The least we could do is find the courage to change the things we can.

‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.’ This frequently recited prayer, penned by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, speaks to more than religion; it is a prudent approach to any weighty endeavour.

In difficult times, however, the appeal to a higher power may be comforting.  

The South African Reserve Bank has just put out its latest Monetary Policy Review. In the way of these things in the country at present, it makes for disconcerting reading. The fiscal situation, the MPR notes ‘has deteriorated sharply’, with the deficit growing and the country’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) swallowing one bailout after another. Debt hovers at around 60% of GDP – and that’s before we factor in those SOEs.

The MPR forecasts GDP growth at 0.6% in 2019, 1.5% in 2020 and 1.8% in 2021. This doesn’t begin to deal with the scale of the economic challenges confronting the country, with respect either to wealth creation that would give us a shot at turning the fiscal situation around, or to producing the expanding employment opportunities for the millions of jobless.

Beyond this looms the sustainability of the country’s welfare system. With well over 17.4 million social grants paid monthly, this has provided a palliative and bulwark against some of the worst ravages of poverty. Yet it should be remembered that a study by Treasury a few years ago said that this could only be maintained on the back of 3% GDP growth.

The MPR points to the variety of constraints that South Africa’s economy faces. Something needs to be done to overcome them.

And, so, the relevance of Niebuhr’s prayer.

Some of the hindrances facing the country are not of its making. They track international developments such as a ‘slowdown’ in global trade. There is little that South Africa can do to resolve tensions between the United States and China, for example. For that matter, so too the large distances that separate South Africa from its principal markets. These must be recognised for the limitations they impose, things that we cannot readily alter, and be accepted with a dose of serenity.

Others, however, are of the country’s making. We have a woefully inadequate schooling system, deficient policing, and administrative incapacity. See the auditor general’s report on the state of municipal government.

One noteworthy issue is what the MPR – and, indeed, government itself – gingerly refers to as ‘policy uncertainty’. A grinding, long-term dilemma, it is the governance gridlock that conflicting priorities and internal party politics is guaranteed to produce.

Uncertainty, though, is probably preferable to the certainty of bad policy, however odious that choice may be. The current ‘debate’ around expropriation without compensation is as much a disincentive to investment (businesspeople have said to us at the IRR that it makes the country ‘uninvestable’) because it points to the degradation of property protections and the extension of the reach of an often compromised and ideologically driven state as because the form it will take is ‘uncertain’. 

And if the object of policy is economic growth, development and rising employment, South Africa (or its ruling party) has over the years managed to push some profoundly counterproductive ideas. Think race-based empowerment, the politicisation of the civil service, labour legislation, nationalising the Reserve Bank – and the operation and management of our SOEs. (Finance minister Tito Mboweni recently said that Eskom’s debt was equivalent to what mining and agriculture produce in a year.)

These are crises birthed in the choices that have been made. They are things that could be changed, even if with difficulty – if only the courage existed to do so.

Or the wisdom to know which choices to make. Indeed, it often seems that the leadership of the country has a clearer sense of what it wants in respect to those things over which it is least likely to exercise control – a new international economic order, reformed institutions of global governance, a global coalition against the ‘imperialist’ West (who also, by the way, constitute the lion’s share of our investment and trade, not least the value-adding stuff that is supposedly our future).

The more pedestrian choices, things that might make a rands-and-cents difference, languish unattended or trapped in an endless cycle of consultation, conference holding, panel appointment and kicking the problem down the road. Indeed – astoundingly, given the stakes involved – we don’t even have an economic policy to speak of.

It would take an act of political courage, though not of any great governance complexity, to disavow the counter-constitutional practice of cadre deployment. It is possible to step away from expropriation without compensation, and look squarely at the reasons why land reform has fared poorly. It is within the power of policy makers to seek alternatives to race-based empowerment demands – indeed, there is no shortage of critics of the existing model.

But the choice the government has made is not to do so. If anything, it has committed to doubling down on the current path. A failure of wisdom, with predictable consequences to follow.

And as we await those consequences, perhaps prayer is an attractive option…

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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