The work of saving democracy requires us to focus on the people, not a political party
SA faces enormous challenges, but we have shown our resilience
● South Africans need to keep perspective in these challenging times when it is easy to be despondent. The world is undergoing exponential change, with technology replacing human labour, the rise of right-wing populism and new forms of economic nationalism.
Within our country, headlines talk of recession, joblessness, crime and corruption. Populist rhetoric has fuelled unrealistic expectations of a quick fix to our jobs and inequality crisis. Mistrust among stakeholders remains high and there are powerful interests that have everything to lose as patronage networks are dismantled. However, history has shown we are an incredibly resilient and dynamic nation that achieves remarkable things when we set our collective mind to it.
But we must also acknowledge that our nation has lost its way. SA is at a crossroads. One path follows current trends — rent-seeking, corruption, declining state legitimacy, reduced investment, economic stagnation, inequality and social tensions. On this path, low growth and increasing unemployment would fuel frustration and discontent, with reduced support for the government and the ruling party.
In the absence of fresh, big ideas, the ruling party could easily turn to short-term populism. This could further reinforce the vicious cycle of declining legitimacy, reduced investment, rising unemployment and increased social tensions. This is the path we must avoid at all costs.
The second path builds on lessons from Southeast Asia. It would lead towards higher levels of fixed capital investment; increased investment in research & development and technology; a renewed focus on human capability; and collaboration between the state, private sector and civil society. Taking this high road is, however, premised on renewed political will and imagination; a stronger, more capable state and greater collaboration across society.
In mapping the path ahead, we must capitalise on the optimism accompanying President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascent. A good foundation has been laid with the president’s announcement of the new economic stimulus package. It is critically important that a broad coalition unites behind it.
There are four core areas around which we need to cohere in the short term.
First, the dismantling of patronage networks that undermined state legitimacy and performance must continue. The state capture commission is a good first step and will help us better understand how these networks became so institutionalised and powerful. We must also develop measures to prevent new networks from springing up and future-proof our institutions against a repeat of the past decade.
Second, we need a clearer, more determined agenda to rebuild the state. We have regressed on three strategic fronts:
● The presidency must be a “system steward” to marshal the government and society behind agreed priorities (the core of which must be investment and jobs). The start of this is the economic stimulus package;
● Municipalities are our front-line force in service delivery, but many are in a state of collapse, bankrupt, and have poorly maintained and dilapidating infrastructure; and
● We need to clean up state-owned enterprises afflicted by corruption, governance and goingconcern issues.
The third area of focus is education and human resource development. Our current system reproduces inequality through streaming learners from poor rural and township schools towards unemployment, while streaming the children of elites towards highly paid professional and technical vocations.
The country requires thousands of well-trained maths and science teachers to enter the public education system, which means providing competitive salaries and high-quality training. We must root out teacher absenteeism and enforce higher standards of teacher performance.
The fourth area around which we must cohere is inclusive growth. This requires both investmentled growth and active redistribution measures.
Packages of “sector-growth solutions” need to be offered to key sectors, wherein the cost and other competitiveness constraints are identified (for example wages, electricity, legislation and tariffs) and agreements structured to resolve these problems. Employment creation must be at the centre of all economic policy.
To drive the development agenda and negotiate the necessary trade-offs will take mature leadership and strong institutions. This requires us to think afresh about agency, and the complementary roles of the state, the market and civil society. We need a better co-ordinated, more capacitated and stronger-focused civil society effort to advance a bigger agenda.
Historically, progressive civil society has been embedded in the struggle against apartheid. The current crisis in civil society stems precisely from that, as the ANC gradually lost the moral, ethical and political high ground. Civil society mass action and activism against corruption tended to be about fixing the ANC. There is nothing wrong with that, but there should be a bigger agenda about saving democracy.
Given the political moment, sometimes standing for the interests of citizens, democracy and the country might mean standing against the interests of political parties. It might sound paradoxical to express such views on the platform of a foundation named after an ANC stalwart, but Ahmed Kathrada understood that at the point where the interests of the party and society conflict, you go with the interests of the people.
We all have a responsibility to stabilise our democracy and chart a new economic path. This needs a new agenda and orientation in civil society, premised on the fact that in every revolution, the people are primary — everything else is secondary.
Jonas is a presidential investment envoy and former deputy finance minister. This is an edited version of a speech delivered at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation 10th anniversary banquet