Looking back into the past for the excellence that could guide us into the future

28 April 2019 - 00:01 By SAM MKOKELI

The year 1942 was an interesting one and not only because the US entered World War 2 and led its first air raid on the Japanese main islands.
In the tiny village of Idutywa in Transkei, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki was born. In the same year, Zweledinga Pallo Jordan took his first breath; so did Zola Sydney Themba Skweyiya. The trio went on to become prominent members of a generation of political thinkers who imbibed the ANC's philosophy from the feet of giants like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Joe Slovo.
On Saturday, a year after Skweyiya's death, a tombstone was unveiled, bringing up discussion about the gentle giant's legacy. It was during Skweyiya's tenure as social development minister, from 1999 to 2009, that SA's social welfare policy was crafted and implemented. This created a buffer for millions who otherwise would have been victims of harsh starvation.
Now, 25 years into democracy, the social grants system is regarded as the ANC's signature policy. There's a strong body of evidence that the system is a cornerstone of SA's economic and political sustainability, the absence of which would create serious social and political ramifications. This is easily regarded as one of Skweyiya's legacies, or his biggest contribution in the post-'94 epoch, adding to his illustrious phase as a freedom fighter.
The government pays more than 17-million grants a month to more than 10-million recipients in varying categories, from children and the disabled to pensioners. The grants range from R480 per child to R1,780 for pensioners.
The social grant system is not without its critics. It is one-dimensional and lacks connectivity to other social programmes, such as education and health. Social welfare is one of the big-ticket items in the budget and is set to be so for a long time, despite our fiscal situation, which itself is unsustainable. Our public debt has made the 60% of GDP mark its new home, from 26% a decade ago. We need to narrow the budget deficit from about 4%. Unemployment is at about 27%, and our economy has not grown by more than 2% in six years. This makes for a difficult time ahead.
SA needs intellectuals of Skweyiya's stature, or better, so we can start reimagining a better future for ourselves. Currently, a lot of hopes rest on the shoulders of one man: President Cyril Ramaphosa. He is expected to perform the herculean effort of dragging us out of the economic and social quagmire.
There are many examples in our contemporary history of where a one-man band can hold things together. India, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, is one example of a one-man-band presidency. But the Ramaphosa and Modi situations are like chalk and cheese.
Modi swept into power having campaigned from the far Right of the political spectrum. As the leader of a new ruling party, he is not beholden to the legacy of the Indian National Congress, which lost power in 1994.
Ramaphosa is a pragmatic centrist, who has to constantly look around to make sure there is no bull's-eye targeted at him. He has to dig into his party's political history, rhetoric and ethos as a ruling party before throwing his gaze into the future.
What would help him, the ANC and maybe even SA at large is a strong culture of intellectualism in our politics. This would be an environment in which genuine discourse about public policy would thrive so that new ideas could come up. It is not enough that we have a constitution that forces the government to create a social welfare network as a means to achieve human dignity and fight inequality.
In any event, that was achieved by Skweyiya's generation. More Skweyiyas - or imaginative thinkers - do exist, but they are mainly outside the dysfunctional political theatre, choosing to earn a living in the academic, NGO and private sectors.
We need to review the social welfare system, examining its sustainability and ways to extend its impact even with our limited financial resources. For example, Brazil's Bolsa Familia system is a social grants network that is linked to the country's public health and education systems. A child grant recipient has to go through the public school system to continue receiving their benefits, and this is linked to their immunisation and other health needs. This ties up the three main areas of public health, education and social welfare in an effective synergy. If SA considered this, it would easily solve a problem such as the dropout rate in our public schooling system, which is catastrophically high.
The world is completely different to the one Skweyiya was born into, but we remain grateful to the 1942 class for its contribution.
• Mkokeli is a freelance journalist and political researcher

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