Picture: 123RF/Edhar Yuralaits
Picture: 123RF/Edhar Yuralaits

One of the most vexing questions when doing long-term forecasting is why some countries do well and others do not. There are many explanations ranging from the strength of institutions to social cohesion and leadership.

SA, one of six upper-middle income countries in Africa, is falling steadily  behind the averages of upper-middle income countries globally on almost every dimension of human progress, including average income levels, rates of poverty, quality and quantity of education outcomes, and indicators of health.

Whereas in 1990 our GDP per capita was 98% of the average for upper-middle income countries, we are now at 75% and likely to decline to 72% by 2030. Things are improving in SA, but more slowly than in most other countries at similar levels of development.

We are on the trajectory of the “nation divided” scenario I wrote about in Fate of the Nation, published in 2017. The nation-building project that started so promisingly in 1994 is failing, mainly I believe because of the poor economic performance of the past 10 to 12 years. We are, as author Antony Altbeker wrote in 2007 in relation to crime, a country at war with itself.

In the early 1990s and the heady period of the Rainbow Nation, SA appeared able to set some of its demons aside. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed the recent brutality of apartheid and the country embarked on a remarkable process of reconfiguring its political, economic and social structures that appeared to set the scene for a bright future.

With the brief exception of the Growth, Employment & Redistribution (Gear) strategy, when a fiscal crisis emboldened then president Thabo Mbeki to embark on structural economic reform, progress has ground to a halt. Gear saw rapid economic and employment growth, since the two are bound at the hip. Thereafter poverty and unemployment increased steadily.

At that point agreement was possible, because the government was prepared to lead — though Gear and Mbeki’s fake news about HIV/Aids would subsequently provide the ammunition for his undoing at the hands of Jacob Zuma and his cronies.

The global financial crisis saw Zuma attempting to sell our trade and energy assets to China and Russia in transactional deals that would have made Donald Trump proud. Long before it became mainstream elsewhere, populism came to SA, with disastrous results. Today skilled South Africans of all races are leaving to seek opportunity elsewhere, the JSE is shrinking and disinvestment is the order of the day. Our tax base is declining and levels of formal sector employment contract by the week due to Covid-19.

In response, business, labour, civil society and the government regularly repeat the mantra of a social compact. Big business has even funded an entire scenario process (Indlulamithi) in support of it. But it seems that no-one is clear what the terms and conditions for such a compact should be.

It is evident that in time we will need to embark on our own myth making, a process where we rewrite, teach and propagate a positive and inclusive narrative of our past where the focus is on what binds us and not what divides.

Actually, much of the rhetoric about a social compact in SA is not about the future but about the need for reallocation of wealth and opportunity — understandably so given the disparities so evident in the country — but rooted in the mistaken belief that redistribution in the 21st century is a viable alternative to growth.

In fact, since coming to power in 1994, with the brief exception of Gear, the ANC has prioritised redistribution above growth. Along the way it has ditched nonracialism in favour of black nationalism. The results, for many poor people, have been mixed. Today many have potable water, electricity and social grants, but this it is a far cry from being able to lead a self-determined, dignified life, using the opportunities for which our democratic constitutional state creates the framework conditions. Without much faster economic growth SA’s response to inequality, poverty and deprivation has probably reached the end of the road.

We need to focus on sufficient economic growth as a necessary precondition for the achievement of all other social, economic and political goals. What is needed is not some type of laboriously negotiated and consulted social compact, which is probably beyond our current reach, but agreement (or leadership) on the basics that should inform our future as a country and a nation.

To turn vision into reality we should revisit our National Development Plan — to define and set out where we aim to go — and then regularly revisit and update that living plan and translate its implementation into practicalities. That process needs to be informed by key fundamentals, and here I list four:

  • The first is to shift our debate and thinking from race to class. The two largely coincide but class comes with less baggage to the future and provides a much more inclusive pathway that cuts across many more sectors of our society. No-one, no individual or organisation, must be allowed to use race as a proxy for anything. Instead, we should focus on helping the disadvantaged, the poor and those with little opportunity.
  • Second, the importance of accepting that there are no quick fixes. We should focus our attention on maintaining and rebuilding what we have, such as improving the quality of education. Local government, the railways, policing — actually much of government — is failing because we are constantly trying to come up with quick fixes such as the district model for local government, a new border management agency or a new state bank, instead of fixing and maintaining what we have.

The first exhibit here is surely the poor results from efforts at elite BEE and our failures with land reform. We need to focus on the enablers of opportunity such as quality health care, education and basic infrastructure that will eventually translate into steady and sustained growth — aiming for the 3% and not the 5% growth a year.

  • Third, we need to simplify things. Our regulatory and compliance burden is such that nothing moves, whether one refers to the years it takes to release additional high demand spectrum for cellphones, the delayed implosion of SAA or the blockages in the approval of emergency electricity in terms of the Short-Term Power Purchase Programme.

Fundamental to all the above is the restoration of confidence of all South Africans in the future of our country and getting all hands on deck. A country that actively works to promote equity and opportunity for all its citizens — attract its diaspora (and their cash) and open its doors to pursue capital and skills from elsewhere — is a country open for business, trade and growth. We are the gateway to a region with immense opportunity. We need to seize that opportunity.

• Cilliers is chair of the Institute of Security Studies board of trustees and heads its programme on African futures and innovation. He is author of Fate of the Nation.

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