Opinionista Scott Firsing 16 January 2014

20 years later: What international rankings say about South Africa

Debating the current conditions in South Africa feels like an all-too-frequent activity for ‘international’ SA families. These discussions almost always come up during braais and family occasions, with statistics being tossed around like a newborn baby surrounded by grandparents. With nearly 20 years under our belt, can the large number of international studies that rank countries teach us anything about our past, present and future?

I don’t know about your family, but my family, white English-speaking South Africans, had the same heated South African political and economic discussions over the recent holiday season. As usual, there were some baseless arguments. One family member starting throwing out random statistics about the number of actual taxpayers in the country supporting the 50 million-plus population. The numbers were inaccurate, but he got his point across regarding the long-term sustainability of such a situation.

Overall, everything from e-tolls and Nkandla to medical aid and Mandela was discussed. These types of debates are common in my family due to its members being spread out; living in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and, of course, South Africa.

Where is the best place to live? Most affordable? Best country to raise children? Should we buy property in the United States or SA? How does the price of a steak and a beer or a car compare to one’s salary in that particular country? The list of questions is almost endless and has numerous answers, usually dependent upon the individual and their perspective.

Analysts understand you have to try to take emotion out of the equation and focus on the facts. With that said, the most recent family ‘talks’ gave me the idea for this article, which tries to take a more objective look at the ranking process. Perhaps examining the most frequently cited global rankings in various fields such as business, crime, education, health will provide some past, current and future insight into our country. We usually only examine one study at a time, at the time of its release, but when we combine all the data over the years, have South Africa’s numbers and rankings improved or deteriorated?

This particular list of international rankings is not a scientific choice. I am familiar with many such indices due to previous research exercises frequently ulitising reports such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, better known as the CPI. Other studies are classified as my favorites, like the Big Mac Index, often seen in men’s magazines.  Some ranking systems might need explanation, like the Bribe Payers Index, a study that ranks the leading exporting countries on the likelihood their multinational businesses will use bribes when operating overseas. However, no need to worry, as provided below are all the necessary links.

The hard-core statisticians and economists will say the numbers are difficult to analyse. They can even be misleading by comparing values and rankings with previously published reports because the underlying data and methods have changed. True, and there are some overlapping of figures as well. Caution is further requested when interpreting small differences because they may not be statistically significant due to sampling variation.

Let’s ignore all of this for a second and see if the numbers give an indication of our country’s positives and negatives. Surely this will help grasp a better understanding of South Africa’s situation.

The answer is an unfortunate ‘no’. There is no big discovery. However, what this exercise does is reaffirm what most South Africans know is happening in our country, but some fail to address or recognise.

On the positive side, numbers presented above and below, South Africa has progressed in terms of women’s rights and equality. South Africa also appears to be ‘affordable.’ The Economist’s Big Mac Index, a way of measuring purchasing power parity between two currencies to show how market exchanges result in the big burger costing differently in different countries, shows South Africa in 2013 being the 5th most affordable country in the world, although this does not consider that the buyers equivalent purchasing power is different.

Expats and South Africans earning a good salary praise both the affordability and food aspect of South Africa. A 2012 study done by HSBC Bank International concluded that South Africa is one of the best countries in the world to live, ranking 9th out of 30 between Germany and Australia. Why? It is easy to find accommodation, the food/people/social life are good, healthcare is easy to arrange, as is a bank account, and working hours make for a good work/ life balance, meaning more precious time with family.

The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) also shows that between 1980 and 2012, South Africa’s life expectancy at birth decreased by 3.5 years, mostly due to HIV, but mean years of schooling increased by 3.7 years and expected years of schooling increased by 2.0 years. South Africa’s GNI per capita also increased by about 14 percent between 1980 and 2012.

With eyes back on the tables, South Africa’s competitiveness ranking has been stable, with the country ranking between 4.5 and 4.3 over the past 12 years. Things do become a little clearer, however, when a closer examination of the international studies takes place. WEF’s latest Global Competitiveness Index ranks South Africa highly for financial market development. Unfortunately the same report also highlights the negatives surrounding South Africa.

The real issue rearing its ugly head over and over again is poor education, especially in maths and science, which can only be described as shocking. Although the number of years of schooling has increased, as pointed out by the HDI figures, South Africa ranks dead last or close to it in every major international maths and science educational ranking system.

And of course we are a little less free then we were a few years ago, and corruption is getting worse, but most us could have guessed that. Other reports, like the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, show South Africa in a similar light, putting the country in the ‘flawed democracy’ category.

One aspect of South Africa briefly touched on in some reports is ‘work ethic’. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analyses work ethic in member countries based on the numbers of hours worked, sick days used and other factors. A similar study should be completed in South Africa and other applicable countries. This negative work ethic factor has been one of the most frustrating aspects of my time in South Africa, whether it is teaching young South African university students or managing older South Africans content in their jobs. Obviously this is not all individuals because there are some smart, articulate, people who are willing to put in the extra effort and who have vision out there. However, they are few and far between.

The link between pay and productivity in South Africa is worse than most other countries, according to the 2013 WEF global competitiveness index. We are ranked 134th out of 144 countries with co-operation between labour and employers ranked as the lowest in the entire index.

When you combine this with local statistics like crime rates, unemployment figures (more importantly, youth employment figures), matric scores and so on, you begin to think to yourself: how are we as South Africa going to be competitive in the future? How are we going to progress if we are lacking in the science and technology area, as well as labour and human capital dimensions?

I wish I could answer that question, but only time can tell.

Unlike my family holiday braais, where both praising and bashing of South Africa took place, this article does not do that. The goal is to present data and raise pertinent questions about the future of our beautiful country.

South Africa is a young democracy, but we have to capitalise on the skills and knowledge that are left in this country; the retired or soon-to-be retired business owners, engineers and others who can serve as mentors. We can’t afford to lose any more knowledgeable generations. To quote my friend and the CEO of Frontier Advisory, Martyn Davies: “GDP is meaningless. Developing and retaining talent is all that counts.”

We must also stand up against corruption and use the power of the vote.

I am doing my best to try to stop the slow bleeding occurring in our problem areas by providing young talented Africans with scholarships to our new Aerospace Leadership Academy, a boarding high school that creates future science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) leaders, as well as through training and events run by my NGO, Young People in International Affairs.

It is the small contributions and achievements in the various genres and by various sectors both private and public, along with cooperation to achieve certain goals, which will ensure South Africa does not go down that slippery slope that no one wants to see. DM

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