Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows – Leonard Cohen, 1988
Everybody knows. It’s old news. It’s everyday news. But that doesn’t make it fake news. We are going down. Way, way down. For those who are anxious, fasten your seatbelts. Turbulent times ahead. It’s only just begun. There is a long and an even more painful road down.
Only one thing is certain: the bottom is far off. The bottom is a barren pit where nothing of value to anyone is worth much at all. Where growth in domestic and foreign investment is a distant memory. Where we are unable to feed and clothe our people, let alone treat their ailments and educate them adequately. Where water dries up or is contaminated under a pit of incompetence. Where the home market is too poor to generate demand, because every second person is unemployed. Where we are a nation of beggars seeking aid from the banks of the world or whichever country can help us. Where we are slaves to the austerity measures of others and our statutory independence will have become a “when-we” memory. Just like apartheid oppression, only worse. Because we will have no one but ourselves to blame. That’s where we’re headed.
I have said this before and been called out for my “pessimism”. Repeatedly. Even though all of my pessimism has transformed into today’s reality. It’s not a cool thing to say. Trust me, I don’t say this with an inch of bravado: the ANC is our surefire guarantee to take us there. It has already got us on the road and pointed us south. Deep south into the pit of poverty as a nation. They may still pretend they can rescue us. Some may even hang desperately to the hope that they can.
We need to reimagine ourselves anew and be bold and decisive in our intent to create an ecologically integrated, egalitarian, non-racial and non-sexist, democratic South Africa in the actual lived experience of our people.
But it’s a dream. An apparition. All the economic indicators of our downward road are glaringly there. The climbing poverty and unemployment. The deepening debt and spiralling costs versus revenue for governance. The corruption and maladministration, the flight of capital and skills, the decline of confidence and hope, the deepening social dislocation, the degradation of the environment, the total collapse of capacity of local government to deliver services, the violence against our women and our children and each other, and, and, and….
The only thing the ANC is capable of doing is looking after its own voting battalions: the 2.2% of the population on the public servant wage bill, together with the 28% of the population on social grants. Oh, and of course the politically connected, tiny insiders’ club, of the established capitalist and black empowerment elite and their union leadership buddies. But even servicing these loyal and insider troops itself is set to falter. Even that self-centred mission becomes unsustainable. Even for the ANC. Not because of the ANC, but in spite of the ANC. South Africa cannot connect the economic dots. Debt and revenue are heading in opposite directions. The lenders won’t have it. And they will win. Austerity will be the new normal under the ANC government. Even though the very ANC voting battalions will be the target for coming austerity. The employed and unemployed poor will carry the weight of the austerity through more job loss, and less and less spending on public services.
There is some good news though: the political and capitalist elite will continue to accumulate by tender manipulation or enterprise. They will offshore more and more of their capital, as they are already doing at pace. They will continue to enjoy a top-end quality of life in the suburbs and hotels and beaches and game reserves that will render them comatose to any sense of empathy with the cry of the poor. But with this difference: as we spiral downward in our death agony, the politics that represent the BEE predatory elite will become sharper, shriller and more urgent. Their calls to combat white monopoly capital racism, to solidify black nationalism, to rekindle ancestral tribalism will get louder and become more urgent.
We will face the perfect storm as a nation: deepening starvation and polarising racial dislocation. These are the conditions pregnant with opportunity for the triumph of our own brand of populist, right-wing, dictatorial African nationalism. For political splits and reunification and realignment. Watch that space.
To start the healing journey, we need to reimagine ourselves as a people, as an African nation of the south. An African nation in creation, needing to sustain ourselves as part of an ecological whole with all other species. A nation that needs to change everything of what we do in order to include everyone. A nation that genuinely places inclusivity and care for the ecosystems and each other at the centre of our national identity.
To do this we need to look at all the environmental, social and economic walls that divide us, all our holy cows and can’t-dos, all the drivers of our ecological alienation and social dislocation, our violence, our envy and our distrust and anger. We need to reimagine ourselves anew and be bold and decisive in our intent to create an ecologically integrated, egalitarian, non-racial and non-sexist, democratic South Africa in the actual lived experience of our people.
And we need to know that to do this we will face the wrath of the well-heeled insider club, the environmental abusers, the lenders and our erstwhile and new economic colonisers from the international community. And we will lose some on the way because we will all have to change, and some of us will have to live with far less than what we got for others to gain far more than what they have.
To begin, we must agree on a golden rule: everything we do must be ecologically aligned and integrated to the sustenance and growth of a healthy natural world. We have to refashion our relationship to all life on Earth to create a sustainable nation as part of an ecologically healthy and sound natural environment. We need to break down the social walls that divide us. Starting with wealth and its drivers: the intergenerational wealth-transfer walls and deeply unequal ownership walls that divide us into a tiny group of insiders and the mass of outsiders. Our land and factories and mines must be placed in the hands of our people. We must as a matter of urgency create a new, inclusive mix in the mixed economy, using multiple ownership and participation forms that mix the best of us with the economically disenfranchised among us. A mix that looks creatively for every opportunity for our people to participate in franchises or leases or ownership assets or profits or the markets of the entire economic enterprise of our people. An ecologically sustainable mix of ownership that takes the best of us and the worst of us to create a new normal in a fair distribution of inclusive access across the board, to drive new growth and enterprise.
And we need to tear down our income inequality: lift the bottom and cap the top for those with jobs and distribute a basic income grant with access to mentors and markets for those without. We need to open access to loans and finance for mini and small businesses, incentivise distributions for investment with job multipliers and penalise distributions for pure consumption. And we need to use the tax lever to create a significant tax advantage for those who lend or train or invest or create jobs.
We need to free up the labour market and create labour market policies and regulations for all our people, not just the employed among us. See the labour world anew, but this time from the bottom up.
We need a new recognition of ourselves as a people. We need to rid ourselves of a purely race-based empowerment agenda and replace it with a national unification and nation-building agenda. A unification agenda where empowerment advantage is strictly for all those who are poor, be they black or brown or white, and who speak both English and any vernacular language, being the central target beneficiaries of the national unification agenda.
We need to empower the poor through access to assets and through a common shared language to drive a new uniformity in our culture. We need to open up our cities and our suburbs and living spaces to let the poor informal traders or shack dwellers in. Free up the throttling regulations and give informal traders access to trading spaces on all our streets and our malls and commercial centres. Tear down the apartheid urban spatial zones and give access to land for homes for the poor in our suburbs and near our workplaces. In a word: make our living and buying and selling experience reflect who we are in our totality as a nation. Rich and poor, side by side.
We need to free up the labour market and create labour market policies and regulations for all our people, not just the employed among us. See the labour world anew, but this time from the bottom up. Deepen the line-of-sight visibility between the manager and the worker on the shop floor by returning actual bargained wage rates to the factory or farm or mine floor. Make central bargaining a negotiation of benefits and minimums for job facilitation and creation only. Incentivise shop floor training, mentoring and skills transfers. So each one truly is incentivised to employ one and teach one.
And we need to gear up places of learning to focus on a national drive for the literacy and numeracy competency required in the digital era. And in everything we do we need to prioritise the ecological integration of the local: align to an unambiguously green future and lift the bottom, the village and the factory and the town, with the state as facilitator and monitor and regulator. In that order.
I could go on. But you get the message. For our country to break free from the shackles of our downward spiral we urgently need a new start. A new start where everyone gives up on their holy cows and charts a future for all our people as an integral part of an ecologically healthy future. It’s not enough to tinker with this or that policy and hope for a reversal of the tide. It won’t happen.
We need to grab the big levers that sustain and replicate the walls that divide us and refashion these into a new whole. A whole that delivers to the ubuntu dream of being who we are through others. That means all others, as in all of our people and all life on Earth. DM