Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 13 November 2019

South Africa 25 years on: Slowly, slowly catchee apartheid monkey

Many South Africans, whites especially, continually moan about the state of the country. But an objective review of the past 25 years of democracy proves that the glass is half full, not half empty.

Must we always invoke apartheid? When are we going to move on from referring to apartheid? Can’t we just talk about the now and not the apartheid past? These are some of the continual laments and comments made by our white compatriots in South Africa. No doubt, they would want us to not mention it at all when reviewing our progress over the last 25 years, but alas, apartheid’s vestiges will be with us for decades still to come. In fact, denying this will be to our own detriment.

Would it be conceivable to tell our Jewish compatriots to stop invoking the atrocities of the Holocaust? After all, it has been, what, almost 75 years ago? Do we also tell them that it’s time to move on, that the currency of the Holocaust has expired? I think not; so why is it so simple to demand it of us? After all, both these historical episodes were crimes against humanity, not so? I would urge you to reflect deeply on this matter.

One aspect that I have been harping on for some years now is the reality that so many of our white compatriots simply want to deny. They would very much like to believe the narrative that blacks inherited a strong economy and a stable country with excellent infrastructure that worked. Well, the reality in the 1990s could not be further from that narrative. Municipalities worked, according to some, because they only worked for a small preferred minority of white citizens. Electricity, water and sanitation were mainly for whites only. So, whites conclude that blacks cannot govern, they are corrupt and look at how they have destroyed this once beautiful country of ours.

Well, the truth be told: we blacks did not inherit a strong economy in 1994, in fact, we inherited a country in serious debt and decline. As stated in the 25-year review document: “In 1994, the democratic government inherited an apartheid economy in crisis, with GDP growth averaging 1.2% in the preceding decade, with real-term negative growth between 1990 and 1992. At the end of 1993, the combined foreign debt totalled $25-billion, of which $15-billion was the public component, with the balance shared between the Reserve Bank and the private sector. Borrowing continuously increased, with the IMF approving an $850-million loan in December 1993, three months before the first democratic elections.”

Today, the South African government has more than $50-billion in foreign reserves, a total that has consistently grown over the last 25 years. This was made possible because of policy choices made by the black political elite. We experienced seven unbroken years of growth during the Mbeki administration, enabling such savings in the fiscus. And before someone screams HIV/AIDS, I’m sure you will all agree with me, because you are intelligent beings, that the pandemic did not start in 1994. What if anything did the apartheid government do to arrest the pandemic? They could care less about millions of Africans dying of such a disease.

The infrastructure spend, not only during the preparatory years of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, but continually over the last 25 years, contributed to keeping our economy ticking over. Have we created enough jobs and job opportunities? The answer is an emphatic no, but what have been the comparative stats between now and the apartheid years as it relates to job creation?

As for the other bugbear of most white South Africans, the dismal education sector in South Africa, well, undoing centuries of colonial apartheid inferior and Bantu Education will take much longer than 25 years. We must rather celebrate the almost 100% universal access of school entrants, and millions more accessing post-schooling education at universities and TVET colleges. We can, of course, bicker about the level of standards in our education, but the fact remains, more of our children are in school and we are beginning to see the progress slowly creeping in. That we have managed to bring all 11 education departments under apartheid into one single department with a single curriculum must be celebrated and commended.

Do we still have homeless people, people with no access to clean piped water, and people who till today do not have proper sanitation facilities? Yes, we do and for this, we must take collective responsibility. But, have we built more than 13 million formal houses? Yes. Have we provided more than 15 million of our people with clean piped tap water? Yes. And have we provided millions with flush and chemical toilets? Yes. Must more be done? Of course.

Telecommunications and access to connectivity have also improved over the years, though we do need more competition in this sector, which can only benefit our people and their meagre pockets in the long run.

So, what do you make of the huge fiscal cliff and debt levels today, I hear some of you ask with condemnation. Well, the truth of the matter is that after the 2008/9 global financial crisis, South Africa, like most, was hit very hard. We lost a million jobs, though we clawed our way back, and more than 750,000 jobs were created again.

The past nine lost years under the Zuma administration cannot be overlooked. The ANC leadership, and not just one man, must take collective responsibility for the last nine Zuma years. They as a collective betrayed the trust of our people by allowing mass-scale State Capture and some, being, for the most part, active participants in the looting and plundering of state resources.

Being in denial about this simple fact is not helpful. Acknowledge the betrayal and take responsibility for it so that we can move forward again. After all, the electorate, despite the above, gave the ruling party another resounding mandate in the last general election, even if some argue that such electorates are stupid and ignorant. I think not, our people are acutely aware of what the ANC has done, and yet still feel they would rather place their fate in its hands and not in a party that is still experiencing an identity crisis as to whether it is here to serve white or black people.

Nor do they feel assured by cries for nationalisation and old communist rhetoric, which constantly translate into physical chaos in our democratic Parliament.

Much more can and must be done insofar as our health system is concerned, I concur, but wanting to attack and curb the successes of private healthcare through a National Health Insurance scheme, when you can hardly handle what is in your own grasp in our public healthcare system, is not the answer.

The perilous state of our state-owned enterprises leaves much to be desired, but I am encouraged by the new plans being implemented. I do, however, know that at some point we will have to tackle organised labour. The unions are not playing ball insofar as transformation is concerned. The public wage bill is out of control and measures to curb this are not sufficient. We will have to adopt a UK approach where certain public sectors don’t get wage increases year-on-year. What I mean by this is a decision must be taken that says that for the 2020 financial year, public servants – let’s say in the health sector – will not receive any increase regardless of the collective bargaining outcomes. Next year they will again benefit, but not public servants in the education sector, and so on and so on. It can and must be done, Mr Finance Minister.

Another critical and difficult decision must be to once and for all curb the teachers’ union Sadtu in our schools. Legislate that education is henceforth an essential service and therefore strikes and random protests cannot be the order of the day. Reintroduce the inspectorate so that we can check whether teachers are in class, on time and teaching our children. The 16,000 redundant workers at Eskom must be laid off with immediate effect and the positive restructuring moves at our national carrier SAA must be followed through to their logical end.

In short, prepare for a massive showdown with our unions, because it is rather apparent that they don’t care for the broader South African society and care only for their paid-up members and their future at the expense of the entire country. I get no sense of patriotism from our unions in this current climate.

As to what can we expect from a Cyril Ramaphosa administration, there is hope in our country good sir, not only because of the Rugby World Cup (though we will throw that in for good measure) but also because we can observe the many good changes already underway. With R363-billion committed in the latest investment drive, plus another R300-billion last year, means that the economy is slowly gaining some traction. Yes, we all want to see consequence management for those fingered at the Zondo Commission and I am very confident that this will happen. It’s just that in a democracy, the law must take its course and the implicated are innocent until proven guilty. This will take time, but I encourage the prosecuting authority to commence with lifestyle audits immediately as a disruptor for those who bask in the idea that it will still take some time before you get to them.

Crime is out of control, especially in Cape Town, now known as the murder capital of the world. Though most categories of crime have stopped increasing over the past 25 years – except for the violent crime of rape – we are still not safe in our houses and public spaces. This, I need not tell you, is having a negative impact on citizens’ confidence and on our much-needed tourism sector. We need a safe country, Mr President. For now, law and order is still adhered to, we still stop at red traffic lights, and our courts are still very much respected. But if we take our foot off the pedal, we will descend into chaos.

Everyone I speak to shares concerns around the capacity of the state, especially at local government level, and these are valid concerns – how to fix it must be a preoccupation of this administration, and yes, we as citizens must also ask the question, what’s my agency, what can I do to contribute to this recovery chapter in Mzansi?

The glass is half full, people, and we can only achieve more from this point on. Challenges we have, more must be done of course, but what are you doing to contribute to this recovery effort?

I give you South Africa, a 65% average. Let’s do better moving forward! DM

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