What university students need to know

Shawn Hagedorn says the country's future prosperity requires a turn from patrimonialism

SA’s leaders must genuinely engage university students

Jacob Zuma’s final gambit as ANC President was to breed divisiveness through politicising the plight of SA’s low-income, high achieving students. As Cyril Ramaphosa, the party’s new leader, proposes creating a broad social compact, he should recruit the leaders of SA’s diverse factions to collectively address the university students in a spirit of unbridled honesty. Regrettably, politics preclude such a letter being as blunt as this draft.

Dear Students

As a divided society that pivoted sharply from minority rule to all-race elections, SA over indulged idealism. Powerful factions then sowed self-serving falsehoods provoking ill-conceived policies. Consequently, few country’s typical twenty year olds are as poor and poorly educated as SA’s.

The progress toward broad prosperity that began in the 1990s implied a trajectory that the nation’s policies could never sustain. Today’s bleak employment statistics fail to reflect that the economy supports many innately unsustainable jobs. As current and future leaders, we must develop a sophisticated worldview to objectively assess political and economic realities while addressing how SA’s public opinions and policies have been manipulated.

While competition is healthy and necessary, some politicians and professors equate capitalism with inequality. Yet an alert twelve year old can grasp the perils of importing inequality debates from wealthy nations. If SA were to cut its poverty in half, that would be profoundly positive even if inequality was unchanged. If, instead, inequality was sharply reduced without reducing poverty, that would be tragic.

SA’s fiction-riven national dialogue and its faction-driven politics reject such logic in favour of deluded social justice notions. The ANC, which combines unionists, communists, populists, and cronies, dominates SA’s perceptions of social justice yet the party’s beliefs around how broad prosperity is achieved were developed many decades ago - and they were wrong then.

SA cannot afford to downplay the essential link between broadening prosperity and accelerating value-added exports. That it does, encases a tremendous volume of hardships amid meagre prospects. These hardships are then exploited, and thus exacerbated, by politicians able to manipulate social justice sensitivities. These effects compounded eventually provoking state capture.

The welcomed new wrinkle is a substantial anti-corruption movement. Yet the basic precepts necessary to build a workable growth plan remain obscured by misconceptions. These now include the fantasy that overcoming corruption is sufficient to unlock adequate growth.

Business leaders accede to politicians’ false narratives when they pretend SA is a wealthy nation - and thus redistribution is a viable substitute for growth. Poverty’s contribution to SA’s junk credit ratings is routinely underappreciated.

SA’s business leaders frequently imply that poorly educated workers cannot achieve meaningful economic participation. Global experts and mega-scale exceptions, such as the rise of China, refute such narrow thinking.

Most of today’s leaders were raised to associate success with textbook studying and formal employment. While such parental inculcating was admirable, today’s global opportunities have become extremely diverse and dynamic.

As SA’s future leaders, you must become better educated and more broadminded than your predecessors. You must understand how this country’s policies are hostile to the historical shifts and global convergences which have pummeled poverty in all other regions - none share SA’s prevalence of entrenched poverty.

One nation after another has achieved broad prosperity through developing, and routinely updating, “virtuous cycles” which extend from household habits to global integration. These mutually reinforcing feedback loops are termed virtuous as they, like moral principles and successful adaptive cultures, evolve to advance societies’ survival and prospects.

The world’s top universities emphasise the importance of future leaders taking philosophy courses. This highlights and transcends cultural limitations. Appreciating sociology’s “fundamental attribution error” can then further reduce factional tensions by showing how circumstances often motivate behaviours attributed to cultural traits.

Cultural affectations are dying everywhere. During your lifetime, a majority of today’s 6,000 languages are expected to perish. As SA’s black and white cultures evolve and further merge, some shared biases, such as indulging isolationism, must die rapidly.

SA’s ruling party attributes the nation’s hardships to colonialism. Dusty facts support this position. However, the deeper reality is that all species survive and prosper through competing. Some humans become skilled at building things whereas others are advantaged at violence.

Consider how women’s historical second-class status traced to their being inferior at hand-to-hand combat. Then, over the last century, warfare became highly mechanised and far less common. A hundred years ago, women rarely voted or attended universities. Women now routinely comprise electoral majorities while out numbering male graduates at many universities.

Human societies, only recently, broke decisively with the animal kingdom’s might-is-right ethic. Predators in the wild mark their territory. If another predator ignores such signalling, violence ensues. Humans followed the same pattern with history being written on battlefields. Property rights emerged slowly. Then, in 1945, the United Nations was established and large countries committed to respecting the sovereign rights of small countries.

That colonialism was subsequently dismantled did not lessen competitive pressures; it redirected and enthused them. Dispute mechanisms were devised which supported healthy international commercial competition in lieu of battlefield conflagrations. The chief beneficiaries were: the poor in countries that chose to compete internationally; and the rulers of resource endowed nations with poorly educated general populations. The cronies then blame their nation’s entrenched poverty on colonialism despite the ultra-success of former colonies focused on value-added exporting.

What SA calls “state capture” political scientists term “patrimonialism”. Rulers exploiting their authority has long been central to the human condition. Constitutional democracy was designed to hold rulers accountable. While SA’s constitutional protections have survived recent challenges, your generation’s prospects remain appalling due to SA’s politics and economics being built upon myths.

Young adults seeing the mistakes of earlier generations fuels necessary adaptations. Yet, to avoid further indulging favoured beliefs over facts and logic, you should heed the oft paraphrased advice: ‘Before changing something, ask yourself why it is there’.

Redistribution, consistent with traditional patrimonial patterns, purchased much loyalty. But such structures are stable only so long as resource wealth can fund inherently harmful loyalty buying. This includes creating many unsustainable jobs. The general population must also accept meager prospects - which runs counter to SA’s mass urbanisation.

The most impactful economic shift of recent decades has been the collapse in international communication and transport costs. This has unleashed tremendous upliftment prospects for poor people in poor countries. Yet SA’s policies preclude adequate global integration by hopelessly fixating on redressing historical inequalities through over regulating domestic companies thus undermining the nation’s international competitiveness. This ill-conceived experiment has entrenched a massive volume of extreme poverty while SA’s national debates now fixate narrowly around corruption issues.

As elite students you should dedicate yourselves to a lifetime of learning that resists faction-inspired beliefs. Whether you prefer to work in large or small organisations, you should strongly favour those committed to value-added exporting. The world doesn’t owe anybody anything, but when engaged creatively and constructively, it offers limitless opportunities.

Sincerely yours,

SA’s (hypothetically) Aligned Leadership