The 2019 national election had a mixed bag of outcomes, creating political winners in the form of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC faction and political losers, such as tin-pot politicians Andile Mngxitama and Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
More interestingly, we saw the significant growth of the radical populist EFF to more than 10% of national support and a steady stagnation of support for the market-friendly DA.
Now that the dust has settled at polling stations, the real work must begin of creating a South Africa that works – one where more citizens are gainfully employed.
The ANC government has to date promised that the “developmental state” is the golden key to unlocking the hopes and aspirations of the electorate. The DA, proving its mettle in the tourist-friendly Western Cape, favours pursuing more of a market-driven pot of gold at the end of the national rainbow. The EFF, a small but loud crowd of revolutionaries, is committed to its cardinal pillar of expropriation of land without compensation as the cornerstone of economic progress.
So, as journalist Bruce Whitfield once asked me in an interview, where is “South Africa’s political centre? Does the country have one?”
The one common denominator that cuts across these various party visions for the nation’s future is this – an increase in productivity, which would lead to value creation, which would lead to higher incomes and rising standards of living. For the ANC, the state must drive this agenda, but enabling “growth and jobs”. For the DA, the business community must drive this agenda by starting more and larger enterprises. For the EFF, the process must begin with a reallocation of assets such as land and entire economic sectors, into the hands of the black majority, under the custodianship of the state. This, it believes, is the golden ticket to the golden circle of more consumption and a happy life for all.
All of these options are possible, though not all are equally viable. All have been tried elsewhere in the world, but have delivered mixed results, largely because they depend on one single quality: the quality of the national skills base.
One can have a capable and developmental state, if one has a highly skilled and disciplined government that prizes execution of policy, over deliberation over idealistic policy positions. One can have a high-growth market-led investment boom, if one has a skilled entrepreneurial class that turns ideas into business models and market access into job creation. One can even have a state-owned, state-led national development path towards industrialisation, ironically done successfully by the Afrikaner Nationalists between the Smuts era and the much and rightly loathed Verwoerd era.
Irrespective of how one decides to arrange the political economy, the one irrefutable ingredient is the need for human capital development in the form of skills and education.
This should be the cornerstone of the policies of all South Africa’s political parties: How can we turn poorly skilled, undereducated and unproductive South Africans into self-sufficient captains of their own destiny? It is the heart of our political centre.
It starts with the expropriation of ignorance, the empowerment of the mind and of the heart. It starts with education, which is the one tried and tested path to higher personal income. The reason for the relative success of this one developmental factor is quite simple: The greater the skill and know-how of the citizen, the greater their capacity to add value to others through their productivity. Critically, the greater their capacity to add value, the greater their chances of being compensated for their efforts.
It is the one policy issue that, should we get it wrong again, will imprison our people in a limbo of dependence and degradation for another generation, irrespective of whether they have land or if they own an ANC, DA or EFF T-shirt.
Building educational institutions is not as sexy as striking a BB-BEE deal or becoming an overnight tenderpreneur. It doesn’t roll off the tongue, as does the idea of a “hundred black industrialists” or the EFF’s “cardinal pillars” of nationalisation of “massive protected industrialisation”. What we actually need is the less sexy, more practical commitment to massive gains in human capital and skills. We need expropriation of ignorance, which leads to compensation. DM