Zuma gives new meaning to 'since 1994'

2017-08-23 11:56
Thabo Mbeki (Picture: AFP)

Thabo Mbeki (Picture: AFP)

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The most-liked prefix or postfix in political speeches – “since 1994” – is usually used as a historic marker of how far our country has gone since the dark days of apartheid. 

Important as it is, it is often abused, stripped of its significance and rendered unhelpful in measuring the progress – or lack of it – in various respects of our national life. 

It might, on the face of it, sound like a nice achievement for the government to announce the number of households who got access to certain services for the first time “since 1994”. 

But in reality, the “since 1994” phrase has fallen into the hands of politicians who use it to conceal the chronic underperformance of the current administration. 

It might have made sense for President Nelson Mandela’s administration to use the phrase because there was no precedent bench mark. The workings of a democratic government did not lend itself to legitimate comparisons with that of a minority apartheid government.  

In hindsight, after the Thabo Mbeki administration took over, we should have toned down a bit on the “since 1994” mantra. His administration should have been measured against its own undertakings and the achievements of the Mandela administration. During his second term, the Mbeki administration should have measured its performance against his first term. 

Fortunately for the Mandela and Mbeki administrations, even if we were to disaggregate their individual performances they would still record net positive, incremental achievements in many, though not all respects without comparisons with the FW de Klerk administration. 

Under the Zuma administration, however, the “since 1994” phrase is concealing massive failures in nearly all respects of national life. It appropriates for itself the achievements of the previous administration and blends them under some imprecise averages. 

Only voters are entitled to make average comparisons. But a governing administration must lay no claim to successes of predecessor administrations. Although Zuma might have participated in all post-1994 administrations, he was not the leader. Ultimately, Mandela and Mbeki were responsible for what was and wasn’t achieved during their tenures.

It’s no longer enough to merely say “since 1994” the ANC government has built so many houses or healthcare facilities or created so many jobs. Not least because the different administrations have had distinctly different approaches to dealing with matters of national concern – on job creation, crime, corruption, ethical leadership, poverty, foreign policy and so on. 

It would be misleading, for example, for the Zuma administration to say, “since 1994” South Africa’s standing in the world has improved. In fact, it did improve under Mandela, reached its peak under Mbeki and tumbled under Zuma. We are now at the lowest of the lowest in terms of our international reputation. Averages mustn’t be used to make the ugly among us look pretty. 

The important indicator now is how the Zuma administration, measured on its own, performs in all the indicators that matter to the nation. The recent Stats SA figures on unemployment and poverty clearly indicate that more South Africans are poorer under Zuma.

Conservatively, unemployment is just over 27 percent, far higher than under the previous administration. Among young people unemployment is over 50 percent. 

Impatient about the slow rate at which unemployment was falling when the economy was growing during his administration, Mbeki raised concerns about the reliability of unemployment figures. He famously remarked that, like mini-skirts, statistics suggested more than they revealed. 

But since his administration, the numbers have consistently revealed more than what can be gleaned through the hem of the mini-skirt. We can’t miss the recent statistical revelations regardless of what the hem may or may not suggest. Stats SA revealed that 30.4 million people (55 percent of the population) are living in poverty, up from 27.3 million in 2011. 

This means that relative to the performance of the Thabo Mbeki administration, the situation has worsened. And relative to Zuma’s own first term, things just got worse. Apparently, Zuma’s government, the largest in the history of the Republic, has nothing to show.

We have an unprecedented national crisis. Black women and the uneducated are the worst affected by unemployment and poverty. Typically, those affected by unemployment look for two sources of support to survive: dependency on the state, which is also running out of resources, and extended family members who pay the so-called “black tax”. 

Unfortunately, while unemployment destroys the country’s social fabric, Zuma’s administration is only concerned about his personal survival. Civil society groups, churches, businesspeople, trade unions, veterans, academics, journalists and commentators have raised concerns. To no avail.

We are witnessing the great unravelling of our country. For every second that this is allowed to continue, it adds to the burden of the administration that will take over in 2019.

- Mpumelelo Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria. 

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