The war in Ukraine symbolises autocratic governments attacking the rules-based global order. It also highlights why our leaders have failed young South Africans, as they still can’t articulate a workable plan.
ANC reluctance to criticise Russia’s barbarism traces to their sympathies for fellow patronage-reliant regimes. Antipathy toward the West’s disproportionate global influence blinds the party’s leaders to how many meritocracy-grounded countries create massive wealth while countries like Russia and SA rely on extraction. Meanwhile, global economic growth becomes ever more services based and digitally driven.
It seems unlikely that the ANC’s leadership connects the dismal preparedness of Russia’s army with that government’s embrace of patronage and, hence, support for rampant corruption. Rather, the ANC’s primary takeaway seems to be that higher commodity prices will provide the fiscal space to increase patronage. They no doubt presume, not unreasonably, that expanding dependency programmes, such as basic income grants, will help them to remain the dominant party after the 2024 elections.
The broad views of many in SA’s taxpaying community were perhaps aptly summarised by a recent Peter Bruce opinion piece. He advocated for SA sticking to its primary export channels, mining, agriculture and tourism due to our workforce being too poorly educated to meaningfully develop other export avenues.
Bruce is among many that want to emphasise fixing government appendages, particularly Eskom and Transnet. Strong commodity demand could then lead to SA’s fiscal health and creditworthiness steadily improving. The approach overlaps with the ANC’s as both lead to huge portions of young South Africans becoming dependent, perhaps in perpetuity, on subsistence payments.
Over reliance on commodity and agriculture exports has long been profoundly anti-development. Given how science and creativity are reshaping the global economy, it has become a recipe for elevating unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Perspectives of young South Africans
If Bruce’s article represents the views of many South African taxpayers, perhaps a recent interview of Duma Gqubule, available on Youtube, is representative of how many young South Africans from disadvantaged communities perceive our challenges.
While the two views share similarities, Ggubule emphasises the urgent need to dramatically increase the pace of job creation.
Our national dialogue
The 2019 election lacked contestation of credible growth plans. This void remains while our national discourse today fails to acknowledge that growth, per se, need not provide what is needed: jobs and a resilient economy.
High commodity prices led to five years of five percent annual growth ending in 2007. This encouraged investments in malls and office parks but little effort to increase competitiveness or productivity. Per capita income peaked a few years later.
Russia is now demonstrating that patronage driven governments of commodity dependent nations that challenge the world order are destined to decline – irrespective of the quality of their education systems. Countries reliant on commodity exports can experience several years of strong GDP growth without improving the long-term trajectory of their economic development. Today’s critical metric is the percentage of nation’s young adults who add value within global supply chains.
Ukraine vs SA
SA isn’t going to be invaded but last July’s looting should alert us to how obscene levels of youth unemployment can be exploited – and that our law enforcement capabilities make the Russian army look efficient. Bruce’s prioritising international tourism is well reasoned only if we can avoid social unrest becoming commonplace.
The Ukrainians could have quickly surrendered and daily life would have changed little. So why didn’t they? Why are they enduring such horrific hardships?
Ukraine’s leadership, and its young and mature adults, all want young Ukrainians to be able to integrate within Europe so that they can pursue their aspirations. That they see this as worth fighting for has jarred wealthy, pacifist European nations.
‘Born frees’ and perpetual subsistence payments
It is hard to imagine that the crowd which agrees with Bruce’s views would have chosen to take up arms against the heavily favoured Russian invaders. They are probably, on average, older than Zelensky and, like our president, their worldviews were shaped by our 1990s ‘negotiated revolution’.
I don’t think Gqubule and those like him would have chosen to fight either – and for much the same reasons. That SA’s heritage reveres negotiating seems admirable, yet our response to this war reveals a downside to this attitude.
Once the war stops, we can confidently expect Ukrainians to build as purposefully as they fight. That a majority of the first generation of ‘born free’ black South Africans are being condemned to life-long poverty is truly tragic. That our national discourse has taken this in stride reflects values being debated with insufficient focus on consequences or solutions.
Informing a solutions-focused perspective
Bruce’s article seemed to neatly summarise the views of many whose perspectives were shaped by our 1990s transition and all that preceded it. Those whose thinking more align with Gqubule’s would have been greatly influenced by the disappointments that have followed.
SA’s path to broad prosperity was not obliterated by war. Instead, the ANC achieved power through a mostly peaceful transition. Their elites then sacrificed the first generation of blacks ‘born free’ in order to enrich themselves and to entrench their political power through creating a massive patronage network.
Their basic formula is to politically weaponise ‘inequality’ to justify redistribution policies which choke growth while funding ubiquitous patronage ranging from tenderpreneurs to a bloated civil service and subsistence payments. Just as the war in Ukraine has spurred European pacifists and environmentalists to support higher defence spending and a temporary increase in fossil fuel reliance, SA’s national dialogue must become vastly more pragmatic.
Youth inspired thought leadership
Our number one goal must be to surge youth employment. This is impossible if we rely on domestic consumption. Nor will expanding commodity or agriculture exports or tourism have a noticeable effect on employment.
Surging youth employment requires learning something that has largely eluded SA but is common among high growth countries: the benefits of focusing on adding value within global supply chains. Instead, we convince ourselves that our workers can’t compete.
The reality is that more than two-thirds of Chinese workers aren’t high school graduates. More significantly still, youth-plus-technology can be more globally employable than those with education-plus-experience. Most growing companies need both. Among the key drivers, change keeps accelerating and young people are, for the most part, vastly more adaptable.
SA’s situation is very unusual in that such a large portion of our workforce is young and has never been meaningfully employed. The global economy can easily absorb many of SA’s school leavers, and others, each year whereas our long-stagnating domestic economy simply cannot.
The next wave of leaders
Gqubule makes many points in his interview that I would challenge. But he emphasises what so many miss, which is that our top priority must be surging youth employment.
He does something else which is rare and refreshing. He focuses on finding solutions with so much genuine conviction that he doesn’t look to judge others or find reasons not to succeed.
I’ve never met Bruce or Gqubule. I don’t doubt they both can make valuable contributions. But fixing Eskom and the like won’t fix what ails SA. We should be inspired by brave Ukrainians to believe our young adults can integrate successfully in the global economy.
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