Opinionista Xolisa Phillip 22 July 2021

Future-proof the country: South Africa on track to become ‘land of disorder and decay’

The country’s fragile democracy is under pressure. Poverty, inequality and high unemployment – augmented by an inefficient state – pose the biggest threats to South Africa’s social cohesion, the lynchpin of a harmonious, democratic state. This calls for a new paradigm in the state’s planning mechanisms, which are currently dominated by the fiscus.

Xolisa Phillip

Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

The South African government machinery has effectively surrendered its planning powers to the National Treasury. That has created a dystopian reality in the country, where poverty, inequality and unemployment have deepened, reaching unsustainable levels. That, in turn, threatens the social fabric of a democratic South Africa.

The National Treasury’s fiscal dominance, and its accompanying de facto veto powers, has long been called into question. There is broad agreement that its fiscal essentialism was solidified during the 1996 new growth framework, which remains the macroeconomic status quo in contemporary South Africa. But that is not to discount or dismiss the importance of a sound fiscus. 

However, that framework hasn’t been in operation without its critics. The most vocal of these was once the South African Communist Party (SACP), which for a prolonged period in its history served as the ideological conscience of the tripartite alliance.

The observation about the government surrendering its planning powers to the National Treasury was made by Pali Lehohla, the former statistician-general who is now part of the Indlulamithi Scenarios 2030 steering committee. Lehohla’s characterisation of the current dynamics in government planning would make the SACP of old blush.  

The team behind the Indlulamithi Scenarios 2030 on 15 July gave an update on which pathway South Africa is headed towards. The concept first entered the scene in 2017 as an initiative driven by economists, leaders of business, researchers and forward thinkers. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe gave a rousing keynote address in which he discussed the significance of scenario planning for the country.    

Taking into consideration the devastating events of the past two weeks in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the scenario update was well timed.  

Briefly, Indlulamithi envisages three socio-economic pathways or scenarios for South Africa: iSbhujwa, underpinned by a trickle-down outlook; Gwara Gwara, underscored by an immiserising outlook; and Nayi-le-Walk, propelled by a pro-poor outlook.

Furthermore, iSbhujwa forecasts “deepening social divides, protests and cynical self-interest”; Gwara Gwara predicts a state of affairs in which the country is a “demoralised land of disorder and decay”; while Nayi-le-Walk projects an optimal situation where “social cohesion, economic expansion and constitutionalism” are the norm.

Motlanthe gave a reminder during his address that between 1990 and 1994, South Africa was a hotbed of political and social discontent. The environment was highly charged, and the probability of the country devolving into a violent state was high. In large part, what kept the country from the precipice was scenario planning, which gave the leaders in those days an opportunity to make informed decisions about what course to pursue.

Based on the latest reading of the Indlulamithi barometer, which measures resistance, resentment and reconciliation; institutional capacity and leadership; and social inequality, South Africa is deep within the terrain forecast in Gwara Gwara. The measures cover July 2020 to May 2021.  

In the period under review, social inequality has deteriorated the most, according to the Indlulamithi 2021 national barometer reading. That is self-evident in what has happened in the two provinces mentioned earlier.

A major contributor to the disorder and decay is the fact that “we have surrendered all of our powers to the Treasury… They are going to use the fiscus to determine plans. Unless we get out of that mode, we are not going to go far,” cautioned Lehohla.  

But that is not to scapegoat the National Treasury. Its dominance is a symptom of existing gaps in planning within government, which are systemic. Lehohla considers the National Development Plan, once considered South Africa’s blueprint economic document, a single scenario.

However, “there is nothing as dangerous as having a single scenario, especially when you don’t even implement it”.  

This is where Parliament is pivotal. The legislature could fill in the gaps by requiring the executive to be more explicit about what the overarching plan is for South Africa, against which it is delivering government services to the citizenry.  

But “that question never comes in Parliament. We applaud all the time, even for plans that don’t make sense,” warns Lehohla.  

Indeed, Covid-19, which has obviated pre-existing deficiencies in the South African state, has crystallised the importance of future-proofing the country through considered planning.

Motlanthe’s words, spoken during his keynote address, are quite apt in capturing what the present moment means for South Africa. “We are undoubtedly at another crossroads in the development of South Africa. Today’s layered crises present an opportunity to decide what is important to us,” said the former president. DM/BM

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  • It’s an inconvenient truth that you can’t live beyond your means.

    When faced with a cash crunch individuals have the choice of cutting their expenses or growing their income. So do countries.

    What we need to divest ourselves of are unicorn scenarios where we balloon our spending and carry on with bad policies that shrink our income.

    Sadly, this looks like the journey we are on, and it cannot end well

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