South Africa


South Africa needs these five fundamentals to change course and start rebuilding

South Africa needs these five fundamentals to change course and start rebuilding
People queue at sunrise to wait for food during a handout by Meals SA in Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 May 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK)

The current trajectory of our country is unsustainable as we get nearer and nearer to the precipice. The warning lights are flashing on all key economic and social indices, and yet the only new idea gaining momentum across political lines is to attack and scapegoat foreign nationals and the Constitution.

This is the text of the speech Mcebisi Jonas delivered at the opening of the 2022 Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Inclusive Growth Conference in the Drakensberg on Friday.

I believe this year’s assembly is more important than ever before. The previous two gatherings showed the value of drawing together engaged, fresh thinking people from across society who share a common interest to get our country back on course. 

We are not alone as a country in this predicament. Everywhere around the world we are seeing the rise of populism and the new politics of identity in which the notion of victimhood is leveraged to drum up support. Illiberal or hybrid models of democracy, which bring in elements of autocracy, are on the rise. This is linked to the absence of fresh ideas among both the progressive left and the liberals, as well as objectively declining living standards associated with stagflation and the decreased ability of the state to offer social protection. 

The war in Ukraine, with its associated oil and food price inflation, will make sure that these conditions will be with us for the short to medium term. Higher inflation and tighter monetary policy in the West also translate into less foreign direct investment flows to the developing world. This will hit indebted African countries struggling to recover from the devastation of Covid-19. China is set to continue on a lower growth trajectory and is unlikely over the medium term to trigger global demand like it did in the noughties. Global volatility and the re-emergence of a new bipolar world order seems increasingly likely.

South Africa’s position therein remains uncertain (even to us as South Africans) and we may find it increasingly difficult to play both sides.          

Our challenge now is our ability to navigate these incredibly difficult and tumultuous times. How do we drive reform, recovery, and rebuilding in the absence of a coherent and shared political, social, and economic vision? I’m sure all of us in this room know that South Africa does not have this. The ANC is two months away from its 55th national elective conference and while jockeying for positions is the biggest show in town, there is no intelligible engagement amongst leaders and members of the governing party on the multiple crises threatening the future of our country. 

Similarly, opposition parties are out of ideas. I maintain that our 1994 consensus has reached sell-by date, but we have not yet articulated a new exchange – which encapsulates trade-offs amongst elites themselves, and between elites and the poor. I would argue that at the centre of this new deal should be an innovative and entrepreneurial stratum to replace the traditional and aspirant rent-seeking incumbents.    

I have been preoccupied these past few months with our damaged national psyche. The moral fibre of our nation is in shreds, and we need to be concerned by the violent, selfish, exploitative, and self-aggrandising attitudes that define South African society. The elites and middle class are becoming less and less concerned about the fate of the poor and the growing social crisis in our country. For millions of South Africans, it is becoming harder every day to stay alive and there is a steady erosion of basic human rights where people have no food, no water, no jobs, no security, and no place to live. Violent, and brazen, crime is on the rise.

I will restrict my input to the five fundamentals needed to move us towards a comprehensive change agenda.

The first is economic growth. This should be the central focus of all sectors of society. Without growth, living standards will continue to decline, unemployment will continue to rise, and social protections will continue to be eroded. Growing the economy requires active and tangible measures to deal with amongst other things, the energy crisis, rising crime levels, and regulatory impediments to investment. PR exercises and empty announcements cannot deliver growth and should be discouraged. 

There is a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario in which investment is required for growth, but a low-growth environment also means less investment. There are still strong concerns about corruption, despite the progress we are making in bringing crooks to book. We need to turn this in our favour. Rather than chasing a one or two mega investments, we should be multiplying thousands of smaller investments to grow a new entrepreneurial stratum. Green industrialisation and digitalisation also offer significant new opportunities, as does our continental integration, if we get the policies and execution capabilities in place.

The second aspect of our change agenda must be tackling inequality. We were found this year to be the most unequal of the 164 countries benchmarked by the World Bank. The level of inequality goes against the spirit of our democratic foundations and is the reason we have lost our sense of nationhood. Our inequality makes us forever susceptible to violent insurrection. 

This means expansion of social protection in the short term, while we do the real work of building a black entrepreneurial stratum that creates wealth through productivity and innovation, rather than through political connections. The private sector and banks must realise that South Africa will continue to be a tinder box unless they take deliberate actions to transform the economy. Our predicament in the immediate term is how to ramp up fiscal redistribution in the context of fiscal constraints, and how to encourage market co-creation and financial inclusion where there is still mistrust between social partners.  

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Underlying this mistrust is state dysfunction and incapacity. We all know that this is a massive problem and yet there is little being done to accomplish the third aspect, to repair the bureaucracy to a basic level of functionality. It is instead taken for granted that state departments and institutions do not function. A competent state is central to a turnaround of the country’s fortunes, so it is incomprehensible why this is not a national priority. Health, education and public safety are obvious starting points as these are areas where we are most fragile and exposed. Corruption, especially at local government level, remains at the heart of our inability to build a capable state and attract high-performing professionals into public service. 

Fourth, we need a fundamental rethink of the electoral system that has created a crisis of political accountability. I do not see how elected representatives will change their tendency to cow-tow to the whims of their political parties unless the system changes to make them more accountable to their constituents. A clearly deficient and constitutionally flawed Electoral Amendment Bill was passed in the National Assembly this week. Any agenda for change must incorporate a mass mobilisation campaign for electoral reform and we must all intensify the efforts by civil society organisations campaigning for a more constituency-based system of government.

Finally, the fifth aspect: we cannot continue to hold our noses when we vote, or worse, not vote at all. We must think seriously about political agency. Around the world, people are crying out for a new political order that is responsive to the current conditions. Why should we be any different? Besides, loyalty should be earned, not taken for granted. We should be concerned about the danger of rising populist politics and the equally dangerous concept of a messiah leading us to the Promised Land. The truth of the matter is that there needs to be hard work, driven by the people in this room in partnership with civil society, business, religious leaders, youth and labour to develop a new national vision and agenda for change.

Of course, I do not think we can find all the answers quickly. But I do believe we can begin the conversation to mobilise a broad front that works towards a national convention that can reimagine South Africa’s future. I am saying this at this gathering convened by our former president because I know that we share common values and the determination to affect a turnaround of our country. If there is one person still among us who showed how to put the interests of the country above personal and political ambition, it is President Motlanthe.

That is what we are all required to do. Our country and our future demands that we act, now. DM

Mcebisi Jonas is the former deputy minister of finance.


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  • John Smythe says:

    I have the greatest respect for people like Kgalema Motlanthe and Mcebisi Jonas. Two of the most honorable and eminent thinkers in South Africa. It’s a pity Zuma didn’t die before he could replace Mr Motlanthe. Our country may have been in a better place than it is today. But uncontrollable hindsight is 20/20 vision. And talking about the five points is good. But Jonas is mainly speaking to the converted on this platform. To pass this message to the masses is another challenge altogether. Because populist and identity politics is on a roll. And as much as I hate to say it, but the ANC is the only party that can realistically pull SA out of its quagmire… but only if the ANC can clean up its act and expel the stupids, incompetent and corrupt. And it must happen fast because our country is declining rapidly into the hands of evil haters and populist politicians/thugs.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      You have respect to the most detestable thugs in this country. Mcebisi Jonas ransacked the Eastern Cape Development Corporation. You must read the Pillay Commission on the corruption in the Eastern Cape. Kgalema was responsible for the rise of Zuma and attended his concerts outside courts. Kgalema is the type of people who let their ambitions determine their moral and ethical compass. Without Kgalema there would be no Zuma! He went on during his short stint as President he disbanded the Scorpions along with Jeff Radebe and they were both responsible for the strategy of hollowing out the criminal justice system to protect ANC criminals. I lost any modicum of respect one had for him. In addition, when it was clear that Zuma was committing treason, just like Cyril, he heard or saw nothing but instead when he tried to contest Zuma and when he saw he was losing he left the conference midway. He left men and women who had placed their trust in him to remove a cancer called Zuma in the ANC. That he has been resuscitated tells you that there is no renewal in the ANC and it is just talk. Cyril has no problem with Zuma and Kgalema and you can follow his statements.
      The failure to prosecute criminality in the Eastern Cape through corruption of the police and the NPA makes a criminal like Mcebisi Jonas look like a saint. He has to answer for his pickpocketing of the public purse that is legendary in
      the Eastern Cape.

      • Roelf Pretorius says:

        Motlanthe was not the reason for the rise of Zuma, Cunningham. Zuma already became a national ANC leader in 1991, even before the ANC took over from the old apartheid government. And he used that position to build himself up from that point on. One can of course accuse the whole ANC of allowing him, and it would be right to do that.

        • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

          Motlanthe was the SG of the ANC and controlled the membership data. He was miffed by the idea that the slate that wanted NDZ to be President did not have him in mind. The support of Zuma by Kgalema swayed a lot of people who would otherwise not have supported him. He came with the mantra of innocent until proven guilty as he attended his trial and concerts outside courts. Kgalema felt that the mettle of Presidency of the ANC and the country should fall on him. He knew the slate of Mbeki had NDZ as President of the country and Phumzile Mlambo – Ngcuka as Deputy President of the country and his shortest route was to be on the Zuma slate. You have to talk to the 2007 delegates who will tell you of cloned delegate cards like those found in the North West. Despite the full knowledge of the character of Zuma including lying that he would serve only one term he agreed to be his Deputy. When the Nkandla fellow showed that he had no intention of serving one term, he then decided to challenge him. When he saw he was losing he left the conference midway. I have never had respect for political thugs like Motlanthe and I do not believe any hogwash he says. We had a Zuma because of him period!

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Leave it up to democracy. It will be our downfall. Democracy doesn’t work in Africa.

  • T Mac says:

    Brilliant speech! Mcebisi Jonas has proven his mettle in resisting Capture and we owe him a great deal. His ideas make a lot of sense, and one can only agree that President Motlanthe has managed to remain dignified and above the fray all these years. We would do well to have these two gentlemen guiding South Africa.

    • Chris Reed says:

      I totally agree. These are people who think for the Country, not for their party.
      All the recent news about the ANC is about in-fighting and jockeying for position, never about the good of the country.

  • Martin Nicol says:

    DM proof readers slipped up. Kowtow has nothing to do with cows. It is not “cow-tow”, but kowtow | ˌkaʊˈtaʊ | verb [no object] act in an excessively subservient manner: ORIGIN early 19th century: from Chinese kētóu, from kē ‘knock’ + tóu ‘head’.

  • jeyezed says:

    The DA already espouses all these ideals, and its representatives support policy change designed to achieve them. This contrasts with all other parties which either ideologically incompetent, or promote personality ahead of policy. Thinking people should shun the vanity projects and corrupt parties and support the DA. In so doing, the country can be returned to some sort of stability very quickly.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      I agree 100%. The DA is the ONLY party that can toss the ANC out. Think! Maybe these tiny parties sound great, but what can they do? The only power they have is to either support the DA or take the ANC’s silver. Jo’burg is ANC because of that silver.

      • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

        The DA is a tiny party itself and will never grow beyond what it is and is losing highly educated and qualified blacks. It is becoming a permanent opposition and is set to shed votes in the next elections. The DA has for all intents and purpose reached a ceiling and has run out of ideas and can never represent the aspirations of the majority of South Africans and it is not long before they lose the Western Cape. It is not even half of the ANC and yet has a lavatory mouth insulting other small parties like itself.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      Jeyezed & Glyn, I don’t think you understand the DA as well as you think. It is not for nothing that so many prominent leaders leave the DA; look at what they say, WHY they are doing it. The DA is currently also not on a too good footing. And they don’t have the capacity to unseat the ANC. The most they can hope for at this stage is to form a coalition with some part of the ANC; the alternative is that the ANC will form a coalition with the EFF and all the other radical black nationalist political parties, and then we are all stuffed. But I don’t see the DA being sensitive to the need to work towards that. Think of this: they agree to most of the national policies of the ANC (most, not all) BUT without the cadre deployment, and also without every single ANC member that is found to be corrupt, and agreeing that the coalition partners will assist with cleaning the other partners from corruption. What is meant by corrupt in this sense can maybe be agreed upon between the coalition partners, but that is what is needed to get Ramaphosa’s good ideas on social justice, green economic development and enterpreneurship, good governance and safety to take effect and to work. That is the most the DA will succeed in; the alternative is the nationalist socialism of a RET faction/EFF coalition.

  • Mary Burton says:

    Wise, urgent advice. Action required.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Well put Mr Jonas

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    1/ I quote. – “both the progressive left and the liberals”. These terms are misleading. It appears to say that the “progressive left” and the “liberals are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Liberals can be very “progressive” and by definition liberals are in the “democratic centre”. Putin is being accused of being a “right wing nazi”, not far from the right wing of the ANC!

  • Linda Holding Holding says:

    Well said Mcebisi!

  • Sam van Coller says:

    I also have great respect for the writer and the former president. There are good things happening in South Africa – the Rivonia Circle, Defend our Democracy, OUTA and others are important examples. The key question the writer refers to is the process of getting from here to the position where fundamental change can take place. The recent slap in the face of Civil Society by parliament over the Electoral Reform Bill is highly indicative. Our political system, built around inappr0priate Western thinking, is based on and driven by power contestation. A country as divided and diverse as ours with enormous social backlogs and inequality driven by our ugly political history of oppression and exclusion will not succeed in a simple system of majority rule – but those who now control structural authority are unlikely to budge. Mandela understood the need to recognize and resolve differences and then through co-operation achieve social progress. De Klerk had a brief epiphany by opening the door for it to happen but then destroyed it all by instantly withdrawing from a government of national unity. Our majority system, as in the USA at present, is feeding division. Coalitions will not work as long as they give disproportionate power to minor parties that will make no contribution to finding the new road. Whether a national convention can happen fast enough before we make Zimbabwe look like a Sunday picnic is critical. We have to reach an ‘overarching consensus’ soon – not my words.

    • Chris Reed says:

      I come from the UK, where there is constituency based elections. There is accountability.
      If an MP or councillor does something wrong, they can be forced to resign.
      How do we get rid of MPs here, where they are parachuted in by their party, with no accountability?

  • Paul Broodryk says:

    What a speech! What about a survey to determine who shares his views? That might be a good beginning to start the call for a conversation leading up to a national convention.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Here, with what Mcebisi Jonas said, we have a blueprint that can work. Especially the focus on free enterpreneurship and boosting it by accelerating the drive to a green economy at all levels. And I am so happy that he mentions the need for public safety. In this it is not just the safety of all our people, but also the critical state infrastructure such as the Escom distribution network and the Transnet railway lines. We are speaking here of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of electrical wire and railway network and it is going to be a mammoth organisation that is needed to succeed in doing that. And also the resuscitation of our public sector. But that is where the bad news comes in. Because the only way to do that is to start by removing the main reason for the dysfunction, namely the cadre deployment system. And the only way to do that, unfortunately for frmr President Motlanthe and frmr deputy Minister Jonas is to get rid of the ANC, because the ANC can’t exist without the cadre deployment system – it is their financial lifeblood.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    . . . Regarding the resuscitation of the municipalities, the DA has to reform itself urgently in order to repair what is wrong with the DA led coalitions. At the heart of this is the idea that coalitions have to be organised at national level. Because the verdicts of the ConCourt made it clear that public representatives should put their own ideas of what their communities need before their political parties (ie party leaders). So for a coalition to be constitutional, it needs to be defined by all the public representatives in that legislative body/council that wants to form part of it. It can’t be done at national level; national level leaders can give some advice and training, and assist with co-ordination, but eventually the councillors in the case of councils & MPL’s in the case of provincial legislatures will have to take responsibility to construct their agreements themselves. And EVERY REPRESENTATIVE TAKING PART has to agree (and preferably by signing) with the coalition agreement. I don’t want to hear that too many different roleplayers are involved, that is the only way. I mention provincial legislatures because for municipalities to become functional again, the role of the provincial departments of CogTA and the pro-active leadership they give is absolutely critical. It is shown if one looks at why the Western Cape municipalities are doing so much better than elsewhere. And the DA holds the key to this, they have shown it in the WC.

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Until education – which includes discipline and moral values -becomes the first priority for the government and the people of South Africa all the rest is a pipe dream. Educated people with skills to do whatever they can do best will create jobs for themselves and other skilled people, gain self respect, make informed decisions and become the pillars any society needs to stand on. If education ( not a pass-rate) becomes our driving force all the rest will happen. If not, dream on.

    • Sam van Coller says:

      Agree fully. The private sector needs to establish its own commission to formulate within 12 months a ten year strategy to lift our education to a new level using modern technology and getting teachers on board rather than holding the country to ransom. Prepared by best practice professionals, such a strategy could be difficult for Government to oppose

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