The tide is turning

Douglas Gibson says South Africa is not just another African country, on the road to nowhere

The Tide is Turning

In her book, “Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to evade History,” the late Dene Smuts ends with a very meaningful statement of belief. “Now, our tide has ebbed – economically, socially and politically. This does not mean that (the tide) will not come washing in again. It will: all we have to defeat this time, however hopeless it may sometimes look, is misrule and the erosion of everything we have achieved. It will be easier this time.”

Prince Mashele, the political analyst and writer, wrote recently that South Africa is just another African country. He told us to think Nigeria or Kenya rather than Denmark or Norway.

I prefer the Dene Smuts view. Not because I think South Africa will become a West European country in this century; I do not. I believe that South Africa does indeed have a future as a constitutional democracy, though. The tide is turning in our country, as indeed it should and will in any constitutional democracy where one party has been in power for a generation.

Because President Zuma and his most fervent supporters are not democrats, do not even begin to understand how the economy works, mouth ignorant platitudes about “white monopoly capital” and are stuck in a traditional tribal past does not mean that they are representative of the whole South African truth.

There are others, many others, black and white, who are urban dwellers, aspire to middle class values and lifestyles, who want to educate their children properly and who get along well enough with their fellow South Africans, of all races.

If Mashele is correct, these citizens count for nothing; they will have to agree to be bound by a tribal past and the undoing of the enormous progress we have made as a country on the road to freedom in the past quarter of a century. I don’t believe it.

South Africa is not just another African country, on the road to nowhere. It has a modern, forward-looking constitution; it has an independent judiciary; it has a vibrant and critical press; its social media act as raucous critics of government and opposition; it has opposition parties that are growing; it has a first world banking and financial system; it has mineral wealth undreamed of by almost any other country; it has natural beauty that could attract millions of tourists from all over the world and it has charming and decent people, most with good values. Please don’t try to convince me that all these aspects do not contribute to making us an exceptional country.

What we lack is employment for our people. That can only come from economic growth, with the private sector creating the jobs and people being able to do it for themselves. We also lack skills and high quality education, starting at the bottom and progressing up the ladder through primary, secondary and appropriate tertiary education. South Africa is not alone in struggling to create growth and fight poverty – it is a problem in many countries of the world. Our misfortune is that there are some- too many – who believe that the outdated socialist policies of fifty years ago will do the trick.

Worse still, are those who pursue the propaganda of every despot and failed or failing state, fervently believing that taking property and possessions away from the haves will lead to economic nirvana. Wowee! Confiscate and suddenly the poor will be rich! That is the economic stupidity and ignorance of people like Mr Collin Maine, the pride and joy of the ANC Youth League, and of Mr Julius Malema, “Commander in Chief” of the EFF.

If Dene Smuts is right then the contest of ideas and policies must lead to a victory for those parties that pursue sensible economic policies. Not everyone in the ANC fails to understand what is required to move our country on the correct path to growth and greater prosperity. These, together with the DA and some of the other smaller parties, must begin to confront the public with stark choices: Singapore or Zimbabwe? Thailand or Venezuela? How did some work economic miracles and others not?

The social progress we have made is not only the monument of the ANC. No party has opposed the creation in such a short time of the largest social welfare system of any developing economy. Those who receive pensions and grants must know that it is not the ANC that pays them: it is the whole population of the country that contributes via taxes, including VAT. If the tax base grows, the grants and pensions will also grow.

No party, and certainly not the DA, will reverse the pensions and grants; they are here to stay. The difference is that some parties are far more ambitious and they want many more people to be empowered to help themselves and not have to be dependent on the government or the public purse.

We have large numbers of people, mainly young, who are unemployed. Many of them will never be employed. If the Smuts option is to triumph, then it is up to the DA to begin resonating with young voters by being in touch at the universities and colleges, ensuring that they understand the joys of freedom of speech, of the constitution, of an economic policy with the potential to change their lives.

The DA Youth movement is far too quiet; it needs to reach out to millions of younger voters and not leave the field to the ignorant, the stupid and the dangerous to make the running. Just as an older generation helped to bring about the changes in South Africa, the challenge in 2017 and beyond must be to this generation to save our country from Afro-pessimism, helping the tide to turn and come washing in again.

A former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand, Douglas Gibson is now a keynote speaker and writer.

This article first appeared in The Star.