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11 December 2017 09:22 (South Africa)
Opinionista Oscar van Heerden

‘Doomsday’ is around every corner it seems – is there a silver lining at all?

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

Even in the midst of such negativity, pessimism and unethical leadership, it does seem clear to me, that every cloud does have a silver lining after all.

We, as diligent conscientious types, take issue with what is going wrong in our beloved country. We will and must question, challenge and be critical of any and all deviant behaviour on the part of our elected officials and captains of industry. This activism, to be sure, will never be absent in the mind set and psyche of our people and this can never be a bad thing.

Over the last 23 years we have had to digest, wrestle and absorb so much and still many matters remain unresolved for most of us here in Mzansi. Structural and institutional racism persist, levels of poverty, inequality and indeed unemployment remain stubbornly high. 

These will remain on-going challenges in our pursuit of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.

We all play our part and do our very best to see SA succeed and hold true to being united in our diversity. However, the level of pessimism that is so pervasive and prevalent, is beginning to numb us.

Therefore it is important to remind everyone of the achievements and progress we have made over the past 23 years even in the midst of all the rubbish we have had to endure in recent times.

“It’s time to talk comrades”, these were the famous words of O.R Tambo bellowing from Radio Freedom broadcasting from Lusaka. The year was 1990. A year earlier, myself and many other student activists were hunted down, placed under arrest, detained, and tortured at the hands of the 'special branch'. Many comrades, myself included, were confused – our people wanted blood, they were ready for the revolution, to fight the ultimate fight for our freedom.  This is what we had been preparing for, training for and indeed had been arming ourselves for and now there was talk of negotiations. Talks about talks and suspending the armed struggle

were the instructions from afar. What the fricking hell was this, surely we were selling out the revolution?

But the voice through the radio continued, “equip yourselves with the know-how of the art of negotiations and begin to educate and train all our people about it”.  The directive was clear though it left most of us feeling hapless.     

And so, the process of negotiations began with the enemy at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park in the late 1990’s, though secret talks had been underway, we are told from much earlier.  “Negotiations is a process of give and take”, we would educate and train our communities, while at the same time engage them on the matter of why we this approach towards the enemy was being taken. It was a difficult sell, but we had to succeed.

We’ve come a long way since then. The general election was held on April 27th 1994, despite the brutal assassination of Chris Hani by right wing elements mere weeks before. These elements also set off bombs at several places included at the then Jan Smuts Airport and downtown Johannesburg. But they did not succeed in their ill-conceived plans.  South Africa was pregnant with democracy and it was here to stay.

Whilst the new President Nelson Mandela made it his mission to reconcile and allay fears of white South Africans, corporates and the world as well, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki was left to steer the SA Inc. ship out of the stormy waters it had been occupying for a very long time. This, no doubt required money and resources and when they checked what was at their disposal as the new government, they confronted a harsh reality.  There was no money in the fiscus and the country’s reserves were basically non-existent.  This presented the ANC government with a serious dilemma since they also had to deliver on their election promises captured in their manifesto, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).

When perusing the 2014 Budget Review – “reflecting on 20 years since democracy”, it is apparent that:

  • In the fiscal year 1994/95 gross domestic debt stood at 46.5 per cent of GDP. In the year before the global financial crisis (2007/8), this amount was reduced to 22 per cent of GDP.
  • For the same period, gross foreign debt increased from 1.8 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent of GDP reflecting the development of our capital markets and appetite for South African bonds;
  • Foreign Exchange Reserves in South Africa averaged 27 USD billion from 1998 until 2016, reaching an all-time high of 51.9 USD billion in February of 2012 and a record low of 5.3 USD billion in September of 1998. Gross gold and foreign exchange reserves in South Africa rose to 47.35 USD billion in June of 2017.

In other words, in nominal terms, our main budget expenditure grew from R175 billion in 1996 to over R1.4 trillion today.

Key drivers of expenditure over this period included the government wage bill and growth in transfers of which social grants is a significant component.

Over the last ten years, total public sector employment grew by over 400 000 jobs; with provincial government accounting for about one third of this. Most of these jobs have been in the health and education sectors.

Some would argue that the ballooning of the public wage bill is unacceptable and indeed I would agree with some of those arguments but, in the virtual absence of job creation in the private sector, I argue, government had to become a facilitator for employment in the medium term. The only way out of this predicament is for substantial investment into the economy from the private sector in order to stimulate and kick start our economy which in turn will create jobs. 

Another somewhat contentious issue is that of South Africa’s welfare policy, specifically our social grants allocations over the years.  In the 1994/95 Budget, R417.6 million was made available for the provision of social grants. In the 2017 Budget this amount now stands at R151.6 billion and reaches over 17 million South Africans. This, I argue can only be a good thing. Our socio-economic condition for the majority of our people is such that we simply cannot afford to sit idly by and not provide basic services and cater for the most basic needs of the poor. South Africa has the most comprehensive welfare system in the world and for this, we should be proud.

Between the corrupt practices of public officials and indeed the collusive practices of some of our corporate sector, we can afford such a welfare system. All we need is to make strategic choices, such as whether we need nuclear power generation or not or conversely, whether it will be too expensive for SA to invest in the  alternative energy generation methods of wind, solar and hydro. And by the way, it has been proven comprehensively, through a number of independent studies that our young women are not deliberately falling pregnant because they want to access child grants to the contrary.

The constitutional order established in 1994 has proven to be a solid foundation on which to make progress. One only has to read the recent report produced by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), aptly named, The Silver Lining, to have a profound appreciation for the progress made by this government over the last two decades.

The average income of South Africans, which declined by 15 per cent in the last decade of apartheid rule, has increased by over 30 per cent since 1994. Near-universal school enrolment and the steady increase in the average years of education has improved the life prospects of millions of black South Africans. With the introduction of the school feeding scheme in most of our public schools, the proportion of children who are malnourished has decreased significantly. In 2000 a total of 13.1% of children were malnourished whereas in 2014 it came down to 4.5%.  In 1975 we had 5400 black African matric passes whereas in 2015 the figure stands at 369  903 and has steadily increased since.

With regards to South African’s University enrolment, this has more than doubled. In 1996 a mere 19.8% of black Africans enrolled into university, in 2014 that figure was standing at 70.1% enrolment. Surely we can only improve on this very important matter.

Motor vehicle ownership, as an indicator suggests that in 1999, we owned 3  851  048 cars, whilst in 2016 that ownership rose to 6  905  939. The total motorised vehicle ownership stood at 5  992  056 in 1999 and in 2016 it stood at 10  669  410. 

The progress in living standards and service delivery generally, has improved by all accounts. The number of households in formal housing increased from 5  794  399 in 1996 to 13  404  199 in 2016, that is a 131.3% increase over the period. Similarly, access to piped water, in 1996 the number of people accessing this essential service stood at 7  234  023 and in 2016 it is now at 15  218  753 users.

Access to decent sanitation is often also taken for granted and in this regard, 4  552  854 people had access to flush or chemical lavatories and now it stands at 11  436  619  people. And yes, much more must be done in this regard.

The number of households using electricity for lighting, cooking, and heating increased by 192.3%, 228.5%, and 58% respectively since 1996. In other words, on average 1  376 households have been connected to the electricity grid every day since 1996.  And this while so many scandals and corrupt practices go unabated at the Eskom utility.

Within the health care sector, registered public nurses increased from 41  734 in 2000 to 68  105 in 2015.  Whilst doctors in the public sector increased from 7  591 in 2000 to 13  656 in 2015, these were general practitioners. Specialist from 3  881 in 2000 to 4  986 in 2015.  All the while, additional infrastructure of health facilities has also been on the increase over the last few years.  More hospitals both locally and provincially were built and in some instances mega improvements at these facilities including mobile units to service the far flung rural areas were developed. As you also know, the health minister is in the process of wanting to establish a universal health insurance system which I think will benefit the majority of our people, especially as they enter retirement.

As for the new HIV infections, in 1999 when the pandemic was at its height we stood at 646  806 infections whilst now, through the comprehensive HIV/Aids plan that figure has gone down to 321  497 infections in 2015.

It would off course be remiss not to mention our crime stats – the murder rate (measured per 100 000 per year) declined from 67 per 100 000 people in 1994/5 to 34 in 2015/16, or by almost 50%.

Finally, the overall living standards measure (LSMs) has improved for the better. The black middle class in particular has grown exponentially over the last twenty years and I’m sure you will all concur that this is a welcome reprieve in the bigger scheme of things. For if we do not actively build and continue to build our black middle class, the challenges facing us will certainly be more stark and pose a danger for us all.

Those of you that have followed my articles over the months will know I have a ‘no holds barred’ attitude towards anyone and everyone who wants to undermine our progress and these improvements mentioned above. 

The current leadership –both public and private – does not inspire in the least I’m afraid and one will continue to criticise, expose and indeed challenge through this and other mediums but let us not do so at the expense of the good that has gone before and continues to be achieved by so many in both these sectors.

In short, even in the midst of such negativity, pessimism and unethical leadership, it does seem clear to me, that every cloud does have a silver lining after all. DM

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar-van-Heerden.jpg
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

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