A small group of five people who implemented Operation Vulindlela saved the South African economy from collapse at the end of 2022 and early 2023.

Operation Vulindlela was kickstarted by former Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in 2020 to unleash South Africa’s economy by driving reforms in key sectors such as electricity, logistics and broadband spectrum.

These sectors, commonly referred to as network industries, have traditionally been dominated by the government through state-owned companies and are tightly regulated.

No competition was allowed in these industries, and the private sector was effectively locked out of generating electricity, running trains on South Africa’s railways, or operating port terminals.

This has recently changed with the introduction of Operation Vulindlela. Through its various phases, it aims to increase competition in these industries by drastically liberalising markets.

The Project Management Office was set up with the President’s full backing to centralise the implementation of the reforms and overcome bottlenecks and political opposition.

This office also works closely with large private companies through the National Energy Crisis Committee and its logistical counterpart to boos their participation in these sectors.

Former Reserve Bank deputy governor, Kuben Naidoo, said these interventions from Operation Vulindlela saved the South African economy.

“Not many people are aware that 18 months ago, South Africa was pretty close to falling off a precipice,” he said at a conference hosted by SA-TIED and the Presidency.

“Operation Vulindlela and its method of work were able to hold things together, keep the private sector on board, and mobilise government to keep the economy from falling apart.”

In late 2022 and early 2023, South Africa’s public infrastructure appeared to be collapsing due to neglect, criminal activity, and surging sabotage, while business confidence plunged.

“When we had the intense load-shedding of 2022/2023, there was a genuine risk that the economy could go into a tailspin. It was the Operation Vulindlela team that prevented that.”

Naidoo explained that while the economy grew a mere 0.6% last year, Rudi Dicks and his team prevented a deep recession of -3% or -4%.

Research from the Bureau of Economic Research showed that Operation Vulindlela could grow South Africa’s economy by over 2% a year in the next few years.

The people behind Operation Vulindlela

Operation Vulindlela is a joint initiative of the Presidency and National Treasury to accelerate the implementation of structural reforms and support economic recovery.

As such, its political head is Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo, who oversees the efforts of the cross-departmental team.

Operation Vulindlela has just completed its first phase, with the National Treasury providing a review of its progress last week.

The core team during this first phase included National Treasury’s Sean Phillips, Duncan Pieterse, Mahesh Fakir and the Presidency’s Rudi Dicks and Saul Musker.

Sean Phillips

Director-general in the Department of Water and Sanitation, Dr Sean Phillips

The head of Operation Vulindlela, Dr Sean Phillips, has worked in various government roles for over two decades.

His areas of expertise include service delivery improvement, public service governance and administration, infrastructure procurement and delivery management, project and program management, and operations management.

Currently a director-general in the Department of Water and Sanitation, Phillips has previously been the COO of the Department of Public Works and a provincial head of the department.

As director general of the Department of Performance, Monitoring, and Evaluation in the Presidency, he has vast experience managing multi-department projects.

Phillips holds an honours degree in engineering design and appropriate technology, a master’s degree in project management and public and development management, and a PhD in civil engineering.

He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.

Duncan Pieterse

Director-general of the National Treasury, Dr Duncan Pieterse

Dr Duncan Pieterse has been the director-general of the National Treasury for almost a year following a decade-long career within the finance ministry.

Currently responsible for economic policy at the National Treasury, Pieterse has had stints within the asset and liability management division as deputy director-general.

Prior to joining the National Treasury, he worked as a development economist and public finance consultant in South Africa and was a research fellow at Yale and Brown Universities in the United States.

Pieterse has a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard University and was a fellow of its South Africa Fellowship Program.

He holds a Bachelor of Business Science, a Master of Business Science and a PhD in economics from UCT.

As with Phillips, Pieterse is also an adjunct associate professor at the School of Economics at UCT.

Mahesh Fakir

The third member of the core team at Operation Vulindlela during its first phase, Mahesh Fakir, is known for his expertise in maritime trade and logistics.

Before his role as an Operation Vulindlela consultant at the National Treasury, Fakir was the CEO and a board member of the Ports Regulator of South Africa.

Before his role at the National Treasury, he was the CEO and Regulator/Board Member at the Ports Regulator of South Africa.

Fakir holds an MSc in development finance from the University of London, an MSc in civil engineering and a Master’s in business administration from the University of Durban-Westville, now known as the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He is now a board member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and is chairman of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA).

Rudi Dicks

The last two members are from the Presidency and help to facilitate cross-departmental cooperation with the full backing of the President.

Rudi Dicks has been in the trade union movement for most of his life, holding the position of Executive Director of the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI) until 2013.

Since 2013, he has been a part of the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency.

He currently serves on the Advisory Committee of the Jobs Fund and the Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth Research Initiative.

He is responsible for supporting the implementation of the Presidential Jobs Summit Framework agreement and the President’s Youth Employment Initiative, as well as unblocking regulatory challenges that impact employment and economic growth.

In his previous role, he was a deputy director general at the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation, responsible for monitoring the performance of economic and infrastructure departments and supporting various economic interventions across the government.

In this role, he established the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment System (SEIAS) and was responsible for its rollout across the national government.

Before 2008, he worked at COSATU and one of its affiliates in various capacities since 1994. Dicks studied at WITS Business School and completed the Management Advanced Programme.

He has a Post-Graduate Diploma in economic principles and a Master of Science (MSc) in Finance from the University of London.

Saul Musker

Director of strategy and delivery support in the Presidency, Saul Musker

As the director of strategy and delivery support in the Presidency, Saul Musker has the job of translating President Ramaphosa’s priorities into actionable strategies.

He is charged with unblocking bottlenecks and ensuring government departments cooperate to drive economic growth, job creation and the country’s transition to renewable energy.

Musker has a BA (Hons) at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he triple-majored in International Relations, French and English Literature and graduated cum laude.

He was awarded both a Fulbright Scholarship and Rhodes Scholarship in 2017, taking up the latter to complete an MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at Oxford.

Musker is also a regular columnist at the Daily Maverick, where he covers national and international politics and has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and the BBC.