Business Maverick


After the Bell: Humour is a funny thing, especially in SA’s darkest hour just before the dawn

After the Bell: Humour is a funny thing, especially in SA’s darkest hour just before the dawn
(Photo: Unsplash / Chaitanya Pillala)

Humour is a funny thing. Ever since I started writing this column a year and a half ago, I was determined not to be a drudge. That is not easy in South Africa; the country is sliding into a kind of knowing underperformance, a contradiction in itself.

It’s one thing to make mistakes by accident; it’s another thing to succeed deliberately. But knowingly regressing is a new one. It’s a bit like — and here we go — hitting your head against a wall because it’s such a relief when you stop.

South Africa at the moment reminds me of the end days of the Soviet Union. My favourite joke about this period, which, forgive me, I have told before, is about the protester holding a placard, arrested on Red Square. He was bundled into the back of a police van and taken to the police station. But when he got there, the police noticed there was nothing written on the placard. It was a blank piece of paper. 

Why, the police demanded of the protester, is the placard blank? “Well,” he said, “everybody knows what the problems are.” Recently, in Hong Kong, protesters put this exact protest form into practice.

Just one example of SA’s knowing, deliberate decline is the assessment this week of the National Planning Commission (NPC). Just over a decade ago, the NPC put forward the National Development Plan setting out nine essential targets. This week, it assessed progress on these targets.

The final assessment date is only in 2030, but of course, it’s possible to examine the trajectory so far. Well, it will surprise nobody that SA is on target to miss all but one of the nine targets set. Five of the measures have declined off the baseline. Three have improved, but not enough to suggest the target will be met.

In 2011, the economy expanded by 3.3% and in recent years has fallen well short of the 2030 target of 5.4% growth. Unemployment surged to 32.9% against a target of 6% and a level of 25.4% in 2011. Investment, or gross fixed capital formation, as a percentage of gross domestic product has fallen to 14.1% from 19.4%, while a target of 30% was set, Bloomberg reports.

“Progress has been seen in boosting the labour force participation rate to 59.4% from 55.4%, putting it ahead of the target of 56.6% [if you can call this progress]. The employment number has also risen to 16.1 million from 13.65 million, against a 2030 target of 24 million, but that increase has come as the population expanded,” the report says.

Particularly stubborn has been the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, which hasn’t shifted from 0.69 against a target of 0.60. South Africa is the most unequal country in the world for which data are available, according to the Thomas Piketty-backed World Inequality Lab.

So, not only is this a general failure, it’s a knowing failure. It’s a conscious failure. It’s a premeditated, wilful, deliberate, intended, volitional failure. What can you do in these circumstances except throw up your hands and hope for a miracle? Or tell a joke.

I keep reminding myself that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. SA probably needed this decline to shake its elites, its politicians and its unions into a sense of crisis that requires a broad reassessment. But there is so little in the ANC’s posture or policy programme that suggests a wholesale review. In fact, the opposite: it seems to me that it considers failure not to be the things it has failed to achieve so far, but that this very failure is evidence that its destructive policies have only been half-heartedly imposed. OMG.

Anyway, this is all a prelude to saying I’m going on holiday this week. I’ll be back the week after next and, in the meantime, my indefatigable colleagues will hold the fort, as they always do so well. Perhaps the timing is appropriate. I may be turning into the drudge I promised myself I would not become. Which reminds me of a joke… DM


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