Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 15 March 2021

Fifteen years along the road to nowhere, and the worst is yet to come

We are at a point, now, where instead of pointing to the perversity of misguided distribution, corruption, theft, maladministration, tenderpreneurs, and State Capture, discussions are deflected – and the spectrum of opinion has been narrowed.

Ismail Lagardien

Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

In 2015, Justice Malala published his book We Have Now Begun Our Descent. Without having read the book I sat down to consider South Africa’s future, and concluded that there was little to no hope for the country. I was in Bonn, Germany, at the time, after four or more years in the secretariat of the National Planning Commission. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has had a dreadful impact on South Africa’s political economy and society – as it has on almost every country in the world – the country’s problems took a turn for the worse at Nasrec at the end of 2017, and Malala’s “descent” gained momentum. 

I want to break with orthodoxy, and say that it is the politics, not “the economy,” as the old canard goes. Homo economicus might believe that the economy is everything, and everything is the economy, but “the economy” is those millions of transactions that humans make every minute of every day, and the personal and public political decisions that enable or disable those people (from making those transactions).

A collapse that preceded democracy

Before I continue, I want to share a passage I wrote between 1991 and 1993, when I was the southern African correspondent for the New Straits Times of Malaysia. I don’t have the exact date of publication, because the person who decided to make a “portfolio” of my work neatly trimmed my reports and columns but failed to include the date. I was going to save it for my memoir, but here it is – written at a time when the apartheid government was losing its grip on power and state institutions in the early 1990s:

“It is as if a villainous character had every day, over the years, gone to the Union Buildings, the seat of government in the capital, Pretoria, and methodologically and systematically undone every single screw, bolt, nut and nail of government. Every day, now, for months on end, a section of government in South Africa is coming apart. It is difficult, now, after a spate of scandalous exposes in recent months to say exactly when the disintegration first started, or when the first door, window or desk in the Union Buildings collapsed. What has become evident, however, is that the state is collapsing bit by bit, in slow motion, while its powers of rehabilitation [are] dissipating with its political might.”

It has been reported, over and again, that the democratic government inherited a state that was on its knees. As the Afrikaner historian Herman Giliomee wrote, a decade ago, March 1985 marked, “the day apartheid started dying”. 

Wrote Giliomee: “Pik Botha recalls: ‘I will never forget the night of July 31 when [Minister of Finance] Barend du Plessis phoned me… [He said]: ‘Pik, I must tell you that the country is facing inevitable bankruptcy … The process has started.’”

We had growth, and increased social spending, but the thieves saw opportunities

The first democratic government of South Africa, led by Nelson Mandela, was fully aware of the terrible state of the economy. They managed, within a decade or more, to provide utilities and access to public goods and services (including social grants) to millions of people across the country (all necessary for a stable, progressive social democracy), while managing the country’s finances, avoiding profligacy – and through it all, produced growth and a Budget surplus. 

This demonstrated that you can reduce poverty, provide social services, deliver public goods and services, as well as manage the country’s finances. The problem that emerged, after the first 12-15 years was not lack of growth, or a contraction of the economy, it was about distribution – much of the growth did, indeed go to social spending, but a lot more began to go into the wrong pockets. Corruption, maladministration, cronyism, nepotism and prebendalism took root – what good was the ANC-led state, if it did not line the pockets of its leaders, and members who were deployed to state agencies, and boards across the country?

Fast-forward to a few years later, and we are at a point, now, where instead of pointing to the perversity of misguided distribution, corruption, theft, maladministration, tenderpreneurs, and State Capture, discussions are deflected – and the spectrum of opinion has been narrowed. Somewhat simultaneously rose the politics of identity (the ugly version), and instead of policies focusing on social problems, they focused on contortions of language, the politics of revenge, populism, scapegoating, and the speeches and statements of leaders were increasingly laced with words like “bloodshed,” and all the while xenophobia, aimed mainly at Africans and Asians, has spread. 

A careful read of Carl Niehaus’s eight-page submission on likely policies of the ruling alliance, suggests we are expected to choose between Radical Economic Transformation by policy (ANC), or Radical Economic Transformation by force (EFF). At what point do the ANC’s radical forces join the EFF? Impossible, but not improbable. 

Carl Niehaus tables radical economic transformation plan ahead of Ace Magashule’s campaign for ANC president

Are we there yet?

Let’s take stock, briefly, of where we are. We know that “the economy” is in the pits. But what makes an economy stable, expansive, progressive and able to secure social justice? Don’t ask an economist. To them it’s all cost-benefits, assumptions, laws and models which they mistake for truth. And anyway, people who are so sure of their own predictive powers belong on the beachfront with fortune tellers. What makes an economy work is everything else: the people, the institutions, the policies, ethics, food, water, shelter, clothing and, well, energy. If we start just with energy, consider the fact that we may have load shedding  for at least the next five years

This week, Eskom’s Chief Executive Officer, André de Ruyter, confirmed that “there will be a shortfall in supply of electricity of approximately 4,000 megawatts over the next five years as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. We welcome further interventions announced by the president, which will include a further request for proposals for a further 2,600 megawatts from wind and solar energy.” 

Using non-economic rationalist orthodoxy, us ordinary citizens know, intuitively, that you cannot run a shop, a workshop or any heavy industry without a stable source of electricity. We also know that you cannot get to work without commuter trains running. We also know that we place our lives in danger with every taxi ride. While us mere mortals don’t travel abroad much, if at all, we know that planes belong in the air; that the public broadcaster is meant to serve as, well, a public broadcaster; the police are meant to serve and protect; our military personnel should be able to march in straight lines, and its hardware has to be up to date (you can’t have stockpiles of ammunition that is outdated); along with the police and military, the state security system ought to make us sleep better at night, and criminals need to be prosecuted – even if they are among the highest office-bearers in the ruling alliance. 

A woman walking to work is not safe. A family sitting at home watching TV is not safe. A farmer working his or her fields is not safe. The driver stopping at a red light is not safe. Do we really expect someone to invest in an existing or new industry or fund innovation if a faction of the ruling party calls for “the mass nationalisation of industries including mines, insurance companies, steel and chemical companies”? The future of work is changing, but our major union leaders, supported by barbarous professors, want our workers to stay in the bondage of assembly lines – instead of retraining them for new, more innovative means of production.

All of these represent the life world of everyday people in South Africa. Every time anyone buys a loaf of bread or a bag of oranges they comprise “the economy”. Speaking of oranges, you can return the land to “its rightful owners” and (with the help of the former white owner) farm citrus products, but if individual oranges have a fungal disease you may not be able to export your produce. That’s not a racist conspiracy. (I use this one example because I have some insights into a related domestic issues case, and about the way the World Trade Organisation works.) 

This can go on and on if we can’t guarantee: the safety of investments; a reliable stream of energy; community and personal safety; trains that run; a reliable justice system – with judges who are unimpeachable; a postal service that is functional; public servants who do the jobs they’re paid to do; teachers who teach; nurses who are paid well, and don’t sign in for one another when they want to escape parts of night duty; and if we don’t play our part, as active citizens.

The government can build schools, but parents must make sure their children attend school, and show an interest in the child’s education. The government can provide trash cans, but people must use them. Visit downtown Johannesburg and you may get a sense of how filth has built up – it’s not quite at the levels of Naples, but give it time. While we hold the state and political parties to a high standard, we need to, also, report on citizens who refuse to pay or steal electricity and water, then cry foul if they are brought to book. That, is largely, the result of ANC promises. With another election in a couple of years, do we really think the ANC, or any political party is going to tell people to pay their electricity bills or get cut off? And so, it’s not “the economy” it’s everything we do, and say, every day, that makes the economy work. 

We may have started our descent, as Malala, wrote almost six years ago; my loss of hope has deepened – helped along by #statecapture revelations. But let me turn to the observations I made in the early 1990s, with regards to the National Party:

“What has become evident, however, is that the state is collapsing bit by bit, in slow motion, while its powers of rehabilitation [are] dissipating with its political might.” DM

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All Comments 13

  • Exactly, and the bulk of wealth that is leftover will be in the hands of politicians and cadres, while the equity that was available to be invested by hopeful South African’s will have fled.

    • Sadly I share your sentiments. I used to be the ultimate optimist and promoter of our beautiful country. I tried to convince my sister not to emigrate 30 years ago, now I wish I had followed her clearly more perspicacious insights. Now, at best, if anyone asks I keep quiet.
      I see on at least a weekly basis educated, ambitious and good people on our neighborhood chat group selling their goods and chattels as they implement their plans to emigrate.

  • And while on the subject of political economy, factor in the colonisation of countries with raw materials by the new emergent superpower that is China.

  • Ismael, you have put everything so succinctly, although couched in euphemisms, but you’re right on every count. It’s really difficult to call the “elephant in the room” anything else when the elephant fills the whole room. South Africa is simply another African disaster, unfolding.

  • May I express my sadness about and also my gratitude to the mass of our people who, day after day, live out the resultant misery of this slow downward spiral. Their patience and long suffering is a moving testament to the human spirit. I bow to them in humility and wonderment.

  • ‘…but our major union leaders, supported by barbarous professors, want our workers to stay in the bondage of assembly lines – instead of retraining them for new, more innovative means of production.’ Amen. This point is particularly pertinent to the emerging green economy.

  • What I don’t understand is where are the people? Why don’t they vote out the ANC? Surely it’s been enough of a generation to not have those old loyalty hangups. SA is failing because the people are happy with thieves and liars.

    • Absolutely agree
      But they are told lies and they believe them
      Kept uneducated so that they won’t question the ANC and will keep voting. Especially if given a free T shirt

        • I disagree there is no alternative. There is and never will be a perfect political party but we definitely do have several that would make a reasonable coalition government. A quote springs to my mind, a wise man changes his mind and a fool, never. I do hope there will be a shift in “the majority” for the upcoming elections and SA will get another chance.

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