We have become a nation of takers. Without recognising this we will not be able to fully understand the true nature of our persistent unemployment crisis.
It is simple logic that when people by and large are taking more than they are contributing they create deficits and poverty. Conversely, when they contribute more than they are taking they create a surplus and prosperity. And prosperity in turn, according to long-standing research, is sustained by having an external focus and developing people.
These principles are not based on any ideological premise but on sound and well known practice and experience. At best, systems can encourage or discourage certain behaviours, but they are not the root cause of them. More importantly is that behaviour has to rest on appropriate universal values and moral convictions.
Sentiment driven by faith, courage and conviction is far stronger and more sustainable than that driven by fear and insecurity.
The evidence is everywhere
Evidence of our taking behaviour is blatantly apparent. It is reflected foremost in our triple deficits of the budget, trade and trust. The latter is paramount and is the result of taking behaviour on the many fronts that we are beating our chests about: a bloated, self-serving and wasteful bureaucracy; corruption; state capture; crime; violent protests; poor service delivery; state-owned enterprise mismanagement; customer neglect; strikes; anti-competitive practices; tax evasion; capital flight and many more.
While it may be tempting to ascribe the parasitic nature of our economic behaviour to the dawn of democracy, notably the Zuma years, it goes back many decades earlier. We have largely been a commodity based economy able to rely on raw material and precious metal exports to sustain a significant part of our GDP. As is the case with many commodity exporters, this is a curse in disguise, often leading to severe neglect of the most important principle of all in economic wellbeing: that of developing people.
That in turn led to stark wealth disparities and structural imbalances, including failure to develop strong export-orientated manufacturing and service sectors. In addition, it made us extremely vulnerable to the whims of international markets, where volatility and financial crises have an inordinate impact on our inflexible construct. We are still feeling the effects of the financial crisis that happened a decade ago – more so than many other developing countries – and remain defenceless to another crisis which many believe is just around the corner. This has been signalled strongly with the gold price at six-year highs and above $1 500 per ounce, and crypto currencies increasingly gaining favour as safe haven instruments.
The impact of inflated expectations
The dawn of democracy gave us a window of opportunity to develop a more diverse economy with a globally recognised iconic leader in Nelson Mandela, the lifting of sanctions, and many foreign helping hands. But it was soon closed by highly inflated expectations exacerbated by wealth disparities, and excessive demands where the economy and enterprises were viewed simply as hosts for parasitic activities rather than an empowering opportunity to make a contribution to others.
Expectations encourage taking behaviour and tend to counter aspirations which underpin contributing behaviour.
After the release of the shocking unemployment figures, the national discourse has been bordering on despair, although Citadel has noted some rebound in foreign direct investment.
Solutions are sought mostly in structure, policies, investment, and stakeholder cooperation: all valid but mostly missing the critical element of changing behaviour. The former relate mainly to creating means and ability for gainful employment. But they neglect the importance of willingness, without which means and ability are pointless.
To be sure too many simply don’t have the means and ability to be gainfully employed, making it difficult to determine the extent of a lack of willingness in this group. They are victims rather than perpetrators. But most are employed and the extent of willingness in the workplace is a critical factor.
Too many across all levels see employment and their positions not as an opportunity to make a contribution and express the best of themselves, but as a place of getting purely for self-gain.
This has been exacerbated by executive pay, poor human resource practices, the commodity expression of labour, counterproductive labour legislation, lack of a common purpose, inflexibility in wealth distribution, and of course organised labour’s own agitation and extortionist behaviour.
Willingness comes from a deeper conviction and a shared inspiration.
I have no doubt we have what it takes. We are rapidly being driven to that point, but the longer it takes the more we will suffer in the interim and the greater the task of rebuilding. I have written many columns on how paradigms can be shifted relatively easily and quickly.
To summarise: we have to make the economy work for all. That can only happen if we view it as a superb construct that helps us to serve each other and not purely the self.
Those engaged in toxic political intrigue must know they are doing their obscene war dances to the drumbeat of hopelessness and despair of millions.
Because the situation we are in rests so heavily on paradigms, we can turn things around pretty quickly by shifting those paradigms. We should come back to one profound maxim: that our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others. That contains a magnificent paradox that the more we practice it the more self-serving it becomes.
But making that the purpose in itself destroys the moment.