A new year gives us an opportunity to face reality and put SA first

31 December 2011 - 02:19 By Redi Tlhabi

THE obligatory and overused platitudes "Compliments of the season" and "Happy new year" will continue to be icebreakers in conversations for the next few weeks.

Our exchanges will centre on our resolutions and aspirations. And that's how it ought to be. The demands of modern life compel every individual to reflect on the past, jettison what has not worked and come out with a solid determination to do better.

The new year is a welcome opportunity to fix our country. South Africa has traversed some treacherous terrain, and it is clear that the road ahead will not be a walk in the park.

Our unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 25% and shows no signs of declining. With the wisdom of hindsight, we now know that the ruling party's mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs" was nothing more than a dream.

The country has since woken to the realisation that the number of unemployed, including those who lack the skills required by the economy and those too disillusioned to look for work, cannot be wished away. And it does not serve the leadership's purpose to constantly highlight our malfunctions and remind us that we are facing the abyss. A nation in despair is a dangerous nation. But with the dawn of the new year, we have an opportunity to be constructive about our shortcomings.

A defensive reaction by our leaders is perhaps a tacit admission that they are overwhelmed and do not have the foggiest notion of how to tackle the beasts of poverty and unemployment.

In his State of the Nation address in February, President Jacob Zuma proudly called 2011 the year of job creation and vowed to increase the number of employed people by five million in the next decade.

As expected, this goal is impossible to achieve, and Zuma was forced to backtrack and claim he had not been speaking about jobs, but job opportunities. I am yet to find an economist who is able to elaborate convincingly on this distinction. It should be simple really. If a job opportunity can put food on the table, then, by all means, let's have more job opportunities.

Government spin doctors are often frustrated at what they wrongly call the media's obsession with bad news. This emotional reaction sometimes comes from a sincere place. But the media should not apologise. It is in putting more emphasis on what is not being done that we can initiate a positive change.

A poor person does not need to read the newspaper to learn of his or her plight. Every day that he or she wakes up is a bitter reminder that the new South Africa has not delivered. The poor know that their stomachs are empty. They know that doors are shut in their faces because they lack the skills to secure jobs. They know the hopelessness of caring for loved ones and watching them die because quality healthcare is out of reach.

They see their offspring wake up every morning to attend overcrowded classrooms, while their peers, born and bred in enabling circumstances, thrive. They watch their shacks and poorly built homes collapse under the force of unforgiving elements.

This cold reality is the root cause of disillusionment. And the Arab Spring has taught us that when the chips are down and tempers reach boiling point, citizens soon forget how beloved and revered their leaders once were. Memories of formidable liberation struggles soon fade, and the instinct to survive takes over.

Our entry into the new year must transcend quixotic celebrations. For the policy-makers whose decisions have a far-reaching impact on the powerless, this cannot be another year of being caught up in the mere appeal of noble deeds and the tiresome pursuit of unreachable goals.

In 2012, let's really put South Africa first.