Enough empty promises

2008-12-31 00:00

We are in a time of retrospection and of new year resolutions. As the elections approach, what thoughts can one offer on our rather turbulent political situation?

At the moment, the most dramatic and horrifying happening in southern Africa is the long, drawn-out political and humanitarian disaster in our northern neighbour, Zimbabwe. President Kgalema Motlanthe and others, following in the footsteps of Thabo Mbeki, may say that this is a Zimbabwean problem to be resolved by Zimbabweans, but it seems obvious to most of the world that Robert Mugabe, who no longer really deserves the title of president, is unrepentant about the chaos that he and his party have brought about, and is determined to cling to power no matter how cataclysmic the consequences. In these circumstances South Africa, the dominant power in the region, ought to be able to propose a creative solution, a way out of the deadlock. Its inability or unwillingness to do so is seriously tarnishing this country’s reputation in global circles.

Does that matter? Yes it does — especially at a moment of universal economic downturn, when the world’s shrunken resources are being redistributed. Quite apart from the all-important plight of Zimbabweans, a very public display of misjudgment, impotence or incompetence is hardly likely to aid South Africa’s cause.

What of the situation within South Africa? The advent of Congress of the People (Cope) means that the political parties’ jostling for position is more interesting and momentous than usual. One must be grateful for this. But so far, most of the statements made by the main political parties have been unhelpful as far as serious ideas are concerned.

We have had many expressions of allegiance and changed allegiance, of trust and mistrust, of rejoicing and indignation, and a few of these have been explosive. But what we have had far too little of, so far, is statements of policy. And in this regard it is certainly not sufficient for a political leader to say, for example: “We are going to be tough on criminals” or “We are going to root out corruption”. Such statements, by themselves, are little more than slogans or empty promises or threats. What is required are sober explanations of policies and tactics. In January, the political parties are to present their manifestos. These too will have to avoid mere “policies” without plans.

A few weeks ago in this paper William Gumede noted that, with the vast and frightening economic depression beginning to encompass the whole world, what South African politicians should be doing — instead of calling one another names — is sitting down, together with teams of experts, to work out how to act in these circumstances. I agree with Gumede entirely. And I think his point could be applied to other crucial issues as well.

Take the all-important problems of poverty and unemployment. These lie at the root of many of our country’s other problems, most obviously that of crime. Almost all sensible and humane people, whatever their political allegiances, would like a situation where most people can get employment and where the gap between the rich and the poor is far smaller than it is at the moment. In the United States and in the European Union the ratio of the average salary of the richest 10% of the population to that of the poorest 10% is about 10 to one. A large gap, and not particularly acceptable, but in some developing countries — most notably South Africa, Brazil and India — the gap is far, far larger. As far as I know, one of the few countries to have solved this problem (although I haven’t seen its latest statistics) is Japan, where the ratio of the richest 10% to the poorest 10% was until recently three to one. We must all surely hope for a movement in that direction.

But it won’t be at all easy to set things in motion. Sloganeering and empty promises won’t help. What is needed are think-tanks, groups of intelligent, well-educated and committed people who will work at the issue. How best to create employment? What precisely should be the government’s role? How can a country create wealth and redistribute it simultaneously? What should its taxing policy be at a time when money can be moved around so easily, when rich people who don’t favour a country’s policies can simply move their money elsewhere?

The phenomenon of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, or remaining as poor as they were, is partly a result of the deregulated fiscal policies introduced to the world by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. One hopes that these policies will be rethought to some degree in view of the recent global economic disaster. So the task of the think-tanks may become slightly easier. But their work is essential. And their conclusions, or their preliminary findings, should be what South Africa’s politics is about.

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