A South African flag. Picture: THE HERALD/MIKE HOLMES
A South African flag. Picture: THE HERALD/MIKE HOLMES

In times like these it is easy to be distracted by cheap political tricks and shocking headline figures. Over the past weeks the public has been bombarded by news stories that border on the insane: Eskom was allocated another bailout on top of their existing bailouts; ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule is still calling for the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank; and the public protector is losing public support faster than court cases, after appearing to have thrown out the very rule book she is mandated to protect.

Stats SA released the worst unemployment figures in more than a decade, and international ratings agencies Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings issued stern warnings about the effect of a rising deficit on the country’s growth potential. With this, and the release of dismal tax revenue figures by the Treasury, it is not unreasonable to brace ourselves for a sovereign debt downgrade in the near future.

Three of the six SDGs discussed at the meeting are particularly relevant to SA.

While all of these things are true and shocking, they are also reversible.  

In July, a team of SA delegates attended a far less headline-grabbing meeting at the UN headquarters in New York. The annual high-level political forum on sustainable development serves as a regular check-up on the progress made by member states in achieving the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that make up the 2030 Agenda.

The focus of 2019’s meeting was on “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”. This theme may seem a million miles away from the chaos in SA, but focusing on real, meaningful and achievable goals such as these is a far better way of addressing the country’s troubles than being bogged down by bad news.  

Three of the six SDGs discussed at the meeting are particularly relevant to SA: expanding access to quality education, bolstering growth and job creation, and reducing inequality. These issues require urgent attention. The difficulty lies in staying focused on the basics and not becoming jaded in what seems like an increasingly farcical political environment and hopeless economic situation. 

The annual UN meeting on sustainable development is a regular reminder of how far we have come and provides a benchmark for what we still need to achieve. As bad as things are, we cannot ignore the progress that has been made since 1994 regarding the provision of clean water and electricity, universal access to education and health care, and the expansion of the social protection system.

SA is home to the world’s biggest antiretroviral programme, and access to social grants has increased from 3-million in 1994 to 17.5-million in 2018.

Though major hurdles remain, SA has also made significant progress in tackling gender inequality through the introduction of a legislative framework that aims to end all forms of gender discrimination.

I am not suggesting that citizens should ignore the gross levels of corruption, incompetence and outright disregard for the rule of law by many who hold public office. Those who are responsible for stealing tax monies to line their pockets and intentionally mismanage funds to support and secure patronage networks should be brought to book and removed from office forever. Once these shameless rent-seekers are removed, there are more than sufficient budgets to turn despair into hope.  

We need to focus on education. SA spends 6% of total GDP — nearly 20% of total budget — on education. This is on par with many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and significantly more than many of our sub-Saharan peers who spend less per capita on education and achieve better educational outcomes. The difference between what we spend and what we produce is down to management and accountability. 

It is clear from the dire economic indicators that SA falls far short of where it aspires to be regarding quality education. SA falls far behind its peers regarding literacy and numeracy — and it has even further to go in developing skills in science and technology — but there is sufficient budget to address this if it is used for the correct purpose.

When SA assumes the presidency of the UN security council in October it has a golden opportunity to not only champion peace on the continent but also to use its position to advance the achievement of the SDGs.

As a former minister of education and of higher education, Naledi Pandor — the current international relations and co-operation minister — knows the impact education has on social and economic development. She will be in a prime position to harness the support and learnings of our allies in addressing our shortcomings.

The SDGs are far more within our reach than we realise. It will take time, and political will, but aiming to reach them is a far more realistic goal than trying to make sense of the pantomime playing out in the headlines.

• Craker is CEO of IQbusiness.