Opinionista Kenneth Diole 8 November 2017

South Africa is reaching a crossroads – which direction will we choose?

The trajectory of how South Africa will do in the next century is most likely going to be decided by the events of the next two years. It is imperative that a sense of collective responsibility emerges.

In light of various challenges plaguing the country, be it a low growth economy, social unrest, high unemployment rates, political party leadership issues or the rampant corruption reported on a daily basis, the question of the direction that the country will take, as a result largely of its leadership, has never been more pertinent than now.

When one looks at the events of the past couple of weeks, it is becoming difficult to remain optimistic about the future of the country. We heard the chilling testimonies of family members of the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, became more despondent due to the minister of finance’s pronouncement on the state of our ailing economy; a week later, the minister of police released the scary figures on crime in the country and more recently the shocking findings in Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers. On a daily basis various issues come to the fore, challenging the very fabric of this democracy, and we have to collectively engage about the direction this country will take.

In the book The Decline and Fall of Nations by Niall Ferguson, the author posits a pertinent argument in relation to countries that have gone through a period of strife like South Africa. Ferguson argues that countries that have had a period of strife such as colonisation, slave trade, drug trade or in the case of South Africa, apartheid, usually experience a quarter-century hiatus after they gain their independence, where everything seems to go well. However, closer to the 25-year mark, a number of challenges arise and how they deal with those challenges will shape the country for potentially a century or more.

In the first instance, the leadership of the day comes under intense interrogation. Their clout, motives, system of governance and overall leadership comes under intense scrutiny. This eventually leads to a leadership crisis of some sort. The questioning stems from various occurrences in their society. The state of the economy, various social elements and the relative direction of where the country is going under that leadership.

South Africa finds itself at this juncture, where the incumbent leadership is under immense and necessary scrutiny. For, when people are not happy at the rates of service delivery, their cost of living is high and various allegations of maladministration face the leadership, questions around that leadership must be asked.

In the second instance, Ferguson speaks about the challenge of an economic system that pre-dates the country’s independence. He says the embedded structural and systemic challenges will emerge and give rise to other social issues. In the South African context, the reality of an economic system designed to serve a few and now having to serve the entire population is showing its associated problems. The problems include maladministration, high inequalities, disputes on land ownership, marginalisation, spatial inequalities and monopolies in various industries to name but a few.

Ferguson’s argument touches on the need for new developmental states to address the economic systems. It speaks to the fact that more often than not, the pre-existing system is not inclusive by design, and once the broader challenges of the country are felt, the inaptness of that system to effectively deal with the challenges is displayed.

Third and potentially the most important point, Ferguson argues that the nation state then faces an identity crisis. The population, in its diversity, fails to see a thread of common identity, if it already exists. At this period, due to massive differences in economic standing, access to opportunities, national policies and other contextually relevant issues, the challenge of identity comes up. Citizens question the notion of identity, what qualifies an individual to identify himself or herself as whomever.

Last week’s Black Monday protests brought this argument a little closer to home. The racial polarisation in South Africa, even with matters of common interest such as crime or murder in particular, indicate the identity problem. That even when issues affect us all, we still group ourselves with those we identify more closely with. Our identity is still rooted in our racial and cultural differences, ethnic practices and even the languages we speak as was evident in xenophobic attacks that took place earlier this year.

Thus, when South Africa is placed in the context of Niall Ferguson’s book, we realise our hiatus is fast ending. The leadership crisis continues to worsen, the economy remains exclusive and the identity crisis is fast dispelling the Rainbow Nation aspiration. It is therefore imperative that as our hiatus ends, a sense of collective responsibility upon the citizens of this country must emerge. The trajectory of how South Africa as a country will do in the next century is most likely going to be decided by the events of the next two years. And all responsible citizens must ensure South Africa will not be counted among the fallen nation states that had tremendous potential. DM


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