Cracks are already showing
For the past few weeks I, like most of humanity, have been glued to my TV set watching the extraordinary events unfold in North Africa and the Middle East. And I, too, can't help but wonder how insulated we are in South Africa from a similar kind of revolution.
I don't believe it will happen today or tomorrow, but I do believe it would be foolish on our part to think that we have set ourselves so solid a foundation that it could withstand similar ruptures ripping through our society.
The cracks are already there. The issue is how we choose to manage them and, more importantly, how we choose to address the aspirations of the millions of unemployed youth in our midst. It is for them that the Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, promised a budget that would provide "an opportunity to create hope for young people".
Because, like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, South Africa has a massive army of disenchanted youth. Fifty-two percent of our population are under the age of 25, and conservative estimates tell us half of them are unemployed. That's a staggering statistic. If we talk in the language of cold numbers, that bloc of unemployed youth is equal to the entire population of Zambia.
Yet Gordhan said in his budget speech that the uptake on the National Youth Subsidy had been very low. How can that be so when our youth are begging to be taken off the streets? What is standing in the way of this initiative allowing young people to take a first step towards tomorrow? Why have we not negotiated the agreements between the government, the employers and the unions to ensure that our young people enjoy the human dignity of having a reason to get out of bed each morning? Are we so blinded by our narrow vested interests? Or do we really not care any more?
At the Department of Basic Education, a new category is beginning to show its face: Neet, a nifty acronym that stands for "Neither employed, educated nor trained". And in that category sit millions of young people. We continue to throw the largest chunk of our annual budget at education - this year R190-billion, or 22% of total expenditure - as we should. But it is evidently not working.
Runaway corruption has reached the point that, according to Gordhan, there are currently 53 investigations involving procurement fraud to the tune of R3-billion, while SARS is investigating another nine cases of tender fraud in the region of R1.7-billion. Six months ago, however, during his mid-term budget speech, the minister told us that approximately R25-billion worth of public tenders were being scrutinised for suspected fraud. It's heartening to hear that the figures have dwindled, but does this mean that the R25-billion worth of cases have been resolved? Or have they been discarded?
We have a right to know. This is the public purse we are talking about, and a predatory elite is not only eating into it, but also eating into our society. And for each fraudulent government tender doled out, someone in the private sector is paying that bribe.
There is mounting anger and resentment towards what is perceived to be a plundering elite who are intent on looting our economy. And one wonders how many more crooked tenders it will take before someone throws that first stone.
We are fast becoming one of the most unequal societies in the world. South Africa now wears the odious badge of having one of the highest Gini co-efficients, the measure of income inequality. When will we wake up to the fact that this is much more than another grim statistic? One day our young people will begin to ride the wave of revolt, instead of the wave of resistance against apartheid, as their parents did not so very long ago.
If we opt for inaction in the face of these challenges, then, as sure as night follows day, we will face our "Egyptian moment". And it won't happen today, or tomorrow, or next year. But that should make us no less complacent, because when it does happen, and it will eventually, it will affect each and every one of us.
The indictment of all of us is that the very same youth we are talking about cannot afford the price of this newspaper and most likely do not care what our views are anyway. Yet, in 1994, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, we vowed to deliver a people-centred democracy committed to reconstruction and development and delivering a better life to all our citizens, not just a chosen few.
So how do we bridge that social divide? How do we recapture that exuberance of 1994? How do we put the people back at the centre of our society?
President Jacob Zuma alluded to it in his State of the Nation address when he called on the more fortunate members of our society to help him create millions of much-needed jobs. It took big leadership for him to extend that call for co-operation. It is that kind of leadership that will allow us all to walk together towards a more inclusive tomorrow. But it will require more than co-operation. It begs a new vision in our policies, and creativity in our approach to planning. Think of the 15 million people in receipt of social grants. While these hand-outs go a long way to putting bread on many tables, it is unlikely that their recipients will ever be able to use them to crawl out of poverty. So why not peg those hand-outs to production? Why not encourage the recipients to receive training in return for the money they are given each month, and experience the dignity of earning a living and seeing the social grants as a stepping stone to a better life, rather than a licence to a lifetime of poverty and dependency?
What about the swathes of land that lie idle all over the country? It is unforgivable in a country this size, blessed with the kind of climate we have, that we are a net importer of food. We ought to be thinking in terms of co-operatives or social businesses like BRAC or the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.
I, like millions of South Africans, am exhausted by the endless policy debates we have. And I don't want to contemplate another election campaign that reverts to business as usual once the vote is cast. Democracy is much more than ticking that box every five or so years. We need to perfect the science of delivery and implementation and a means to hold our leaders to account. What we need is performance, not another policy document. It is astounding to think that 40% of the annual budget now goes to the public sector wage bill, which has doubled in the past five years, yet service delivery is none the better for it.
McKinsey predicts that at least four groups of industries - consumer-facing industries, agriculture, resources and infrastructure - could generate as much as $2.6-trillion in revenue in Africa by 2020. If we were to harness the idle hands of the estimated 18 million unemployed youth among us, we should be able to give them a future to look forward to.
But if we don't, then we must face up to the fact that they will eventually ride that wave of revolt against the very democracy we painstakingly fought for. That is what the youth of the Arab world are revolting against: not just against individual dictators, but a system designed to keep them marginalised and powerless. The true test is whether we have the courage of leadership to make the tough decisions we have to make to put our country to productive work and rein in our robber barons.
Naidoo, founding general secretary of Cosatu, is chairman of GAIN, a global foundation fighting malnutrition and hunger