The hidden peril

2012-02-15 00:00

THE president’s State of the Nation address has told us what’s on his mind, so what we do from now on will show whether problems identified and solutions announced were correct.

We often reject or embrace a major speech based on whether or not it favours our preconceived ideas. For instance, proponents of individualism and private property rights want assurance from the president that these values will not be sacrificed, even if doing so would avert a future revolution by the descendants of those dispossessed of their land during colonialism and apartheid. We use the rule of law and constitutionalism, narrowly defined, to protect incorrectly acquired privileges of the few.

Two years after ascending to the hot seat, President Jacob Zuma seems to have figured out how to issue messages that resonate with various factions of South African society at the same time. While this keeps the government in favour, it may not take us out of our poverty crisis.

We need to think carefully about the central message that Zuma wanted to communicate and analyse whether the actions he proposed are sufficient to achieve the desired result. His message was essentially that in government’s view, South Africa faces three related challenges: poverty, unemployment and inequality. This triple super-challenge, inherited from white minority rule that served a small portion of the population very well and marginalised the rest, consigns the overwhelming number of people, mostly young and black, to the margins of society with no hope in sight.

With this problem comes urban sprawl and decay, housing shortages, the degeneration of health care and education, high household dependency, crime and corruption, despair and disgruntlement. Add to this huge socioeconomic burden large numbers of economic migrants from other poor countries.

South Africa is indeed in the eye of the storm. What former president Thabo Mbeki termed the second nation continues to grow due to higher birth rates and growing unemployment in the past decade. In response, what is needed is something akin to Brazil’s Fome Zero (zero hunger) and Bolsa Família (happy families) programmes. Otherwise South Africa will be completely consumed by poverty and its attendant social ills.

The question is then whether in the State of the Nation address, the president announced a bold-enough poverty-fighting programme? I say no. Judging by responses to Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu’s proposal of a tax for those who benefited from the crime of apartheid, a radical plan against them would upset the dominant economic actors because it would include serious redistribution of land, property and real wealth.

Instead, the president announced measures designed to entice capital to assist in fighting poverty. In a way, ordinary taxpayers are paying the super-rich capital to help, if they want, overcome poverty. The connected set of infrastructure initiatives announced were identified as catalytic economic growth and development by the Presidential Infrastructure Commission. This includes rail, road and water infrastructure roll-out in growing mineral resources-rich Waterberg and Steelport areas of Limpopo, parts of industrial Mpumalanga and North West. The Durban, Free State, Gauteng industrial corridor will boost transportation of goods and logistics. The South-Eastern corridor is to catalyse industrial and agricultural development in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape as well as parts of the Western Cape. Both this hard infrastructure and a number of other soft infrastructure projects will also be geared towards enabling service delivery and social development.

Big business is happy because this is mainly a big boost for it. However, there is no guarantee that increased profit will trickle down to the poor.

The post-freedom government did much to improve the business environment, only for business either to keep its hefty profits or repatriate them offshore to London. It is a mistake to see growth as a panacea for poverty. To trickle down, growth requires higher taxes on the super-rich which is then used to boost education, skills training and the social safety net. This is what a social democracy such as ours, where you have a strong government with aspirations of becoming a developmental state, ought to do to avoid trouble in the future.

 

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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