Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 21 August 2019

CR17 campaign funding row a distraction from crucial issues facing South Africa

Contestation for resources increases sharply when they are scarce. These are the macro concerns the nation should be preoccupied with every day, not sensational headlines about the CR17 campaign funding.

When resources are scarce, contestation for such resources sharply increases. This was the lesson I learnt as I perused a World Bank diagnostic report on SA titled “Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa — An Assessment of Drivers, Constraints and Opportunities”.

The report goes to great lengths to illustrate the drivers of the challenges we face with regard to our economy and other concomitant elements, and concludes that we have an incomplete transition. I’m sure you will all agree with such a conclusion. In fact, the World Bank states very clearly that there is general agreement and acceptance of the problem and/or challenges of South Africa among all South Africans. Where I think we disagree with one another is how best we can fix it. No doubt the patient (South Africa) is in ICU, so what are we going to do about it?

The report tells us that such exclusion is in the areas of wealth creation, land and property, product markets, education, health location and finally, basic services.

So, how are these contested? Well, in an unequal society such as ours, we contest wealth creation through BBEEE and land reform. Also, through crime and State Capture, and the private sector through constantly screaming “policy uncertainty”. Product markets are contested by the unions always demanding higher wages and more benefits, while education is contested through #FeesMustFall student organisations. Health and its locations are contested through the NHI and finally, poor service delivery is contested by our households, especially in poor and peripheral communities.

Next in terms of the drivers is social vulnerability which interlocks with fiscal, external and financial vulnerability. Here we refer to questions around the volatility of the rand, the financial sustainability of land reform and the financial sustainability of household consumption. Environmental fragility (water and climate change) compounds other vulnerabilities.

So, in short, low growth, high unemployment, a volatile rand and the constant threat of a rating downgrade are part of our consistent challenges. The root causes are therefore the legacy of the exclusion from land, capital, labour and product markets of black South Africans. On environmental root causes it is the fragility (water and climate change) which is compounded.

The five binding constraints it outlines are:

  • Insufficient skills;

  • Skewed distribution of land and productive assets, and weak property rights;

  • Low competition and low integration in global and regional value chains;

  • Limited or expensive connectivity and under-serviced historically disadvantaged communities; and

  • Climate shocks, transition to a low-carbon economy and increasing water insecurity.

A further and closer look at all the socio-economic policies since 1996 to date — these being RDP (1994), GEAR (1996), AsgiSA (2005), NGP (2010), and finally the NDP (2015) suggest the following top nine areas that mostly recur, in order of priority:

  1. Growth and jobs;

  2. Education;

  3. Health and demography;

  4. Skills and training;

  5. Green economy;

  6. Overcoming the apartheid legacy, democracy and reconstruction;

  7. Carbon, water and location;

  8. Corruption, crime and institutions; and

  9. Macroeconomic stability.

In summary then:

  • South Africa’s transition remains incomplete as the legacy of exclusion persists, in spite of progress since 1994;

  • The legacy of exclusion makes it difficult to build a social contract. Symptoms of the weak social contract include low investment, low growth, unemployment, a volatile exchange rate, student protests, rating downgrades, crime and State Capture; and

  • Tackling root causes — historical exclusion and climate shocks — will support progress toward the Vision 2030 of the National Development Plan, reducing poverty and inequality.

All of this points to the simple fact that when resources are scarce, logically, contestation for such resources increases sharply. These are the macro concerns we as a nation should be preoccupied with every day. If we indeed want a better life for all and a stable and growing economy, these are the issues we should be concerned about.

Yet, looking at the concerns some of our media and the public protector herself are preoccupied with and constantly thrust in our faces, it seems that these macro challenges and concerns are the furthest things from their respective minds. They instead want us to concern ourselves with narrow, superficial and unsubstantiated things for sensational reasons and so the media can sell newspapers and make money from adverts on television. They too are contesting for limited resources and so must exploit these very private CR17 bank accounts so as to ensure they too can make their money.

The argument that the media are doing this because we need greater transparency with regard to personal political campaign funding is a matter that can be advocated for in a very different manner and it is a debate that can be had another time. But oh no, this is all about wanting to undermine this current government at all costs, and more specifically, the president, even if it means returning to the dark days of the Zuma administration of corruption and State Capture. This is how unpatriotic our Fourth Estate really can be.

I’m reminded of an incident in the UK a few years ago when a government official, in a rush, left a “top secret” file on the train in the Underground. A private citizen got hold of it and perusing the contents, immediately made his way to the nearest newspaper outlet. When the editor-in-chief looked at the information the file contained, he dismissed the eager journalist from his office, closed the door and phoned the relevant government department and alerted them to the fact that this file was in his possession and inquired as to where exactly he could send his driver to return this most sensitive file immediately.

Now, I don’t know what you would call this sort of behaviour, but one thing I can tell you for certain, is that some of our newspaper editors are unlikely to act with such circumspection. Instead, I would bet you, we would have seen that secret information on the front pages of their papers, just so that they would be the first to break such an incredible story and of course the information contained in it, without any regard.

As for the public protector, well, I’m not sure what public interest she is protecting, if any. She and the journalists talk of money laundering supposedly committed by the CR17 campaign. Money laundering involves activities which are aimed at concealing “benefits that were acquired’’ through “criminal means’’ for the purpose of making them “appear legitimately acquired.’’ Let’s interrogate these elements, shall we?

“Benefits acquired” plus “through criminal means” plus “for the purpose of making the benefits appear legitimate”.

The problem with our journalists is that they are not upping their debates — let’s expect a bit more from ourselves, let’s lift our understanding and let’s not jump to conclusions. Let’s ask if we don’t know, let’s hold the Public Protector and the media to a slightly higher standard and “please explain to us and not simply allege”.

We should expect of our journalists who report on these things to at least understand the basic elements of their subject matter. It has simply become too easy to tarnish other people’s images and good names by way of accusations and use of terms thought to be understood, but are generally not.

The CR17 campaign managers have time and time again insisted that nothing illegal was done and that all these transactions have been lawful. Private money was garnered and distributed to various individuals to facilitate a personal political campaign to ensure a specific candidate wins a political party leadership contest. Nothing illegal about this, or am I wrong? Though it makes for interesting reading to see who and what the money was used for, unless some illegal act can be discerned, I cannot see why this is front-page news. Unless those that continue to peddle it do so for ulterior motives.

And just in case any of us have forgotten what we are on about, it is the macro issues raised at the beginning of this article. This is what must remain uppermost in our minds. It is these issues of drivers, constraints and opportunities that must preoccupy us every minute of the hour and not the small, mundane political point-scoring issues in the latter part of this article.

You, the people, must decide what is more important for you. The proclivity towards mendacity of the public protector and some journalists or to focus on the macro issues of exclusion and how to correct these for the betterment of us all, and of our country. DM

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