Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Pravin Gordhan. Picture: MASI LOSI
Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Pravin Gordhan. Picture: MASI LOSI

In Fate of the Nation, Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Security Studies described the "Bafana Bafana scenario" as a chronically underachieving, second-division SA despite flashes of brilliance and indications of considerable potential. But our depressing current state of affairs is actually worse — SA is thrashing around in the political shallows, full of sound and fury, signifying … disaster.

Yes, Cyril Ramaphosa narrowly squeaked into power, but the governing ANC and SA remain largely entrapped by race-based slogans and outmoded ideologies, a self-serving history and political opportunism. All of this feeds into a stuttering economy that ensures a win-lose political space and thus more of the same in future. The optimistic days post-1994 seem to belong to a parallel universe. Besides the social indicators we see around us, there is abundant objective evidence of our rudderless drift.

Quoting from the World Bank report on poverty and inequality in SA, the Centre for Development and Enterprise’s Ann Bernstein notes that some "56% of South Africans were living on less than R1,000 a month in 2015. The authors estimate that while over 50% of the population is poor at any given time, fewer than a quarter of all South Africans can be thought of as being securely out of poverty. Fully 78% of all South Africans were poor for at least part of the time between 2008 and 2015."

One problem is that we’re not creating the unskilled jobs the chronically poor need as the first step out of poverty, and this will not be remedied by trade unions striking for increased wages for skilled workers or even by raising the minimum wage.

In the words of the World Bank report, "while 3.5-million people entered the labour market between 2008 and 2017, only 1.6-million jobs were created" and "by far the most critical priority is economic growth and the labour intensity of that growth".

Is that likely? The World Bank’s global economic prospects report on sub-Saharan Africa states that "prolonged low growth and high unemployment has weighed on social progress in (Angola, Nigeria and SA), with per capita GDP falling and the poverty head count rising in Nigeria and SA".

According to the report there are prospects for growth in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole over the next few years, but this will not be enough to reduce poverty and is susceptible to risks arising from droughts and political instability — or tightening of external market conditions, especially in the case of SA. Depressingly, and humiliatingly, SA’s prospects for growth are rated significantly more poorly than most of the other states in the region.

Will Ramaphosa turn this around? The various paths to exiting the poverty and instability traps are well known (though contested) to development economists. But essential reforms presuppose a mature political environment that compels politicians to pay attention to vital issues of governance and economic growth.

However, our progress in that direction is regularly subverted by the new scandal of the day, generally with a racial twist, generated by a media environment ever alert to the smallest opportunity of raising the social temperature.

The fragile state index (FSI) report is a useful handle on where SA stands on such matters. Our fragility score has steadily climbed from about 55 to 73 since 2006 and our stability ranking fell from 132 out of 178 in 2007 to our current 85th position, courtesy mainly of Jacob Zuma. But Zuma could not have survived so long in a functional political environment, and as a result we’re now in the lower half of the rankings.

Important contributions to our increased fragility come from an inefficient and corrupt security apparatus, increased group grievance and factionalised elites, but emigration, a brain drain, failure of public services, deteriorating state legitimacy and, especially, continued economic decline also contribute to fragility.

Ramaphosa will certainly put a kink in the downward trend, but I suspect it will be too little too late. The divisive ambiguities in his state of the nation speech have not been resolved; if anything, they have been worsened by pandering to the theatrics of Julius Malema and similar entrepreneurs within the ANC. We have picked up all the polarising ideologies of the rich West without the social, economic, cultural, technological or institutional ballast to weather the storms they engender.

The kindest interpretation is that Ramaphosa hopes to put the demons around identity politics and radical fantasies to bed by throwing them symbols while he quietly gets on with trying to woo overseas investors and winning the 2019 elections: in short, politics as usual. There is little evidence this will work, as the bizarre political rhetoric contaminating the public square confirms. SA simply cannot afford these excesses. Our needs are more pressing and existential and our divisions too deep to mess around with.

The DA is facing an unprecedented crisis of popular credibility fed by unrealistic expectations and factional conflicts, amplified by a mischievous media, with Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille serving as a fifth column aimed at the heart of her party. Is there any realistic way back from the disastrous "nation divided" scenario (courtesy of Cilliers) we’re orbiting?

We desperately require a fresh, clear vision, sensitive to the past but not in thrall to it. More specifically, we need a strong, pragmatically creative, centrist leadership unambiguously committed to nonracialism, free market, growth-orientated economic policies, honest, efficient governance and social reconstruction within the boundaries of a constitutional democracy.

I can’t see either Ramaphosa within a morally bankrupt ANC, or a factionalised DA, fulfilling such a role. But, just possibly, an alliance of the best traditions and people within both parties (and perhaps others) contains the seeds of success. This is a massive ask and is almost certainly whistling in the dark for a divided South African electorate already way into the gravitational field of weaponised identity politics.

In our neighbourhood there are no easy ways up from the bottom; it is far better not to go there in the first instance.

Berger is a retired professor of chemical pathology who has written on the evolutionary foundations of human collective behaviour, specifically politics.