20 years, two stories

2014-03-16 14:00

Not too shabby. That was the sense I got after reading the rigorous 20-year review released by President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday. It is the antinarrative of the times.

Books climbing the local bestseller lists include ones like The Fall of the ANC by Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo, and What’s Gone Wrong? by Alex Boraine – both of which present a picture of South Africa as a state in decline.

This is not helped by the movement’s guerilla son, Ronnie Kasrils, announcing he will not campaign for the ANC vote and cannot, in truth, say if he will vote for his party. What’s the problem? You can tell two neat stories of South Africa that stand side by side but struggle to fit together.

The one, contained in the 20-year review, is the good story to tell. In 20 years, we have created a working state from the burning embers of the apartheid state. The first pages use the old map, with its rough Bantustans, as a symbol of division.

Now, as the review reminds us, there is a unitary state within a Constitution that is sovereign. Each chapter follows the same narrative: where South Africa was in 1994 and where it is now.

All the numbers are there as well: electrical connections, houses built, water piped.

But for me, the long list of pro-poor policies are the ANC’s greatest legacy after 20 years in office. The party has knitted together grants, school feeding schemes, and free clinic and hospital treatment into both a quilt of caring and political security for itself.

I’m glad the ideologues who preached against grants and social security did not emerge victorious. If they did, our country might have been in serious trouble.

The report is an enjoyable read because it is frank (it tells the other story too). It lists effective institutions like the SA Revenue Service and the improvements made at the Home Affairs department as well as those at the SA Social Security Agency.

It also acknowledges that which we on the other side of administrative power know: “...?[T]here have also been many challenges with the quality of service delivery such as excessive queues and waiting times, long turnaround times [and] shortages of supplies?...

“These challenges are a source of frustration for citizens who expect their government to be more responsive.” The report includes a graph that looks at how declining opinions of government effectiveness intersects with growing protests.

This can breed political tyranny, as protests in Bekkersdal revealed this week where ANC squads shot at people who tried to stop the party’s campaigners.

Our founding president, Nelson Mandela, along with his deputy Thabo Mbeki, oversaw state creation. Both used good finance and economic teams to stabilise and grow what had been a near-bankrupt National Treasury. The next five years will be crucial in plotting the next 20 years.

I think the best story of the past 20 years has been social mobility, captured here below in two graphs from the review. The living standards of the middle class grew by 9.7?million people – with the rate of growth of the poorest segment reducing quickly. Both absolute and relative poverty declined between 1995 and 2010, according to the review.

Asset accumulation buoyed the economy until very recently as people bought cellphones (now the most commonly owned asset) and TVs.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group released this week shows how consumers accelerated the African growth story – a trend borne out in South Africa. But this is also why the ANC is being forced to pull out all the stops to protect its Gauteng voting base, which is in jeopardy this election.

The middle class is taking great strain. Hit by rising fuel costs, e-tolls, high schooling costs and spiralling food prices, the ANC’s biggest success story is turning against the party’s policies.

It’s a conundrum I have not seen President Zuma grapple with but his troops in the country’s heartland know the problem. The middle class, especially the new one, is sandwiched between providing for a rural base of older family members and an immediate nuclear family.

So metal workers’ union Numsa’s president, Andrew Chirwa, may wear communist red but in dissing the review this week, he complained about e-tolls. Why is this significant?

Numsa will wage a war of the middle class against the ANC but it will cloak it in the language of class struggle. The ANC’s policies on bargaining and wages have turned organised workers into middle class citizens who are fighting to protect their turf and their assets.

The Numsa battle is being fought on two fronts: against a youth employment tax incentive (protecting its jobs) and against e-tolls (I would guess many Numsa members now own cars).

There is another factor about the middle class that the review does not touch upon: corruption and cronyism. These are a huge turn-off for the middle class, which has been created by ANC policies.

For one, scandals like Travelgate, Nkandla, Guptagate go against the old ANC’s image of itself as a party of rectitude and high moral authority. And the kleptocracy symbolised by Nkandla has forced an existential crisis among a good number of middle class ANC members – a topic for greater review by government, I believe.

If you manage to get to the end of the review, they plot the course for the next 20 years. South Africa is not far off from meeting many of the UN Millennium Development Goals, which have a deadline of 2015. And we have a National Development Plan deadline of 2030.

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