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SA needs to get its act together

In what is recorded as his last speech, the extraordinary Anton Muziwakhe Lembede told the gathering, at Leake Hall in Soweto, June 1947, that “the history of mankind is the history of the liberation of the mankind”. Fast-forward to 1961, Frantz Fanon forcefully argued that “what matters today is the need for redistribution of wealth”. Fanon opined that “humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be”. The young Karl Marx had argued, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”.

The powerful perspectives of these three scholars and activists remain relevant in South Africa today and for many other societies confronted with socio-economic challenges that are proving hard to address. In particular, Fanon’s argument that we must redistribute wealth, “no matter how devastating the consequences may be” calls for further thinking and action, in resolving challenges that seem resolvable but we, as South Africans, are not succeeding. It appears that we are not succeeding because we lack an overarching societal consensus on how to address the socio-economic challenges confronting our young democracy. The main challenges are well-known but the possible solutions are not agreed upon and many South Africans continue to bear the brunt of hardship and marginalisation. Organised formations — labour, business and government — are not making the compromises necessary to turn things around. This is not entirely surprising given our political history. Of critical importance is that trust between organised business and the government remains fragile. Pertaining to organised labour, it would seem that the transformation that needs to take place in their approach and perspective is progressing rather slowly. For government, it appears that decisive leadership is in question and state cohesion remains weak.

To start with, South Africa faces two clusters of challenges. First, unemployment is too high, especially youth unemployment — it is estimated that at least 70% of those unemployed are below 35. The challenge of unemployment compounds the poverty and inequality challenge — about half of South Africans remain in poverty and the economic inequality is the highest in the world. This cluster of challenges — unemployment, poverty and inequality, is probably the easier one to address.

Given SA’s high per capita income and relatively high resourcefulness, poverty could be better tackled. The unemployment challenge, in particular the youth unemployment, is resolvable. Government is doing its part, though not so well. However, labour and business appear to be not doing enough. The wage subsidy programme, which was first proposed about three years ago, can address youth unemployment, to some extent. Granted, the youth unemployment problem in SA is on the demand side. Experiences of countries such as Germany, Canada, the United States and others point to the effectiveness of properly designed wage subsidy programmes, in different contexts. On the broader unemployment problem, country experiences of Ireland and the Netherlands in particular point to ways of addressing high unemployment rates. Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass, in their recent book, discuss the experiences of the Netherlands and Ireland in detail. Given how much is known about addressing unemployment, it is baffling that organised labour and government are not debating the substance of how to address this challenge and business is sitting on the fence. The mix of active labour market policies, of which the wage subsidy is but one, can go a long way in resolving the unemployment problem engulfing SA. What should happen is that a consensus should be reached on how to address the youth unemployment problem, and each party must make necessary compromises.

Regarding the poverty problem, the government has done a relatively good job; at least as far as social pensions and public works are concerned — about 30% of people are receiving cash transfers and thousands access job opportunities. However, the problem is huge and the service-delivery bottlenecks constrain progress in addressing poverty. Government has to get its act together and it appears that there are attempts to do this. Business, in particular, and each and every one of us can do something to lighten the burden on those in poverty and underdevelopment. The most complex challenge to address is our extremely high income inequality. This challenge is even more pressing as it is predominantly along racial lines. Lessons from Brazil — a country that has done remarkably well in reducing income inequality — imply that SA should have dented the economic inequality by now, given our relatively significant social provisioning. One plausible hypothesis why we are failing is that the structure of the South African economy has not transformed. Restructuring the economy is a cumbersome exercise, with many risks on the upside. We need to be innovative in addressing this unacceptable challenge, especially given our high unemployment and poverty rates. Again, business must come to the party.

The second cluster of challenges confronting SA relates to race relations, gender relations and the class divide. Regarding race, Michael MacDonald’s recent book, Why Race Matters in South Africa, makes the point that “South Africa’s races originated in political experiences, that the white supremacist state made communities of ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ by conferring citizenship on the one and denying it to the other. Whites were moulded by the political experience of inclusion and blacks were branded by exclusion … ” The challenge remains, as Adam Habib and Kristina Bentley put it in their recent book, Racial Redress & Citizenship in South Africa, that “South Africa’s democratic experiment is confronted with a central political dilemma: how to advance redress in order to address the historical injustices while simultaneously building a single national cosmopolitan identity”. Indications are that, although race relations have improved we remain a nation divided by race. Therefore, acts or remarks that do not acknowledge this sad reality compromise our rare political settlement. Government has done its part in racial redress by enacting a myriad of laws, making policies and designing programmes. South Africa, as a late-comer in democracy or liberation, learnt a lot from other countries — our constitution is a case in point. However, it would seem that we, as a country, still have a long way to go. We probably need to look at Malaysia and Tanzania, as examples, on how to better redress race-related challenges.

Regarding gender relations, the class divide and the plight of those vulnerable because of the conditions they live in, progress is equally appalling. Domestic violence and other terrible injustices visited on women and children indicate that something drastic needs to be done. It is about time, in fact it is overdue, that we find a consensus on how to better address this disheartening reality we live in — something that seems peculiarly South African. Similarly, the class question needs a consensus — in essence, it is linked to the unemployment challenge. For those vulnerable, each one of us can do something to ease their pain. Government, again, needs to do better. Business, again, needs to come on board.

Given the confusion and anxiety gripping our young democracy, as captured in WB Yeats’ Second Coming, it seems that “the ceremony of the innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. As Yeats laments, “surely some revelation is at hand … ”. Our second coming, perhaps as epitomised by the imminent 2012 national conference of the ruling party, the African National Congress, requires of our young democracy to sharply redefine for itself our future. Presently, it would seem that the centre is not holding, as Yeats would say. As such, the future, especially for the many unemployed young people, is not looking good. The central question, in the context of the “history of mankind” that Lembede spoke of, is what consequences are we able to live with as we further pursue the transformation project that Fanon asked of us, as humanity, to pursue. The class struggles which characterise present-day South Africa, as they were in Marx’s Europe in 1800s, require of our young democracy to rigorously address the two clusters of challenges confronting South Africa 16 years on.

The overarching societal contract, some form of social accord, about how to address challenges such as unemployment, poverty and inequality or the broader project of socio-economic transformation is one fundamental answer to our unending woes. South Africa desperately needs some form of a consensus on how to address the challenges that largely seem resolvable. Organised formations must make necessary compromises. Each and every one of us must do our part, where and when feasible. It should be noted that many South Africans — black or white — are doing a lot in bringing about the necessary social change that our country needs. Government needs to get its act together. Government is doing many important things, and each one of us who get an opportunity to assist or serve should do so selflessly. The daily service delivery protests, as an example, suggest that the country is under siege and requiring more in terms of leadership and action. Lastly, the ruling party has to get its house in order. Attempts to do this are commendable. Fundamentally, it is the strategic posture of the ruling party as it approaches its centenary that could be an answer to its challenges and those of the country. At the core of whatever strategic posture, informed by the balance of evidence, should be a concern about the future for our children and their children: surely, they deserve a better future!