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The events of the past few weeks offer us two competing visions for our society. The mayhem in KwaZulu-Natal suggests we are a deeply dysfunctional society, willing to engage in terrible destruction to support the financial and political interests of a small clique. On the other hand, there is the vaccine programme, an increasingly effective partnership between a well-functioning public health system and a constructive, patriotic private sector. Both are real, and they exist side by side in our country.
Mayhem is not entirely new to SA. There are many situations in which South Africans defer to violence and chaos, and too often this is tolerated. Taxi operators who attack rivals or burn buses; public sector workers who trash city centres during strikes; gangs that terrorise the Cape Flats; assailants who murder truck drivers.
This kind of murderous behaviour is to be distinguished from the separate but related problem of poverty. The deeper malignancies of poverty, unemployment and inequality clearly contributed to thousands of people being caught up in the looting. But the forces of mayhem do not represent the poor; indeed, their actions are often at the expense of the most vulnerable. Poverty creates the conditions for instability and allows violent elites to claim a measure of legitimacy.
The vaccine programme, on the other hand, suggests that though it takes us time we can build systems of co-operation to deliver ambitious outcomes across our society. The public health system has responded well to the huge pressures imposed by Covid-19 and has rolled out an excellent vaccination programme. Private health-care providers and insurers have joined the effort, assisting the government in myriad ways. The skills, resources and infrastructure of the private sector have been mobilised in a creative and effective partnership. The Solidarity Fund too has demonstrated the positive effects of a supportive, active business community mobilising skills to support the most vulnerable.
In many ways the current crisis represents a fork in the road for SA. We need to do much more to avoid sliding into a chaotic society, in which the gains we have made over the last 25 years slip away. To actively support the forces of reconstruction we must focus on a few attainable priorities.
Our social security system is quite well organised and is one of the gains of our democracy. The current temporary relief being offered is critical and should become permanent in some form. But we cannot afford everything we wish for — free higher education, annual wage increases for public servants, steeply rising social security costs. We can’t afford them all. To afford even some we need to grow our economy, which is easier said than done.
But grow our economy we must. This must be our absolute priority. To do this the state needs to co-operate with business, including big business. Too often we welcome investors with one hand and chase them away with the other. We need to treasure successful, patriotic businesses and work with them. This does not mean we must tolerate businesses that are exploitative. But we need businesses that comply with our laws, that source locally, that respect their employees and communities, that pay taxes equitably. Such businesses must be celebrated and encouraged.
We need to remove the many obstacles to growth in SA. Violence and political instability are among them. But so is the lack of direction on key economic policies — gas exploration, telecoms spectrum, renewable energy. Some of these issues have been on the table for nearly 20 years. The world is not waiting around for us to get our house in order.
The government needs to prioritise what it can do with limited human and financial resources. For starters, we cannot afford so many state-owned enterprises — many are superfluous. We also cannot afford myriad government programmes and agencies. Many are inefficient and many have fallen prey to corruption. The government must deliver on a shorter list of things that matter most.
We need to rebuild our public service. In appointing public servants, especially senior ones, we should prioritise skill and commitment over everything else. We spend a significant portion of our GDP on the public service but we get poor outcomes. Too often the public service seems designed to serve its employees more than the public.
We need a new model for local government, which is falling apart all over the country. Our democracy rightly makes municipalities a seat of political contestation. However, winning control of a city council where the council’s public service has been denuded of skill and experience is a recipe for failure. There are 280 local governments and they all need to function effectively. To achieve this, we need to appoint mayors with appropriate skills, and city managers, chief engineers and chief financial officers with appropriate skills and training.
We must accelerate BEE, but we must do it differently. BEE has increasingly become associated with a small elite and we need a change of approach. We should actively encourage community and worker empowerment vehicles. And we should change the BEE codes to shift a greater proportion of the annual BEE spend to tackle food security.
Violence and corruption must not become our way of life. We see violent crime every week, violence against women, violence against migrants. Recently, violent gangs have been terrorising the construction and transport industries. We must act against them, and we must act consistently. Similarly, we must fight corruption every day at every level, consistently and with determination.
Over the past few weeks we have seen many encouraging signs of co-operation between communities, and the president’s recent announcements offer real hope. We can recover from this, just as we can vaccinate our entire population. But it will require serious shifts. The public, private and civil society sectors will have to work together in a practical way, on a limited number of priorities. All of our futures depend on it.
• Godsell, a former Anglo American executive director and president of the SA Chamber of Mines, retired as CEO of AngloGold Ashanti in 2007. Bethlehem is an investment executive at Hosken Consolidated Investments and serves on the boards of the Industrial Development Corporation and Sedibelo Platinum.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.