Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 16 October 2019

We can turn South Africa around if we work together

South Africa has the resources, the ideal location and the conditions favourable for investment. If only we can ensure a capable civil service that operates ethically and effectively, we can attract foreign direct investment and become an investment hub.

The first of the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Inclusive Growth Forum initiatives held in the Drakensberg was held in 2018. I referred to it then as “Quo Vadis South Africa” when giving an account of it and it was mostly concerned with our state of affairs at that time and the fact that “State Capture” was eating away at the fabric of our society.

This past weekend saw the second instalment of the forum after the report of the first dialogue was handed over to the Presidency for its consideration. Hopefully, some of the recommendations from it found their way into policy choices and interventions by the government.

Luminaries from all walks of life yet again graced the occasion, a clear demonstration of the pulling power of the patron, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the respect he is afforded by the attendees. The theme for this year was “Creating Solutions, Strengthening Local Government and Local Economies”.

Before the keynote address by the well-known Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist whose research and life’s work have been in the area of land rights and property relations, we were reminded of one of Don Mattera’s poems, We Have Been Here. The poem states that whatever the challenges we face we have been here before, and unless we learn from our past mistakes we will certainly not be able to implement corrective measures and move forward. A short extract says, “Long before other conquerors came to our shores, We removed the barriers of ignorance and isolation… We have been here before.”

Next, just in case everyone had forgotten, we were reminded of our collective sense of volunteerism and wanting to make a difference. The reading of Isaiah 6:8 from the Bible states, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I, Send me!’” This is what informed the now-famous song of Bra Hugh Masekela, Send me/Thuma Mina and which President Cyril Ramaphosa used in his opening of Parliament address in 2018, saying to the nation, “Thuma Mina”, send me.

Bra Hugh stated and the president agreed that:

I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around
When they triumph over poverty
I wanna be there when the people win the battle against AIDS
I wanna lend a hand
I wanna be there for the alcoholic
I wanna be there for the drug addict
I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse
I wanna lend a hand, Send me
Thuma mina (thuma m’na)
Thuma mina (ezizweni)
Ndizoya ndithandaze
Thuma mina (thuma m’na)
Thuma mina (ezizweni)
Ndizoya ndithandaze

This was an apt reminder of why we were all present at the forum: we were all collectively saying, Thuma Mina. Carpe Diem, let’s translate our policy choices and recommendations into action, let us seize the day.

Hernando de Soto stated that in Peru they have houses but not titles, crops but not deeds, businesses but not statutes of incorporation. Land is a powerful asset and we must find ways of converting that asset into capital so that our people at a local level can leverage such capital to their benefit.

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana spoke to us about the South Africa we strive for, one where there is social justice, social equity and social transformation.

This was further underpinned by former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs telling us of some of the guiding principles informing the drafting of the Constitution and the fact that a Bill of Rights was already touted in 1955 with the Freedom Charter and again emphasised in the governing party conference in 1985 in Kabwe. This is what shapes our identity as South Africans and gives us purpose towards the enormous socio-political transformation project post-apartheid.

Former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan spoke about the challenges facing us as a nation and what ought to be done. Gordhan identified the urgent need for a capable state, particularly at the local government level. The fact that only 18 of our 257 municipalities received clean audits, a mere 8%, constituted a crisis.

The forum agreed that South Africa has the resources, the ideal location and the conditions favourable for investment. One only has to look at our infrastructure, roads, rail, harbours, airports, and sophisticated financial sector. And finally, our country operates within the rule of law. All this suggests that if only we can ensure a capable civil service that operates ethically and effectively, delivering services to their communities, we can attract foreign direct investment and become an investment hub.

However, a capable state does mean a professional public service with the requisite skill sets and qualifications; well-trained and ethical governance practices, meaning no corruption; and consequence management for those that do transgress the law, whether through stealing public funds or mismanagement thereof.

Next, we looked at the economic building blocks in South Africa. We deliberated on the challenges of Eskom, and the fact that foreign investors are not so much concerned with our sovereign debt level, but rather the electricity utility debt. Proposals ranged from creating a special purpose vehicle to deal exclusively with the Eskom debt and then a combination of strategic choices of part privatisation and part more effective financial management.

The move towards renewable energy was hotly debated and it was agreed that because of our huge coal reserves, we will still be using them in the foreseeable future and a gradual phase-out towards renewables is envisaged, and so a mix of energy model which includes nuclear energy will remain on the table for now.

We spoke of the oceans economy and the potential to unlock this sector of the economy. Minister Thoko Didiza spoke of the challenges facing the agricultural sector. She indicated that rural development was a complex matter and the land question was much more complicated than anticipated. Having said that, many initiatives are underway to ensure black farmers are included in the agricultural sector and the entire value chain begins to recognise such farmers. Food security and water security are issues that local governments must concern themselves with if we are to ensure the success of the agricultural sector.

Under the topic, “Local government, local economies and town planning”, Trevor Fowler, Parks Tau and Ivan Turok spoke about urbanisation, world united cities and urban planning respectively. Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma weighed in on the discussion and said that besides state capacity, we also have to effectively deal with the legacy of apartheid. Apartheid spatial morphology is effectively still being reinforced in SA. We are still building houses on the outskirts of cities and condemning our people to the periphery of urban centres, which means they spend most of their income travelling in and out of the cities to their places of work.

We operate within a global context and our challenges are also being faced by other countries. Water scarcity, as happened in Cape Town, is a reality in many cities around the world, and rapid urbanisation is also a global phenomenon.

It is said that 80% of the SA population will be urbanised by 2030, which means more pressure on the infrastructure of our cities, provision of water and electricity, sanitation provision and generally ensuring a hygiene-friendly city will be brought to bear. Will we be able to cope?

The forum deliberated on issues concerning youth and the Fourth Industrial Revolution and asked whether we are indeed future-fit and whether we are getting ready for the digitisation of industries. The recent strike action from our banking sector suggests not – what ought we to do in this regard?

Finally, it was recognised that SA requires a stimulus package to facilitate economic growth. Such a stimulus package must emanate from a social compact between government, labour and the private sector. Caution was raised with regards to placing emphasis on austerity measures since we must learn from Greece and that country’s eventual collapse because of austerity measures.

The knee-jerk reaction when one has capital shortages is to emphasise savings and cut on expenditure, but what is needed to stimulate the economy is to spend more strategically. Yes, some savings must occur, but government together with the private sector should plan together and pump more money into the economy to stimulate growth and confidence. Hopefully, this is what we will see with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s mid-term budget framework at the end of the month. Somehow, I doubt it, but one can hope.

In short, the current free-market capitalist system globally is not sufficient for our needs in South Africa, hence, as diligent thinkers, we must explore all other options open to us: whether it be some parts of the Chinese model or the social market economy of Germany.

Our problems are complex: we must resolve the National Question (race relations) and at the same time build a growing economy. The world is watching to see whether South Africa can build on the 1994 breakthrough or whether we will perish trying.

This was indeed an apt reminder of why we were all present at the forum. We in effect were all collectively saying, Thuma Mina. Carpe Diem, let’s translate our policy choices and recommendations into action, let us seize the day. DM

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