How can the Israelis and South Africans live better?

Rabelani Dagada says sometimes, as Mohammed Dajani suggests, it is better to settle for the 'little hope' rather than the 'big dream'

How can the Israelis and South Africans live better?

As we boarded the flight from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv, this question was top of mind: How can the Israelis and the South Africans live better? I was looking forward to the study tour and hoped it would answer this question with which I was preoccupied.

According to the provisional itinerary we had received, we would be hosted for dinner on a Friday night by one of my favourite authors and South African anti-apartheid activist, Mr Benjamin Pogrund. He is now a writer and commentator living in Israel and is, amongst others, the biographer of a prominent South African anti-apartheid struggle hero – Mr Robert Sobukwe. The biography is entitled “Robert Sobukwe – How can a man die better”.

In fact, it reminded me that Sobukwe had died an undignified death after enduring years of solitary imprisonment on Robben Island, and was later under house arrest. But the question remained: How can those of us who are still breathing live better?

Let’s settle for ‘little hope’ instead of a ‘big dream’

Upon our return from Israel, I had the opportunity of attending a dinner meeting hosted to honour Professor Mohammed S. Dajani on March 8th 2016. Professor Dajani is a Weston Fellow at the Washington Institute and is also the founder of the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam. He is known in some circles as a Palestinian peace activist. During the dinner meeting, Professor Dajani made an informal presentation on how the distance between Israelis and Palestinians can be closed.

He argued that it may be better for two warring peoples to settle for the ‘little hope’ instead of the ‘big dream’. A big dream represented the scenario of the ‘winner takes all’ wherein extremist Palestinians wish they could wake up one morning and find that all the Jews have left the region, and vice versa. A small hope represents a compromise and acceptance of each other despite the imperfections – it is thus a ‘win-win’ scenario. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians should work towards peace and the co-existence of the two states in a peaceful region.

After the dinner meeting, I reflected how the little hope or big dream choice is also relevant in South Africa wherein there are low level simmering tensions between various black and white communities. For those white South Africans on the margins, a big dream would be a situation wherein they would wake up one morning and find that all the black people have left the country with their perceived corruption, dirtiness and criminal behaviour.

On the other hand, for those black South Africans on the margins, a big dream would be to wake up and find that all white people have left the country with their perceived racism and oppressive, treasonous superiority tendencies. Of course, in the wishful thinking of such a black community, white people should also leave behind the (white) capital and all the wealth. Extremists amongst black and white South Africans should know their big dream is just a dream which will never happen. We should accept the citizenship of each individual and work towards building a better country.

For Israelis and South Africans to live better, they need strong and sustainable economies. They can also learn from each other regarding important sectors such as water management, agriculture and manufacturing.

Sea water is the solution

Both Israel and South Africa are semi-arid countries which experience erratic rainfall. Inasmuch as South Africa has been importing water from Lesotho since 1990, there is still a shortage of water in South Africa. How can we lack water in South Africa when we are so fortunately surrounded by both the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans?

When government officials are confronted with this question, their standard response is that it will be expensive to desalinate the sea water. It is absurd that the South African government has never done feasibility studies regarding the possibility of constructing public desalination plants in South Africa. Desalination is the process of removing salt from seawater.

The Israelis have amassed extensive desalination experience since the 1970s and vital lessons can be learned from them. For example, when the American city of San Diego in California needed to build a desalination plant, they asked the Israelis to assist them.

During a dinner meeting in Jerusalem with Professor Jack Gilron, Head of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment, he explained the basic science of a process called reverse osmosis which is used to desalinate seawater.

Although I am not an expert in water technology and engineering, I had the very strong sense that seawater desalination may actually be cheaper than water recycling which is already being done in South Africa. In a water-scarce country like South Africa, we need both seawater desalination and water recycling to contribute to getting our people living better.

Increase the agricultural output

The contribution of agriculture towards the Growth Domestic Product (GDP) in both Israel and South Africa is just under three percent. In fact, agricultural outputs in these countries have been declining. In my view, this is not proper for developing economies. The declining agriculture production is a matter that needs to be attended to urgently. Fortunately, Israel, unlike South Africa, is already an industrialised country.

In his book entitled, “Why Africa is Poor: And what Africans Can Do About It”, Greg Mills (2011) argues that South Africa needs an Agricultural Revolution before an Industrial Revolution. Personally, I would like to see several interventions (agriculture and industrialisation) being implemented concurrently in South Africa.

It is important to keep in mind that East Asian economic development was preceded by the freeing up of agriculture. Once productivity gains and food security were achieved, Asian countries then moved to manufacturing. The trajectory was the same in Europe where the Agricultural Revolution laid the base of the Industrial Revolution.

I have already mentioned that Israel is an industrialised economy, but this does not mean the country should neglect agriculture. In effect, agriculture can feed into agribusiness and other manufacturing sectors. Agricultural production in South Africa and Israel would have fully developed after going through the four stages as espoused by Timmer (1998):

Stage 1: Where agriculture has been adequately nurtured and starts growing and creating new wealth at a rate that allows direct and indirect taxation and this feeds into other major public assets and infrastructure.

Stage 2: Where agricultural growth becomes a direct contributor to overall economic growth through greater links with industry, improving efficiency of product and factor markets, and continued mobilisation of rural resources.

Stage 3: Where agriculture is fully integrated in the market economy. Prices of food and share of food in urban budgets continue to decline.

Stage 4: Where agriculture is part of an industrial economy. Productivity and efficiency of agriculture is a major concern, and environmental and other challenges assume greater significance.

Some intellectuals in South Africa argue that lawmakers should not become too involved in the transformation of agriculture because very few people live in rural areas. I support this kind of thinking which appears to minimise the contribution of agriculture to socio-economic development. Even in developed economies where rural people and farmers constitute only three percent of the population, agriculture receives much attention from governments.

One of the things South Africa can learn from Israel is the establishment of co-operatives for agricultural purposes. An important advantage in relation to agriculture is that, unlike manufacturing, it does not require large capital investment in technology. Agriculture is also not capital-intensive and thus it can contribute to Israelis and South Africans living better by promoting economic growth and creating jobs.

During the next 50 years there will be a strongly increased demand for food in Brazil, China and India due to growing populations and Israel and South Africa are well-placed to serve as sources of food to these countries. On the other hand, Africa’s population will have tripled to three billion people who will also need to be fed.

Increase manufacturing output

In South Africa we have mastered the art of dispelling direct investment by lacking cohesive integrated industrial policy and enacting rigid labour legislation. We are also known for excessive disruptive and violent strikes.

This has led to a low level of economic development and a high level of unemployment. South Africa can, however, learn a lot from Israel on how to attract direct investment, especially in the manufacturing and Information and Communications Technology sectors. At the event marking the 25th birthday of Microsoft’s R&D Centre, its Chief Executive Officer articulated, “10 great reasons why Microsoft loves Israeli ingenuity”.

One of the major concerns regarding the South African economy is that it has never been industrialised. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the country’s economy has been de-industrialising since 1960 and this process has escalated recently during the time of African National Congress (ANC) governance. De-industrialisation occurs when manufacturing firms cease to exist and workers lose their jobs.

While the service sector has grown rapidly under the ANC government, the manufacturing sector has been closing firms and retrenching millions of workers. South Africa cannot afford to remain de-industrialised if the unemployment problem is to be rectified and the economy of the country is to be boosted.

Amongst others, South Africa has been de-industrialising due to a lack of technical expertise, coupled with the lack of competitiveness within the manufacturing industry. The lack of capability forced the country into exporting its raw materials that are then processed into finished goods in other countries and thereafter are imported back into the country. The export of raw materials (mineral and agricultural products) yields low margins for the country in terms of international trade. Consequently, the country has suffered serious losses in relation to beneficiation.

Manufacturing contributes 12.5% of GDP in South Africa whereas in Israel it contributes 31.2% of GDP. There is no doubt in my mind that South Africa can learn a lot from Israel regarding manufacturing. South Africa should make it attractive for people such as Stef Wertheimer and other Israeli industrialists to develop manufacturing plants in this country.

If Israel and South Africa are able to choose the path of ‘little hope’ instead of the ‘big dream’ and work together in areas such as seawater desalination, agriculture and direct investment and manufacturing, these would make a significant contribution towards people living better.

Although this is the last of the initial six essays on Israel, my journey to write more about Israel has just started.

My next writings on Israel will focus more on the role of innovation and technology to drive economic development. Reality is today; concepts are the future. Influencing the future will be impacted by current knowledge, and the extent to which dreams and ideas are integrated into future realities will determine the extent to which Israelis and South Africans are able to survive turbulent eras and live better. Bye for now!


Dagada, R. (2012). Employing ICT to leapfrog the South African economy into the fourth wave. Focus – The Journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation, pp. 53-58.

Mills, G. (2011). Why Africa is Poor: And What Africans Can Do About It. Cape Town: Penguin.

Rukuni, M. (2011). Traditional agriculture: how can productivity can be improved? (In: Mbeki, M. (ed.). Advocates for change: how to overcome Africa’s challenges. Johannesburg: Picardo Africa, pp. 207-232.

Timmer, C.P. (1998). The role of agriculture in Indonesia’s development (In: Eicher, C.K. and Staatz, J.M. (eds). International Agricultural Development. 3rd edition. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dagada is a South African academic, analyst and consultant. He is on Twitter: @Rabelani_Dagada