Opinionista

We must find lasting South African solutions – failure to do so is a failure of our imagination

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

We must be able to imagine a very different South Africa, a prosperous South Africa that is able at its core to address our triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. So, as we imagine our future in this beautiful country of ours, we look around to try to find workable solutions.

Recently I read a very interesting piece in which Colin Coleman indicates that to bounce back from recent traumatic events, the Cyril Ramaphosa administration must consider a three-pronged strategy: “A decisive assault on all threats to our national security and Constitution; the roll-out of an economic stimulus targeting the unemployed and small businesses; and accelerated implementation of an uncompromising programme of pro-growth structural reforms.”

These are some of the proposals – among many others I might add (from other pundits) – that we must entertain in order to imagine a different country. In short, Coleman says:

“Action by the security forces, while respecting human rights, must be visible to quell all threats and win back trust. Confidence must be restored that families are safe in their homes, communities are protected and properties are secure.” 

An “unemployment grant for the more than 11 million South Africans aged 18 to 59 who have no other form of state income. At R800 a month, the cost of such a grant, which I propose be introduced in the next six months with modalities subject to expert advice, would be about R100-billion annually.” This, by the way, is in keeping with the global trend after the Covid pandemic and the economic devastation it caused.

Coleman continues that “another focus for stimulus should be small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) that have been hammered by the unrest and the pandemic. The government should consider a sizeable scheme, about R50-billion, to provide equity capital – not grants – to SMMEs. The likes of the Public Investment Corporation, Industrial Development Corporation, the banks and insurers should partner rand-for-rand with the government and identify businesses to recapitalise, earn healthy returns from, and resuscitate. This capital would be an investment in the future of businesses on which millions of jobs depend.”

I want to believe that we can imagine these approaches finding expression in our policy and procedures going forward. I also want to imagine the building of the smart city that President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of, employing hundreds of thousands. A city of which we can be proud and which will embrace all the elements of the green economy and sustainable systems. Solar power, vertical gardens and farming, sustainable food production and sustainable water use.

The building of two or three bullet train lines throughout the country, especially to the Durban port to avoid the overreliance on trucks on the N3 highway; a line from Thohoyandou to Johannesburg and another from Johannesburg to Cape Town. We could be transporting goods and people on these bullet trains with greater speed and ease.

I want to imagine greater cooperation between the private and public sectors – in health, as we have seen during the pandemic, and giving greater effect to the envisaged NHI, as well as in education, especially now that we are so reliant on the virtual environment. Surely, now we can have much more twinning of schools where pupils from historically disadvantaged schools can receive the expertise and wisdom of teachers at privileged schools, especially in maths and science, by using Blackboard and other platforms?

I also imagine our government sending far more students to international universities, not because our domestic universities cannot educate them, but because international exposure and interaction will greatly improve an all-round student. These should not only be restricted to maths and science, but also extend to the humanities and social sciences. Critical thinking in the arts and humanities is equally important.

I continue to imagine a South Africa that clearly sees the continent as our next opportunity for growth. Africa must be where we do our business on all fronts. Communication technologies, competing with Europe, infrastructure development, competing with China, mining which competes with both these powers – Africa is our backyard and no one else’s. We must claim it and work together with our African counterparts to actualise the above. This is the only way we are going to grow our economy.

I imagine South Africa being the preferred African power to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and continuing to have good international relations with many countries. I imagine a successful Africa free trade area and a conflict-free southern Africa at least under the leadership of South Africa.

Last but not least, I imagine we as South Africans, black and white, coming together to imagine solutions to our challenges. A social compact of note and greater active citizenry all round. That’s what I imagine. We cannot despair, people.

It was the political and environmental activist George Monbiot who in 2017 reminded us that “despair is the state we fall into when our imagination fails. When we have no stories that describe the present and guide the future, hope evaporates. Political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination.”

Let us create our South African stories of smart cities, bullet trains and infrastructure. Let us imagine better equality, less poverty and less unemployment. Let us go to our upcoming local government elections and vote to strengthen our multiparty democracy and defend our Constitution. Let us imagine together and not despair.

We must imagine in order for hope not to evaporate. DM

Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

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