As a nation, we have the tendency to be so preoccupied by what is happening today that we forget what happened only yesterday. This matters because where we have come from also influences where we are going, and we will fail to understand our direction and destination if we do not pay attention to recent history.
These thoughts came to me on Sunday after a lengthy debate with friends on Saturday as we mulled the state of the country’s politics and the economy. The just-concluded ANC Policy Conference provided us with enough content to last us late into the night.
During Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, the country experienced growth that was sustained for years, yet unemployment stubbornly remained in the plus 20% level. South Africa’s return to stagnation, recession and continued rising unemployment cannot be reversed by this fashionable theory of radical economic transformation or “agreements on various developmental matters that would be of advantage to South Africa”, as said in a statement from the presidency on his return from the Hamburg G20 Summit.
The grim reality is that historically, high unemployment has become chronic and almost unresponsive even in the smallest of growths. This writer thinks it poses the single biggest threat to the whole social order and, more importantly, the political survival of whatever shade of government that will in future hold office.
Depending on one’s perspective and paradigmatic corner, it is possible that an explosion will be triggered later this year in the contagion that may follow once the ruling ANC elects its new leaders in December. It is possible that President Jacob Zuma’s camp will deepen their hold on the ANC and enable Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to emerge victorious.
It has long been clear how there’s no longer enough firepower that can be harnessed to prevent contagion. But as most of you, business leaders and civil society now recognise, the conference yet again showed us how those ruling the country appear to have run out of ideas and don’t quite know how to kickstart the economic machine, let alone come up with succinct policies that will fuel the machine.
Sadly, the reality is even more depressing. If anything, speeches from the party’s gathering were blurred, rhetorical and imaginary so that policy never engages with specific national conditions or variations in a specific sector. For example, I am yet to read or hear (and maybe you can help me) anything convincing or realistic when it comes to employment policy strategy that focuses on the young who are also the majority of the long-term unemployed and the unskilled and how it will deliver the said objectives.
We are now deep in the belly of an economy that not only has simply ground to a halt: it actively shrinks, government debt rises and soon it leads to the probability of seeking help from what finance minister Malusi Gigaba referred to as “quarters we have thus far avoided”, which can be interpreted as the IMF.
As I see it, there is no new dawn in sight when it comes resuscitating the economy or turning things around. Instead they’ve done the opposite by chocking any hope of recovery through rhetoric of radical economic transformation versus economic reality. A clear example is the policy uncertainty that was brought on by the new Mining Charter versus economic realities of rapidly declining industry.
This kind of winning political wars but losing economic battles carries a heavy penalty for you and me; the ‘social loss’ of a crumbling economy (that neither you nor myself created) is carried by us – society. The bottom line is: when ideological blindness, vested interests and the political inertia creates policies that fail to respond to economic challenges, we pay the price.
The future requires us to boldly tell the ruling class that the not so invisible hand of politics has proved to be unsafe in shaping our economic future. I will stop short of saying it appears lessons from the workers revolt (tired of not being listened to and decidedly prescribing a new order) in Marikana have not been learnt by “policy czars” who were at that conference. Lest I be accused of inciting a revolution.
It is perhaps obvious but it will do no harm to spell it out, the notion that we are all inescapably hostage to the powerful hand of politics over the experienced reality of a failing economy (retrenchments, high costs of living, poor health and education outcomes) is totally fallacious.
Against the backdrop of the ANC policy conference, we must remind them of the subtlety that is often missed in policy debate: there is a difference between public decisions and collective decisions. Now, they’re entitled to their collective decisions but they must not subject us to ill-considered policies based on an idealised and aspirational economy instead of tackling the real challenges of our lived reality.
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