Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 25 June 2019

Continue to dream big, Mr President, but also fix these five things

Dear Mr President, I think it’s absolutely critical that we dream of infrastructure initiatives such as bullet trains and smart cities which will in turn create much-needed jobs. But first, here are five simple things you can do to change the lives of South Africans and boost the economy.

It’s okay to dream, Mr President, but if you don’t have your feet on the ground too and do the basic things that most experts say will raise GDP by at least 3.5% within a year – then dreaming is just that, head in the clouds when real solutions lie within our immediate grasp.

Exceptional leadership comes from those that convince people to believe in what they as leaders believe in. They can carry the people along on a vision, a dream, that we can be all we can be. For most people who are insisting post-SONA on the “what?” and the “how?”, they are missing the point. It is the “why?” that matters.

Sure, what are we are going to do to fix the economy is indeed a valid question and how, precisely, are we to go about it? But I still contend that it is the “why” that our people are most interested in. Why should we fix the economy? Because as a nation we value a better life for all and as such the why is because we have to eradicate poverty, create employment and arrest inequality. This is more important to our people – the “why?”.

The “how?” the president will leave to his ministers and their respective departments. The “what?” are merely statements of intent, such as wanting no child to go hungry within 10 years, like wanting every 10-year-old to be able to read and write, and so on. Those leaders and corporations that concern themselves too much with the “how?” and “what?” at the expense of the “why?” are the ones that find themselves wanting in the corporate market.

I say again, making people believe in what you believe in, that is a feature of good leadership.

Mr President, I think it’s absolutely critical that we dream of infrastructure initiatives such as bullet trains and smart cities which will in turn create much-needed jobs. I particularly liked the fact that you indicated that government cannot do this on its own. For too long have our own homegrown companies been sitting on the sidelines not wanting to invest in our local economy. Every year they have more new excuses as to why they don’t feel comfortable with investing in the economy.

The time is here to get that commitment from them, sir. It is not just a perception that South African businesses got away with murder post the 1994 miracle, it is a reality. There was no penance of any kind, no reparations of any sorts, and certainly no apology for having propped up the apartheid system for so many years because cheap black labour served your selfish profit-driving interest. It’s time to come to the party, guys, no more cheap excuses for why you are not a part of this South African nation.

But we also must take bold decisions, Mr President, and there are five simple yet effective things you can do that will almost immediately contribute to GDP growth. These are:

  1. Ease visa restrictions;

  2. Finalise and sustain policy certainty in mining;

  3. Allocate spectrum;

  4. Reduce the costs of transport, logistics and communication; and

  5. More effective immigration policy to attract critical skills.

I have had my own first-hand experience with the ridiculous unabridged birth certificate issue. My wife and I went on holiday to France with the twins (12 years old at the time). We had a wonderful time and when it was time to return home I made my way to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. My wife had arranged that she would attend an academic conference in Belgium and hence was going to join us a bit later in SA.

I had the customary birth certificates (unabridged) and a letter from my wife giving me permission to return home with our children. The French authorities refused to allow us onto the plane because, apparently, I needed yet another affidavit from my Home Affairs office stating that my wife had given me permission to travel with our kids alone. Since the hour was almost midnight in Paris, there was no way my embassy staff would be able to assist me at this late hour – in fact, when I phoned the ambassador, whom I knew, he was back in South Africa attending a funeral and indicated that these matters indeed do preoccupy his embassy staff, unnecessarily so.

But here’s the catch. I was instructed that I had to return to Paris the next day and return with this stupid letter, our luggage was offloaded, and when I got to the customs officials wanting to return to Paris, I was promptly informed that I have a multiple entry visa but not the children, in others words, sir, said the passport control official, you can enter the country again but not your children I’m afraid.

He then made the most ridiculous suggestion – perhaps you can leave them here at the airport while you sort out this unfortunate mess. I did not have to answer him, the look of disapproval from his colleague said it all. Needless to say, we had to sleep at the airport because we found ourselves in no-man’s-land. Even with my wife on the other side the next day vouching for us all, it did not matter. The only way we could return home was she had to forfeit her conference and return home with us.

Now, remember, when I asked the French official what he thought would happen to me and the children should I arrive at OR Tambo International without these so-called crucial letters and paperwork, they actually implied we would be sent back to Paris, which was of course ridiculous to say the least. But what was really infuriating, Mr President, the passport control official here at our airport simply stamped our passports and said “welcome home”.

But I don’t want to make this a personal matter. I know of so many South Africans who have had to suffer similar humiliations just because some idiot thought up an idea which he thought was brilliant. It is hurting our tourism sector and must be stopped immediately. No need for long discussions at all, it’s a bad policy, full stop.

As to the spectrum which you said would be available by October 2019, it’s simply not good enough that the Minister of Communications says we cannot achieve the October deadline. She needs to crack the whip and make her staff work overtime if that is what is required to deliver on this promise. We are all waiting with bated breath. We want this spectrum and it will change the lives of ordinary citizens in Mzansi. No debate needed, good sir, we want it, you said you will give it by October, now deliver, full stop.

As for the data cost argument: let’s not play games and appeal to the good graces of the telecoms companies to lower the cost which will of course hurt their bottom line of profits. All we demand as people is fairness. Why is it that in other African countries such as Nigeria where our telecoms companies operate, data is virtually free? Why? Is it because we South Africans are idiots or can be taken for a ride? Or is this the same as our hospitality and retail sectors only employing foreign nationals at the expense of local unemployed black people, stating that we locals don’t have the requisite skill-sets and a strong command of the English language? Subtle racism if you ask me. Government must take bold decisions and legislate the cost of data and make it virtually free for all, full stop.

Which brings me to bank charges, another rip-off and daylight robbery. This argument that if we want to insist on a world-class banking system, we must pay ridiculous amounts of bank charges, simply does not wash any longer. If that’s the argument and the bank bosses insist on this hogwash, then I’m happy to have a less than world-class banking system. Take away the Saswitch system, I don’t care. When we as clients still had to come into the banks to do our business, I can understand there were bank charges, but now that we all virtually do our money business at ATMs and indeed on our mobile phones, what exactly are we still paying the bank for?

This latest alleged robbery by FNB where clients had to pay for a mistake they made is indicative of how we as South Africans are idiots, it seems. What’s written on our forehead? I’ll let you be the judge of it. And FNB shouldn’t be surprised at the idea that clients think they are being ripped off because the banks not so long ago also colluded among themselves at the expense of we, the clients, to the tune of billions of rand.

Another matter that is woefully unfair is the rules governing collusion practices by corporations, where after the Competitions Commission uncovered these, a mere fine was imposed, but the price of the commodity remains at the inflated levels. Here I’m referring to bread prices, bank charges, bicycle and accessories prices, and so much more over the years. No, it cannot be, you fine them hefty fines, yes, but then also take us the consumer into consideration. The prices must be adjusted downwards then.

These are but a few immediate things you can insist on which will make a huge difference in the lives of many South Africans, Mr President.

We dare not linger. DM

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