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South African Finance Minister Tito Mboweni looks on during the official opening of the World Economic Forum on Africa, in Cape Town, South Africa, in a Sept. 5, 2019, file photo.Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

South Africa says it expects three more years of sluggish economic growth, the latest blow to Africa’s faltering recovery, as the continent braces for the impact of plummeting Chinese demand amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Plagued by soaring deficits and electricity shortages, the South African government announced Wednesday that it aims to slash public-sector wages by more than US$10-billion over the next three years in an attempt to avoid a junk credit rating.

After enduring five years of declining per-capita income, South Africa is now forecasting three more of the same. It expects GDP growth of barely 1 per cent annually, less than the population growth of 1.4 per cent.

“Persistent electricity problems will hold back growth,” Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said in his budget speech Wednesday. He also warned that the outbreak of coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, is a “source of uncertainty” for the global economy.

South Africa’s economic weakness and China’s slowdown are two of the biggest obstacles to African growth this year. The continent is particularly vulnerable to the Chinese economy because of its rapidly growing resource exports to China over the past decade.

The World Bank is projecting that Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy will grow just 2.9 per cent this year – slightly less than previous forecasts. Slow growth in the region’s two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, is a key reason. The falling price of oil and other commodities is also hurting some of Africa’s biggest and most resource-rich economies.

Nigeria had seemed to be entering an economic recovery, with growth of 2.3 per cent last year, up slightly from 1.9 per cent the previous year. The International Monetary Fund announced last week that it is cutting Nigeria’s growth forecast to 2 per cent this year, down from 2.5 per cent, largely because of plunging oil prices as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer.

The IMF categorizes 21 African economies as resource-intensive, and these countries will suffer the most from the Chinese slowdown. Among the hardest-hit are expected to be Zambia, Angola, Nigeria, Ghana, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Several other African countries will be hit by the collapse of Chinese tourism. South Africa, for example, normally receives 100,000 tourists from China annually, but Beijing has ordered a halt to overseas bookings by tour groups because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In his budget speech, Mr. Mboweni predicted that the new African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) – which takes effect in July – will “open up new markets, promote regional integration and contribute to economic growth.”

But some analysts are skeptical. “I am very pessimistic on the ACFTA, since I think that sorting out the details will take far longer than the governments have given themselves, and that big practical barriers to trade will continue,” said John Ashbourne, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.

South Africa’s continuing economic stagnation is a major problem for overall African growth, since it contributes about a fifth of total GDP in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr. Mboweni confirmed that South Africa is cutting its growth projections again. Last year, his department had forecast 1.7-per-cent growth in 2020, but now it expects only 0.9 per cent. Some analysts are forecasting just 0.5 per cent this year.

The government recently acknowledged that the power blackouts that continue to paralyze the economy are likely to continue for the next two years. Its electricity monopoly, Eskom, has been riddled with corruption and mismanagement. After years of pressure, the government will finally allow cities and mining companies to produce their own electricity or buy it from independent producers.

The country’s deficit and debt are both soaring. The budget deficit is now projected to reach 6.8 per cent of GDP by next year, compared with a previous estimate of 6.5 per cent, and debt is forecast to peak at 71.6 per cent of GDP by 2023, leading to a sharp increase in servicing costs.

The projected deficit would be South Africa’s largest since the apartheid era, and its debt servicing costs will be greater than what it spends on health care, Mr. Ashbourne said.

The government’s proposed solution, a US$10-billion cut to the public-sector wage bill, is likely to be extremely difficult to impose, as the public service unions are powerful and willing to strike. One union leader has already warned that any wage cuts would be a “declaration of war.”

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