Twice this past week, in publications that could never be accused of being opponents of the African National Congress (ANC), direct comparisons were made between the shaky state of South Africa in 2020 and the beginning-of-the-end crisis confronting the apartheid state in the 1980s.

Corruption – deceptively, to be sure, for the rot is actually ideological – is the central theme of these reflections of cynicism, anger and frustration.

In a fascinating full-page feature on South Africa’s 1986, the Mail & Guardian wrote of the cracks in the apartheid edifice being ‘very clear’ that year, a time that might seem entirely incomparable with our present.

But three times in its 141-word summary of the gist of events of 1986, the newspaper used the words ‘much like now’ to signal then-and-now deficiencies in the education of the poor, the woeful inadequacy of basic services such as the provision of clean water and working sanitation, and ‘rife’ corruption and unemployment. They were bad, then … much like now.

On Friday, the Daily Maverick featured a strongly worded piece by Sello Lediga, a social commentator, author and CEO of the Patriotic Movement, ‘a civil society organisation that promotes patriotism in SA’.

Under the unambiguous headline, The Second Liberation: Covid-19 corruption triggers UDF moment in South Africa, Lediga wrote with refreshing directness: ‘The ANC of today finds itself where the National Party was in the early 1980s. In the same way the NP was synonymous with apartheid, so the ANC is synonymous with corruption. The racist monster that confronted the people under apartheid has morphed into a corruption monster.’

He went on: ‘What is the difference between the racist regime of the 1980s and the corruption regime of 2020? For the people, the academic difference is immaterial. Those who were poor and marginalised under apartheid find themselves in a similar, if not worse, situation.’

‘Second liberation’

Now, he urged, was ‘(the) time for the people to defend themselves against the state’, for ‘all societal formations [to] rally around civil society for their second liberation’. 

The ground, he said, was fertile: ‘the state is arrogant, and the people are angry’. 

Incidentally, Lediga drew attention to the Kathrada Foundation’s ‘first virtual protest rally’ on Friday against Covid-19 corruption.

It would, of course, be wise not to get too excited; the ‘angry’ voting public in South Africa doesn’t have a great record, as columnist Gareth van Onselen reminded us this week.

‘ANC voters,’ he wrote, ‘… delivered unto us not once, but twice a Jacob Zuma-led administration. … Even if you were to ignore the first Zuma administration as the consequence of some wild fervour, the second was literally elected to office in 2014 on the back of the public protector’s Nkandla report.’

He went on: ‘It was hilarious to hear Jackson Mthembu, after the ANC fell to 54% in 2016, say the ANC had lost contact with the people. No it didn’t. What happened was, you said, “Look, public, your president and his cabinet effectively stole R200m and spent it on his private property. Then, to a man, defended this and tried to cover it up.” And what 10 million members of the public said was, “Sure, no problem, here, have another majority.”’

This is what worries people – however bad things get, however obvious it is who is to blame, the voters, and perhaps especially the ones who have it worst, keep backing the delinquents.

‘Minority stakeholder’

But despair is not entirely justified. As Van Onselen points out, having got 10 million votes in a country of 60 million people in the 2019 election, ‘the ANC is a minority stakeholder’.

And there are signs that more people are waking up to the truth about the source of their problems, and are recognising that the country is back in the struggle space. 

Not that there’s any reason to anticipate a revolution; South Africa is among the least revolutionary countries on the planet. The greater risk is that we acquiesce in the face of what seem daunting obstacles and just muddle along in ill temper.

Commentator Steven Friedman wrote last week that while ‘Covid-19 shows how badly the country needs to avoid going back to normal … saying that is easier than imagining how it might happen’.

‘The problem with pointing out how much needs to change is that the problem may seem so big that solutions are not possible.’

Yet, politically challenging though they may be, the solutions are relatively straightforward, practicable and inexpensive, and with obvious benefits not just for the country, but even for the ruling ANC itself.

We can turn our fortunes around

Angry South Africans owe it to themselves to digest last week’s report – Growth & Recovery: A Strategy to #GetSAWorking – by my senior colleague, IRR chief of staff John Endres, and make it part of their contribution to the debate about why we don’t need to put up with accelerating failure and decline, and – more especially – how we can turn our fortunes around.

It makes a powerful case, arguing that, with dwindling resources and narrowing scope for borrowing or growing tax income, South Africa cannot spend its way out of trouble without deepening the crisis – but that it can go for growth, if it is willing unleash enterprise, and free the economy from impediments to investment and jobs.

Endres writes: ‘The idea underlying all the elements of this plan is that what South Africa needs, more than anything else, is economic growth. Growth offers the only way to get people working and allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.’

Spurring growth would depend on four elements: attracting direct investment; maintaining and expanding infrastructure; creating a climate favourable to job creation; and implementing a programme of widespread economic empowerment instead of elite enrichment.

‘We expect there to be widespread consensus on these four measures. However, we add three necessary conditions which we believe are indispensable for the four policy proposals to work.

‘They are:

● a firm commitment to property rights, implying abandoning plans such as expropriation without compensation, prescribed assets and the monopolistic nationalisation of the healthcare system;

● an end to race-based policies, including Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action, and their replacement with meritocratic and race-neutral policies like Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED);

● and wide-ranging liberalisation of the labour market that removes barriers to entry for young and low-skilled individuals especially.

‘Sustainable progress’

‘If implemented, these proposals would give South Africans the opportunities they crave: real socio-economic empowerment and sustainable progress.’

Endres is candid about the trouble we are in.

‘South Africa,’ he writes, ‘is now in serious economic trouble. Ratings downgrades to sub-investment levels, combined with mountainous debt levels, a growing sense of disillusionment, falling trust in the government, increasing lawlessness and low investment levels have worsened our economic position and made it much more difficult to stage a recovery after the 2020 Covid-19 crisis.’

Even so, he explains, there are no grounds for giving up hope.

‘Policymakers may be ideologically reluctant to embrace the reforms we propose,’ he acknowledges. ‘However, much of what we describe is drawn from the successes achieved by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, which in turn helped inspire the reforms driven by Deng Xiaoping in China in the 1970s and 1980s. Both these men were nationalist leaders who dramatically changed the fortunes of their countries and turned them into influential global economic powerhouses. Their extraordinary successes, based on pragmatic policies, show how much can be achieved and should put paid to any notion that South Africa cannot also become prosperous and influential.’

Adopting better policies would ‘provide the foundation for sustainable growth rates of 7% of GDP within a decade …. This will allow South Africa to combat unemployment, poverty and inequality, live up to its great potential, and emerge as a prosperous middle-income economy by the 2030s.’

Fundamental alteration

This is the thinking that ought to be front and centre of the public conversation about the point we have reached. The opportunity would be wasted if we imagined our 1980s moment was limited to the costs, political and economic, of corruption alone. The options for clinging to the status quo have dwindled away and a much more fundamental alteration is our only hope.

It is very like the moment in 1985 when Gavin Relly, chairman of Anglo-American Corporation – described at the time by the Washington Post as ‘the giant South African conglomerate that owns or controls 70 percent of the companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange’ – defied the government of the day in leading exploratory talks with the exiled ANC in Zambia.

Tinkering reforms at home that overlooked the fundamental question of establishing a democracy had become irrelevant. In answer to P W Botha’s furious repudiation, Relly commented drily: ‘I would have thought that for South Africans of whatever persuasion to come together to discuss the future of their country was a perfectly legitimate occupation.’

This was the clearest sign that South African society was ahead of its political leadership. Today, once more, it is time for society to take the lead.

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  1. Sustainable progress? No that is only code for what we all know. Communism under the UN “Sustainable Development policies.

    Its it not strange that the very DA (Steenhuizen et al) are actually part and parcel of the ANC drive for this political policy and wholeheartedly support it. They try and keep quiet about it while the mislead their supporters.

    • Thanks for your comment, John. In fact, the ‘sustainable progress’ referred to in the IRR report has no connection with the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ and means simply making sustained progress in attracting investment, growing the economy, generating jobs, and lifting living standards – the antithesis of communism.

  2. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said democracy is not rule by the majority, but by the majority of those who participate. Whenever we have an election, some numbers come up: the number of those who are eligible to vote, those who are registered to vote and after the metabolic overachieving lady sings, those who bothered to vote. Ten million out of a population of sixty million isn’t a majority, that’s true, but ten million out of the twenty-odd million (or less) who bother to put their X on a ballot, that’s the number which makes a difference in our lives- for the worse since 1999, when you consider how many people Thabo Mbeki killed with his AIDS denialism and how much money Jacob Zuma made to disappear, yet both men were given two terms by the very people they had harmed. I’d say the trick is to change the minds of those ten million voters and get the rest of those who don’t vote. Maybe then, if the effort is coupled with socioeconomic policies that are aimed to help the country instead of creating networks of patronage and revenue theft, maybe then we’ll get somewhere. It has long been time for SA to change direction, but this was ignored by the majority of voters because a) they believed ANC propaganda that DA wants to bring back apartheid, b) the poor only get their welfare payments because the ANC is in power and c) because there was still some meat that could be scraped off the bone until the lockdown put our country on its knees. Racially motivated policies are a bad idea. I saw this with my own eyes in the SA army in 2001. Keeping millions of people dependent on the state, communism and the expropriation nonsense the ANC is spouting are also bad ideas. I know this first hand too, having lived under communism until the age of 14 in Romania. The trick is to convince all those millions of people between now and the municipal elections along with the nationals in 2024, or we’ll be deeper in the smelly stuff than all the kids who drowned in pit toilets at school.

  3. Hello Michael, i read your work; here in China. i benefited from reading your words. towards the end of the 1980s, the security police kept the national party in office. now, it is the pleasure of SARS to keep the anc in office. like yourself, i had a front row seat in the ending of the national party rule. we were all filled with hope for an anc-led country. alas, we were cruelly denied. and so, i now live in China. the Chinese economy displays all you wished for: investment, growth, jobs and rising living standards. The Chinese government has set itself the task of lifting another 600 million people out of poverty. this is thus a good time to be living and working here

    • Hello Martin, I often think back to our days in the parliamentary press gallery, witnessing the Decline and Fall. Fascinating insights from your life in China – thanks for sharing.

  4. I mostly agree, but economic empowerment is a paradox. The more you focus on empowering the less empowerment actually happens. The only way to actually achieve these things is to leave it to individuals to create them naturally. As long as the ideology favours groups over individuals, nothing will change.

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrew. I feel sure you will agree with our approach to empowerment, which, while recognising the inescapable scale of disadvantage, proposes tackling deficiencies directly, and on the grounds of actual disadvantage at the level of individuals, without any reference having to be made to identity or groups. For greater detail, see:

      • Providing that any specific action, like vouchers, has a due date. This is a problem with most things trying to address inequality. No end date means they eventually turn into the very thing they were meant to eliminate, like the way foreign aid created a continent reliant on it, rather than reliant of themselves. A voucher system must not run for so long that it creates a culture that expects it because entire generations grew up with it. It should be a leg-up, a way to get over the first hump and not a way of life. Humans, who can survive almost anything, do not truly thrive until they face adversity and are forced to deal with it themselves. I would think 10 years at most for vouchers.

        • Andrew, the detail in the proposal answers your concerns, I believe. The objective is not to address ‘inequality’ (though it would be one of its effects), but to free people from dependence on the state by enabling them to choose better outcomes for themselves. On the question of the duration of vouchers, housing vouchers, for instance, would be available only to those earning below a certain sum and only between the ages of 25 and 35 (10 years). Schooling vouchers are naturally limited to the duration of years spent at school. Health vouchers are limited by income. Importantly, in all cases, the money spent on vouchers is not over and above what the state spends on housing, education and health, but is a redirection of these funds into the hands of ordinary people who actually need it.

  5. Covid 19 shows exactly how essential it is for the country to go back to normal. There, fixed it. And normal is not more of the same draconian, authoritarian, nanny state measures from the Zol Tannie and her accomplices in the contraband cigarette trade. Normal is private property, free markets and the pursuit of happiness.

  6. “time for society to take the lead”. Oh please..!? Which sector of society? Middle class Black people? Those that have jobs in government departments , that are arguably in the majority of salary earners and will not displace the government that gave them those jobs? Not likely. The tens of thousands eking out a life of sorts in our shack townships? The other tens of thousands (millions) Black people existing (can’t for the life of me describe it as real ‘living’ ) in and around our country towns? Forget them both! There is no media vehicle in this country that reaches into the lives of those masses who will have the guts to inform them that their lives will be improved only if they change the government.As for the corporates? No way, far too scared to lose what profits they are still making or being tagged as ‘racist’ and therefore ‘anti-black’. We are on a hiding to nothing, best is to get out, but once again the problem is: where to?


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