Inclusive Growth Forum
MCEBISI JONAS | There’s a way: five basics to set South Africa on course
Our challenge is to navigate these tumultuous times, but how do we reform and recover without a working political, social and economic vision?
The trajectory of our country is unsustainable as we get nearer and nearer the precipice. The warning lights are flashing on all key economic and social indices, yet the only new idea gaining momentum across political lines is to attack and scapegoat foreign nationals and the constitution.
We are not the only country in this predicament. Everywhere we are seeing the rise of populism and the new politics of identity in which the notion of victimhood is leveraged to drum up support. Illiberal or hybrid models of democracy, which bring in elements of autocracy, are on the rise. This is linked to the absence of fresh ideas among the progressive left and the liberals, as well as objectively declining living standards associated with stagflation and the decreased ability of the state to offer social protection. The war in Ukraine with its associated oil and food price inflation means these conditions will be with us for the short to medium term. Global volatility and the re-emergence of a new bipolar world order seems increasingly likely.
South Africa's position therein remains uncertain (even to us as South Africans) and we may find it increasingly difficult to play both sides.
Our challenge now is to navigate these tumultuous times. How do we reform, recover and rebuild in the absence of a coherent and shared political, social and economic vision? The ANC is two months away from its 55th national elective conference and while jockeying for positions is the biggest show in town, there is no intelligible engagement among leaders and members of the governing party on the multiple crises threatening our future.
Similarly, opposition parties are out of ideas. I maintain that our 1994 consensus has reached sell-by date, but we have not yet articulated a new exchange which encapsulates trade-offs among elites themselves, and between elites and the poor. I would argue that at the centre of this new deal should be an innovative and entrepreneurial stratum to replace the traditional and aspirant rent-seeking incumbents.
The level of inequality goes against the spirit of our democratic foundations and is the reason we have lost our sense of nationhood. Our inequality makes us forever susceptible to violent insurrection.
I have been preoccupied these past few months with our damaged national psyche. The moral fibre of our nation is in shreds, and we need to beware the violent, selfish, exploitive and self-aggrandising attitudes that pervade South African society. The elites and middle class are less and less concerned about the fate of the poor and the growing social crisis in our country. For millions of South Africans, it is becoming harder every day to stay alive and there is a steady erosion of basic human rights where people have no food, no water, no jobs, no security and no shelter. Violent and brazen crime is on the rise.
I will restrict my input to the five fundamentals needed to move us towards a comprehensive change agenda.
The first is economic growth. This should be the central focus of all sectors of society. Without growth, living standards will continue to decline, unemployment will rise, and social protections will erode. Growing the economy requires active and tangible measures to deal with, among other things, the energy crisis, rising crime levels and regulatory impediments to investment. PR exercises and empty announcements cannot deliver growth and should be discouraged. There is a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario in which investment is required for growth, but a low growth environment also means less investment. There are still strong concerns about corruption, despite the progress made in bringing crooks to book. We need to turn this in our favour. Rather than chasing the one or two mega investments, we should be multiplying thousands of smaller investments to grow a new entrepreneurial stratum. Green industrialisation and digitalisation also offer significant new opportunities, as does our continental integration, if we get the policies and execution capabilities in place.
The second aspect of our change agenda must be tackling inequality. We were found this year to be the most unequal of the 164 countries benchmarked by the World Bank. The level of inequality goes against the spirit of our democratic foundations and is the reason we have lost our sense of nationhood. Our inequality makes us forever susceptible to violent insurrection. This means expansion of social protection in the short term, while we do the real work of building a black entrepreneurial stratum that creates wealth through productivity and innovation, rather than through political connections. The private sector and banks must realise that South Africa will continue to be a tinder box unless they take deliberate actions to transform the economy. Our predicament in the immediate term is how to ramp up fiscal redistribution in the context of fiscal constraints, and how to encourage market co-creation and financial inclusion where there is still mistrust between social partners.
Around the world, people are crying out for a new political order that is responsive to the current conditions. Why should we be any different?
Underlying this mistrust is state dysfunction and incapacity. We all know that this is a huge problem, yet there is little being done to repair the bureaucracy to a basic level of functionality. It is instead taken for granted that state departments and institutions do not function. A competent state is central to a turnaround of the country’s fortunes, so it is incomprehensible why this is not a national priority. Health, education and public safety are obvious starting points as these are areas where we are most fragile and exposed. Corruption, especially at local government level, remains at the heart of our inability to build a capable state and attract high-performing professionals into public service.
Fourth, we need a fundamental rethink of the electoral system that has created a crisis of political accountability. I do not see how elected representatives will change their tendency to kowtow to the whims of their political parties, unless the system changes to make them more accountable to their constituents. A clearly deficient and constitutionally flawed Electoral Amendment Bill was passed in the National Assembly this week. Any agenda for change must incorporate a mass mobilisation campaign for electoral reform and we must all intensify the efforts by civil society organisations campaigning for a more constituency-based system of government.
Finally, we cannot continue to hold our noses when we vote, or worse, not vote at all. We must think seriously about political agency. Around the world, people are crying out for a new political order that is responsive to the current conditions. Why should we be any different? Besides, loyalty should be earned, not taken for granted. We should be concerned about the danger of rising populist politics and the equally dangerous concept of a messiah leading us to the promised land. The truth of the matter is that there needs to be hard work, driven by the people in this room in partnership with civil society, business, religious leaders, youth and labour to develop a new national vision and agenda for change.
Of course I do not think we can find all the answers this weekend. But we can begin the conversation to mobilise a broad front that works towards a national convention that can reimagine South Africa’s future. I am saying this at this gathering convened by our former president because I know we share common values and the determination to affect a turnaround of our country. If there is one person still among us who showed how to put the interests of the country above personal and political ambition, it is former president Kgalema Motlanthe.
That is what we are all required to do. Our country and our future demand that we act now.
* Mcebisi Jonas is the chair of the MTN Group and a former deputy finance minister. This was his address to the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation's Drakensberg Inclusive Growth Forum at the weekend.
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