In the red

2009-12-04 00:00

I DON’T consider myself to be a prophet of doom. Indeed, I remain positive about the potential of our country and admire many of its achievements since 1994. Whether they are all the right achievements for the right reasons is a debatable point. Personally, I am in no doubt that we live in a far more respectable country now than we did before that watershed year. I also believe that the African National Congress government has developed many sound policies, and legislation that is as good as any in the world.

But, listening to the president announcing new strategies in the fight against HIV and Aids, I was particularly discomforted by the thought of what these would cost. While this is a matter of such urgency that we must spend the money to stop counting the cost in human misery and death, it stimulated thoughts about how much the country has to spend in order to defend itself from diverse challenges rather than make advances against them.

The country is now in overdraft — to a greater degree than expected — and the years during which the state’s resources were able to rescue some state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and increase significantly its welfare grants, as well as make mammoth commitments to the successful staging of the Soccer World Cup, have come to an end.

The state’s success in repaying the apartheid debt and putting the economy on a firm footing was attributable to the outstanding management of income. And, in case we have forgotten, this was done without increasing taxation. The management of expenditure was far less impressive and this remains a challenge that, despite the many public assurances, lingers as those responsible for spending continue along their merry way. The public sector, from national to local, can’t seem to get it right. It’s not a simple pruning of the budget that is required, but a commitment to wise and effective spending on matters of priority. Especially where management skills are weak, spending money to resolve problems is the easy way out. Questions asked in Parliament often require statistical answers and this tends to reinforce the belief that success is endorsed by quantity.

Not long ago, I expressed an opinion that the government had not done terribly well in its promotion of small business, a sector that offers so much promise, but delivers so little to the national economy. The government leader responded, defensively, by quoting figures — so much money had been spent, so many co-operatives had been set up and so on. The fact is that the government’s effort is not to be questioned, but the outcome of those efforts needs much more critical analysis to assess whether they have been worthwhile.

The current reality is that the positive income stream which sustained so much government activity since 2000 has been severely compromised by the recession. Yet, more than before, the country is required to defend itself against HIV/Aids, against crime and corruption, against woeful governance and management in many public institutions, against poverty and unemployment, and, not least considering that it represents the coalface of delivery, against a municipal system that is riddled with structural deficiencies, financial aridity and gross mismanagement. This defence will exhaust our resources and prevent a focus on strategies of progress and advancement.

Among these should be the dire need for a better quality and much more relevant education. Despite the large sums spent in providing education and training, in schools notably, the progress since 1994 has been purely ideological, and some of that even has been undermined by other factors. In many other areas, too, ideologically inspired policies have not been translated into constructive delivery, much of which has also been perverted by individual greed and ambition.

Perhaps it is our gravest flaw that the liberation expressed in the Constitution has become licence in the hands of many. It must be part of our defence strategy to resist the influence and power of those who have interpreted and manipulated the lofty guiding principles to their own ends, often in the knowledge that their indulgence will be harboured by cronies.

As we approach 2010, the political rhetoric is hopeful. Will the flesh be as willing as the spirit?

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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