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South Africa and Millennium Development Goals


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

South Africa seems to have a tendency to pool together in great national displays of common cause and unity such as last year’s Soccer World Cup and the recent municipal elections; but then to ebb back to disconnected puddles of people. As the deadline of 2015 looms, we need to coalesce again - this time around achieving the MDGs.

Back in September 2000, when the spectre of a whole new millennium presented the world with a chance to change the course of history and finally answer the challenges that bedevil human development,  the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration requiring governments to commit to end global poverty, secure peace, democracy and human rights.

Yes, all that attached to a deadline of 2015.  These goals are what we now know as the Millennium Development Goals, broadly encompassing eight targets for improving income wealth, primary education, child and maternal health, HIV/Aids prevention, gender equality, the environment and a global partnership for development.

South Africa’s progress so far in meeting the MDGs depends entirely on who you ask. According to activists and opposition parties, “statistics paint a bleak picture that makes achieving these goals seem virtually impossible”, but the director general of the department of labour, Nkosinathi Nhleko claimed this week that South Africa has made progress on development goals. “In targeting eight of the MDGs, we have put (our) energies into protecting vulnerable workers, protecting equity in the workplace and contributing to employment creation, among others,”  he said. Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe speaking at the Second Africa-India Summit in Addis Ababa this week was conversely more circumspect about the ability of African countries to meet the MDGs. He said, “The shortage of finance experienced by Africa in this current economic situation depresses investment, deters growth and undermines the ability of our countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals.”  But while Motlanthe was alive to the challenges accompanying African efforts to meet the MDGs, he was also encouraging in singling out the need for a more robust African leadership. “Time is of the essence and if we are to address these backlogs, that ought to manifest itself in whatever forum we find ourselves. I hope that in future we will have a bit more sense of urgency in our approach and tackle the developmental challenges facing our continent,” he said.

This week, South Africa was awarded the title of most valuable nation brand on the continent. Anitha Soni, chairwoman of the International Marketing Council of South Africa, who accepted the award on behalf of the country, believes the award “underlines the progress the country has made”.  But it’s the country’s inclusion in the BRICS grouping and its successful hosting of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, that’s said to have contributed to “strong positive perceptions both locally and abroad”. While much of the country enjoyed the pat  on the back, a Reuters story on the latest report  from The African Child Policy Forum demonstrated exactly why the country is not winning any accolades for its commitment to development.  The African Report on Child Wellbeing from the ACPF evaluated health, education and other social spending as a proportion of overall government spending to gauge African  governments’ commitment to nurturing children. South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy and its most valuable nation brand, placed a dismal 10th behind Tanzania, Mozambique, Niger, Gabon, Senegal, Tunisia, Seychelles, Algeria and Cape Verde.  And while it is by virtue of government spending in education that earns South Africa a place on the list, Reuters points out the county’s schooling system, “one of the tools used by the white-minority government to oppress blacks in the decades before democracy in 1994 — remains in a poor state, ranking 130th  out of 139 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2010/11”. When she spoke at the Tedx Change event in Johannesburg last year, Siobhan Crowley, a member of the World Health Organisation’s guideline review committee, emphasised that it is children who are suffering most “as a result of the country’s inability to meet the MDGs, specifically regarding education, health and poverty alleviation.”

For his part, President Jacob Zuma writing in South Africa’s MDGs report believes “We have a massive backlog of skills and while we have achieved MDG Two of universal primary education, we remain aware that the quality of our education holds back our route to development.”  South Africa, Zuma stresses has committed to the eight Millennium Development Goals and embraced them into a national set of 10 priorities. In the same report minister in the presidency, Trevor Manuel stresses that South Africa’s mixed successes in achieving the MDGs illustrate the country’s uniqueness in comparison to other developing economies. According to Manuel, “South Africa has achieved its MDGs more than five years before 2015, while in others South Africa is far from achieving these MDG targets. Between these two extremes are goals where achievements are probable or possible.”

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, makes clear that ending the scourge  of extreme poverty is not the job of governments alone, but “will require the combined efforts of all, governments, civil society organisations and the private sector, in the context of a stronger and more effective global partnership for development”.  While the SA government displays a clear intent to continue working towards achieving MDGs, it remains for the rest of South Africa to make the achievement of MDGs a national concern.

One reason the Fifa World Cup was so successful last year in uniting South Africans is that it allowed all South Africans everywhere and whoever they may be to rally around something. The World Cup then became an essential part of the South African experience. It did not matter that only a handful of South Africans were actually able to attend matches, the experience of South Africa  at that time was inextricably centred on the World Cup.  Development goals may well for some time have been substituted by preparations for the World Cup as the country’s main concern, but with the World Cup now long, long gone and the local elections’ thrills, spills and incendiary politics firmly behind us, it is time for South Africa, not just the government, but that elusive, greater all-encompassing South Africa, to rally around a national objective, championing social and economic progress in this country. DM


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