How to get SA working

2018-02-25 06:19

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After nine years of monstrous nightmares under Jacob Zuma’s leadership, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a state of the nation address (Sona) last week that went some way towards healing the pain of our young democracy’s recent past.

In his speech, Ramaphosa quoted from Hugh Masekela’s song Thuma Mina (Send Me). On the sleeve of the 2002 album Time, the legendary musician described the song as a traditional hymn that is sung at funerals, revivals and church celebrations. It invokes the spirit of community service to help alleviate the culture of poverty-related crime, disease, violence, abuse and addiction. In churches across the nation last Sunday, ministers drew parallels between the message of community service in the hymn and the calling of the Prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, which commenced at the start of a new era in the history of the Kingdom of Judah in southern Israel after the death of King Uzziah.

The king had become powerful and proud. He disobeyed God by offering incense in the Lord’s temple, a task that was reserved for priests. A group of 80 priests confronted him. While he was ranting and raving at the priests, he was struck by leprosy. After the king’s death, Isaiah had a vision in which he saw the Lord, who had a message to deliver to the nation
of Judah.

However, Isaiah, who, by some accounts, had been part of the system – his father was wealthy and allegedly the king’s friend – felt that he was an unworthy messenger. He said: “Woe to me! I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips.”

Once Isaiah had acknowledged his sin, an angel took a burning piece of coal from the altar and touched his lips with it. After he had been cleansed of his sin, the Lord asked: “Who shall I send and who will go for us?”

Isaiah replied: “Here I am; send me.”

Nothing is free of fault

Like Isaiah, Ramaphosa is not perfect. He is a post-heroic leader who comes with his own history of bad judgements and errors. Firstly, he has the albatross of Marikana hanging around his neck. The massacre is a festering wound in the South African psyche that will not heal until it is confronted and addressed. Instead, a commission cleared virtually everyone of responsibility for the cold-blooded murder of 34 mine workers.

Although Ramaphosa apologised for his role in the massacre and pledged during his reply to the Sona debate this week to “play a role in healing and atonement for what happened at Marikana”, he has been part of a government that has insisted on referring to the massacre as a tragedy, admitted no wrongdoing by anyone, and has provided no reparations to the families of the victims of Marikana and the surrounding communities, where economic conditions have worsened.

Responding to Sona, Malusi Mpumlwana, the general secretary of the SA Council of Churches, said: “Marikana is still a warlord area. Ramaphosa cannot bring back the lives of the people who died, but he can help improve economic conditions as part of his process of personal atonement.”

Secondly, Ramaphosa, as one of the longest-serving members of the ANC’s national executive committee, has been part of a collective that gave us Zuma – and, until recently, defended him. Finally, although he is expected to deal with state capture and corruption, there are concerns about his proximity to white business. He has to reassure the majority of South Africans, who are black and poor, that he will be on their side.

Trauma years

The calls to service in Thuma Mina and the Book of Isaiah have inspired many South Africans to put behind them the trauma of the Zuma years and give Ramaphosa a chance. In the Sona debate, he promised to re-engage with civil society to revive the economy, which is still in the doldrums a decade after the start of the global financial crisis. Without offering any plan, he promised to work towards developing a social compact, and to holding numerous summits and conferences to address the burning issues of job creation and investment. In his reply to the Sona debate, he talked about creating a “new partnership to build the nation”.

However, government established an institution – the National Economic Development and Labour Council – in 1995 to facilitate civil society dialogue and the development of social compacts. It has achieved very little. Ebrahim Patel, the minister of economic development during Zuma’s presidency, produced a number of so-called social accords that were so forgettable that only a handful of South Africans can actually remember their details.

SA Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi this week said: “Former president Thabo Mbeki had a series of economic advisory councils, including one for information and communications technologies that is similar to the one that is now proposed by Ramaphosa. The jobs summit is not an innovation. There have been three jobs summits since 1994. They never solved anything. Instead, job losses, poverty and inequalities have worsened. A jobs summit that does not address the real economic fault lines will change nothing.”

Indeed, at the 1998 Jobs Summit and the 2003 Growth and Development Summit, government dictated the boundaries of what could be discussed. There would be no discussions about the controversial Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, which was the bane of the left. The summits would focus on so-called microeconomic reforms, projects and practical steps to create jobs. These were no genuine engagements that sought to fundamentally change the structure of the apartheid economy. Few of the recommendations from any of the summits were implemented or monitored.

We have a plan

To criticism that Sona had not provided a plan, Ramaphosa said: “We have a plan. The plan is the National Development Plan [NDP].”

But if he has a plan, what is the point of developing a social compact? In its 500 pages, the NDP does not have a plan. If there was a plan, it would have provided a solution to the current economic crisis. The document says nothing about macroeconomic or industrial policy.

According to Omano Edigheji, an expert on the developmental state who has studied many national development plans, “the NDP is a disjointed and incoherent document that does not address the fundamental challenges facing the country”.

The problem with Ramaphosa’s economic ideology is its contradictions. In his campaign for the ANC presidency, he invoked the New Deal – a radical plan of increased government spending that stimulated the US economy after the Great Depression in 1929 – to argue for a right-wing plan to revive the economy.

In an article on the Siyavuma campaign website, he said there was a need to balance two objectives. First, government has to boost demand in the economy. Second, it has to cut expenditures to stabilise public finances.

However, he acknowledged that “this fiscal consolidation will have the undesirable effect of dampening demand in an economy suffering the effects of a prolonged period of low growth”.

To square this circle, government must restore confidence in the economy by creating an investor-friendly environment to counter the negative effect of fiscal consolidation and austerity.

However, private investment follows economic growth – it does not kick-start the economy. Also, economists have debunked the idea of expansionary austerity.

Nobel Prize winner and economist Paul Krugman said the idea that a “confidence fairy” could counter the negative impact of austerity was a zombie idea.

The budget this week announced R63 billion of fiscal consolidation and austerity in the next year. This is equivalent to 1.3% of gross domestic product. This extreme austerity will punish the poor. It could tip the economy into its third recession in nine years and result in an increase in unemployment to more than 10 million people.

Not as radical

After 18 years of involvement in BEE – between 1996 and 2014 – first at New Africa Investments, then at Shanduka Group – Ramaphosa’s instincts are not as radical as they were in 1987, when he led 300 000 mine workers who shut the industry down for three weeks. However, he must start to genuinely engage with civil society. Such an engagement must recognise the gravity of the economic crisis and the urgent need to reopen discussions on macroeconomic policies and the NDP.

Nothing must be off the table. We must develop new policies to achieve a decisive rupture with our past and confront the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality. We must declare an economic state of emergency. The country needs emergency measures to create growth and employment.

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