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OPINION | SA needs urgent non-party political dialogue to address problems and challenges

25 August 2020 - 07:07 By Mojanku Gumbi
SA’s unemployment rate stands at 30.1%.
SA’s unemployment rate stands at 30.1%.

I first met the recently deceased African scholar, Thandika Mkandawire, in the late 1980s at a symposium in Harare, Zimbabwe. He tendentiously argued that his fellow citizens, the Malawians, disengage from the nation’s political life for five years only to spring back into action at election time and return to hibernation thereafter.

In Mkandawire’s view, disengagement from national political life falls short of the minimum criteria for the democratic project. Furthermore, a disengaged citizenry often begets leaders who sooner or later stultify the country’s political, socio economic and all round development.

Since the stagnation also occurs in countries that boast large educated populations, the middle classes who have throughout history anchored and led reform or revolutionary efforts, there was, Mkandawire posited, somewhat of a causal relationship between the nation’s disengagement and its descent into the abyss.

Years later, on a mediation mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of late President Laurent Kabila’s advisers disclosed that the government did not know how many teachers, nurses, police or soldiers were in the country’s employ.

Faced with remuneration uncertainties, public servants augmented and oftentimes wholly paid themselves by extorting emoluments from citizens. Such was the breakdown of systems that when a Congolese government delegation needed to attend a meeting anywhere in the world, it collected cash directly from the central bank. No-one kept receipts for expenditure undertaken during the meetings.

Undoubtedly features of a state well on its way to becoming a failed concern.

Illustrative of how abnormalities had become normalised, the presidential adviser could not believe that elsewhere on the continent, municipalities delivered services such as electricity and water and residents paid, in arrears.

The DRC continues to contend with a plethora of problems and challenges. The most urgent and pressing is the need for the country to find sustainable peace and to lay a firm foundation for reconstruction and development.

Belgium’s role in the country’s destruction — with support from other Western countries — from 1885 onwards is well known. But what is the Congolese and broader African leadership doing to realise what the late President Agostinho Neto of Angola described as the task of the postcolonial African state?: “The most important thing is to solve the people's problems.”

Truth be told, many of our countries on the continent gravitate between amber and red zones insofar as the interrelated aspects of politics and socio-economic stability are concerned.

We should, as Africans, resist the temptation of descent into the lower depths of parochial nationalism which exudes, among others, vulgar notions of national exceptionalism

Thus, the question about solving the people’s problems could easily be posed about many countries on the continent. For this reason, we should, as Africans, resist the temptation of descent into the lower depths of parochial nationalism which exudes, among others, vulgar notions of national exceptionalism. This would, in turn, promote finger pointing and self-defence at all costs on the one hand and the unhelpful practice of burying our heads in the sand on the other. It would ultimately render collective African solidarity elusive.

Besides the DRC, developments in neighbouring Zimbabwe suggest that the region and the continent should consider greater engagement in the problems and challenges it faces.

South Africans should humble themselves to learn the necessary lessons from the totality of the postcolonial African experience, including our own postapartheid journey. There is no gainsaying the fact that we too are a nation on tenterhooks or, in many and significant respects, at a crossroads.

On the socio-economic front

SA’s unemployment rate stands at 30.1%. Our credit rating ranked below investment grade (junk) even before the Covid-19 lockdown.

With a Gini coefficient close to 0.63, we remain one of the most unequal countries in the world. The public debt to GDP ratio is expected to reach 81.8% by the end of 2020; which means that the country will need more money to service interest and the capital of the loans.

Health care, some elements of safety and security, transport and quality education are the preserve of the rich while levels of wider societal and gender-based violence, remain frighteningly high. The confluence of these and other indicators constitute a powder keg for the future political and social stability of our country.

Enter Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has only accentuated the powder keg. It brought into sharp relief, the squalid conditions under which the majority of South Africans continue to live. The housing and infrastructure backlog inherited from apartheid mean that many black urban residential areas remain spatial spaces where people are packed like sardines.

So, through no fault of their own, some township and especially informal settlement residents have not been able to comply with preventive measures such as physical distancing.

In a move that spoke volumes about the tendency by different social sectors to procure solutions outside the broader national interest, the taxi industry forced a seemingly pliant and pliable government to permit full taxi loads during the height of the pandemic.

What is to be done?

The question “what is to be done?” has never been more urgent. There are two choices which attach with consequences. The one is to do nothing and run the risk of falling over the cliff and become a failed state. The other is a torturous one of difficult decisions on all the urgent matters facing the country such as economic recovery, efficient and reassuring management of the country’s political institutions and processes as well as the construction of a capable state, among others.

So, who will take us to the promised land? Without doubting their good intentions, can a leadership collective that is, by all accounts, constrained by its commissions and omissions take us along the torturous path? To what extent can calls for decisive action towards turning a new leaf and those against corruption be fulfilled under the circumstances? 

In the interest of present and future generations of South Africans, the time has come for SA patriots from across the party political divide to dialogue about the country’s problems and challenges and to put forward enduring solutions. Such dialogue is urgent.

Gumbi served as President Thabo Mbeki’s legal adviser and is currently a management consultant based in Johannesburg.