Clem Sunter

Unfinished business

2011-09-21 13:00

Clem Sunter

Last year I wrote about the Dinokeng scenarios produced by Old Mutual under the guidance of Adam Kehane. A few months ago in this column, I recommended an Economic Codesa. This article shows how the two are linked.

"Walk Apart" was a scenario where South Africa ended up as a racially polarised society or, even worse still, was riven by a perpetual civil war. Although South Africa got its act together in Codesa I and II in reaching a negotiated political settlement in the early 1990s, the economy proved to be a nut too hard to crack.

Increasingly, this scenario is gaining currency among the disadvantaged youth of this country. They feel that the negotiations that led to the new constitution were a cop-out which merely entrenched the economic interests of the wealthy elite. They believe that the only way to achieve genuine economic freedom, where the playing field is level, is via a revolution which they naturally feel will go their way. Any civil war will be brief and will not require the intervention of Nato to achieve the required result.

Obviously, "Walk Apart" achieves the exact opposite of social harmony and will probably mean that South Africa loses its premier position in Africa to Nigeria. They replace us in G20 and as a BRIC. But so what? The supporters of this scenario will say. At least there will be misery for all in South Africa and they will probably be the ones who are least miserable as the rulers of the roost. In fact, the pickings could be fabulous for the few.

For ordinary mortals in South Africa "Walk Apart" does not offer good prospects as the infrastructure could be degraded during the civil war (like in Libya and Iraq) and the economy will inevitably suffer through lack of foreign investment. Moreover, because of the exodus of skills in areas like agriculture, manufacturing and retail, shortages of key products could develop which will inevitably lead to a downward spiral in the quality of life – for those who survive the civil war.

The big issue is therefore to define the alternative scenarios to "Walk Apart" and ask which one has a better probability of materialising instead. The Dinokeng exercise offered two alternatives: "Walk Behind" or "Walk Together". Given the penchant of many citizens to be led from the front, "Walk Behind" envisages the National Planning Commission making brilliant recommendations on a new economic blueprint to government. Popular support is mustered behind the blueprint, many of its elements are subsequently enacted and, through good centralised management, South Africa avoids strife and heads towards a more peaceful and fairer society.

I would hazard a guess that this is the scenario that the government favours as the alternative option to the radical remedies proposed by some of its more youthful followers. It definitely has a chance of success, but it is unlikely to create the entrepreneurial mindset of self-empowerment that is critical to improve national self-esteem and generate a can-do spirit among the population. Furthermore, its implementation implies a quantum leap in service delivery. Failure on that front will immediately allow the revolutionary detractors of "Walk Behind" to portray the scenario as yet another cop-out to preserving the interests of the elite.

That leaves us with "Walk Together", a scenario where a rejuvenated and active citizenry begin to construct solutions for themselves – obviously with the support of government. The emphasis is put on boosting civil society and empowering communities to build their own lives and set their own priorities. The government steps back from doing all the good stuff itself, and instead it forges partnerships with all the other powerful players around in order to provide the network which enables ordinary people to gain their economic freedom.

What better way of kicking off "Walk Together" – the scenario which offers a populist but peaceful path into the future – than an Economic Codesa? The design of such a Codesa should be open to popular debate and not be centrally imposed by any of the key actors. Of course, the government through the National Planning Commission will play an essential role in getting the initiative off the ground. Only one non-negotiable condition has to apply: any economic sector covered by this Codesa – whether it be mining, banking, agriculture, manufacturing, small business – should involve a give-and-take negotiation process between all the parties involved. Nobody would be omitted.

So there you have it. We have an elephant in the room which is a highly unequal society that in no way matches our political democracy or the aspirations of the people who worked for it. It is not going to go away whatever happens to the principal actors in the political firmament. Hence, the big issue is whether the elephant is removed by revolution, divine guidance from the centre or harnessing the common sense and creativity of the people as a whole. I prefer the last option.


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