Staying true to a national vision

Jan Hofmeyr

Almost a quarter century into South Africa's political transition, most of its citizens continue to wait for its economic equivalent to transpire. Still poverty frames the daily struggles of far too many, while inequality sustains inherited asymmetric power relations that impede access to those resources that are essential to move ahead in life. In short, injustice still reproduces itself.

To be sure, many important gains have been made over the past 24 years. Millions were connected to the electricity grid, exchanged tin shacks for brick homes, received clean running water and sanitation to their dwellings, and for the first time could access primary health services. An even more remarkable achievement was the gradual extension of state grants and pensions to the most vulnerable South Africans, today covering almost 18 million recipients.   

And yet, as substantial as these achievements may have been, evidence is mounting that their sustained expansion are resting on increasingly tenuous grounds. Ever since the global economic crisis of the late 2000s, the country has been trapped in a low growth trajectory that saw government revenues dwindle, and the share of debt interest payments eating into tight national budgets.

While the impact of the current downturn is being felt across the economy, it is, once again, the most vulnerable sections of the population who are disproportionately being affected by mass lay-offs and rising prices. The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) shows that during the second quarter of 2018, 65 000 workers joined the ranks of the unemployed, while the knock-on effect of a record 99c petrol price hike last week will further exacerbate the pressure on livelihoods in the coming months.    

This tightening noose of material deprivation has heightened levels of anxiety and desperation. With many sensing that their plight is falling on deaf ears, a growing proportion of South Africans are becoming susceptible to populist rhetoric and are prepared to engage in extrajudicial actions to make to be heard. The IJR's SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey, for example, shows the proportion of South Africans who have, or are willing to, engage in acts of violence for political means has increased in successive surveys from 18% in 2013 to 30% in 2017.

Growing sense that political transition failed

A growing strand of rhetoric, particularly amongst young South Africans, has focussed on what they regard as the flawed political transition of the 1990s which, in their view, set the country up for failure as far as its ambitions to create a just and inclusive is concerned. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in particular, has become a target of those who blame current conditions on the shortcomings of that era.

While the benefit of hindsight may today point us to several weaknesses of the TRC – not least those pertaining to its scope and time frame – many of those relating to assumptions about its capacity to effect deep structural economic reconstruction of an entire society, frequently tend to get oversimplified.

It is worthwhile to recall that the post-apartheid state deliberately separated the issue of social healing and economic reparation through a concurrent implementation of the TRC and the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). From the onset, the life of the TRC was limited by a circumscribed period, while the RDP was viewed as the long-term blueprint for the country's economic reconstruction. And yet, the RDP died a silent death two years into its implementation, when it was replaced by the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme.

In 2003, the Mbeki administration's response to criticism for its paltry reparations to victims identified by the TRC, namely that their interests had to be balanced against the broader national economic reconstruction project, made it clear that government viewed itself (and not the TRC) as custodian of this endeavour, through the implementation of macroeconomic policy, which at that time happened to be GEAR.     

Criticisms of TRC a stretch

While many of the criticisms against the TRC's mandate may therefore be perfectly legitimate, the contention that it should directly be held liable for persistent structural cleavages within the economy today amounts to somewhat of a stretch.

At best, the commission, with its shortcomings, could have laid the groundwork for these structural changes, by framing the narrative for its necessity. And for a while it did.

The TRC hearings became a daily feature on our television screens, and while some went straight into denial mode, the eyes of many others were opened to the true cost of our divided past. But beyond the commission's life, surely more could have been done to sustain this momentum.

Nothing much, for example, came of the commission's suggestion to government to erect memorial centres across the country to sustain a historical conscience. Neither was there any movement on proposals to create a national archive, akin to Germany's Stasi Files.

As far as the state's pursuit of inclusive economic prosperity is concerned, we know now that GEAR, like the RDP, was terminated by factional battles within the ruling party – a fate that also befell the Joint Initiative for Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa) and the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative (Asgisa). Anybody heard the New Growth Plan (NGP) being mentioned recently?

In light of the above, the national planning commission's recent report on the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP) make for depressing reading. Launched in August 2012, the NDP offered a blueprint for inclusive growth towards 2030, aimed at, amongst other things, the eradication of poverty, full employment and the creation of a more equitable society that extended dignity to all belonging to it.

At the time, its significance went beyond the achievement of a specific set economic of objectives. In light of the country's fragmented history, it also held up a new, attainable vision around which South Africans could unite co-create a new future.      

Titled, A Crossroads: Accelerating Progress Towards the NDP's Vision 2030 and released in late September, the assessment reports on that what we already know: Unemployment is on an upward trajectory, and young, black people are disproportionately affected; inequality remains stubbornly high, and is being reinforced by a crippled education system; poverty, after initial gains, is on the rise again; and, based on all of this, we will not only fail in reaching the numerical targets, but by extension, also in achieving the national vision that we set for ourselves.

Economy suffering from 'self-inflicted strangulation'

Some may contend that our economic performance should be viewed against the backdrop of a challenging global environment, where developing economies, in particular, continue to struggle. The is NPC report is less generous in its assessment.

While recognising contextual factors, it contends that our current predicament is largely the result of "self-inflicted growth strangulation." Although not explicit on the grounds for its contention, we cannot but conclude that it refers to the systematic looting of our state over the past decade, and the extent to which it has polarised relations within and between major national stakeholder groups.  As matters unfold at the Zondo commission, it appears that the Zuma administration's reign of error may not only have robbed the fiscus, but also the nation from its vision for the future.

As a nation, we will have to regroup, and avoid the short-termism with which we approached the first two decades of democracy. It is within this context that the NPC should, firstly, be commended for providing a brutally honest assessment, but secondly also, for its persistence in not letting the NDP die a silent death.

As it has done in in the original NDP, the NPC forwards concrete proposals, aligned to a clear vision, which are aimed to reignite momentum for the achievement of those goals that remain within reach.

Given our country's social and ideological diversity, we should not expect unconditional buy-in into all of its proposals. But to counter the real long-term threat of short-term politics in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, it will be incumbent upon leadership in government, the labour movement, business and civil society, to engage it as a base document to get the vision for a better society back on track.

- Jan Hofmeyr is the head of policy and research at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR).

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