These are not happy times for our country. Political violence is becoming normalised, the strike wave shows no sign of letting up, education remains in crisis and corruption has reached the point where people are making comparisons between contemporary South Africa and Mobutu’s Zaire. And our economic crisis, with mass unemployment, seems more or less permanent. And it is this last fact that should be keeping our rulers up at night. Mass unemployment will, inevitably, lead to an explosion of some sort.
It seems to many people that the dreams of 1994 lie in tatters. There should be no equivocation on the reality that there are very serious threats to our society and that many of them come from within the ruling party and its alliance partners.
If we keep going on the road we are on we will end up with a society in which politicians plunder the country from within their gated luxury. We all have to move, and move fast, to challenge the direction in which the country is going.
But we should not fall prey to a debilitating pessimism. If we look at where we were twenty or thirty years ago we have a lot of be grateful. Racism, a truly odious corruption of what it is to be a human being, has no formal legitimacy and many of our children are growing up in environments far less toxic than their parents and grandparents. That is something to celebrate.
And the fact that so many black families have been able to take advantage of the end of formal racism to advance, to educate their children and join the middle class is also something to celebrate. The black middle class is now larger than the white middle class. For all these people this country and its democracy have opened real opportunity and many of them will not let it go down without a fight.
And although there are forces that would like to roll back press freedom, and although our media is still very much an elite media, we still have much more freedom of expression that we ever did under apartheid. This too is something to celebrate. It gives us a lot of space not just to expose failures of government but also to have real discussions about alternatives.
And while the ANC’s failure to create jobs will probably lead to serious consequences, its best project has been the system of grants which has blunted the sharp edge of poverty for millions of people. The party’s worst policy decision, and the one that will come back to haunt it, is its arrogant refusal to consider the basic income grant. But the success of the pension system and the child support grant does give us an institutional basis on which we could roll out a basic income grant. We have the money for us and all we need is the political will.
But although it has made some good decisions here and there the fact is that our government is degenerating at an incredible rate and the ruling party is, as most of its cadres openly admit, in a huge mess. We have passed the point at which we could look to the government and the ruling party to find a way out of the swamp into which we have sunk. We know have to look to society itself for a way out.
What this means is that we need serious debates and discussion at all levels of society about a way forward. This must be at the level of ideas but, also, at the level of practice. We need to be creative and open-minded. But two things are clear at the outset. One is that there can be no sustainable future that is not democratic. The other is that there can be no sustainable future that does not seriously and speedily address poverty.
We can turn our country around. Brazil is no paradise but it is a country that is moving forward and without the right ideas, the right forms of organisation to drive good ideas forward and the right leadership we could also halt our dissent into social and political decline and start to move forward. If Brazil, once a dictatorship and once the most unequal country in the world, and a country that has been wracked by gross corruption, could turn the corner so can we.
The important thing now is not to give into pessimism. We must build on our achievements and move forward to a democratic society in which everyone has a real stake. But this does require a real debate and for a real debate to flourish we all need to put aside some of our dogmatism, some of our all too quick assumptions about others and to keep an open mind. The stakes are just too high for us to be able to fall back into our old habits.
One thing that’s clear from the Brazilian example is that social grants — direct cash transfers to the poor — have done more than anything else to begin to reduce poverty and inequality. Mass unemployment is simply not politically sustainable and if a grants system can buy us some time while we try and resolve our economy problems we really should examine it as carefully and seriously.
Talk about a “second transition” or even a “Zuma moment” is cheap. What we need is real and effective action. If the Brazilian model of cash transfers could work there we need to take it very, very seriously here.
Imraan Buccus is a research fellow in the school of social sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a study-abroad programme on political transformation.