Keynes Society Middle East and Africa

Keynes Society Report: Colin Coleman

On Tuesday 22nd September, the Keynes Society was delighted to welcome, virtually, Colin Coleman for the first meeting of the term. Colin Coleman is an expert on South African affairs: after setting up the South African and sub-Sahara African enterprise for Goldman Sachs and serving as its CEO for 20 years, he was appointed senior fellow and lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He has combined this with numerous policy advisory roles, such as serving on the boards of Business Leadership South Africa and the National Business Initiative.

The focus of his talk on Tuesday was his 10 point plan, a set of policy proposals he had developed to tackle South Africa’s economy and which he had first presented at the Vice Chancellor’s open lecture at the University of Cape Town on July 15th. For some context, South Africa’s economy is in dire need of reform. Even before the coronavirus pandemic had struck, South Africa’s unemployment rate was at a record high of 30%, and, staggeringly, almost 50% among young people. With the havoc coronavirus is wrecking on the global economy, this rate may rise to 40% or even 50%, especially given the informality of many of South Africa’s jobs. With a Gini coefficient of 0.63, South Africa is also, by this measure, the most economically unequal society in the world.

Colin Coleman’s 10 point plan seeks to change this, by explicitly aiming to reduce inequality and targeting the demand and supply side of the South African economy. Some of his proposals are quite familiar, albeit adventurous. For instance, he supports a basic income grant, ensuring everyone in South Africa receives a minimum income. This would be paid for with tax reform, which would tighten tax credit schemes and increase taxes for the richest and biggest corporations. Not only would this allow the basic income grant scheme to be fiscally neutral, but such reforms would have positive distributive effects in and of themselves.

However, some of his other policy proposals are more inventive and forward-looking. In addition to recommending that the South African government removes regulatory blocks for small businesses and increase infrastructure spending, he would also like to see the use of e-government technology to transform the way citizens interact with the government. For example, he believes that the use of technology to distribute welfare benefits would make them much more accessible for those who live in rural villages and are often unable to obtain their benefits.

After the presentation of his 10 point plan, there was also time for him to answer some questions from the audience. The questions were wide-ranging and engaged both with the content of the talk, as well as exploring wider themes. One topic of particular interest was South Africa’s relationship with foreign actors, especially China. He argued that China’s involvement in South Africa, and more broadly in Africa, through the belt and road initiative, is generally positive. It allowed South Africa to invest in its supply side through big infrastructure builds and it provided a powerful economic ally.

Overall, this was a fascinating talk, which explored an economy often unspoken about in Britain, but which is a pivotal player in sub-Sahara African economics and politics. We thank Colin Coleman for giving up his time and hope to potentially be able to invite him back to Eton physically when extraneous factors allow.

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