A pervasive yet harmful attitude is becoming more apparent in our South African political discourse. It is the inclination to celebrate survival rather than accomplishment. This perspective is insidious and can be observed in several aspects of our lives — from economic indicators to social expectations, and even political benchmarks.
We’ve arrived at a stage where scraping the barrel is lauded, while realistic and attainable societal goals are truly overlooked. Government performance seems to be measured on the same pass-mark level as students writing the National Senior Certificate: a 30% pass mark.
Consider the response to the economic data announced last week.
The real gross domestic product (GDP) expanded by a negligible 0.4% in the first quarter of 2023 (January-March). This, in reality, represents economic stagnation, yet it was framed as a cause for celebration — as an accomplishment by the government.
The prevalence of these narratives is symptomatic of a society that has set the bar too low; one where we are being conditioned to accept managed decline.
Consider that there was a time when South Africa was aiming high and attaining high economic outcomes. Between 2004 and 2007, our GDP growth averaged 5%. Our National Development Plan, which was launched in 2012, aimed for an annual GDP growth of 5.4% a year, along with the creation of 11 million jobs by 2030. It even aimed to reduce the unemployment rate to 6%.
We have come a long way from this performance mentality. Instead of rejoicing over mere stability, or reframing lethargic performance, we should aspire to, and work for, growth, prosperity, and innovation — the true markers of economic progress.
In a similar vein, there was an effort to ululate over lethargic unemployment numbers, when the official unemployment rate decreased by 0.2 of a percentage point from 32.9% in the fourth quarter of 2022 to 32.7% in the first quarter of 2023.
To provide perspective, long-term unemployment continued to increase year after year. While short-term improvements can provide temporary solace and political talking points for the government, they mask the deeper, more structural problems in the labour market.
Problems must be clearly articulated and rectified if we have real hopes of turning our economy around.
We must resist the temptation to be appeased by these superficial and very often negligible victories and instead address the root causes that contribute to persistent long-term unemployment. Addressing these will require clear commitments to reforms and clear commitments to good management and leadership.
Contentment with mediocrity and failure
Our celebration of survival even extends into the sphere of personal safety and security. Rather than focusing on creating a safe society where crime is a rarity, we are conditioned to celebrate surviving physically unharmed during home robberies or hijackings.
We should not be living in a country where house robberies, phone thefts and hijackings are shared trauma experiences for a whole nation. These are truly distressing benchmarks, and they show a troubling and deep normalisation of crime and violence in our society.
And then there’s the issue of rolling blackouts.
It has been an interesting observation to see how quickly we shift our yardsticks of performance. A few months ago, any rolling blackout was rightfully condemned by us all, but after being worn down by the mediocrity of the government, we are in a new normal.
There is now an unsettling reality that certain levels of rolling blackouts are celebrated and even hoped for.
I was surprised to note a poll where voters stated they would vote for the ANC if they fixed load shedding. Not jobs, not housing, not crime, not education — just keep the lights on and you have my vote.
This statement provoked me and showed the challenge opposition politicians face to persuade the electorate. It is almost unbelievable that the ANC could easily recover all the lost ground, simply because they have successfully normalised low expectations.
Hope without aspiration
Alexander Pope wrote that “hope springs eternal in the human breast”. It is understandable that South Africans possess a resilient attitude. We have gone through a lot during difficult historic periods and have had to dig deep to live our daily lives. Our resilient spirit makes us find the positives in even dire circumstances.
However, this same spirit can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous and lazy leaders. Those leaders tell us to boil cholera-infected water, or worse, just add chlorine — without sharing the quantities — instead of providing clean water. Or they supply clean water at extortionate costs.
They raise interest rates and tell the middle class to tough it out instead of establishing a market-appropriate monetary policy. They tell us to be patient instead of arresting and prosecuting those responsible for looting the state.
Know your worth
Fellow South Africans, we must avoid slipping into a failing state mindset.
Instead of accepting failure and managed decline, we need to reset our sights on a grand vision and set high expectations for our nation.
South Africa can be an original equipment manufacturing giant in Africa; we can supply this continent with finished goods and products. South Africa can educate students who read at the highest level in the world. We can develop a competitive skills base and go toe-to-toe with Germany, South Korea and Taiwan.
We can have a nation where crime is scandalous because of its paucity. We can grow our economy at over 5% year-on-year for a decade. We do not have to settle for mediocrity. We do not have to accept a slow decline into “failed nation” status.
I challenge South Africans to seek out individuals capable of elevating our society to the next level. Our focus must be on innovation, achievement and growth, not mere survival or maintaining the status quo.
We should aspire for a thriving society — one where achievement is celebrated and progress is the norm.
We do not need leaders who ensure that only the connected few have tickets to enter the promised land of peace and prosperity. We do not need leaders who see themselves as grasshoppers and others as giants. We need leaders who believe in the potential of their fellow South Africans, and who want to do the work to realise that potential.
In the end, it is crucial to understand that celebrating survival is myopic.
We can’t afford to celebrate the failure to grow. Our narrative should not be of merely existing, but rather of thriving, progressing and achieving.
We must aim to create a culture that aspires to and values success. A shift in our collective mindset can propel us towards a future where celebration is reserved for real achievements that mark the progress of our nation. DM