Book review – In search of Utopia

2013-02-17 10:00

A TRC for corruption, schools run by corporations?.?.?.?Hlumelo Biko’s book offers talking point solutions and a first look at what his mother Mamphela Ramphele’s election manifesto might look like – if she will have one, write Carien du Plessis and Mandy Rossouw.

Political writers and political animals around the country have been panting to get their hands on The Great African Society by Hlumelo Biko.

In it, the son of struggle hero and black consciousness leader Steve Biko and former World Bank managing director Mamphela Ramphele seeks to give South Africans a blueprint for a prosperous South Africa.

In painstaking detail, Biko analyses how South Africa got to where it is today. It’s an analysis few can contest and makes for depressing reading.

The timing of the book’s release could not be better.

Not only is it state of the nation and government budget time, but tomorrow Biko’s mother is set to make a big announcement.

The jury is still out on whether her plan will be for a new political party or a new civil society group, but either way it is likely to target South Africa’s ever-growing, rainbow-coloured middle class who want a new vision for the country and – more importantly – action.

Weary of promises that aren’t fulfilled and which are a continuous assault on democratic institutions, these voters want to see real results and are savvy enough to see through the political rhetoric.

The timing of this book could be a coincidence – but, even so, it offers Ramphele supporters a first look at what her election manifesto might look like – if indeed she plans to release one.

Biko calls the Bantu education system “the original sin” and gives a well-researched perspective on why the legacy of poor education will haunt South Africa for a long time to come.

But he has solutions.

He suggests the government identify the worst-performing schools in the country and have big companies take over running them.

He also suggests a competency test for current and former teachers to rid the system of those who can’t or won’t do the job, and proposes fast-tracking those teachers who are successful.

His suggestion of a silent truth and reconciliation commission for corruption is interesting and likely to raise eyebrows.

He suggests an amnesty period during which government officials involved in corrupt activities are given an opportunity to resign with full retirement benefits and an undertaking never to work in government again.

This must be followed, in Biko’s view, by a crackdown on corruption and a new road map to set the public service on a path to restore its credibility.

This idea of expecting government officials to surrender themselves will probably be criticised as utopian.

But it would be a great idea to punt on an election platform to a society sick of being fleeced by the state.

He analyses some of South Africa’s history and the transition to democracy – but there is little new or surprising because he relies heavily on the much-publicised views of political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki and author Mark Gevisser.

Biko’s view is that the economic transition in South Africa was left behind in 1994 and that this fatal oversight now accounts for most of the economic problems current leaders face.

He believes South Africans were so taken up with political liberation that they deferred the economic transition.

His black consciousness roots show when he claims the ANC in 1912 was more interested in being part of white domination than in “outright liberation”, but claims the ANC was saved by the militant Youth League – established in 1944 – that gave the party its radical flavour.

He also draws some interesting comparisons in the book.

In the chapter Economic Freedom and the Comrades Marathon he says the famous road race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg is similar to the struggle for economic freedom for black people.

The marathon was initially meant as an equaliser – anyone from a lowly miner to a trained athlete could compete – but the reality is you have to be well-prepared to win the race, which is dominated by the same medallists year after year.

Black economic empowerment was meant to create an equal society but instead a small, well-connected group is re-empowered over and over, while the wealth gap widens.

Of course, no discussion of BEE would be complete without Smuts Ngonyama’s now infamous comment: “We didn’t join the struggle to be poor.”

Biko asks whether Ngonyama’s words were really so outlandish or whether he was simply – in very crude terms – capturing the sentiment of the day.

While Biko offers many solutions the middle class would like to hear, they don’t really engage with the specific realities in South Africa that would enable them to be implemented.

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