President Jacob Zuma. Picture: THULI DLAMINI
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: THULI DLAMINI

As 2017 draws to a close, SA is mired in controversies and on the brink of a financial precipice. The country finds itself at its worst since the dawn of democracy: the business confidence index is at its lowest since 1985, at the height of the punitive economic sanctions imposed by some in the international community against PW Botha’s apartheid government.

We have become weary of political and financial scandals, mostly involving our political mandarins and those closely connected to them in the public sector.

Our head of state is the butt of endless, justifiable jokes and has proved to be a major liability to SA Inc. He is in many ways responsible for the parlous state in which we find ourselves.

Disclosures or allegations of malfeasance and other forms of corruption are made on almost a weekly basis, and these appear merely to disappear into the ether, without any visible consequences for those said to be the perpetrators. In a mere 23 years, we have moved from being the darling of the international community to being described as one of the most corrupt countries in the world today.

Our economy is limping along. Unemployment has reached frightening proportions and continues to grow. While we began 2017 with much hope, in a matter of months, international ratings agencies downgraded us from investment grade to junk status, with worse likely to come before the year is over, thanks to the destructive leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his merry band of myopic and insatiable supporters, who can see no further than their own noses.

This was supposed to be the year in which our economy took a turn for the better after a number of years of merely plodding along. Various forecasts had anticipated GDP growth of about 1.2% in 2017, with higher growth levels expected in 2018 and beyond. With global demand for mining commodities recovering somewhat, SA was supposed to reap the benefits.

At a time when the country is crying out for inspirational leadership that rallies all of us to a common goal, we have the exact opposite: a leadership vacuum characterised by noise, with whatever passes for leadership focused exclusively on personal survival and wealth accumulation by any means necessary.

We have a governing party riven with tension and completely internally focused, with much of its energy expended on fighting internal battles. On the rare occasions when it does focus externally, it casts about for imaginary enemies.

Whatever its causes, the sad truth remains that post-1994, SA has never been as divided as it is now. Racial, sometimes ethnic, cleavages are far more pronounced now than at any time in our democratic era.

With our economy performing so dismally owing to the poor economic stewardship we have experienced from our political leaders, fervent and legitimate cries have echoed everywhere for our economy to be radically transformed to include the black majority, whose equity in SA Inc is negligible, only to be countered by the understandable but mistaken refrain that all our efforts should be focused on growing our shrinking economic cake.

There is a clear, mistaken belief among some of our compatriots that real transformation cannot — and should not — take place until the economy grows. While a growing economy should make transformation easier, the reality is that transformation cannot wait until then. There is no reason why we cannot advance transformation even as we seek to grow the economy.

There are primarily two reasons for the widening and more pronounced racial tension in the country.

The first is that, with the exceptions of some individuals within it, the Zuma government has excelled at embracing and celebrating incompetence, mediocrity and outright malfeasance, in the process giving potent ammunition to those who had always had doubts about black leadership.

In other words, the Zuma government did a fantastic job in supporting or affirming the stereotype among recovering racists that black people make terrible leaders and cannot run a sophisticated, modern economy.

Given the terrible manner in which the scandal-prone Zuma has acquitted himself in office, even decent white compatriots who believed SA could be an exception on the African continent have started to doubt their initial optimism.

Yet what SA needs to realise its full potential is for us to leverage the strengths and talents of our compatriots. We need to work together as fellow citizens, with government, business and labour as strategic partners

Second, our stuttering economy has made competition for opportunities and financial resources that much more acute, in the process sharpening the racial chasm.

After all, while many may not consciously carry along with them the demon of racism, it is when they believe themselves likely to be locked out of opportunities to get jobs or rise professionally in their jobs, or when they believe they will be forced to give up or share their wealth — through the ownership component of the broad-based black economic empowerment policy, for instance — that they retreat to a mental laager and feel impelled to fight back, often covertly given the considerable risks attached to doing so overtly.

Yet what SA needs to realise its full potential is for us to leverage the strengths and talents of our compatriots. We need to work together as fellow citizens, with government, business and labour as strategic partners. We need to establish common goals that are indubitably in the country’s best interests and to work together single-mindedly towards their attainment.

As citizens, at election times, we need to ensure that we do not give any one party too much power in terms of the electoral majority it obtains. We need to make sure that we disabuse politicians of the mistaken belief that, once elected, they wield inordinate power. We need to do more than just remind them; we need to make them feel that collectively we, the people, wield all the power and they are merely our servants, whom we can ditch at will or reward with another term in office for good performance.

Like ordinary citizens, business has an important role to play. By all means, it should continue to make its collective voice heard, but it has an even greater responsibility not only to respect and observe the country’s laws (including those dealing with transformation and black economic empowerment) but also to
team up with the elected government and labour to rebuild our country.

• Nyatsumba is CEO of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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