William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The jewel of Africa needs to buff up its act

The situation has become unsustainable. The tipping point of an accelerated slide to failed state status is surely imminent.

That means even worse economic disintegration than has already taken place over the past two decades. That means a more rapidly deteriorating security situation, with more street protests, violent wildcat strikes, burning, looting, and general lawlessness.

It means a further exodus of the nation’s most mobile citizens, who are always the best and the brightest, as they emigrate to countries that value their skills. It means less economic investment from without and further capital flight from within.

That, in turn, means that an already small tax base — which supports a mind-boggling number of welfare recipients and a lazy, over-manned public service — is going to shrink further. It means that unemployment, already in excess of 25% on the narrow definition, will rise further.

Cumulatively, this adds up to a toxic circle of self-negation — a paralysing diminishment of national confidence that plays out in increased insularity and political paranoia, and institutional fragility.

No, no. This is not South Africa, jewel of Africa, of which I write. This is the situation in Greece, jewel of the Mediterranean.

But there certainly are sufficient similarities between the two countries that President Jacob Zuma’s governing tripartite alliance should be worried. That, however, is unlikely. SA’s politicians share with the Greek leaders a pursuit of ideological pie-in-the-sky, rather than pragmatic, incremental reforms.

Whether you blame Eurozone hardliners for contributing the final straw or whether you blame decades of Greek profligacy and the hollowing out of society by dishonesty and greed, the end result is the same. A classic Greek tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that should fill South Africans with foreboding.

Like SA, Greece has an enormous public sector — triple the size it was 30 years ago — of which the wage bill has doubled in real terms over the past decade. Political connections rather than merit determine appointment to most state jobs. The New York Times has described government in Greece as “an army of patronage appointments built up over decades”.

State employment, of any kind, is the career of choice since the average government job pays three times that of its equivalent in the private sector. It is also almost impossible to get fired.

Like SA, Greece is a society that is dangerously tolerant of dishonesty, with convictions for corruption few and far between. In Greece, public servant bribery is endemic and the efficient performance of any state service — whether it is a telephone installation or a hospital admission — is more often than not dependent on greasing a civil servant’s palm.

The state retirement system epitomises institutionalised corruption. Pension age in jobs classified as “arduous and unhealthy” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. Among the more than 600 Greek professions classified as “arduous” are hairdressers, masseurs, bakers, waiters, nurses, cleaners, and musicians.

Riddled with inefficiency and corruption, the Greek public healthcare system spends far more on supplies than the European average, in no small part, writes Vanity Fair, because it is not unusual “to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels … and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets”.

Like SA, basic education is a disaster. Greece has one of the lowest ranking schooling systems in the European Union, despite employing four times as many teachers per pupil than does Finland, the highest ranking one. Teachers are indolent, pupils riotous. Sound familiar?

The list is long of chilling similarities between Greece and SA. There are, however, two glaring differences.

The first favours SA, which has one of the most efficient revenue collection systems in the world, albeit from a very small base of individual taxpayers. Greeks, in contrast, are unaccustomed to paying tax, with an estimated 30% to 40% of economic activity going untaxed.

A 2012 study that compared Greek bank account data with government tax data found that the true income of the average Greek is almost 200% higher than the taxable income reported. In some of the wealthiest areas of Greece it is estimated that as many two-thirds of income earners are not paying tax.

The other major difference between the two countries is very much in Greece’s favour and is their comparative population sizes. Greece has 11-million people, SA has five times as many.

Just imagine how much bigger the SA meltdown will be, if it is allowed to happen. That’s one other thing we don’t want to share with the Greeks — a denial until it is too late, that there is anything wrong.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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