South Africa around 2020

2008-10-06 13:35

Obviously there are many factors that impact on our future, some are political economy questions that remain unresolved.

Writing in 1998 Arthur Seldon, in his provocative essay titled The Dilemma of Democracy argues that "the question is whether democratic government has failed to see the significance of economic advance.

It may have delayed too long the looming withdrawal to its historic role. Its fate is to relinquish the dispensable functions that it cannot maintain from diminishing resources. Its alternatives are order or disorder. If it does not withdraw in good order, by respecting the new abilities and aspirations of the people to escape, it will withdraw in disorder?.

Interestingly Sir Samuel Brittan commenting on Seldon's essay argued that "there is another function of the state which at least some economic liberals find legitimate. This is to re-channel income and wealth towards the less well off".

In essence this is what scholars such Peter Evans mean when they argue that "state involvement is a given [and that] the appropriate question is not how much, but what kind".

This is the view that economists such as Robert Wade, Thandika Mkhandawire and Ha-Joon Chang contrary to Arthur Seldon and Susan Strange and Keniche Ohmae among others, seem to share, based on theory and evidence, that states have important roles to play, perhaps even more so going forward.

To start with, this very moment in our young democracy will go down to history books as the most significant one since the demise of Apartheid (as many commentators have suggested). It is a great feeling and privilege to be part of this (political) history in the making, of the maturing of this great nation and of this constitutional democracy, however painful it might be to some, at work! Our socio-political state at this very moment could be characterised as the "best of times and worst of times" - to borrow from Charles Dickens.

'Best of times'

Clearly, the vibrancy of our country's public discourse is working in our favour and is tilting the balance of forces towards the "best of times". This is not to condone unbecoming aspects in our young democracy.

Mr Jacob Zuma, the President of the African National Congress, at a point of media briefing on the new President of the Republic of South Africa stated that: "We appreciate the co-operation of Comrade Mbeki and the dignified manner with which he has conducted himself during this difficult situation. We are united in our appreciation of the important role that Comrade Mbeki has played in the organisation and broader liberation movement. The achievements of government during Comrade Mbeki's Presidency are impressive."

This echoed the point that the outgoing President of the Republic, Mr Thabo Mbeki, made when he stated that "among many things we did, we transformed our economy, resulting in the longest sustained period of economic growth in the history of our country; we introduced an indigent policy that reaches large numbers of those in need; we made the necessary advances so as to bring about a developmental state, the better to respond to the many and varied challenges of the transformation of our country".

He also emphasised that he "would be the first to say that even as we ensured consistent economic growth, the fruits of these positive results are still to be fully and equitably shared among our people, hence the abject poverty we still find coexisting side by side with extraordinary opulence".

Lastly, he thanked, among others, all those that strived for the "abiding vision that Africa must be free; that all our countries, individually and collectively should become democratic, developed and prosperous, and that Africa must unite. These African patriots know [as I do] that Africa and Africans will not and must not be the wretched of the earth in perpetuity".

In the similar vein, South Africa's current/new President, Mr Kgalema Motlanthe, in his maiden address to the National Assembly argued, correctly so in my view, that "though we may at times experience difficulty, though we may suffer moments of doubt and uncertainty, we have both the will and the means to rise above the challenges of the present, and to forge ahead with our historic mission to liberate all our people from discrimination, oppression and want".

And he concluded that "for all the challenges that lie ahead, the incontrovertible truth is that never before has South Africa been closer than it is today towards the achievement of a better life for all its people. We therefore have a shared responsibility to build on these results and to strive together - sparing neither courage nor strength - towards the achievement of a better life and a better South Africa, a better Africa and a better world".

Turbulent political period

The relatively turbulent recent political period in South Africa's young democracy, for some reason, reminded me of President Nelson Mandela's concluding remarks, in his Long Walk to Freedom, when he said that "I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my walk is not yet ended".

In a recent journal paper on South Africa's public policies, I argue that "over and above material conditions, there are improvements in areas such as national identity and relatively higher levels of social cohesion, in terms of unity, coherence, functionality and pride. The country has, to some extent, been exemplary in mitigating racial, ethnic and cultural tensions, in redressing decades of discrimination and underdevelopment, and in redefining and pursuing a collective national vision.

"South Africa is a nation that has harnessed meagre resources towards improved human development, at little disruption to the economy and the lowest costs to future generations, in a collective effort that addresses the ugly political history and its legacy".

If one were to believe Antonio Gramsci's assertion that one should maintain the "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will", then an exercise of thinking ahead becomes relatively doable.

However, realistically, trying to predict the future is tricky, against arguments by people like Abraham Lincoln that: "If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it".

Maybe that is why Albert Einstein once yelled that: "I never think about the future. It comes soon enough". Leon Trotsky, writing in 1901, felt the same kind of feeling that most of us might be feeling today that "it seems as if the new century, this gigantic newcomer, were bent at the very moment of its appearance to drive the optimist into absolute pessimism and civic nirvana".

Thinking about the future at the present time in our young democracy begs a series of questions such as those that TS Eliot asks in his Choruses from the rock. He asks: "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information, Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge".

It might be ideal at this point to recall Prophet Matthew's biblical phrase that "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen?" We are at a point where there are countless possibilities, the first maybe becoming the last and the knowledge gained could be lost.

Socio-economic dynamics

Let me, anyway, present my own views on how I think South Africa could look like around 2020. My perspectives are focusing on the macro-socioeconomic and political dynamics. An important disclaimer to make is that I extensively draw from various analytical exercises that government has undertaken and in particular the recently released Towards a Fifteen Year Review and South Africa Scenarios 2025: The future we chose?

Franzt Fanon concludes one of his most damning attack on the national bourgeoisie and the party, in the chapter on national consciousness in his The Wretched of the Earth, with what I think sums up what South Africa should have achieved around 2020, that: "The living expression of the nation is the collective consciousness in motion of the entire people. It is the enlightened and coherent praxis of the men and women. The collective forging of a destiny implies undertaking responsibility on a truly historical scale. Otherwise there is anarchy? If the national government wants to be national it must govern by the people, and for the people?"

So, I try to answer whether the "fabric" of our country, which has increasingly taken a knock lately, would have re-gathered or not.

As a backdrop of my analysis, I draw from lessons in Hernando De Soto's The Other Path most of which are significantly elaborated in his best seller, The Mystery of Capital.

In his 2002 preface of The Other Path (first published in 1986) De Soto shares a decisively important lesson that he has "come to understand that today a massive social and economic revolution is taking place in the developing world...some four billion people who had been living in the hinterlands of the developing countries and former Soviet nations have abandoned their traditional way of life.

" They are moving away from small, isolated communities toward a larger and more global division of labour in expanding markets that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx had seen emerging in the West two hundred years ago and that are now struggling to emerge outside the West.

These people are clustering around big towns and migrating by hundreds of millions to larger cities are the newest players in the global scene."

The backdrop worth keeping in mind is that further efforts are made at a point when government's capacity has been tested. A number of challenges thrown up by emerging socio-economic dynamics in society have meant that government needed to at least double its efforts.

Take for instance the significant decline in household size and increase in number of households, now estimated at 12.5 million: this would mean that the demands of/in the public services such as provision of houses and accompanying amenities would have at least doubled from the estimated backlog of about three million in mid-90s.

In addition, in 1994 there were many severe backlogs including; people living in shacks were estimated at almost eight million, 60% of South Africans had no access to electricity, six million people had no access to water, 22 million people did not have access to adequate sanitation, there was only 70% secondary school enrolment, and so on.

In spite of this pressure, recent data suggests that the proportion of households who use electricity increased from 58% in 1996 to 80% in 2007; about 88% of households have access to piped water; the proportion of households with access to sanitation is now around 70% compared to half in 1994; about 2.3 million housing units have been completed.

In addition we now talk of a country with gross domestic product per capita income of almost $6 000, for an economy that has grown at an average of over 3% a year since 2002, created about two million jobs since 2002, and so forth.

The following are some of the "facts" anticipated in South Africa around 2020:

  • Population at about 50 million (and a couple of millions of migrants in addition)

  • Economy to average around 5% - And having become a member of the OECD

  • Food insecurity to remain an issue (currently about 2.2 million households report food insecurity and about 5% report to be going to bed without a meal) - one million children expected to still go to bed without a meal around 2020

  • The gap between the rich and the poor to remain significant, perhaps a gini coefficient of about 0.60

  • Urbanisation expected to pick up in the next 10 years before it stabilises

  • Democracy further strengthening due to sharpened vibrancy of the public discourse and dialogue on human development matters

    The following is expected for the African continent around 2020:

  • About 5% average growth of the continent's economy

  • Africa's population to be about 1.4 billion

  • Further stability in the continent will have improved , though democracy remains precarious

    The following is among what is expected for the World at large around 2020:

  • Shift in global economic power & global political power

  • Long-term growth projected around 4%

  • Population to be about seven billion

    All these factors considered together, as well as others, suggest the character and content of our society around 2020 along the lines that Charles Dickens observed, towards the end of the 19th Century, in relation to London and Paris - it is even more likely that there will be more of "the best of times".

    This is contrary to some views that draw on WB Yeats' most quoted line saying that "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold".

    It is my considered view that South Africa, given our very robust "national personality", will soldier on and become the nation that Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others envisaged.

    Although there are anticipated weaknesses in government (because skilled people might go elsewhere), South Africa appears well poised to honour the Millennium Declaration which pledged to "spare no effort to free our fellow men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty".

    The matter of redistribution of wealth, which has preoccupied many generations, remains at the top of the agenda of our society. And the call that Frantz Fanon made, during his last days, that humanity will have to address redistribution of wealth no matter what consequences are is not taken lightly.

    Most critical challenges...

    In essence, the resolve to ensure that people live the kind of the lives they prefer, as Amartyar Sen urges, is about heeding such calls.

    However, there are challenges that we must address as society. Among the most critical challenges that South Africa would have to deal with around 2020, hopefully much earlier, is the urban poor conundrum - about two thirds of South Africans are expected to be living in urban areas.

    This will clearly put a strain on service delivery - migration would also be an issue, further exacerbated by anticipated weaknesses in the state. That is why I think we should very seriously take the lesson that Hernando De Soto shared with the World in 2002.

    There are other challenges that relate to global warming, frequent global economic crises, shortage of food, increases in the oil prices, possible changes in our political landscape and so on that South Africa would have to navigate, just like the whole World would have to contend with similar matters.

    Some of the matters that we would have to deal with, as Abraham Lincoln would urge, relate to internal socio-political and cultural dynamics that might gain momentum in the coming years.

    These include seeming re-emergence of racism, ethnic type of self-assertion, increased political vibrancy, widening social and economic inequalities and various associated cleavages and psychosocial pathologies that could overwhelm our society - these issues/factors require serious sociological examination (and there is no readily available data on most of them).

  • Vusi Gumede is the chief policy analyst in the Presidency's Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services in South Africa.

    For Vusi's profile, visit

    Send your comments to Vusi.

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