021). These reforms would focus on, among others, policy and regulatory adjustments to support economic drivers by removing any operational obstacles in their way. South Africa has many sectors that could be identified as economic drivers: mining, tourism, agriculture, automated manufacturing, and the renewable energy sector, for example. Streamlining business operations while creating a supportive environment could see these sectors flourish, which will translate into much-needed economic growth. South Africa finds itself in an increasingly desperate situation. Government should, therefore, determine which structural reforms could be implemented the quickest while also having the biggest impact.

Choosing the correct measures to implement this is equally important, as the country can ill afford to waste the limited resources it has left. It’s time to tap into the potential South Africa holds. Failing to do so and address the structural weaknesses will see the economy continue to limp until it collapses, taking millions of already struggling South Africans down with it.

Literature Review

South African economy: Pre-pandemic (2008-2019)

In 2008, the US economy sneezed and the globe caught the cold. The American mortgage crisis wiped $2 trillion off of global economic growth (Merle, 2018). The calamity is now aptly referred to as the Great Recession. Most economies have since recovered from the crisis. More than a decade later, South Africa has, however, not been able to return to its pre-crisis levels. Apart from a short-lived boost thanks to the 2010 Soccer World Cup, the country continued to record lacklustre growth, increasing unemployment figures and spiralling debt levels since 2008 (WB, 2020), leaving South Africans ever poorer. And in 2019 the country was plunged into yet another recession, the third since 1994 (Sibeko, 2021).

SA real GDP growth (annual %)

Source: World Bank (WB, 2020a)

SA unemployment (% of total labour force)

Source: World Bank (WB,2020b)

SA government debt to GDP

Source: Trading Economics (TE, 2020)

Real GDP per capita growth (annual %)

Source: World Bank (WB, 2020c)

A dip in commodity prices along with lower demand, especially from China, are among the external factors that hampered South Africa’s recovery (Faure, 2017). However, it has become clear that the main contributing factors to the country’s dismal economic performance is government performance.

The deterioration of the South African economy coincided with Jacob Zuma’s term as president. His administration is characterised by deep-rooted corruption, as revealed by the Commission of Enquiry into State Capture. It’s this very corruption that eventually led to Zuma being removed from office in 2018 (Maseko, 2022).

The steps taken by the Zuma administration that are widely believed to have had a negative impact on the South African economy include:

  • A 2014 decision that led to South Africa having three finance ministers within a week (Motsoeneng et al, 2015)

  • Stricter visa regulations (ENCA, 2014)

  • Higher BEE requirements for the mining sector (Reu, 2020).

Corruption further crippled state institutions, leaving them incapable of fulfilling their mandates (Soko, 2017). It also left various state-owned entities at the mercy of continued government bailouts at the expense of other spending priorities (Parliament, 2022). Business and investor confidence nose-dived as evidence of the widespread corruption and the state’s inefficiencies surfaced (Reu, 2016). As the country continued down this slippery slope, it finally lost its positive credit rating and was awarded junk status by the credit ratings agencies (Naidoo, 2020a). The country was no longer able to attract the necessary foreign or local investment to support economic growth. To this end, it was left with little choice other than to plunge the country into more debt just to support its spending programmes (Muller, 2019). South Africa’s infrastructure also bore the brunt of the Zuma administration. It has become clear that the upkeep of the country’s infrastructure was neglected either due to a lack of expertise or to corrupt activities (Mathews, 2021). Eskom is a sterling example of this.

Since 2008, the country’s energy giant has been forced to implement rolling blackouts in a staggered manner. This was largely due to an ageing coal-fired power fleet and delayed (and poor) construction of new plants. Some experts believe Eskom’s inability to supply sufficient electricity is the biggest factor weighing the South African economy down. According to a report by the CSIR, blackouts between 2007 and 2019 have cost the South African economy between R154 billion and R326 billion (CSIR, 2020).

2020 Pandemic damage

In 2020, South Africa entered an unprecedented event alongside the rest of the world. As the unknown strain of the coronavirus became prevalent, countries rushed to restrict the movement of people in an attempt to stop the spread. These lockdowns had a severe global economic impact and for a country like South Africa, who experienced a technical recession the previous year, it was devastating (UN, 2020). The pandemic wiped out between 1,5 million and 3 million jobs, while plunging the economy into its deepest recession in a century (Casale et al, 2020) (WB, 2021) (Naidoo, 2020b). The slowdown also had a knock-on effect on the government’s revenue, as SARS collected 12 per cent less (at R1,25 trillion) in tax revenue for the 2020/21 financial year. The damage suffered would’ve been much larger if it wasn’t for an upswing in commodity prices, which boosted mining profits at the time.

2020 Aftermath

In an attempt to turn the country’s economic misfortunes around, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched a Reconstruction and Recovery Plan in October 2020 (Pres, 2020). The plan aims to use various levers to stimulate average economic growth of 3 per cent over the next 10 years, while creating 800 000 jobs over the medium term and unlocking R1 trillion in infrastructure investments. The last progress report on the plan was released in December 2020.

A more recent update on the Employment Stimulus Package, which forms part of the overall plan, is available. According to a January 2022 progress report, just over 673 000 jobs have been created since the launch (Pres, 2022). The plan is in its second phase, with a cumulative target of creating 1,2 million job opportunities. This refers to the number of full- or part-time employment that could possibly flow from these developments. Although a positive step, these opportunities pale in comparison to South Africa’s unemployment figures, which were at crisis level even before the pandemic struck. Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns alone claimed at least 1,5 million jobs (Casale et al, 2020).

Together with National Treasury, the Presidency also launched Operation Vulindlela in 2020 to ‘accelerate the implementation of structural reforms and support economic recovery’ (Pres, 2022b). Various ministers, departments and entities are working together to resolve economic hurdles. A dedicated Vulindlela Unit in the Presidency monitors the progress of the operation. It has set out the following 19 goals:

  • Increase role of independent power producers #

  • Restructure Eskom into generation, transmission and distribution entities #

  • Improve energy availability factor on Eskom plants

  • Address institutional inefficiencies in municipal electricity distribution management

  • Increase available digital spectrum #

  • Migrate from analogue to digital TV

  • Finalise policy and policy direction on rapid deployment of electronic communications networks and facilities

  • Improve water-use licensing processes #

  • Strengthen regulation of water pricing and service standards #

  • Finalise and implement the revised raw water pricing strategy

  • Establish a national water resources infrastructure agency

  • Address institutional inefficiencies in municipal water and sanitation services

  • Corporatise the Transnet National Ports Authority #

  • Improve competitiveness and efficiency of ports

  • Establish a Transport Economic Regulator through the Economic Regulation of Transport Bill

  • Implement third-party access policy and concession branch freight rail lines #

  • Finalise and implement White Paper on National Rail Policy #

  • Improve the regulatory framework for skilled immigration

  • Implement e-Visa and visa waivers #

* # indicates completion of target

Some of the targets reached is merely the conclusion of policies, plans and other documentation. The effective implementation thereof remains to be seen.

Current snapshot

The South African economy continues its struggle to gain traction, as it no longer faces solely domestic hurdles. Inflationary pressures have accelerated globally due to increased consumer spending following the pandemic along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (WEF, 2022). In May, the country recorded a CPI of 6,5 per cent, breaching the SARB’s target band (Stats SA, 2022b). As central banks across the world move to stave off inflation by hiking lending rates, the SARB is left with little choice but to follow suit to protect against capital outflows (Naidoo, 2022). The repo rate currently stands at 4,75 per cent, with further hikes to be expected.

In Q1:2022, the country recorded an official unemployment rate of 34,5 per cent (Stats SA, 2022a). When taking discouraged job seekers into consideration, 46,2 per cent, or 11,7 million, South Africans are without a job. The economy has since recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with 1,9 per cent growth recorded in Q1:2022 – although some believe this might be as good as it’s going to get for the country this year (Stats SA, 2022c) (Stoddard, 2022).

The return to pre-pandemic GDP figures is, however, little cause for celebration, as the country was already fighting for economic survival before the pandemic struck (with a technical recession recorded in 2019). Devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal, increasing food and petrol prices, international and national geo-political uncertainty, and rolling blackouts will continue to curtail future recovery efforts. However, there are some structural changes that could have a significant positive impact on the economy if implemented speedily.

Source: Stats SA (Stats SA, 2022d)

Structural reforms and proposals

The state of the South African economy is the result of economic and political mismanagement amid global turmoil. The evidence of economic failure is visible in the rising poverty and unemployment levels. Current GDP levels are nowhere near the required levels to change this trajectory. The potential for growth, however, is locked up by a series of structural constraints. To determine what these hurdles might entail, the ISI embarked on roundtable discussions with industry leaders from various sectors in 2021. The conversations revealed daily challenges to operations, struggles with governmental inefficiencies, and unworkable policy and regulatory environments. Not all of these constraints are necessarily deep-rooted issues and some can be resolved speedily. And should the South African government wish to regain any economic traction, it should tackle these constraints with haste.

The ISI recently asked some of the industry leaders who attended the initial discussions which constraint they viewed as the most prominent in their respective sector. In addition, they were requested to give their best considered estimate of how much more their sector would be able to contribute to the country’s national GDP should the specific constraint be removed.

For this paper the focus is on the following sectors:

  • Mining

  • SMME

  • Manufacturing

  • Construction

  • Tourism

  • Agriculture

  • ICT

The size of the South African economy in:

2020: R5,52 trillion (Stats SA, 2020b)

2021: R6,21 trillion (Stats SA, 2022e)


Contribution to National GDP (2021): 8%

8% applied to 2021 National GDP: R496,8 billion

Employment: 459 954

(Stats SA, 2022d) (MCSA, 2022)


Inefficient railway and port systems to support exports (Eskom & Transnet)

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 4% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

The mining sector is a cornerstone of the South African economy. Due to the large endowment of resources (chrome, platinum, gold, manganese), there is much room for the industry to play a pivotal role in the country’s economic recovery (Wits, 2020). However, the industry is hampered by stringent BEE and labour legislation, policy uncertainty and intermittent energy supply (ISI, 2021a).

Comment from industry leader:

Transnet and Eskom are currently the two single-biggest threats to the mining sector. Both are functioning far below their available capacity, forcing mining companies to seek alternatives, which often translates to more expensive options being used (like transporting minerals by road). If export capacity is constrained, there is no incentive for mining companies to expand operations. Information shared with the ISI shows that close to zero capital formation is being spent on new mining infrastructure. The funds are mainly being spent on maintenance of existing infrastructure. This is deeply concerning for an industry that has the potential for expansion and could bring about much-needed jobs.


Contribution to National GDP (2020): 20%-42% (this study assumes a middle-of-the-road scenario)

30% applied to 2021 National GDP: R1,863 trillion

Employment: 7,3 million

(OECD, 2020)


Over-regulation, specifically stringent BEE requirements

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 7% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

Contribution if sufficient electricity supplied:

A further 1,5% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

South Africa’s National Development Plan envisages an SMME sector that contributes 60-80 per cent to the country’s GDP, while employing 90 per cent of the newly created 11 million jobs by 2030. In spite of promising progress (at least before Covid-19 struck), SMME growth faces many challenges. These include numerous bureaucratic requirements, and insufficient electricity supply (ISI, 2021b).

Comment from industry leader:

Over-regulation together with domineering labour unions are constraining SMME growth in South Africa. According to the industry leader the ISI spoke to, BEE requirements, specifically, are hampering operations for SMMEs. For one, the accompanying administrative process is a cost that most SMMEs can ill-afford, while the system creates unnecessary obstacles for ease of doing business. Should these be removed, an estimated 20-30 million jobs could possibly be created over the next 10 years.


Contribution to National GDP (2021): 13%

13% applied to 2021 National GDP: R807,3 billion

Employment: 1,4 million

(Stats SA, 2022d; Stats SA, 2022a)


Trust deficit between manufacturers and the state

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 4% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

Manufacturing has never recovered to the levels seen before the 2008 financial crash (Stats SA, 2020). This is in part due to cheap exports, mainly from China, which undercut local producers (BP, 2017). In 2021, the utilisation of manufacturing production capacity was at 78,6 per cent of total capacity. This is largely attributed to insufficient demand for local production due to higher prices relative to imported goods (AG, 2021). The manufacturing sector is constrained by red tape, onerous labour legislation, municipal dysfunction and inefficient electricity supply (ISI, 2021).

Comment from industry leader:

The state’s attitude is perceived by many as being hostile towards business and manufacturers. This view is supported by policies and regulations that are deemed as not business friendly. A trust deficit between business and the state makes owners reluctant to expand their manufacturing operations. It therefore removes the incentive to grow the industry, as they simply have no trust in the state to create the stable environment required to generate a sufficient future return on current investments. The financial strain brought about by the recurrent Eskom blackouts is another cause for concern in the industry. It not only takes away operating hours but also causes damage to machinery and leads to labour disputes (as some employers refuse to pay employees who are unable to work due to loadshedding).


Contribution to National GDP (2021): 2%

2% applied to 2021 National GDP: R124,2 billion

Employment: 1 million

(Stats SA, 2022d; Leshoro, 2022)


Inept public officials, which will require improved staff development programmes within the public sector

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 4% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

The construction sector is quite labour-intensive and is perfectly positioned to absorb some of South Africa’s unskilled labour (BT, 2020). A study undertaken by the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa has found the construction industry has a direct impact output multiplier of 3,21 (CAHF, 2020). Expanding the sector could then hold far-reaching benefits for the economy as a whole. It’s among the reasons why the state has embarked on a R100 billion infrastructure development plan over the next 10 years to unlock economic recovery (Magubane, 2022). The sector is, however, constrained by inadequate infrastructure (water and electricity), corruption and a lack of skills. Public sector capital projects have, by and large, come to a complete standstill.

Comment from industry leader:

The thick layer of bureaucratic systems facing the construction sector is made worse by incompetent staff at a local government level. Documentation, such as the conclusion of contracts and tender processes, more often takes months longer than it should, delaying the start of entire projects. This convoluted process is not attractive to large-scale investors. It further delays urgent infrastructure development and putting wages in the pockets of labourers. A recent spike in the price of fuel and inefficient electricity supply is causing further damage to the industry. Some report a decline in productivity of as much as 25 per cent due to the ongoing blackouts. The construction sector should be at the forefront of economic recovery, as it can assist in alleviating unemployment while delivering crucial infrastructure for other sectors to flourish. However, for it to play this supportive role, these simple impediments must be removed immediately.


Contribution to National GDP (2019 pre-pandemic): 3,7%

3,7% applied to 2021 National GDP: R229,8 billion

Employment: 1,4 million

(DoT, 2020) (DoT,2022)


Policies limiting ease of access, specifically the limitations on e-Visas

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 5% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

It’s important to reflect on the performance of the tourism sector before Covid-19 lockdowns were instated, as it showcases the industry’s potential. The sector was, however, ravaged by the pandemic. Its contribution to overall economic performance tumbled to 1,3 per cent in 2020 and at least a third of all jobs in the sector had to be cut. The sector has shown signs of recovery as global travel resumes (Vollmer, 2022). Relaxing of some of South Africa’s visa regime could support the industry rebounding faster (ISI, 2022).

Comment from industry leader:

The tourism sector has the potential to expand rapidly and is one of the easiest to stimulate in order to expand the country’s GDP. Small policy adjustments, promoting ease of travel and aggressive marketing of South Africa as a destination can boost growth in the sector to more than double its current economic performance in the next 5 to 10 years. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of urgency from government’s side to take the necessary steps to bring this growth spurt about.


Contribution to National GDP (2021): 3%

3% applied to 2021 National GDP: R186,3 billion

Employment: 838 000

(Stats SA, 2022d)


Inefficient rail and port infrastructure

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 7,5% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

Employment in the agriculture sector represents around 5 per cent of total employment in South Africa (Stats SA, 2022a). Despite rising input costs, the industry (especially citrus) has managed to record bumper exports over the last few years. It was among the few economic stars shining even throughout the worst of the pandemic (Campbell, 2022). Inefficient infrastructure, such as ports and the rail network, and electricity as well as policy uncertainty have been identified as some of the aspects hampering growth of the industry (ISI, 2021e).

Comment from industry leader:

In the absence of efficient rail infrastructure, agricultural produce is forced onto our roads. This in itself is more expensive, but the state of the country’s roads, including gravel roads, is a further burden. Regular strikes that close the N3 between Johannesburg and Durban, the artery to get the produce to the port, poses another cost. Further headache awaits when the produce finally reaches the ports, as those too are operating sub-optimally. These struggles come amid external factors, like new EU export regulations, causing strain to the agricultural export market. As the global socio-economic developments continue to disrupt supply chains, South Africa is ideally located to benefit from the rising opportunities should these constraints be rectified.


Contribution to National GDP (2021): 8%

8% applied to 2021 National GDP: R496,8 billion

Employment: 56 550

(EN, 2021) (Ica, 2021)


Lack of incentives for the private sector to deploy broadband to lower-income areas.

Contribution in absence of constraint:

A further 5% of the sector’s contribution to National GDP p.a.

The ICT sector is made up of South Africa’s postal, telecommunications and broadcasting services. It’s an industry that continues to hold much potential for growth and employment opportunities. This is evident by the number of vacant positions in the industry (amid the country’s high levels of unemployment). According to the 2021 ICT Skills Survey, the industry is unable to fill 10 000 positions. This has been attributed to a lack of skills available in the country (Smith, 2021). A Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator study has found that the industry has spent R150 million exporting digital work and expertise to other countries (Malinga, 2020). The centre therefore suggest the immediate skills development to plug this growing gap. This skills shortage along with lagging infrastructure development and prohibitive policies are among the hurdles facing the industry.

Comment from industry leader:

The digital economy underpins most sectors in South Africa, yet there is a lack in the development of telecommunications infrastructure. Without adequate infrastructure the country will fail to see the necessary digital adoption, which will leave South Africa trailing global developments. Furthermore, deploying broadband to underserved communities could serve as an economic booster. For example, it could promote entrepreneurship in lower-income areas as digitisation (take banking as an example) can ease doing business. Although suggestions have been made to relax visa requirements to attract the necessary skills that South Africa lacks, the focus should rather be on developing local skills to meet the demand. Another crucial point is to reskill those whose jobs may be made redundant through automation in the coming years.

Growth Potential

Should government effectively remove each sectoral constraint, calculations can be done to determine what the overall impact on the national GDP may be, based on the estimations given by the Industry Leaders. Each sector’s potential contribution to national GDP is calculated based on its 2021 contribution. The difference between the two is used to determine the additional GDP growth in the absence of structural constraints.

Table 1: Potential added GDP growth from structural reforms within elected key sectors

This means that, based on the current (2021) GDP of R6,210 trillion, roughly 2,1 per cent per annum can be added to South Africa’s GDP just by getting the basics within the few key industries indicated in the table above, right.

Add to this the impact of potential growth within the SMME sector, where industry leaders have estimated that the introduction of a few structural reforms could boost its contribution by an estimated 7 per cent.

The OECD estimates that the SMME sector’s contribution to the national GDP is somewhere between 20 and 42 per cent, that is somewhere between R1,242 trillion and R2,608 trillion, which means that the structural reforms could potentially mean added GDP growth of between R86,940 billion and R182,774 billion (see table 2 below).

Table 2: Potential added GDP growth from structural reforms within the SMME sector

The table above therefore suggests that structural reforms within the SMME sector could add anywhere between 1,4 and 2,94 per cent to current GDP. However, one needs to caution against double counting, since many SMMEs fall within the sectors analysed in Table 1 above. For example, an SMME may fall within the manufacturing sector, the tourism sector, etcetera. A globular figure inclusive of the potential additional GDP of the SMME sector is therefore difficult to calculate precisely. It is nevertheless fair to say that the suggested structural reforms will make a material contribution to accelerated GDP growth.

At 50 per cent of the midpoint of the OECD’s estimated SMME contribution to GDP (between 20 per cent and 42 per cent), that is 31 per cent, it would mean an additional 1,09 per cent growth in GDP for 2023.

Note: The above estimations do not take into account potential additional growth from sectors not explored in this study, nor the additional growth that could emanate from getting the electricity supply challenges of the country sorted out.


The conversations and research have brought forward overwhelming evidence of overarching problems faced by all the sectors. Unreliable infrastructure, policy shortcomings and failures together with inept decision-makers are among the factors prohibiting sectoral growth. These are constraints that could be fixed, at least in the medium term, should the political will exist to do so.

National Treasury forecasts a growth rate of 1,6 and 1,7 per cent in 2023 and 2024 respectively (Treasury, 2022). It’s not nearly enough to pull the somewhat 40 million South Africans out of poverty (Stats SA, 2019). Yet, decisive action to reverse the trajectory is seemingly lacking from government quarters. This when there is low-hanging economic fruit that can easily be reaped by a few policy adjustments.

Imagining that the few structural adjustments proposed in this study were already implemented, it would be quite conceivable to expect a scenario of 3,7 per cent growth in GDP for 2023, which is more than double the current projections. Without the reforms, the GDP growth would not be sufficient to enable a systematic reduction of unemployment and other socio-economic backlogs. With the reforms, it would – especially if one takes into consideration the additional contribution of the SMME sector not included in the aforementioned 3,7 per cent. With the SMME sector included, a GDP growth of between 4 and 5 per cent is quite achievable.

Table 3:

It is therefore imperative that government focusses on these, and other necessary structural reforms, if it has any hope of shaping an economy with long-lasting benefits for its citizens. This study is not an exact science, but it represents a fair indication, which will further be modelled in more detail by the ISI. It tells us, however, that the South African economy is not a lost cause, if there is focus on structural reforms, there is hope!


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The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI), 2021c. Rejuvenating South Africa's economy - Manufacturing sector perspective [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 30 June 2022]

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI), 2021d. Rejuvenating South Africa's economy - Construction sector input [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 30 June 2022]

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI), 2021e. Rejuvenating South Africa's economy - A perspective from the Agriculture Industry [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 25 June 2022]

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World Bank (WB), 2020b. Unemployment, total (% of total labour force) - South Africa [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 2 June 2002]

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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.


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