Mmusi Maimane | Our 72 hours of collective gloom: Here’s what we can do about it

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DBE Minister Angie Motshekga announces the 2020 Matric results.
DBE Minister Angie Motshekga announces the 2020 Matric results.
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The 2020 matric results, unemployment statistics, and national budget - in a space of 72 hours - have dealt a blow to the national psyche and to Project SA, writes Mmusi Maimane.


There's an old proverb which posits that "misfortunes never come singly". That being said, negative occurrences almost always arrive in groups or in quick succession.

In the space of just 72 hours, the people of South Africa will have received three consecutive blows to the national psyche and to Project SA. The 2020 matric results, unemployment statistics, and national budget – all within a space of 72 hours – show the cumulative decline in living standards and opportunities for South Africans.

I wish to argue that while our collective malaise is cause for deep concern, it need not be terminal.

There exists the hope of restoring the bare basics of a stable, cohesive and functioning society that offers fair opportunity to all. And this begins with implementing a suite of agile solutions designed to fix systemic failures - if applied diligently and willingly by those who have the power to do so.

The triple blow began on Monday when the 2020 matric results were released - a sure sign of how our young people are being underequipped for a job market that is both rapidly shrinking and changing.

Even with the strikingly low threshold for passing, and the manipulation of numbers by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and her motley crew, the trends are terrifying. The overall pass rate is down nationally. The number of schools which have a 0% pass rate is up nationally.

READ | DBE hails resilient dedicated class of 2020 who got more bachelor passes despite pandemic

Tuesday followed Monday's cue, as the jobs stats for Q:4 2020 were released.

Despite the old tricks of confusing narrow vs broad unemployment rates, a high school maths student could appreciate the trend is heading in the wrong direction. The narrow unemployment rate is at 32.5% - the last time it was this high, Thabo Mbeki was president.

The broad unemployment rate, which includes those who've given up hope of finding a job, is at an eye-watering 42.6%. An additional 701 000 people joined the unemployment line between Oct and Dec 2020.

And on Wednesday, the final hammer blow is the national budget, which is to be tabled in Parliament by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni. There are no green shoots of economy recovery on the horizon. There will be no financial relief for hardworking South Africans, struggling families and honest businesses. Instead, it's more debt to pay, higher taxes to sacrifice and additional cuts to basic services.

We must remind ourselves that these numbers aren't merely statistics on a graph. These are lives adversely affected - families, communities and fellow citizens are suffering and the signs of hope grow wearier with each day.

If you don't have an educated and skilled workforce, the economy and its tax base won't grow. If you don't have a growing economy, you cannot create new, real jobs. And if you don't have sufficient public funds, you cannot wholesomely fund education, skills and training.

We have little time to dither. I propose a specific suite of agile solutions designed to fix systemic failures - if applied diligently and willingly by those who have the power to do so.

Job creation

Economic growth and job creation is spearheaded by the private sector - not the public sector.

By the government's own admission, 90% of all new jobs to be created by 2030 will be by SMMEs in the private sector. In a country which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, each and every policy, regulation, law and decision should be viewed through the prism of: "Will this support entrepreneurs and startups in creating new jobs?"

Therefore, we must make the path to success easier for SMMEs. This requires: (1) simplifying the startup process; (2) an overall funding model; (3) creating an integrated support system and (4) incentivising buying local and stimulating local consumption.

To complement this and to bridge the skills divide, the public sector should implement a voluntary year of public service for matriculant that eases the transition from school into the working world. This will allow matriculants to enter work-based training in community healthcare, basic education, the SAPS and other fields, gaining valuable work experience while earning a small salary.

Lastly, the establishment of a Jobs and Justice Fund would amass empowerment funding from businesses and distribute it to real empowerment initiatives. This includes bursaries, school infrastructure, mentorship programmes, apprenticeships and training, and land reform programmes in order to bridge the gap between power and potential. The fund would be administered by public finance professionals - not politicians - to ensure transparency and accountability. In effect, there would be greater equitable distribution and less concentration in the hands of a few.

Education

Priority number one is to establish an independent education inspectorate – the Inspector-General (I-G) of Education. This office is separate from the bureaucracy and political appointments of the department and will adjudicate school standards, teacher excellence and complaints. It will follow the Dutch model – a critical part of their educational success.

Some responsibilities will include: (a) stimulating schools and educational institutions to maintain and improve the quality of education they offer; (b) assessing the quality of education of the individual educational institutes and the education system as a whole; (c) communicating in an accessible way with all its target groups and stakeholders; and (d) reporting to the public.

The second priority is to provide access to world-class computing education for all pupils . In order to accomplish this, we need to build computer centres that can be shared by multiple schools in a community on a rotational basis.

This is the best way to pool resources, provide adequate security and make sure there is the right level of staffing talent to serve the communities. This will allow pupils to advance their coding skills, create digital content and equip themselves for the digital economy. 

READ | Explainer: Experts on the real matric pass rate and why it may decline next year

Thirdly, the release of high-demand spectrum must happen in order to lower data costs and increase access to online resources for young people. A lack of access can never be the barrier for aspiration and the drive to learn and better oneself. Moreover, online teaching is fast becoming a useful tool in the 21st century. It should be explored.

Fourthly, there should be an increase in teacher salaries and benefits to make the profession more attractive to our talented young people, especially those who have chosen other sectors. The 2019 total education budget was R281.2 billion. The funds are there to attract some of that talent out of the private sector and into the classroom.

A young, professional teaching core will bring in the professional standards of the private sector and make the space more competitive. In addition, it will allow us to retire underperforming teachers and to introduce new performance indicators that failed previously. It will also motivate those teachers who have been overperforming under adverse conditions to keep doing excellent work.

National budget

Minister Mboweni needs to, for once, grab the bull by the horns and make a number of tough, but required, decisions to turn around our sinking ship.

Firstly, freeze all bailouts to government entities, SOEs and the like. That's it.

READ | Analysis: Ministers have their work cut out on SOE reforms

Secondly, abandon any plans to fund National Health Insurance and instead, request a National Health Advisory Body of medical professionals and academics who will devise a short-term healthcare model that takes into account all of South Africa's unique challenges. While well intentioned, the NHI cannot fix the systemic problems with South Africa's two-tiered healthcare system. And, more crucially, we cannot afford it.  

What we desperately require is a holistic approach to healthcare: creating a healthy citizenry instead of focusing on fixing healthcare problems once arise.

Thirdly, there should be a freeze on public sector wages with a view to cut down the size of the public sector via the introduction of an incentive-based scheme for all public sector employees. 

Much like a commission-based system, the best performers within the state are rewarded for their excellence. Flat rates breed mediocrity and fail to attract real talent.

Rather, let's see to it that the best teacher, nurse or administrator is paid more when they excel. This will go a long way to instill a culture of excellence within the public sector.

- Mmusi Maimane is chief activist for the One South Africa Movement.


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