Much has been written about whether or not South Africa is a failed state, given its crumbling infrastructure, bankrupted and corrupt municipalities, weak economic growth and an energy crisis in the form of continual load-shedding.

I would like to focus on much less discussed topics, which are the pipeline of deprivation, the unwillingness of the government to truly address it, and the seeming inability, not only of politicians but also the public, to accept that Faustian bargains will be needed to resolve problems arising from deprivation in the medium to long term.

Pipeline of deprivation: hunger in the womb

Depending on the studies you read, something like 40% of pregnant women in South Africa suffer from food insecurity. This comes with a raft of problems, including a greatly reduced ability in mothers to bond with or form attachments to their new-born babies, and a whole host of health and learning problems for the children in their future. Put another way, because of this crisis of hunger, South Africa is a country where close to half the population has a severely restricted capacity: intellectually, emotionally, health-wise and socially.

It is not unkind to suggest that part of why we see so much obviously and brazenly delinquent behaviour in this country has to do with this phenomenon, which often runs sharply along racial lines. It beggars belief that anyone can think that any kind of racial equity or level of parity can ever materialise when large numbers of invariably black and coloured children are starved in the womb and in early childhood and often suffer neglect from their parents, while others do not suffer from these maladies. 

Interventions in the victims’ later years, whether in education, job training or even redistribution, will not address the fundamental issues which result in the gross racial inequality this country suffers from. This is a noose around the neck of the country, and an issue which opportunistic politicians will use to deflect attention from their own failures and to inflame divisions and hatred. 

A clearly inept school system

Children who may have a reduced bandwidth and come from communities associated with violence and unemployed adults (a lack of role models) are thrown into schools with teachers who themselves may have woefully inadequate training and content knowledge, and are protected by teacher unions who are in bed with the ruling party. So, even though the government spend on education per capita is comparable to that in many OECD countries, and above that in other African countries, the reality is that the government is often paying for the appearance of learning rather than actual learning.

Any remedial actions that should be taken to assist children with learning difficulties or bandwidth limitations are obviously not taken. Children already neglected at home and now called stupid or slow or unworthy at school are given incentives to completely drop out of school. Schools may drop their standards, while teachers and principals are encouraged to graduate pupils who clearly have a poor grasp of school subjects. How else do we explain the often-touted statistic that 78% of grade 4s cannot read or write for understanding (are functionally illiterate and innumerate), but 50% of children graduate from school (another shocking statistic).

What explains the fact that functionally illiterate and innumerate pupils can keep advancing through the grades?

Poor policy, no jobs and labour market distortions

What then happens is that South Africa then has a population where at least half of all people are destined just for low-wage menial work. There are no remedial actions to help anyone transition to higher-paying blue collar work in a socio-political environment where sensitivities to paying low-skilled workers low wages exist. Ultimately, labour market distortions like the national minimum wage discourage the employment of youth who may be battling not only years of childhood stunting and poor schooling but also a social environment where they lose any semblance of self-confidence and self-worth.

Is it any wonder our youth are so angry and violent and willing to inflict harm and damage to other people in an almost psychopathic fashion? 

Is it any wonder young men who cannot find employment and therefore the potential to match up and get married are disinvested in their communities, and susceptible to violent crime and anti-social behaviour?

The unwillingness of the government to embrace a low-skill, low-wage economy that trades off higher incomes for more jobs (the Faustian bargain) has been socially disastrous. A situation where there are young military-aged men with nothing to do, no income and often very difficult childhoods can lead to a high incidence of rape, domestic violence and general violent crime.

Are there solutions?

Clearly food insecurity needs to be tackled in South Africa. In the long term this requires more people to have opportunities to work and provide for their families. In the short to medium term this requires managing the food system and the wastage that happens. About a third of our food, or 10 million tonnes in South Africa, is thrown in refuse dumps because of inefficiencies in the system. That food could otherwise be used to feed all the food-insecure people in the country.

As for education, it seems prudent to me that firstly a school voucher system should be carefully and gradually initiated. Low-fee private schools like Curro are popping up everywhere to meet the needs of parents who have grown tired of public education. As the Varkey Foundation has also shown, the respect accorded to teachers in a society directly correlates with how well students and the education system perform. 

We should make teaching a more respected profession. Having a government which loudly endorses that respect and uses the tax code to the benefit of the profession could be a solution. The private sector could be encouraged to partner with institutions to make teacher training far more stringent and attract higher-calibre matriculants into teaching.

In short, South Africa will only succeed if we have a population and a skills base which is ready for work and can be more productive and responsible. Otherwise, economic growth will always be hard to achieve.

[Image: Andre from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and an aspiring economist.