Defend Truth


A new vocabulary is needed to make sense of South Africa’s economic quagmire


Mfuneko Toyana is an associate editor at Business Maverick.

It feels like for the longest time, we’ve been served verbal herbal tea and saccharine shibboleths when it comes to the flavour of economic growth our country is after. The National Development Plan (NDP), a 500-page blockbuster subtitled 'Our future – make it work', is in terms of literary value and spunk a sleepy soliloquy, blanketed with IMF best practice blurbs for slipping the middle-income noose.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The plot is watery, despite the fact that it was penned at a time of great global and local tumult. A time when the glorious promise of prosperity of the early 2000s was melting away, and global recession was gnashing its fangs, as the old truths of a bounty for all were crumbling.

We got more of the same about a developmental economy, “enhanced capabilities” and “active citizenry”. What followed was not much better, equally failing to tap into the emerging, millennial zeitgeist of green, morally inflected economics attempting to shake free of the post-industrialist, consumerist gospel of growth driven by commodity extraction.

Incoming President Cyril Ramaphosa’s much-anticipated Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) was a greyer, tamer laundry list of triage steps, rather than an imaginative, far-sighted vision.

Naturally, it was dressed up in the drab haute couture of “accelerating reforms”, “unlocking investments” and “reindustrialisation” – the Washington consensus language of the previous century, wilfully blind that the genre was now defunct, its literary technique of hyper-rationalisation a blur of white noise, too far removed from the lived reality of precarious, if any, labour, just-enough production, and financial crisis, to be believable. The plan did not even lend itself to crisp acronymisation that embeds ideas into the public consciousness, and so it has faded from conversation.

For all their faults, Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) and RDP (Reconstruction and Development Plan), the economic master plans of the first decade-and-a-half of democracy, struck a melodious chord, energising readers and listeners enough for them to engage with the ideas and ideals they contained, and to ponder their applicability to everyday life. Not so of the NDP and the ERRP.

The cumulative effect, on a semiotic level at least, is that the country’s economic blueprint is starting to look and feel like a swindle – a breezy magic trick, minus the prestige part, the payoff where the magician follows the Pledge and The Turn with something truly astonishing. What we have for now is just a doom loop of technical solutions. Adjustments. Tweaks. Reprioritisations. A deficit of new ideas. Plans written for the policy wonk, not the plebian or the povo (common people, especially those who are poor or politically oppressed).

“It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” wrote that apocalyptic sage, George Orwell, in 1946, teetering on the cliff edge at the onslaught of uninventive policy rhetoric that seemed to beget bland political life.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” Orwell wrote.

The challenge of growing our economy is the most concrete of matters, and so deserves a policy language befitting of the times and that echoes the voices of the people it would lift out of the mire.

There is a wonderful word for persons with the undeniably admirable propensity to seek out strange words and splatter them in conversation. Sesquipedalian.

I first heard it as a teenager in a rap song by underground supergroup Groundworks, led by the late Ben Sharpa. I didn’t know what it meant back then but it stuck with me, and I only learnt its meaning over a decade later, making the knowledge a little bit sweeter, especially because it seems South Africans, in addition to being political animals, are a highly evolved species of sesquipedalians: we stretch, manipulate and reinvent (the English) language with wry relish, and ladle it with history and politics, out of what is surely a primordial desire to make meaning out of chaos.

Afrikaans is testimony to our language-making roots and a slick subversion of rigid social and economic structures.

Comrade-speak, lush with dense terms like exigency and neoliberalism, is perhaps the contemporary example of a code-switching felicity we employ to make and dismantle boundaries, sometimes simultaneously, and leaven often limp concepts with levity and dints of local ideology, culture and deviations from accepted knowledge. Like the English political prose Orwell describes, it has also suffered abuse and fallen into stasis, passing from revolutionary and imaginative evocations of egalitarian utopias, to stale platitudes used to mask lassitude of political and economic thought.

This is perhaps a small part of the reason an idea like quantitative easing – the music and mystery of the words alone are almost enough to make you believe in the idea – has made waves globally. It sounds new and fresh. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • John Strydom says:

    A timely and enjoyable article, thank you.

  • Andrew Wright says:

    Excellent ..

  • Michael Settas says:

    Thank you! An enjoyable precis to exemplify this Orwell prognostication on statism – “… stale platitudes used to mask lassitude of political and economic thought.” Neither citizenry nor businesses can possibly buy into the President’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, whilst he and his ruling party simultaneously hang the Sword of Damocles presciently over our heads, in the insidious collective form of Expropriation, NHI, Cadre Deployment, a worthless education system, a collapsing health service, prescribed assets, race based employment policies. These are all dreamt up by the vacuous politicians and policymakers from his Cabinet. The extent of the disasters they wish to inflict upon us, given their patent ignorance of coherent and widely proven policies, is depressingly lengthy!

  • Biff Trotters says:

    Yes! Give us GEAR and RDP.
    Thank you for distilling that so skillfully.

  • Sooi van der Spuy says:

    The words from a Jethro Tull song comes to mind. Giving my age away? Yes, indeed.

    “It was a new day yesterday, but it’s an old day now.”

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