I WONDER how many of our politicians know who Gao Hucheng is and why they should care about what he says and does. I’m willing to bet that there are fewer than 10 who do, which almost perfectly illustrates the problem with our economic oversight and general discourse.

Let me save you the Google search. Mr Gao is minister of commerce in China, our largest single trading partner, although the trade deficit is in their favour. China is busy rebalancing its economy as it cannot take its infrastructure expansion forward at the same frenetic pace it has been doing for the past two decades.

This spells bad news for us because the vast majority of our exports to China are raw materials; mineral commodities, to be specific. They don’t need so much of this any more, something our mining industry is feeling already. Others are feeling it too, such as the coal mines of Indonesia where they cleared forest to dig up the stuff to sell to the Chinese. They now need to find new destinations for it and these are not easy to come by.

One would think our parliamentarians would spend some time getting to grips with how we are going to rebalance our trade relationship with China, but no. It’s easier to talk about job creation in a vacuum.

We should have seen this coming, of course. Tales abound of purpose-built brand new Chinese cities — part of the construction boom that drove the commodities supercycle — sitting largely unoccupied; they are no fables. They are real and that madness couldn’t continue any more.

This spells trouble for SA because there isn’t much we can immediately sell more of to the Chinese. Our manufacturing sector is in the doldrums, and most of what we could export isn’t exactly price-competitive. The only thing standing between us and a wider trade deficit is a weak rand, which Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel once believed would spur economic growth. It is just not doing it because weak currencies are never a remedy for fundamentally uncompetitive economies.

News from the eurozone isn’t encouraging either. Germany’s economic growth is slowing, and when Europe’s biggest economy catches flu, the rest of the continent does too.

The infection goes all the way down here, of course, which isn’t a good thing to coincide with the rebalancing of the Chinese economy.

This means we have to get better at working out what other countries and regions are about to do next, and here my point about hanging on to Mr Gao’s every word and action comes in.

The only exception has been the British economy, but our relationship with them has really been in the doldrums since we found new best friends in the Brics bloc of countries. The problem with our new friends is that trade with them is either minuscule in the case of Brazil and Russia, or horribly unbalanced and getting worse in the case of China.

They are not about to make things easy for us either. Russia wants to sell us its nuclear reactors in return for us selling them nothing, which won’t be great news for our trade deficit and overall economic wellbeing, but hey, what’s the value of being the smallest Brics partner if we can’t bend over backwards to keep the friendship?

We need to make some tough acknowledgements and take very difficult decisions to rid ourselves of this predicament.

The first is to admit that we have an inherently uncompetitive economy. Our input costs are comparatively too high, so we can’t really sell socks and other goods to the Chinese. They make them cheaper, faster and better than we do, period. We can’t get out of this either. We shall never match China and other emerging economies’ average wages, which are nowhere close to what we are talking about here.

This means that in the race to sell goods to Africa’s expanding middle class, they shall beat us too. The sentiment of African kinship doesn’t extend to any of this rising middle class opting for more expensive South African goods while the Chinese, Malaysians and others have something more competitive on offer.

This means we have to get better at working out what other countries and regions are about to do next, and here my point about hanging on to Mr Gao’s every word and action comes in.

It is, for instance, inevitable that the rapidly urbanising Chinese are going to need food, lots of it.

Part of our own rebalancing should be to recognise the meaning of China’s soon-to-be consumptionist economy to us, and what this means for the latter-day version of the Silk Route.

China’s middle classes, like ours, will want ready-made food, fresh food, pre-cooked food with all the bells and whistles Woolworths already offers. Our farming industry, however, is not about to take off either. It is still shedding jobs.

The second is to start inventing new, wonderful stuff that people in other markets can’t resist despite the asking price. I don’t know if we can do this before socioeconomic pressures give us political upheaval, but it has to be done.

Last but not least is to gear ourselves for the next construction boom, in Africa. That means mining’s issues must be settled yesterday already.

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