Business Maverick


Traffic lights and the evolution of South Africa


Steuart Pennington manages, mentors 12 young development journalists and assists in the upliftment of 16 under-resourced schools in the Natal Midlands.

If the country remains stuck at a red traffic light, an even bigger traffic jam could ensue.

Ever noticed in England their traffic lights go from green to amber to red and then back to amber before green? Our robots don’t; they go green, amber, red, green. Having just read an article by John Endres, of the Institute of Race Relations, on South Africa’s Third Age: What lies ahead?, it occurred to me that the English traffic lights represent what might be in SA– an evolving scenario, as the diagram below encapsulates.


Four steps in our 30-year evolution

As Endres writes, “A useful framework for thinking about this assesses the role of the state along two axes. The first axis is whether the state plays an enabling role or one that is obstructive. The second is whether the state is expanding or receding. Combining these two axes results in four quadrants.”

Quadrant 1: Green – 1994–2007. Post our 1994 elections, no question, there was considerable progress across a wide range of indicators. Some of the cynics out there will claim that the governing party was enjoying the legacy of Nationalist Party rule. I beg to differ, when I did the research for the book South Africa: The Good News (2002) it was quite clear that a number of negative NP indicators were reversed by the ANC; debt to GDP came down; GDP grew to 5%, averaging 3.6%; our economy grew faster than our population; our deficit turned into a surplus; the number of people with jobs increased (from 8 million to 14 million); 4 million houses were built; more people had access to electricity (86%) and water (92%) than ever before; tourism numbers ballooned; our Fitch rating improved (BBB+); business and consumer confidence levels improved; our global competitiveness ranking reached its highest at 42/140; crime came down by 50%; labour strikes were few. The robot was green, we were going in the right direction. We were a developing state.

Quadrant 2: Amber – 2008–2019. Then the US Contagion hit; worldwide there was a recession. In 2008, Thabo Mbeki was ‘recalled’ and Jacob Zuma became president to the thrill of the Tripartite Alliance (ANC/Cosatu/SACP); employment crashed; our economic growth slowed to barely 1 %; GDP per capita declined; business and consumer confidence declined; protests regarding service delivery began to increase; crime started to increase dramatically; state-owned enterprises (SOEs) started asking for bailouts; our Fitch rating declined to BBB–; our global competitiveness fell to 60/140; cadre deployment became full-frontal with state capture fully exposed; load shedding commenced; ANC hegemony started to give way to coalition governments. The robot changed to amber, we were slipping wherever we looked, as the Zondo Commission revealed. We were in a detrimental state.

Quadrant 3: Red – 2020-Present. The nine wasted years under Zuma became fully exposed; the state’s influence started receding in terms of its capabilities and became obvious to all; the Tripartite Alliance started fragmenting; our Fitch rating was downgraded to junk (BB–); we were greylisted; the government, with National Democratic Revolution (NDR) aspirations started passing, and proposing, a raft of new laws and restrictive regulations on employment equity, water empowerment, national health insurance, schools and education and labour; service delivery protests became increasingly violent; big city infrastructure begins to collapse; power blackouts becomes the bane of everyone’s life; water crises become common; railways are unable to deliver to our ports; corruption; cadre deployment; political incompetence is deep and endemic; coalition rule becomes the talk of the day as the 2024 elections near; the state is increasingly bypassed as the private sector and civil society ‘boer maak ‘n plan’ with power, water, potholes, security, healthcare and  schooling. The state tries to get in the way, but it begins to realise it can’t cope. The robot is red, the state is emasculated.

Quadrant 4: RedAmberGreenPresent to Future? Big business gathers to work with the state; 115 CEOs sign a pledge to fix logistics, power and crime; privatisation starts gathering momentum; President Ramaphosa affirms the opportunity for SOEs to engage with the private sector; citizens increasingly form cooperatives to fix what’s broken; civic organisations start building training institutions for the future; low-fee independent schools abound; corporations start providing security for state institutions where they can’t; medical aid organisations start working on healthcare schemes for the poor; local government partners with the private sector to fix potholes; citizens instal their own renewables, putting power back into the grid; community organisations collaborate with their local governments on security, infrastructure, education and environmental challenges. So, what’s the robot doing?

As John Endres concludes “We are solving problems in the growing absence of the state and doing it successfully. In years to come, South Africa may well become a case study of how private initiative succeeds where states fail. And in the future, South Africa could end up with an enabling, compact state, a lean state, which cooperates with non-state actors instead of trying to stifle their efforts.” So, do we have the potential to go from red, back to amber and then to green? Is this the way our scenario will evolve, or will we stay red and the state continue to fail?

I think the traffic lights of our future could start working properly and become increasingly synchronised. If they do, and it’s a big if, we will have a workable future, enabling “traffic flow” between the state, the private sector and civil society. So, a change to amber then green will result in unbridled opportunity and possibility. If it stays red …  a snarl-up. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Useful thanks

  • Robert Pegg says:

    An excellent way of illustrating the evolving situation over the last 30 years.
    One of the stumbling blocks in the country progressing is the archaic way the Department of Trade and Industry operates. They are stuck in the last century with regulations that prohibit imports of certain goods on the premise of job creation. The job creation hasn’t materialized as can be seen from the unemployment stats. Instead of studying the results of limiting imports, they insist in burying their heads in the sand. The whole department needs a makeover to bring it in line with the rest of the world. The result will be lower prices to benefit the whole population and not just to protect a few jobs in dying industries.

  • bigbad jon says:

    I see the robot analogy slightly differently.
    Normal working traffic lights until load-shedding started about 2004, followed by intermittently working lights until recently. Lots of beggars on street corners making the stops risky. Lately amputated robot stumps, traffic chaos signifying loss of law and order, and a useless state. No turning back from here.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Despite the current taxi nonsense, the Cape shows the rest of the country how to do things reasonably well in very difficult circumstances mainly caused by the idiots in the ANC. I see your green robot analogy might be validated in Joburg with their very broken ones still being manned by OUTsurance after about 16 years at it. So, the private sector coming out to help a useless municipality. Only trouble is, I remember when I worked up there some years ago, there was another company filling in potholes if people reported them, until one of the BBEEE idiots insisted they wanted a part of it, and got very stroppy when they found out they couldn’t make any money as it was being done free! Unfortunately, as my Zimbo friends keep reminding me, they see the same sort of bulldust going on in SA as happened up there and fully expect it to go down the plughole as that desperate place has. We can only hope you’re right and they’re wrong.

  • Gisela Wimberger says:

    Good report – but how tp get red of all the disabling NDR legislation?

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