President Cyril Ramaphosa isn’t glossing over the bad bits of the 25-year story of democratic South Africa — and that’s the good news.
The bad news is that a check of South Africa’s pulse at 25 years reveals the same ol’ story of things spooling out faster than they can be reeled back in. Also depressingly hollow is that there’s a plethora of critique and solutions, but they don’t tend to translate into actual change.
The good news, though, is that that the president is engaging with it — on Tuesday at least — when he spent three hours at a University of Johannesburg and Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections 25 Years of Democracy Conference that will run for two days.
Ramaphosa gave his take on the first quarter-century of the South African story and plotted some of what lies ahead in government’s plan to get the country out of the dark pits he acknowledged, including rising poverty, high violent crime, high unemployment, State Capture, tanking SOEs, jittery investors and rating agencies, and fissures and weaknesses in government and the civil service.
He also took questions and criticism from a panel of academics and the audience gathered in the Sanlam Auditorium, gutted in a petrol bomb attack just three winters ago during #FeesMustFall protests. The countrywide protests sent a clear signal of how the next generation feel betrayed by promises of freedom and democracy.
Ramaphosa’s key messages from the conference are that the National Development Plan (NDP) remains “the lodestar” of the government’s vision for 2030; so do the BEEE policy and support for black industrialists. But he said the structure of the economy was still to be transformed and the “missteps and back-sliding” over the past 25 years had to be arrested and reversed.
“We have grown the black middle class, but we are seeing unemployment and poverty on the rise again and millions of South Africans remain excluded from assets, skills and networks,” he said. “When the economy is in crisis, optimism is eroded.” Ramaphosa said as this affected more elements of life, including people’s sense of personal security, “the trust deficit between government and the citizenry grows”.
As optimism has faded after the euphoria of 1994, so has the work on actual nation-building, which Ramaphosa called “a work in progress”. He said South Africans have settled for allegiance to the symbols of unity rather than in forging a common national identity and a social compact with one another and with the government.
Arresting the declines; accepting that there will be trade-offs — such as electricity cut-offs being a reality in the face of payment boycotts and indebted municipalities; making policy more coherent and co-ordinated through a newly established policy unit in the presidency and better collaboration across the board were some strategies Ramaphosa outlined as the focus for government to steady the ship and set it on course for the next 25 years.
Panellist Professor Mills Soko of the Wits University Business School said the 25-year South African story had for all its successes also been marked by dysfunctional SOEs; corruption, the unresolved land reform question, high unemployment and low growth; too many people reliant on state grants; and a staggeringly high public wage bill.
Soko homed in on education as a key weakness and said that South Africa’s expenditure on education — at 6% of GDP — was higher than most countries, but reaped fewer benefits compared with countries that spent less. He also raised concerns about the power of teachers’ unions that dictated the knowledge agenda at schools.
The civil service came into the crosshairs of Dr Sithembile Mbete, a lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Pretoria.
Mbete said poor policy implementation and administration along with a bloated civil service meant the huge public service wage bill is being used on the wrong things. It amounts to 14% of the GDP, but she said it was not being used for the likes of nurses, traffic police, train drivers and engineers, who make a country work.
Mbete cautioned government for not recognising the layers and context of deep social ills such as poverty and its terrible intersection with drug and alcohol abuse, and even gangsterism as a job opportunity, when there was nothing else for someone to turn to. She said the government had to make a change in the lived realities of people’s lives.
“The black middle class, that has grown, is also made up of the person who’s sometimes one salary away from poverty — because they are also the people who are now subsidising government with paying for private everything. They’ve become the poor person with the nice shoes and the nice car,” she said.
Panellist Neil Coleman, co-director of the Institute of Economic Justice, said an antidote to what he said was a rising sentiment of national despair lay in a more decisive response to fighting State Capture.
“High-profile prosecutions are what people will see as action,” he told the president, adding that South Africa had to believe in leadership (being) able to spark home-grown solutions for turning around the economy and halting State Capture.
UJ vice-chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala said the next 25 years would be about finding a new competitive advantage for the country and being agile and adaptive enough to be productive people in a world where the coming of machines will replace humans in many traditional job markets.
At the same time, the vice-chancellor said there were basics that need to be fixed — from ensuring that civil servants act professionally, students finishing their degrees in the allotted time, arresting the brain drain to all South Africans finding self-discipline. DM
"If a man seeks from the good life anything beyond itself, it is not the good life he is seeking" ~ Plotinus