Johannesburg - The
government's backing of trade unions opposed to Walmart's R16.5bn bid for
retailer Massmart Holdings [JSE:MSM] signals that future foreign investment will have to fit in
with labour's interests.
While conditions imposed on the deal by competition
authorities are not onerous, they are the first clear signs of Economic
Development Minister Ebrahim Patel exerting influence over foreign direct
investment in South Africa.
The former trade unionist was appointed in 2009 and charged
with tackling chronic unemployment, but his ideas - particularly that of
government-driven growth under the banner of the 'developmental state' - have
struggled to gain traction.
The admittedly small concessions he wrung out of US retail
giant Walmart show the concept has sprouted roots.
"Whilst South Africa is open for business, the costs and
difficulties of investing are great with Minister Patel pushing the
developmental state agenda," said Peter Attard Montalto, emerging markets
economist at Nomura International.
"Power seems to have shifted very much to his Economic
Development Department and away from National Treasury."
The deal, Walmart's biggest foreign acquisition since it
bought Britain's ASDA in 1999, is seen as a test case for foreign investment in
South Africa, where trade unions wield enormous political clout.
The Competition Tribunal on Tuesday approved the deal which
would see Walmart acquire 51% of Massmart but said the merged entity must
agree not to fire any workers for two years, and set up a R100m "development
programme" for local suppliers.
A decision to impose local supply targets would have
violated international trade rules and opened the way for Walmart to apply for
relief at the World Trade Organisation through the US government.
Government intervention on the Walmart/Massmart transaction
has put foreign investors on edge, especially after the tribunal earlier this
month set conditions on a takeover by Japan's Kansai Paint of local firm
Freeworld Coatings [JSE:FWD].
"It is not fair to say Patel is anti-investment - that is
far from the truth. He is, however, trying to balance investment with the
developmental state," Attard Montalto said. "Only time will tell however if he
has got the right balance here."
In 2009, the government torpedoed a $24bn tie-up between
local telecom MTN Group and India's Bharti Airtel, over concern that MTN Group [JSE:MTN] could
lose its national character. The Bharti/MTN transaction would have created the
world's third-largest mobile group by subscribers.
Independent political analyst Nic Borain said President
Jacob Zuma's government was using the country's competition authorities "for
purposes for which they were not intended", throwing up another layer of
uncertainty for outside business.
"It is not the job of the Competition Commission to act as a
vetting agency for the total social good of particular inward investments,"
The government and unions were concerned about Walmart's
global supply network which, they said, might lead to a flood of cheap imports,
sparking job losses and squeezing local suppliers. They had asked for targets
on using local suppliers and a freeze on job cuts.
Their action has further dented South Africa's image as a
investment destination, some critics say.