Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

Where is SA going?

Nuruddin Farah, one of the extraordinary novelists of our times, succinctly captured — in his novel entitled Secrets — the beginnings of Somalia’s civil war. Kalaman, the protagonist, relates what he was going through as the tragedy unfolded: “I sat in the car. I was a storm-beaten, lonely man. I was sad. I was mournful. I grieved for my country.”

The various incidents challenging South Africa beg a fundamental question: where is South Africa going? Some South Africans come across as storm-beaten, sad and mournful. There might be some that are even grieving for our country. To answer the question posed above, another important question should be answered: where is South Africa coming from? The answer to this question might change the minds and hearts of those that are sad, mournful and grieving — given the obtaining balance of evidence, are there sufficient grounds for sadness, mourning and grief for our South Africa? It appears that the correct answer is a resounding NO.

In her latest book, Laying Ghosts to Rest, Mamphela Ramphele takes us through a journey of where South Africa was compared to where it is today. She satisfactorily answers the question of where SA comes from. There are many others who have also tackled this important question, presumably having an obvious answer, of where we come from as a nation. Ramphele contends that “analysts of our transition to democracy are inclined to either romanticise what has been accomplished thus far or be overly critical of the persistent gaps between the idealism of the envisaged transformation process and the socio-economic realities of citizens’ everyday lives. Both sides are apt to underestimate the complex processes involved in managing the urgent multiple challenges that had to be addressed to secure a successful transition and lay the foundation for orderly transformation”. Ramphele argues that “a successfully transformed South Africa would be characterised by the antithesis of all that was bad about the apartheid system”.

It is taken for granted that we come from an ugly past, a legacy that makes the transformation process even more complex. Part of the challenge is that the political settlement that brought about a new South Africa — though seemingly the ideal one at the time of the conclusion of negotiations — might be posing or have posed constraints on what could have been a speedy socio-economic transformation in a post-apartheid South Africa. It is also argued that there were or there are also constraints imposed by external factors. Although we should be grateful for the relatively peaceful transition to democracy, some clarity on the details of the negotiated political settlement might be helpful. At face-value, it is hard to understand why certain seemingly obvious social changes have not taken place.

Take, for instance, one of the most important matters: the land question — could it be that the process has been this disappointing because of the nature and content of the negotiated political settlement? There are a number of countries, for example Rwanda, that come from a past that is uglier than ours but have addressed or are addressing the critical socio-economic transformation challenges speedier than South Africa. It is perhaps in this context that Xolela Mangcu — in his latest book entitled The Democratic Moment, opines that “the question at the end of the day is whether the new leadership under Jacob Zuma has the emotional temperament, the ethical-moral commitment, the political willingness and the institutional resources needed to engage with communities in the resolution of problems … ”. Put differently, why are we as South Africa performing poorer than we should in our robust transformation project.

The answer to the question of where SA is going is probably better conceptualised within the framework of the so-called “developmental state”. In a journal paper on policy-making in South Africa, published in 2008, I define a developmental state as a state “that is active in pursuing its agenda, working with social partners, and has the capacity and is appropriately organised for its predetermined developmental objectives”. South Africa has surprised many scholars in that it is the only state that has publicly declared its ambition to be a developmental state. Among the main attributes of developmental states is the notion of “embedded-autonomy”, a term coined by Peter Evans, a leading scholar on developmental states. In a nutshell, what Evans is talking about is that a developmental state is “embedded” or connected to the society it serves and at the same time it has some distance from vested interests. Other main attributes of a developmental state include (1) a state that is vigorously pursuing/prioritising economic growth, like the East Asian economies did (2) there is the so-called a “developmental elite” (3) recruitment to the public sector is merit-based (4) public servants are insulated from political interferences and/or bureaucrats should be governed by political “neutrality”, and so on.

In an ongoing undertaking aimed at further unpacking human poverty and other related dynamics in a post-apartheid South Africa, data suggests that SA is a developmental state in the making. This turns on its head a conclusion — that SA was indeed a developmental state, albeit a weak one — I reached in a recent conference paper. Clearly, we are not yet there and we have some mileage to traverse! The findings of the ongoing research on human poverty and related factors in SA indicate some steady progress in a number of critical areas. As an example, the trend of the Human Development Index (HDI) for SA has generally been rising; in 1980 it was at 0.65, it rose to 0.68 in 2007 and there is a small further improvement to 0.69 in 2008 — the HDI combines statistics on life expectancy, education and income while the Human Poverty Index (HPI) is an attempt to bring together in a composite index the different features of deprivation in the quality of life to arrive at an aggregate judgment on the extent of poverty in a particular case. In addition, there is the Gender-related Human Development Index (GDI) which reflects differences in HDI for women compared to men: SA has one of the highest GDIs in the world, at 99.84.

Overall, the reason I argue that SA is a developmental state in the making is because blacks are still the most affected by human poverty and they have lower human development: the black population group has the lowest HDI (0.63), compared to that of whites (0.91). Of note is also that whites and Indians have better human development indices than the average for the richest 20% of all South Africans, which suggests that there are additional factors that determine inter-racial differences in human development (and this is captured in lower life-expectancy rates for non-white population groups). In terms of provinces, Gauteng has the highest average HDI (0.81) while KwaZulu-Natal has the lowest HDI (0.60).

There are a number of technical research issues that are under consideration. Many assumptions are made in estimations on these kinds of matters and data used and calculations have to pass some statistical tests, and one has to take into account opinions of experts in these issues. In essence, it is hard to argue that SA is a developmental state already given the inequalities shown by disaggregated HDIs and HPIs, let alone our Gini coefficient (at about 0.70), making SA the most unequal society in the world. It could, however, be argued that SA appears to be in the correct direction towards a fully-fledged democratic developmental state — this is where perhaps SA is going.

As Ramphele argues: “A successfully transformed South Africa would be characterised by the antithesis of all that was bad about the apartheid system … transformation of [that] magnitude is complex”. It might be necessary to engage openly about our past, the negotiated political settlement, the present and the future we aim for as a nation. An elder and astute character in Farah’s Secrets has some words of wisdom that require some attention. Addressing Kalaman and his mother, Damac, an elder — Nonno — states that “what sets humans apart from other animals is not the generic ability to speak, or that we are capable of thinking in complicated mathematical equations, no. It is in the human’s obedience to a set of tenets governing an overall behaviour, taboo tenets that are observed, because they affect the community’s life at large. I cannot imagine a world without taboos, a culture without its notion of right and wrong. Honours are maintained, pledges kept, gods worshipped. It is anathema to imagine a world in which there are no secrets. Secrets have a life energy, they keep us alive”.

Nonno is probably right. However in the context of societal-wide transformation, it might help not to be secretive about what could be constraining the transformation we hoped for. The secrets that might have been kept in Farah’s Somalia could have led to the sadness that Kalaman experienced. Perhaps if we deal with matters of our complex transformation project openly, including the nature and content of our negotiated political settlement, maybe no South African would be storm-beaten, sad, mournful and grieving for our country.