In the mid-1980s South Africa’s prime overdraft rate went to 25%, inflation rocketed to 20.9% and the apartheid government abolished the financial rand exchange rate system in 1983 as international banks refused to renew credit lines for South Africa. The world was punishing South Africa for being a pariah, a scum state, violating the fundamental rights of its own citizens. These were the culminating effects of a self-inflicted erosion of the state, the fruit of an unjust system of increasingly entrenched racial discrimination against which the majority struggled. The wheels were finally coming off the white gravy train.

Thirty years on, from 2007 the prime rate flirted with 15.5% as President Jacob Zuma undertook his palace coup within the ANC, subsequently increased national debt to 50% of GDP, and while socio-political unrest grew, the Eskom loadshedding debacle tore into South Africa’s fortunes. These domestic own goals happened against the backdrop of a global financial crisis which further deflated our economic tires and brought the economy to a crawl. This year we’ve touched recession with inflation now rising to 5.2%.

South Arica is poised to repeat 1985. If our sovereign debt ratings are downgraded in December, as many believe we will be, 2017 will be the year of the “unemployed domestic worker” as the middle class tighten their belts to survive an economic suicide. This should be a moment of grave introspection and energetic engagement by South Africans of influence. The country might be in trouble.

The “crisis” of the 1980s was not a national disaster. It was the storm out of which Nelson Mandela’s release, the unbanning of the ANC and ultimately the writing of our constitution was born. Those were the years of our democratic conception and the birth pains of a dispensation of political freedom. What was a fiscal crisis to the whites and the rich, was a revolutionary tipping point to the blacks and coloureds and Indians and Asians.

Racialism as radicalism
The crisis of today is not pregnant with opportunity as was the 1980s. It would be a disaster.

As the stark reality bites, that South Africa has not changed all that much for the majority of citizens, many of whom are poorer and increasingly dependent on the state, the country is drifting from white racism to national racialism. In trying to fix the country and break out of the malaise, there appears to be a return to a broad racialisation of our public discourse under the guise of “radicalism”. Race is everywhere to be heard: in media, the new B-BBEE codes are Minister Rob Davies’ proud accomplishment, in sport, Minister Fikile Mbalula is wielding his licensing stick and at the SABC Hlaudi Motsoeneng is going for broke with 90% of content soon having to be local. While the world is globalising, we are going local and importantly, black. We debate and legislate about being “once transformed, always transformed”, instead of concerning ourselves more with the decline of the entire mining industry. Race, instead of scale or growth, has become the measure of our success.

The same tune is playing out in our party politics. As one listens to the various parties court the public in the run-up to the local government elections, there is overlap in their messages; “we will deliver to you, lend us your vote”. They differ little in how and what they promise to deliver. The ANC will continue to give away free electricity and free water and fee-free schools. The cost will be that the octopus of patronage, which now extends from rural Phuthaditjhaba in the Drakensberg, to Makgofe in Polokwane, with its head among the Jacarandas in Pretoria and a particularly tight grip on the kingdom of KwaZulu-Natal, will take the lion’s share. The tighter the economic times become, the more transformational this parasite promises to become – accelerated land reform is likely to be held out as a panacea in a misguided fit of radicalism. The EFF is even more radical with a race-based agenda of reallocation. Take this over here and hand it over to black people over there. “We can undo three centuries of history by simply moving material possessions around”, they say. It’s a lose-lose-win scenario where the poor will lose as the economy implodes, the rich will lose as their wealth vanishes and the commissars of the ruler-president eat cake on behalf of the masses. One could discuss the DA but would be spending valuable time on a quasi-secessionist city state called Cape Town.

Political hammer to fix an economic problem
We are stuck in a national rut because our leaders are trying to use a political hammer to fix an economic problem. You switch on the news and hear of a march to this municipality and a rally in that stadium. T-shirts for this crowd and food parcels for those grannies. The public discourse is preoccupied with the political process instead of concerning itself with the economic one. It’s like setting a table in order to eat a cookbook. Yes, a recipe for political organisation is important in a democracy, but people don’t eat votes. In a modern society, citizens eat the food which they bought at the shop with the money they earned at their place of employment, where a business owner or factory boss is utilising their labour in the production process of something which the rest of the world, at home or abroad, is willing to buy. Just ask China. These are the outcomes of investment in industry. Its economics and growth we need, not silly party politics which say “show me your stadium event and I’ll show you mine”. See, that’s the point. In the same week that the equality court rightly found Penny Sparrow guilty of racism and fined her a measly R150 000, the real lack of “equality” for the broad population went on unabated. For every Penny Sparrow, the proverbial white apartheid beneficiary trapped in a bigoted worldview, there are literally 10 non-white South Africans who are waiting penniless for someone to get them “moving forward” to a “better life”!

Socio-economics, stupid
We are rebuilding apartheid, instead of dismantling it. The white nationalists built an apartheid of the state and of structures of exclusion to match the separateness they imagined to exist between them and other races. By becoming trapped in a racialised radicalism which politicises basic commercial factors such as: costs of doing business, input costs in production processes, labour costs versus productivity, we are rebuilding an apartheid of sentiment to prop up a black nationalism on the basis of majoritarianism, and losing our democracy.

South Africa’s biggest problem is not the racial pigment of the Springboks, the tribal affiliation of KZN’s MECs or how cosy it is inside of the tripartite alliance, our national crisis is one of socio-economics. The average South African is 26 years old, often unemployed and already a parent. They live far from centres of economic activity and compete for a dwindling slice of a pie that is in any case too small to absorb everyone.

This is the product of the new black gravy train, a blistering elitism that equally tramples the rights of the poor and excluded. Instead of narrowly “transforming” our businesses and institutions we ought to be multiplying them. We should be singing off a single national hymn sheet which says: “South Africa is a great country with huge resources in its diverse people. We have overcome racial discrimination and we will now overcome the dehumanising effects of poverty and unproductivity. We will employ our proven ingenuity to offer Africa and the world our products and ourselves and we will do so competitively and efficiently, together.”

2016/2017 seems to be the year we choose – whether to go around and around the post-colonial political merry-go-round, which collapsed many African states before us, or whether we get on with the business of building a country that is non-racist, non-sexist and inclusive. A country where political freedom is employed as a setting in which to grow our economic emancipation out of the soil of smart and hard work. If we can look past pigment for a few decades and work together as South Africans, we have everything we need to build something valuable at the end of the rainbow. If not we’ll find ourselves looking for a new black vernacular term for the old Afrikaans idea of separate, and preferential economic development.


Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen is a faculty member and researcher at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business in SA Project. He is passionate...

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