Running a country 101

Running a country is clearly no easy job. But sometimes we need to get back to the real basics, says Susan Erasmus.

I can think of several jobs I would prefer to that of the president of SA, such as a cleaner at the mortuary or a kamikaze pilot.

The current government has inherited a country as socially and economically fractured and divided as a country that has been at war. In fact, for at least three decades, we probably were involved in a low-grade civil war. People just chose not to call it that. Language is such a handy thing.

And anyone who expects any government to eradicate such an inheritance in 16 years is just being naïve. The sins of the fathers and all that. We should never underestimate the long-term consequences of injustice and chaos on people. All the people. But by the same token, it should also not be used as a one-size-fits-all excuse for any current incompetency or inefficiency.

Of course there are basics any government needs to provide. These include security, education, an efficient civil service, and health services. These are such obvious things, I wish I didn't have to write about them. But one or two of them will be popping up below.

There is a reason why, amid the distractions of leadership battles and the queue for the buffet, everyone needs to be reminded of a few basics.

The ruling party is not the state. In short, however much it feels like it, it's not about you, your bank balance and your career. It's about the close on 50 million people you represent as an MP. Many of them didn't even vote for you. All the more reason why you should attend committee meetings and do your job well. You are doing it on behalf of hundreds of thousands of others. You owe it to them. They pay your salary. Getting to the top is not the green light for sitting on your backside: it's the beginning of some really hard work. You can party later.

Housing priority. Most people are not that interested in politics. Their interests lie closer to home. Generally, people the world over want the same things: safety, security, food, education and basic housing. Although great strides have been made in the last 16 years in the provision of housing, running water and electricity, there are still millions of people who don't have access to them. The government should also not shy away from programmes educating people about family size and affordability. It is difficult for any government to provide decent services to a burgeoning population.

Job creation. There is a difficult balance that needs to be found between workers' rights and the willingness of employers to create new jobs. You don't want labourers to be paid R50 a day – that's just blatant exploitation – but then you also don't want to make it impossible for employers to get rid of someone who is unredeemably hopeless at their job. Current labour legislation discourages the creation of new jobs. In a country with an estimated 40% unemployment, many people would opt for low pay rather than no pay at all. Harsh, but true.

Skills development. We have a desperate skills shortage, and we have thousands of school leavers and even graduates sitting at home unemployed. The education system must produce people with the types of skills needed for our economy to grow. If the education system is not doing this, it needs a drastic overhaul. It's a simple question of supply and demand. You cannot legislate this away.

Security. The current crime situation cannot be dismissed by saying it's spoilt whites who are whingeing. The level of crime and violence to which township dwellers are subjected is scary. Many townships have been turned into war zones. Stats now say that SA is more dangerous than Iraq – a country officially at war. The level of violence (both inside and outside of homes) has to have an impact on the psyche of all South Africans. Without reasonable levels of security, everything else mentioned in this article falls by the wayside.

Tax money is sacred. This cash comes from many different sources: taxis filling up at petrol stations, employees paying PAYE, company tax, poor kids buying sweets and paying VAT. And hundreds of others. This money is for the betterment of our society as a whole. It is not a war chest for personal use. Every single penny of that money is cash someone has worked for. Respect it the same way you would respect your own child's birthday savings. People who dip into this should be made an example of. Lengthy jail sentences would be in order. After all, they have stolen the future from all of us.

Productive farming. The temptation must be huge to redress the injustices of the 1913 Land Act, in one fell swoop. Our population is burgeoning and people need space to live. But they also need to eat. Personally, I don't care what the colour of the skin of a farmer is, as long as he/she uses the land in a productive way to feed the population. Farmland that is not used productively, or purely for purposes of subsistence, simply points to an increase in food imports in years to come. An army marches on its stomach – and so does a country.

Black economic empowerment. There definitely is a space for redressing imbalances of the past. But that is not going to happen by forcing it onto companies. It's going to happen by jacking up the school system, and producing the kind of employees with the kind of skills that will be an asset to any company. Some jobs just cannot be learned while on-the-job. It's simply unfair to put someone in the position of having to do so. We need to retain all the skills we can in this country, for the overall good of everyone. And make skills training a major priority. Apart from anything else, every single skilled person, whether black or white, who emigrates, takes thousands of rands of future tax payments out of the country. We can't afford that.

Charity begins at home. If your life raft is sinking, because there are already too many people on board, it would be stupid to try and pick up more, as the whole thing will sink. By allowing unrestricted access to people from other countries, however deserving they may be (and they are), there must be a reduction in job opportunities for South Africans if a greater number of people are competing for them. This is purely a mathematical calculation. It's all very well to say these countries harboured ANC activists during the years of apartheid, but there weren't millions of them. That's the difference.

Justice. It is only natural that our current leaders should have a soft spot for prisoners – most of them were political prisoners themselves. But there's a huge difference between someone who is imprisoned for their political beliefs, and someone who is in prison for rape and murder. The distinction has to be drawn. Our whole population has the right to be protected.

A last word to our rulers: your task is huge, your responsibility enormous. Our country has the ability to bring out the best and the worst of humanity. We forever seem to be teetering on this brink. Please find a way to be part of the solution for our country. Fifty million people are depending on you.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, September 2010)

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