Friday, February 3, 2023 | Oscar van Heerden | South Africa's problematique debunked. There are... | Oscar van Heerden | South Africa's problematique debunked. There are good stories, you know




Let us all unite in firstly recognising our failures and challenges and, secondly, by joining each other in this mass campaign that says we are here and we want to contribute to a better future for all South Africans, writes Oscar van Heerden.

Looking at the various comments made on my opinion article last week, “Shape up or ship out ANC. What is the state of our nation”, on 19 January 2023, it struck me that many were stating two things in response.

First, many were in agreement with its contents and were asking where the solutions to these challenges were. Secondly, many others were saying while it is important to take stock of our challenges, surely there are also some good stories to tell, you know, such as progress to mention over the democratic period to date. For these reasons, I present the following possible solutions for us all going forward and reflect on some of the good stories so far.  

Last week I stated that, in essence, our SA problematique is:

Poverty, unemployment and inequality, instead of being eradicated as promised by the liberation struggles, have been exacerbated by unfulfilled promises and collapsed hope. Contesting elites exploit fractures in our social fabric. Weakened democratic practices render citizens helpless to staunch corruption or replace the incompetent.

Our purpose, therefore, is to reverse the above and engage in the hard work of democracy, helping to set an agenda for the future, limiting the descent into fascism and building the foundation for hope.

But before I get to the how, let us for a moment reflect on the good stories since the advent of democracy. I took the liberty of stating the said problematique on various social media platforms and sharing it in particular with my friends across the globe, asking whether there were any good stories to tell, and these were some of the inputs received.

One of them stated: “With the considerable caveat that South Africa was in a Washington consensus neo-liberal straitjacket preventing truly progressive structural change, one must admit to the following good stories.”

Though at the beginning (1990-1993), this ministry was in dire straits, there was hardly any money in the fiscus to write home about, our foreign reserves were decimated trying to defend the falling rand currency, and our borrowing (debt) levels were unacceptably high.

Since democracy, though, many of these elements were stabilised under the capable leadership of, firstly, Trevor Manuel and numerous other competent successors after him, bar one. In those early days of our democracy, Manuel stabilised our fiscus, managed the debt levels and, in fact, brought it down considerably. He began a concerted effort to replenish the country’s foreign reserves.

All these efforts meant that we were in an eminently better position financially than before the 1990s. This financial stability continues to this day. Yes, we have higher debt-to-GDP ratios, and yes, we have significant challenges still, but overall, our reserves have been stable; our pension funds, both public and private, are stable too, and though our debt levels are rising, this is, unfortunately, a global trend.

The management of our monetary policy and the levels of inflation have proven difficult over the years, but this institution has demonstrated resilience and competence throughout the years. 

Though a debate continues about whether the bank should or should not be nationalised, responsible engagements have been the order of the day. The bank also played a major role in the above achievements by Treasury over the years.

The above two institutions make sure the macroeconomic fundamentals have always been sound and first-class. Other contributions continued.

There was an unfortunate brief period during the state capture years, but since then, it’s getting back to that level of quality that we were used to and, indeed, is yet again collecting the desired levels of tax revenues. Under Edward Kieswetter, the revenue service has not only re-established its dignity and respect, but has invested in technology and the training of its staff to deliver quality services to our people.  

READ | SARS crackdown on illegal activities nets R8.2 billion – 300% more than the previous year

The levels of revenue gathered is very commendable indeed. And I’m sure you will all agree with me when I say that tax revenue remains the backbone of any economy. The fact that the ANC government managed to redesign the tax revenue system and the vehicle for its collection remains one of the biggest achievements to date.     

  • Chapter 9 Institutions, especially the Public Protector, SA Human Rights Commission and Auditor-General South Africa.

The last is the very office that attempts to keep us all on the straight and narrow by insisting on accounting standards and transparency all around. If it weren’t for this office, we would never have known the extent of the rot in our municipalities.   

  • The Independent Electoral Commission

A world-class body that is beyond reproach and has avoided becoming the Achilles heel of elections that such commissions have become across the continent’s new democracies. We have enjoyed successive free and fair general elections, and by this, I mean free of intimidation, political violence and mass election rigging. 

This must surely be celebrated.

First class, with only some notable exceptions in the form of seriously dodgy jurists. But, in the main, our courts have been exemplary in their conduct, and though we must move away from ‘lawfare’ and wanting to settle political disputes in our courts, the courts have been able to manage even these cases adequately. Keep it up.

Under Thabo Mbeki, Nepad, the AU and the African Renaissance placed South Africa on the international stage, based on institutions and policies and not just Madiba’s charisma and legacy.

We enjoy very good foreign relations with the majority of countries and have one of the biggest presences around the world through our embassies and high commissions. 

We have no notable enemies and are not engaged in any overt military offensives, bar peacekeeping and peace-building operations throughout the continent. Our ascendency to the Brics membership must also be commended. Through this formation, we are set to be a part of the changing global geostrategic design. Western dominance is waning, and a new multilateral world order is beginning to take shape.   

  • A good and sophisticated financial sector

Our banks, pension funds, investment funds and stock exchange are all world class, and there is ample recognition worldwide of this reality. South Africa is indeed seen as a gateway to Africa, precisely because of our developed and stable financial sector. Global investors trust our banks and our regulatory frameworks.

  • Our recent handling of the Covid 19 pandemic

Bar some corruption attempts, the overall management of the pandemic by our government must be applauded. We only have to look at several countries, including in the collective West, to realise it could have been far more severe. Our death toll could have been far worse than it was and the economy could have suffered much more than it did. But we are still here, and President Cyril Ramaphosa, in particular, should get a pat on the back for his stewardship during this challenging time.

It is a misconception that our education system has failed our people. It has not. It takes time to measure success in an education system – change is evident in decades, not years. There is an addition formal public school year available. The Grade R intake is high, with the General Household Survey showing 96% of six-year-olds attending school.

READ | Adriaan Basson: 80% matric pass rate nonsense masks real issues with our schools

We have also seen a steady increase in the number of available applicants for university studies. The reading level data (which says our kids cannot read and write) were found to be erroneous by Gustaffson. The much touted ‘lack of progress in reading’ from PIRLS data, was found to actually ‘confirm large improvements in South Africa’s reading outcomes, albeit from a low base’. 

All international standardised assessments (except TIMS Grade 5 mathematics) show that South Africa’s language and maths outcomes are improving over time. Two new universities have been built in Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, respectively.   

This is our single biggest achievement of our post-apartheid democratic government. 

Ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society – children, the aged and the differently abled – are able to have some measure of dignity. This must continue for as long as we fail to create jobs for our people.

  • A steady yet low growth rate in our economy

From the levels where we were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we have done reasonably well, but of course, we require much higher levels of growth to become more sustainable and create the much-needed jobs for our people.

These are some of the good stories that we can tell. It is not all doom and gloom. As for possible solutions going forward with regards to our above problematique, what do we do? 

Recognise that most South Africans want to contribute to a better future, but are without examples of positive practices or decent leadership. Many brilliant interventions are unknown and disconnected from the power to grow.

  • Draw from the lessons of our history, the failures and achievements of the work done in achieving our democratic settlement. Connect the best ideas and interventions to the power to implement them at scale.
  • Pull together in a loose alignment the most effective networks we have and share skills and practices. Consciously build or strengthen bridges among academics, intellectuals, civil society, business, and government. We will be more effective together.
  • Implement a sophisticated communication plan using all appropriate media and cultural interventions. Listen to and broadcast the stories. Learn from the above and below.

Build a base from which others can work. Set, in practice, a programme for the future that is so widely supported that even those in political power cannot afford to undermine it.

This is what needs to be achieved. Furthermore, on the assumption that democracy is the strongest guarantor of a flourishing future, we need to:

  • Build a network of networks. There are many doing great, uncoordinated work. We must assist these networks to get to scale and to also ensure they have the power to implement.
  • Accessible networks are engaged in agriculture, safe hubs, education at various levels, wealth creation, city extension and infrastructure, hydrogen economy, culture.
  • Defend the Constitution from the ahistorical attacks by the corrupt. This is an example of addressing the disinformation making the rounds.

These are some of the ideas, but I know there are many others you have too. Let us all unite in firstly recognising our failures and challenges and, secondly, by joining each other in this mass campaign that says we are here and we want to contribute to a better future for all South Africans.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Let’s heed these wise words, fellow South Africans.    

– Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of international relations (IR), where he focuses on international political economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular.


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