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Identifying critical sectors for economic growth


Shaeera Kalla is an activist and is the former president of the Wits SRC. She is an ambassador for Anti-Racism Week. She writes in her personal capacity

In a speech given to the Business Economic Indaba last week, Shaeera Kalla called for a National Economic Recovery Plan to be centred around sustainable and shared economic value creation.  She warned delegates, ‘if we cannot figure out how to share in our value and wealth ‘creation’, we will share in its destruction’. Below is an edited version of her speech. 

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to deliberately learn something new every day. So each night I read a chapter of a book titled Uncommon Knowledge – the Economist Explains. The most thought-provoking chapter so far asks: “Who owns what in space?”

How many of you know who owns what in space? 

While we’re endlessly debating our mining charter, there are governments passing legislation on mining in outer space. If there is life out there, South Africans are well qualified through the principle of lived experience to provide consulting – there’s lots of money in consulting, just ask McKinsey. And maybe in space they will even find a Mantashe mineral.

However, while South Africa might be lagging behind in economic growth, we are not lagging behind with its corollary, inequality. The past three decades of global economic growth have been unprecedented in human history, but they have also been coupled with rising inequality. Oxfam’s Time to Care report states that the combined wealth of the world’s 22 richest men is more than the wealth of all the women in Africa; and that the monetary value of unpaid care work globally for women aged 15 and over is at least $10-trillion annually – that is three times the size of the world’s tech industry! South Africa must be a leader in unpaid and underpaid care work. Not fair is it? 

We have pioneered inequality even at times of economic growth, and as we all know, it is dangerous being the most unequal country in the world.

My quest for new knowledge reminds me that throughout history, states have played a role by actively shaping and creating markets. The internet, for example, was created by the American military, funded by taxpayers and it was only through privatisation that Silicon Valley, also known as Surveillance Valley, was created. That is why the South African government should also be thinking about the new markets we might seed and the constitutional values of dignity and equality on which these markets must be built.

Rather than an unsustainable obsession with narrow measures of economic growth, particularly GDP, I argue that South Africa needs a framework for the creation of value that is underpinned by:

  • Human development;
  • Radical and targeted industrial policy; and
  • Service delivery and functioning state-owned enterprises.

But when, as my comrade Kamal Rambaruth-Hurt points out, the very capacity of our state in terms of implementation is being questioned, how do we set in motion what is needed for these critical sectors of value?

While we try to find an answer to this question, people are creating their own value in order to survive where they can. This resilience is, for example, seen through waste reclaimers pushing trolleys, which weigh up to 200kg around the city. They are the leaders in our circular and waste management economy. Of the meagre 10% of waste we recycle, they are responsible for 90%, saving taxpayers millions in landfill costs. 

In this era of robots, human data mines and space tourism while refugees drown crossing the sea to safety, sky-rocketing weapons sales, billionaires and philanthropy; we cannot afford to not give economic growth a more human face.

We must pursue growth in what is good for us and the surest measure of when something is good is when it positively affects the most marginalised.

Can we design solutions for critical human and environmental needs, which in the limited case of waste reclaimers has happened by default?

A meaningful collaboration between the state, business, labour and civil society is crucial if we are to create:

  • Sources of renewable energy, recycling and a functioning circular economy;
  • An educated and healthy country with quality institutions, sustainable, safe food production and mental healthcare;
  • A thriving creative industry from art and architecture, to theatre and literature, films and music; and
  • Locally manufactured technologies from cell phones to electric cars to public transport systems.

So, in my view, any national economic recovery plan must centre around sustainable economic value creation. This is our greatest challenge because if we cannot figure out how to share in our value and wealth “creation”, we will share in its destruction. MC

This is an edited version of Shaeera Kalla’s speech. Kalla was one of the leaders of the #FeesMustFall movement while she was a student at Wits. She has recently done a Masters at Oxford University and is the co-founder of The Mbegu Platform.


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