Last week South Africa’s politics unfolded in such dramatic stages it had all the makings of a telenovela. By Thursday we had a new president and on Friday, he was giving his first State of the Nation Address. Commentators have called President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech an inspiring and hope-giving one. Some would argue rightfully so after months of political uncertainly. For a moment, I too will allow myself to be hopeful.
However, my practical self keeps nudging the dreamer in me to face reality. The question remains as to how South Africa is going to address its current economic woes that are well known and have been extensively written about, including by myself.
Rather than tackling the entire Sona speech in this article, I will focus on a thought that occupied my mind and possibly led to this column. How does South Africa learn from other countries and regions? Global experience, tried and tested approaches and data are a necessary guiding tool for policymakers.
In “confronting the challenges we face and accelerating progress in building a more prosperous and equitable society”, I am compelled to argue that South Africa should learn from countries (however different) that have done just that: pulled people out of poverty and picked up the economy.
During this time of much-needed evidence-based examples, Japan’s journey to its modern-day success presents us with key lessons that must not be dismissed simply because the two countries are so different. Japan experienced a serious leadership vacuum in the early part of the last century. By the 1930s, the effects of this had led to an economic collapse that impoverished the nation and her people.
By the 1960s and through to the 1990s, Japan had turned itself around, becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It took advantage of the industrial revolution by modernising effectively and developing its capacity; in the process it raised the living standards of its people to the level of Western countries and became an economic powerhouse.
Naturally, along this journey, there were challenges, including a market crash that led to economic and political numbness.
What did it do right? It learned from other countries and regions, applying what works for Japan, augmenting it to its needs and capabilities. It didn’t stop there; it embraced technology and was open to learning from other nations.
It was encouraging to hear President Ramaphosa emphasise the call for “business and social partners” to be on board and “seize this moment of hope and renewal, and to work together to ensure that it makes a meaningful difference in the lives of our people”.
Last year in a column, I reminded the private sector how its investment strike is condemning South Africans to deepening poverty and inequality while aiding the worsening crisis of joblessness and a failing economy.
I cannot emphasise this enough, unless Business South Africa comes on board and grabs the rope to pull the economy out of its current conundrum, government alone won’t succeed. If this carries on much longer, we risk further regression of South African living standards, declining household consumption, rising government debt and inflaming millions of unemployed youth who are gatvol.
The Japanese lesson for South Africa must not be just in its willingness to learn from others, but also in its political leaders and business-sector partners who understood what needed to be done. Junichiro Koizumi provides a worthy consideration to those advising President Ramaphosa. As the prime minister of Japan between 2001 and 2006, he turned around a country that lost the gains made between the 1960s and 1990s, by boldly changing how the country was governed.
He did this, against some in his party and despite the criticism by citizens of his approach, rightfully earning the nickname “Lion Heart” for bravely reforming the perceived ‘unreformable’. The lesson here is his unwavering message and clear-cut vision about what he wanted Japan to be. He did so by surrounding himself with people in government and business who shared a common vision for the nation and through a decisive powerful leadership. Business South Africa, get on the train.
Unshaken, Junichiro Koizumi showed willingness to confront his own party where necessary if it was a stumbling block to the greater vision of Japan. Therein lies an important lesson for Ramaphosa. As Anthony Failo once wrote, “Koizumi charted a new course for a bolder nation”.
Yes he had many flaws and shortcomings as a leader and made terrible mistakes during his tenure, but show me any global leader in business and government who is perfect.
To President Ramaphosa and his team, of the many lessons the country can learn from Japan, consider just this one from Koizumi: decide what you want to achieve in restarting the economic engine for greater benefit of all, do it even at times when it will be unpopular within and know when to leave office – ideally while the people still like you.