Marius Oosthuizen
Marius Oosthuizen

Zuma’s South Africa is not in a crisis, yet

As a scenario planner, it is my job to paint a picture of the future – or alternative futures, different realities that may materialise depending on the choices we make.

Late Thursday night, President Zuma bulldozed the good guys out of the executive and shut the door on his handlers in the ANC. The Nkandla chief is in control now, the rand is sliding and the people are restless. Protests are planned for the steps of Parliament in Cape Town and those of the National Treasury in Pretoria. Absurd – that a democratic people have to protest against their so-called elected leader. What has happened is that the emperor has taken off his ANC garments and his real colours are showing. He is a sly and corrupt tribalist with a penchant for power and shady friends.

But South Africa is not in a crisis, yet. We are headed there. Below is a day in the life of Nomzamo, a day of struggle. What follows thereafter is a day in the life of Nukothula, a picture of a future where we are at peace.

“SA in Crisis” – A Day in the Life of Nomzamo

You are Nomzamo (meaning struggle), a middle manager for an import-export business based in South Africa. You wake up to the sound of your neighbour pounding on the door of your townhouse. “They have broken in again, i’m afraid your car is gone”, he says. You cancelled the insurance last month to pay the children’s school fees. You stand there in shock. As you walk to the station, you dodge a couple of reckless taxis, using the uneven pavement to squeeze past traffic. You think, “I could do with a coffee right now… it’s going to take me three hours to get to work!” You rehearse the speech you prepared for the evaluations committee, set up to handle retrenchments. “I have three kids… but they don’t care”, you think. Exports have been really poor, especially since labour unrest ground the sector to a halt for the third year running. As you glance at the paper being sold on the corner, you read, ‘SA-EU break historic ties – says delegation from Brussels’. “There goes the company,” you think, “so much for making new friends in Brics, SA is becoming a laughing stock.” President Gigaba’s speech at the G20 was a joke, SA talks a big game but we are a nobody nation.

Your phone beeps with a text from your husband, “So much for Christmas… what are we going to tell the kids this time?” “Tell them? I never had presents growing up” you reply angrily. “Ps: and the nanny needs a raise” he writes. “She’ll have to go…” is your answer.

As you wait at the bus stop, you overhear a conversation: “I really can’t be bothered to vote for those crooks anyway.” Since the collapse of the alliance, politics have turned ugly. Petty namecalling and nitpicking seems to be what politicians do all day, with economic growth non-existent (spurred by a general loss of productivity and competitiveness) – the general sense of pessimism in the country seems to feed the drama. You shake your head in dismay as the pedestrian’s friend says, “And you know they just redeploy the bloody thieving bastards.” On the bus, you pass a large group picketing outside the BCC offices about a comedy show that satirically joked about their revered icon. There is a heavy police presence. “Don’t these people have bigger things to worry about?”, you think. The thought crosses your mind, “I should organise a protest… it’s about time someone stood up to the system.”

A billboard at the traffic light catches your eye, “The Movement for Africanism – membership open”. “Maybe i’ll join them”, you think, hoping that someone will understand your situation. Its an initiative led by a radical group of affluent and politically connected tenderpreneurs, who want to reclaim Africa from what they call “global predators”. The ruling elite are regular speakers at their events, invited to “inspire an African militancy for African liberation”. As you turn the corner, the announcer says, “North West Water Works an oxymoron”. You shake your head in disgust, “They have a huge dam, but they can’t connect a tap to a pipe!”

You step onto the platform of the Gautrain, which has now become a smelly dump, barbed-wired heavily to keep loiterers and petty criminals out. You think back to your time at the municipal deeds office near the station, “I should never have left the security of a government job”, you think. You fear what awaits you at work. Today the retrenchments committee are conducting hearings across the company. You’ve only been there a year – and your chances aren’t good. Since local automotive manufacturers scaled down production due to losses, 50% of the factory has been dormant. You’re petrified of presenting your case to them, especially since you know that they are only looking for specialised fitters that will work shifts. Management experience means nothing in a dying industry. So much for moving into a larger place after the baby arrives, you will have to move back home to your family instead.

You arrive to an invitation to meet in the company foyer for a serious announcement. The CEO steps up with a deep frown and mumbles: “People, I am sad to say we will be closing our doors – as loyal staff you will be receiving settlements calculated on a pro-rata basis.” You can’t believe your ears. You left Pietermaritzburg as a poor girl hoping to find opportunity in the city, but all you have now is trouble. You can’t bear the thought of sharing the news with your grandmother. After all those years that she invested in your education, she will be devastated. Since the rocketing costs of living you have not been in touch often. Now you may have to call on her just to get by.

“Mmm… choices choices”, you think. “I’ve heard that they pay top dollar for skilled South Africans overseas… we could move to Ghana, or Kenya, maybe the US?” you wonder. Before lunch you take a minute to update your blog, The Fading Rainbow, where you rant about the frustrations of being a youngster in SA. You’re again surprised when you look at the retorts of those who read your blog and comment – race is everything among these digital warriors. You think, “The old idea of social cohesion is no longer relevant… SA is not one nation”. People who talk of South Africa as a nation don’t understand – there cannot be reconciliation when only some have to suffer. Somehow, your generation has to bear the brunt, has to fight for justice and fairness. The problem is knowing who the enemy is. Perhaps this is because exploitation knows no colour. “South Africans are a useless bunch… just wanting handouts”, visitors say. Populism has had its price.

At lunch you look across the canteen and notice the groups that have formed across polar ends of these debates. “This is the legacy of my parent’s generation…” you ponder. On the wall hangs a poem with a image of the SA flag. You read. “We the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs…” Wait, this is not a poem – its the Freedom Charter. You snicker, thinking to yourself, “hypocrisy and betrayal… in less than a generation we have managed to liquidate the assets under our soil and consume them on flashy imported junk… We have destroyed this beautiful country in the process.” They used to call SA a miracle. You know it may very well turn into a nightmare.

Where is the innovation that once marked South African companies – that conquered foreign markets? Where is the mindset that turned a national crisis into national pride? We have lost the art of engagement – nobody is creating anything. Even old structures like the JSE and the big banks are crumbling. To think, South Africa was once a country where business chambers served as places of proactive innovation – now they are mere retroactive complainants. The myriad of multi-stakeholder NGOs and cooperatives that brokered the South Africa of yesterday, with the possibilities of tomorrow, are now a distant memory. Everyone fends for themselves.

Your mind wanders to your weekend plans, “Oh, wait till I see Fikile… wait till I tell him what I think of how he and his friends in government have stuffed up this country”. As you walk home you think, “…there is a tension in the air”. Everywhere, businesses and shopfronts stand empty. There is a sense that life is not worth it and the future is dark. Africa is tough, and South Africa is part of Africa. Its almost as if South Africa lost its way somewhere between opportunity and reality. “We had some great moments,” you think, “when everyone and everything was full of hope.” These days people just want to survive!

As you unlock the front door of your house, you say under your breath, “I’ve got to get out of this place”.

“SA At Peace” – A Day in the Life of Nukothula

You are Nukothula (meaning peace), a manager for an import-export business in SA. You wake up to jackhammers stomping away outside your townhouse. They are making way for the new rapid-bus lane from Randburg to Sunninghill. As you sip your coffee, a Kilimanjaro blend from Tanzania, you switch on the news for your fix of Your World – the morning show on the new Africa24/7 channel. You smile as you realise the presenter is wearing a garment from the company you work for. Exports have been good, especially since SA introduced the “free industrial zones” along the coast. As you glance through your e-edition of The Guardian you read, “SA-EU ties strengthen – says Brussels trade delegation”. This surprises you, since the rand has strengthened for 18 months – it must be the policy reform on labour that’s coming through. “Good,” you think, “this will strengthen the talks about SA’s permanent seat on the UN security council.” President Mazibuku’s speech at the G20 was so well received it’s just a matter of time. Your husband asks, “Honey, how about we don’t do Cape Town this Christmas? I’m really not in the mood for beaches and malls full of tourists.” “We could go up to Vic Falls”, you reply. “You know they say things are booming up there.” “Not a bad idea… you know Nelly says she’s going back for good this Christmas,” he replies. “No place like home… I guess,” is your answer.

With traffic jammed on your normal route you decide to try the new byway. Apparently it’s an easy ride. Radio702 is abuzz about the new political pact between opposition parties. Since the ANC’s resurgence, opposition had to seriously reevaluate their strategies. The petty namecalling and nitpicking of the past seems ridiculous now, with economic growth high (spurred by the gas and manufacturing boom) – the general sense of optimism in the country requires a more austere tone before anyone takes note. You give a relieved sigh as the presenter says, “Auditor general results surprisingly positive, fiscal management improving at local level”. You pass a small group picketing outside the BCC offices about a comedy show that satirically joked about their revered icon. “Well,” you think, “they have their rights…” The thought crosses your mind, “I can’t think of a single reason to protest… life is good right now.”

A billboard at the traffic light catches your eye, “The Institute for Civil Liberty and Active Citizenship – launching soon”. “That must be the old Idasa crowd”, you think, but your are wrong. Its an initiative by a diverse group of successful young South African businesspeople. MPs from across the spectrum have come out in support in a statement: “Citizenship is the cornerstone of civic education… we wish these frontrunners well.” As you turn the corner, the announcer says, “North West Water Works recognised by global body for conservation and sustainability turnaround”. You shake your head in disbelief, “who would have thought!” You pull into your parking space and the thought grips you, “I forgot to lock the front door!” “Never mind”, you think, “there has not been any crime in our area for more than a year.”

You step onto the platform of phase 3 of the Gautrain, the flagship of a sophisticated infrastructure maze that has shot up in less than ten years. You think back to your time at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence near the station, one of fifteen such pockets of transformational education investment – the brain child of a collaboration of private and public sector innovators. You can’t wait to get to work. Today is the awards ceremony for factory floor managers who have outperformed peers on production, quality and safety this year. Since local manufacturers agreed to purchase 30% of their inputs from local producers, the factory has more than doubled. Growing the workforce has been hard – but you have done extremely well. You’re also excited to present the new forecasts to the boss, especially since the Reserve Bank announced that rates are staying low, that growing local consumption of locally manufactured goods and the positive export balance have held inflation in check. That salary increase may actually be on the cards – coupled with the lower income tax rate, you may be able to upgrade your young family to a three-bedroom home after all.

You arrive to an invitation to meet in the company foyer for a special announcement. The CEO steps up with a broad smile and announces: “People, I am proud to say we will soon be listing on the JSE – as loyal staff you will have an opportunity to participate in the ownership of the company, and there is a special structure in place to make that possible, no matter what your income level.” You can’t believe your ears. Who would have thought that a poor girl from Pietermaritzburg would one day own a portion of a company. You can’t wait to share the news with your grandmother. After all those years she invested in your education, she deserves to know. Since the roll-out of the free WiFi nationally she always calls you on a Monday to check up on you. She will be pleased.

“Mmm… choices choices,” you think. The property market is a bit bullish right now with all those middle-class entrants, perhaps you should forget about the house and invest in stocks instead? Before lunch you take a minute to update your blog, Beyond the Rainbow – SA 2.0, where you publish inspirational stories of young upstarts like yourself. You’re again surprised when you look at the faces of those who read your blog and comment – race is irrelevant in such a mix. You think, “The old idea of social stratification by race is no longer relevant… SA is changing.” People now talk of South Africa as the dynamic nation – where anything is possible and creativity is abundant. Somehow, your generation has turned diversity into an asset, celebrated for the adaptiveness it inherently brings. Diversity is no longer a functional impediment. Perhaps this is because “lifelong learning” has become a cultural norm?

Even older people go around reading, seeking new insights and hungry for fresh perspective. “South Africans are a get out and try it kind of people,” visitors say. At lunch you look across the canteen and notice for the first time that men and woman are seated side by side as colleagues. “This would never have happened in my parents’ generation…” you ponder. On the wall hangs a poem with a image of the Drakensburg. You read. “We the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs…” Wait, this is not a poem – its the Freedom Charter. You smile, thinking to yourself, “…in less than a lifetime we have managed to turn the assets under our soil into movable assets that make us a competitive nation… we have built, grown, sown and invested wisely. We have done it without destroying our beautiful country.” Some call it a miracle. You know it took hard work and a special South African ingenuity.

It’s the same innovation that has revolutionised the banking industry recently – the rules of the game are convenience, accessibility and flexibility. It is the same mindset that turned networked information technology and Big Data into real-time accounting and reporting. It’s a risk-taking, yet calculating spirit, that said, “if old structures are too cumbersome, let’s create new ones”. To think, South Africa is a country where business chambers serve as places of proactive innovation – not mere retroactive complaint. This is what gave rise to the myriad of multi-stakeholder agencies and cooperatives that bridged the South Africa of yesterday, to the possibilities of tomorrow.

Your mind wanders to your weekend plans, “Oh, I can’t wait to see Themba… I always enjoy his stories about the shake-ups going on in local government.” Man there is an energy about this place. Businesses are popping up everywhere. There is a sense that anything is possible. Africa is rising, and South Africa is leading the charge. It’s almost as if the South African way – simple-fast-creative – was forged precisely to enable the nation to lead the continent. “We had some precarious moments,” you think, “when everyone and everything was bound up in the courts.” These days people just want to get on with it!

As you lock your office door to go home, you say under your breath, “I love this place”.

Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business Project that uses strategic foresight methods to explore the future of South Africa and Africa.

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