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What a real state of the nation address would say about South Africa

The answers are quite different to those offered by much current political talk.
The rights entrenched in South Africa’s progressive constitution work for some, but not those living in abject poverty. Image: Supplied

Every year in February South Africa’s president delivers a state of the nation address. One theme which is never addressed is the state of the nation.

The address, given this year by President Cyril Ramaphosa, marks the opening of parliament. Every year, it is treated with expectation way out of line with its importance and is followed by loud disappointment.

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No talk could possibly live up to the hype which envelops it and, despite the name, it is actually an outline of the government’s plans for the year. This is rarely exciting, particularly in a country in which everything the government says in the national debate is dismissed as ‘empty words’ by opposition parties and much of the media (as this year’s address has been). This is not true of voters, most of whom support the governing African National Congress (ANC).

But what would a real state of the nation address sound like – one which spelled out where South Africa is and might be going? In a couple of academic journal articles and a forthcoming book, I have tried to address the question. The answers are quite different to those offered by much current political talk.

The standard view on where South Africa is goes something like this. In 1994, the country put its past behind it by adopting new political rules and ways of implementing them – what scholars call institutions. It broke with its past of racial domination and set out on a democratic, non-racial path.

But the new institutions could not prevent greedy and power-hungry politicians, during the tenure of former president Jacob Zuma (May 2009 – February 2019), from damaging the economy and the institutions themselves. Ramaphosa was meant to mend both but has failed because he cares more about unity in the governing party than the country.

None of this stands up to scrutiny.

What really happened

Zuma and his allies did not defeat the constitution – the constitution defeated them. His hold on the ANC and government was defeated by the courts, freedom of expression expressed through a variety of media, and free elections. It was the fear that the ANC would lose the 2019 election if it was led by a president whom voters believed was too close to Zuma that won Ramaphosa the ANC presidency.

Zuma is currently in breach of a Constitutional Court judgment because he refuses to appear before the Zondo Commission into state capture. This is more evidence that the institutions are working as intended because the courts and the commission are signalling that the former president is not above the law.

More than a quarter century after democracy was achieved, the freedoms entrenched in the constitution live – people use them routinely to say what they feel, to get together with others to campaign, and to vote in ways which, contrary to widespread belief, do send messages to politicians which influence what they do.

There is, however, a big ‘but’. They work for only some. People living in poverty vote, and so they speak briefly. But, between elections, they can rarely use the courts, the media rarely expresses their concerns and, as the book tries to show, only the third of the population who have both the resources and the connectedness to the economy to enable them to speak are heard.

The reason for this is not that the institutions don’t work, but that the economy and the society doesn’t work for most South Africans and so only some people can use the rules the democratic constitution created.

This is so not because, as is often claimed, the parties who represented the majority at the negotiations of the 1990s compromised too much but because they bargained on too little. They reached a deal which changed the political rules, but not the economy and society.

Insiders and outsiders

South Africa before 1994 was a country run by an exclusive club to which people could belong only if they were white. The club has admitted new, black, members but remains exclusive because it excludes most people. The older members have more powers and privileges than the new recruits.

To be more concrete, the country was divided into insiders and outsiders before 1994. It still is. Some insiders are now black, although very few of the outsiders are white. Not all insiders are equal and, in the economy, the professions, education, culture and even sport at times, the older white members have advantages the newer black ones lack.

There are several reasons for this, but an important one is that the old economic, social and cultural leadership and the new political leaders shared a key view – that the goal of the ‘new South Africa’ was to extend to everyone what white people enjoyed under apartheid.

So, the chief goal of the elites since 1994 has been not to change what existed before democracy but to squeeze as many black people into it as possible. A concentrated economy which it was difficult to enter remained, but black people joined its boards and senior management. The professions remain as they were but black doctors, lawyers and accountants can now do what their white counterparts have been doing, in much the same way. It took student protests to shake most universities out of their belief, as the educationist James Moulder put it, that black students (and faculty) should change so that the university did not have to change (“The predominantly white universities: Some ideas for a debate”, in Jonathan Jansen (ed) Knowledge and Power in South Africa, 1991, (pp.117/118).

It is easy to see why this route was chosen. Whites lived well under apartheid and it is not absurd for black leaders to want all to live in the same way. But what one in ten South Africans had because they used force to keep out the other nine-tenths cannot be extended to everyone, which is why South Africa since 1994 still excludes so many.

Divisions that stop progress

In a country whose politics is dominated by an obsession with individuals and power struggles, these realities are often ignored by the public debate, even if they lurk behind it, shaping what is said and done in ways not even those who say and do them always realise.

Because this reality cannot build a South Africa which offers hope to all, it explains many conflicts – and disappointments – which dominate the headlines. It is also why this country often lags behind others in its ability to create wealth and opportunity or to make government work and democracy a system which offers everyone a voice and a choice. And it explains why the change from one president to another has changed little, even though the new president has, unnoticed by the debate, charted a very different course to the one he replaced.

As long as this is ignored, the yearly ritual in which the state of the nation addresses are said to promise so much but are found to offer so little will continue. So too will the divisions which prevent the country becoming more of what it could be.The Conversation

Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Must Prof Friedman write and teach such stuff in order to keep his job ?
No amount of political BS of this kind can camouflage the reality :
South Africa is already a partly failed country well on the way to the grand finale. ANC Commies will make sure of that with ongoing corruption, theft and absurd economic policies.

Beware — Idijit at work !!!

I absolutely concur with Prof.Friedman the ANC was never an organisation that was meant to uplift the black masses from poverty and economic exclusion. It was built to insert a then educated black elite at its founding into the white economic elite power structure, when that didn’t happen it allied itself with socialists and communists immigrants from Lithuania and Russia (Joe Slovo et al.). Fast forward to the democratic era there was fear within big business (white business) those socialist/communist views will be the basis of ANC economic policy,to thwart those views a deal was made between the white economic elite and the new black political elite. Contrary to what many middle-class white South Africans believe including those who mostly comment on Moneyweb , BEE, Employment Equity and Affirmative Action to quote political economist Moleleki Mbeki (independent from his brother Thabo):”Are creatures of big business not the ANC”. So big business created a black oligarchy and kleptocracy to stop the red brigade from the left and put up a protectionist, concentrated and uncompetitive economy.However,it was never anticipated that the ANC would want the whole hog. Big business created a Frankenstein’s monster and now the monster wants to devour Dr.Frankenstein and everything in its path.

I absolutely concur with Prof.Friedman the ANC was never an organisation that was meant to uplift the black masses from poverty and economic exclusion. It was built to insert a then educated black elite at its founding into the white economic elite power structure, when that didn’t happen it allied itself with socialists and communists immigrants from Lithuania and Russia (Joe Slovo et al.). Fast forward to the democratic era there was fear within big business (white business) those socialist/communist views will be the basis of ANC economic policy,to thwart those views a deal was made between the white economic elite and the new black political elite. Contrary to what many middle-class white South Africans believe including those who mostly comment on Moneyweb , BEE, Employment Equity and Affirmative Action to quote political economist Moleleki Mbeki (independent from his brother Thabo):”Are creatures of big business not the ANC”. So big business created a black oligarchy and kleptocracy to stop the red brigade from the left and put up a protectionist, concentrated and uncompetitive economy.However,it was never anticipated that the ANC would want the whole hog. Big business created a Frankenstein’s monster and now the monster wants to devour Dr.Frankenstein and everything in its path.

In SA, those who work for a living and pay taxes, are held hostage by those who vote for a living.

The real SONA would reveal that the ANC has no good story due to its corrupt activities.

They say: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”. That very first picture depicts the true state of the SA nation. Swallowed in hunger and poverty.

To grow the economy to create jobs and to generate taxes to support social projects, we need more market entrepreneurs and less political entrepreneurs. The current socialist regime incentivises the growth of political entrepreneurs to the detriment of market entrepreneurs.

Politically connected people with a support base among voters, use their power to extract profitable opportunities from their fellow citizens. These political entrepreneurs do not add value, they consume value. They do not pay taxes, they steal taxes. They do not serve the consumers, they plunder the consumers and they destabilise society. The Zondo Commission is trying to determine how much damage these political entrepreneurs have caused to society. The consumer is the ultimate loser and victim when a socialist dispensation enables political entrepreneurs to flourish.

The market entrepreneur, on the other hand, serves the consumer, creates jobs, adds value to society, contributes to the Treasury, educates young people, stabilises society, and provides products and services to citizens. The environment that enables and incentivises political entrepreneurship to grow also, at the same time, punishes and disables market entrepreneurship.

Why will any entrepreneur risk his capital, study and work hard to start a business and struggle with labour laws and riots when he can simply talk his way into political power? The socialist regime empowers the most unscrupulous individuals, with the ability to regurgitate failed dogma in an endless stream of meaningless words over a microphone, to become political entrepreneurs. This is why service delivery and the jobs market are imploding. The nation incentivises and rewards the wrong thought- and behaviour patterns.

Socialism enables unscrupulous people with verbal diarrhoea to become political entrepreneurs.

“..Socialism enables unscrupulous people with verbal diarrhea to become political entrepreneurs”

Good point…and if I may add…Socialism has been shed of the ideology of representing the underdog in society.

It has become the club for the grandiose intelligentsia (University professors), suburbia liberals orchestrating their quality of existence over the poor, through tax breaks and of course the lowest of the low…politicians (James Cameron, protégé of Blair who shoved the working poor under the bus)

The ANC are the same

Socialism is a failed ideology that benefited those who did not need benefits from society

The elephant in the room.

what elephant?

What is that?

It’s ANC corruption and lack of consequences.

The mighty dwarf !!!
No amount of talking and politicking will ever unite this country for as long as the ruling party actively pursues blatant racism !!!!

What a load of drivel about “a white club of insiders”. A white South African is no more “privileged” than a white Canadian, German, Belgian or French. And a black South African is no more “disadvantaged” than a black Nigerian, Congolese or Zambian. The ANC couldn’t even look after the infrastructure which they inherited from the NP. People are lifting up
the railways as we speak in Gauteng and selling it for scrap metal. Only 3 of the 12 main lines can still operate. Forget about expanding the infrastructure, just to keep what you got for free seems impossible for this lot.

Steven Friedman lectures as he writes, a self-serving out-of-touch sycophant with a chip on his shoulder. Never was political party more perfectly exposed as criminally corrupt to everyone except suck-up Steven.

Is this msn for real? Talk about a denial of objective reality. The problem is not that the mafia organisation in charge has bled the tax-payer dry? The problem is, although there are now some black insiders, the white insiders are running the show? Who are these white insiders – I can only presume the implication is business leaders. The reality is, while business kowtows to government, the ANC gives not a fig what business does or wants. Their pleas, as in the case of SAB, fall on deaf ears. And poor South Africans only get one brief chance (voting) to change it? That’s the same brief chance I get, which is no chance at all – because the majority are voting for a self-serving parasitic organisation to stay in charge. And by the way, if I had it that good I’d be getting some value from my tax. Instead of having to pay for every service twice over.

You do your namesake – Professor Milton Friedman – a great disservice.

Thank you for outlining your communist manifesto in detail in the article – saves me the trouble of having to read your book.

“There is, however, a big ‘but’. They work for only some. People living in poverty vote, and so they speak briefly. But, between elections, they can rarely use the courts, the media rarely expresses their concerns and, as the book tries to show, only the third of the population who have both the resources and the connectedness to the economy to enable them to speak are heard.”

You are incorrect in your assessment. It is the non-working, unemployed welfare classes who are using their political power to enact economic equality on the working class. They are voting for redistributive policies, when they should be voting for policies that improve the business (and investment) environment and economic growth, so that pie is bigger for all. Voting for the same political party that promises much but delivers only nepotism and corruption is a feature of the system, not a bug. The minority of society that pays the bulk of the taxes has the smallest political voice. Taxation with little representation.

Save your communist/socialist visions of utopia for Academia: that’s the only realm where it works.

Friedman is right that there is no vision for the country – are we aiming to be the next Singapore or the next Zimbabwe, we have elements of both.

He is also right that 90% of the people are excluded – this 90% are not worse off than their peer group in surrounding countries, on metrics like income, housing, education, medical assistance, amount of businesses started and also amount listed. They are on a similar level of development. Always denied by the ANC because it entails the hard work of real development.

Can the poor (90%) expect benefits with such an unequal mindset?
1) The rich (tax payers) vote for good government – the poor vote for large scale corruption and mismanagement.

2) The rich does not have more children than they can afford whilst millions of the poor have children they cannot afford.

3) 3 million people pay nearly all the taxes – carrying the other 54 million people. Can the poor expect benefits without making a contribution?

End of comments.

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