South Africa's great fall

Zohra Dawood says it will be no easy task repairing the damage already done


As the country holds its collective breath for the ANC Elective Conference, currently scheduled for 16 to 20 December 2017, to come and go, the mistaken assumption is that the troubles of the land too shall pass, post this event.

Alas, this is highly unlikely, and certainly not for a few years to come. Rebuilding a shattered economy and a social fabric at odds with the dream of equality, freedom and justice for all is going to require renewed commitment and strength, perhaps last witnessed in the mid and late 1990s.  

The South Africa of 2017 is a different country than the one envisaged in 1994, which is well summed up in President Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, where he wrote:

“…from the moment the results were in and it was apparent that the ANC was to form the government, I saw my mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the county, of engendering trust and confidence. I knew that many people, particularly the minorities - whites, coloureds and Indians - would be feeling anxious about the future, and I wanted them to feel secure. I reminded people again and again that the liberation struggle was not a battle against one group or colour, but a fight against a system of oppression. At every opportunity, I said all South Africans must unite and join hands and say we are one country, one nation, one people, marching together into the future”.

Central to President Mandela’s painstaking approach was the creation of an inclusive society, including addressing the hard work required to reverse the apartheid legacies of economic and social cleavages.

Essential to building an inclusive society was the high premium placed on social cohesion and addressing the reality of the dangers of inequality. For most South Africans, this was a personal investment worth its weight in gold and one willingly made, enjoined by the dream of the Constitution whose foundational values held promise for all, united in our diversity.

Twenty-three years later, the country stares into the abyss. Junk status describes the economic woes of the country and a coarsening of the social discourse disables participation, voice and dialogue, lest you fall on the wrong side of racial markers.  

That the country is rapidly fracturing is not in dispute, nor at issue is that of an acknowledgment that some of the liberation heroes of yesteryear are today’s looters, as many an investigative journalist has proved.

Whereas President Mandela’s political strategy placed the beam on social cohesion, equality and freedom, the Zuma legacy is driven by its antithesis, that of racialised populist politics and social polarisation, cleverly crafted to deflect from a country being looted. But for the Constitution, the country would have been sold to the highest bidder. 

That South Africa remains a highly unequal country is not in dispute nor is there any contention that inter-generational accumulation of skill and assets ought to have been the norm for many more South Africans, yet the reality attests to far too many people on social security (a third of the population), and the labour market shedding jobs faster than these can ever be created. An example is that of the construction industry, having shed 140 000 jobs just in the first and second quarters of 2017, never mind the mining and manufacturing sectors and a decided expansion of the national poverty line, with devastating impacts.

Yet a corrupt and ineffectual state that is bleeding talented and capable officials, not least in Treasury, embarks on reckless spending increases on an already inflated public sector wage bill; the promise of free university education in 2018, despite the recommendations of the Heher Commission on Higher Education Funding, established by Zuma himself; and Russian deals for purchase of nuclear, speaks to a recklessness that is unprecedented in South Africa’s democratic history. Fiscal prudence has been replaced by pointed and strident attempts at populist gestures, including those that broadly fall within the rubric of radical economic transformation.

The irony must not be lost on the populace, the fiscal deficit has real and very palpable consequences. While free university education in 2018 will appease some, it will mean budget cuts to several other departments and may mean fewer houses will be built or no old age pension increases will be awarded or that there will be less money for maintenance of infrastructure and no funds for new school construction. The price of populism will be borne by the poorest who have the fewest resources to buy their way out of misery.    

A predatory political elite has assiduously substituted a system of racialised populist politics as a strategy by delegitimising institutions of state and putting incompetent people in power. This is far from an innocent gesture on the part of the President and has predictably resulted in a political paralysis and set the country back economically.

The equally worrying concern is how far this strategy has impacted the quest for mutual respect, social cohesion and unity. Will President Mandela’s “one country, one nation, one people, marching together into the future”, wither on the vine?

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director of the Centre for Unity in Diversity.