Dear Finance Minister,
I want to tell you a story.
My family’s domestic worker when I was growing up was a wonderful, generous woman who laughed like Oprah Winfrey. The two most precious things to her in the world were her children, and the Zion Christian Church. She never missed the annual Easter pilgrimage to Moria.
Sadly, she died not long after I left school. She was only in her 50s, and her youngest son was still a teenager.
In all, she had four children. The youngest is now 24, and the eldest passed away in her 30s. All of them have struggled to find permanent employment.
Why is this of any significance? Well, unfortunately, it isn’t. These are four typical young South Africans who are products of an inferior education and excluded by the formal economy that has failed to expand and embrace the kind of township in which they live.
Where to begin?
I realise that, in a broad sense, I am not telling you anything you don’t know. No doubt you appreciate better than I, the conditions in which the majority of young South Africans are living.
I also don’t doubt that you are genuine in your interest to change this – to deliver ‘faster and more equitable’ economic growth that will ultimately break down the barriers between South Africa’s two economies.
However, I do wonder whether we are starting in the right place.
Economic growth is a desperately needed, and worthy, goal, but it has to come from somewhere. As Athol Williams, a social philosopher and senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, points out, an economy is a product of society:
“To grow the economy, you have to grow the society,” says Williams. “And our society is broken … To build a thriving economy, we need to focus on what we put into it.”
There is a dangerous narrative that if we could just get 5% or 6% economic growth, this would fix all of our problems. Employment would surge, poverty would evaporate, and violent crime would fade.
This is, however, a bit like the indebted consumer who believes that if they could just get more money, all their problems would go away. Yet you don’t solve a debt problem by increasing your income. In fact, it is often the opposite – those who earn more are often more highly indebted.
The only way to get out of debt is to change your behaviour. And, quite logically, if you get out of debt, and no longer have to service it, you will find that you have more money.
Set a foundation
The same is true of a country’s economy.
We will not change society by improving our economy so much as we will improve our economy by changing society.
I appreciate that you are the Minister of Finance, and your job description does not include social policy. However, the best economic policies in the world are not going to sustainably alter South Africa’s fortunes unless there are fundamental changes in society that can support them.
As the Minister of Finance, this is what I would hope you are telling your cabinet colleagues. What is your collective vision for the kind of country you want South Africa to be? How are those values reflected in areas like our schooling, our health system and our policing?
At the moment, what is most prominently on display there is dysfunction and indifference. You don’t fix those things simply by growing the economy faster. And you can’t grow the economy faster in a sustainable way if you don’t fix those things.
So my tip for you ahead of the budget is to ask what sort of vision this government has for South Africa, and to what extent that is actually reflected in society. It is to consider not just the country’s economic growth, but its state of well-being.
Most importantly, it is to see societal change as the foundation from which economic upliftment is possible, and not the other way around.
Because, even with all the good intention in the world, your job is impossible unless you have something to build from.
The Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni will deliver the 2020 National Budget on February 26.
Mboweni has invited South Africans to share their views about economic conditions and other issues they would like government to highlight in the budget. In particular, the minister would like public views on what government can do to achieve faster and more equitable economic growth.
Contributions can be sent via:
Twitter: @TreasuryRSA with the hashtag #TipsForMinFin and #Budget2020
National Treasury website: www.treasury.gov.za under the heading ‘Tips’