South Africa's Ethical Vacuum: Harbinger to a Dangerous Whirlwind

2014-11-09 09:06

Some years ago I dedicated time to a book exploring South Africa’s institutional competence and capacity for democracy. It researched our predisposition for good governance, cultural and racial aptitudes and the conditions under which we would be likely to run a successful economy. I studied the economic thinking of Karl Marx, Milton Friedman and others, examined cross-cultural studies and practical economics case studies and analysed findings on comparative national cognitive ability.

My main conclusion was that from a cultural, cognitive and demographic perspective we will be hard pressed to succeed as a “world class” nation - as was being promised by ruling politicians at the time.

Since then the road has got rockier and in increasing numbers commentators are talking up the possibility of a “failed state”, which in the heady days of the mid nineties, would have been considered a near-treasonous notion.

Most of my research was done during the Mbeki era – already a period of concern for me, but benign compared with the present - so my concerns today are exacerbated.

In an attempt to identify and extrapolate the trend, I consider some anecdotes as reported in the media, most of which point to a disturbing trajectory over varying walks of South African life. They are tales not necessarily of headline importance but in the public domain, with many of us probably skimming over them when we see them reported. They are, nonetheless important iconic barometers.

ETHICAL BAROMETER #1 – ON PUBLIC SERVANTS SERVING THE NATION

A report by a delegate to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) conference in Geneva recently told of South Africa’s parliamentary “member’s handbook” being pushed to its limits by ANC delegates. Chauffeur driven Mecedez Benzes were summoned to convey them from their hotels, whilst others all caught cabs, walked or took a bus or tram.

Most of the delegates from the European Union Parliaments used public transport or walked to get around.

This was not lost on a British MP, who asked why his country should continue “foreign aid” transfers to South Africa when we (South Africans) clearly had more to splash around than anyone else. In passing, the amount of taxpayers’ money lavished on Nkandla is almost equivalent in value to Britain’s annual Aid transfers to South Africa.

ETHICAL BAROMETER #2 - ON COMPETENCE AND SAFEGUARDING OUR RESOURCES

The second – and perhaps an unlikely - topic that I have chosen is the rock lobster quota allocation for the Western Cape. I have done so because it illustrates a few issues.

Rock lobster stocks – like any fish resource - are in need of management and depend heavily on the scientific interpretation of accurate research data acquired through the use of sophisticated equipment on seaworthy vessels. They also require stringent management and state resources to implement the laws designed to support the resource. But the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAFF) was headed up for years by Zuma’s notoriously incompetent but malleable cabinet appointee, Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

So when a kreefing friend of mine expressed outrage at cuts in “recreational quotas”  for amateur fishermen for the coming season, I took a look at some of the issues. At the outset it is important to note that the numbers available are not pinpoint accurate, with a large poaching tonnage pegged at “between 500 and 800 tons” – bedevilling a discussion on statistical percentages and relative quotas.

Nonetheless usable estimates are possible and one can reliably say that quota percentages are more-or-less:

Commercial Offshore         +-48%

Commercial Near Shore     15 or 16%

Subsistence                              9 or 10%

Poaching                               +-25% (between 500 and 800 tons)

Recreational                           <3%

When the announcement was made that quotas would be slashed to safeguard the resource, that seemed reasonable enough. But some vexing questions remain unanswered -

(1.) With already less than 3% of the catch, how can a further cut be justified for the “recreational” quota, in the knowledge that -

>  under the "recreational" allocation, benefits accrue to communities for whom kreef is a seasonal food source (as was the case even before it had any commercial value) and

>  the catching season has income potential for small coastal towns where there are crayfish to be had

And then – more importantly by far -

(2.) WHY is the estimated poaching tonnage still so high? Does that not signal dereliction of duty or - at best - ineffective resource management?

The answer to the first question - the recreational quota -  is open to debate, but it does seem absurd to cut the tiniest quota sector by almost twenty percent, given the persuasive socio-economic arguments against it. But the answer to the second question is clear cut.

It is unambiguous incompetence.

The capacity to research rock lobster (and other) populations and to police the South African shoreline has been compromised on account of bad personnel appointments by Joemat-Pettersson, with senior appointees being ANC party hacks and loyalists rather than professionals - and a dysfunctional vessel maintenance program. In addition we probably all remember the public protector blowing the whistle on corrupt procurement practices by the minister.

Predictably, the mismanagement of her department has been all pervasive as corruption and incompetence have proceeded in lock-step. For example, the Fisheries’ research vessel SAS Africana, initially “managed” by fisheries and then by the SA Navy on its behalf, was effectively wrecked by pumping water into the fuel tanks instead of the ballast tanks and is unlikely to sail again.

It has been stripped of its copper fittings, become a haven for rodents and would probably cost too much to rehabilitate. Other Fisheries’ vessels also spend more time in port than on the high seas.

ETHICAL BAROMETER #3 - ON DECEIT AND TELLING LIES TO THE NATION

Finance Minister Nene’s first Mini Budget speech was delivered recently. Its purpose is to project how much revenue will be available for the following three years, what the implications are for state expenditure, and how the minister intends to “balance the books”. It turned out to be an uncharacteristically short speech, but was even shorter on ideas.

His points were

1. Growth forecast for the economy this year had once again been revised downwards - to 1,4% - while other comparable emerging market economies are projected to grow at  between 6 and 7%;

2. That there would be a budget shortfall of R25-billion over the next two years;

3. Taxes will have to bring in an additional R15-billion a year.

4. “Belt tightening” will be necessary

What he failed to tell the nation though is that in order to balance the nation’s books -

• Budget cuts will need to be far deeper than we are being told (reaching at least R50-billion over the three year period),

• Tax hikes will be huge, and

• There is nothing to suggest that the 3% growth rate on which the Minister’s projections are based, is likely - or even achievable.

In brief, the “mini budget” was of no value, a lie. In an open letter on the web, DA leader Helen Zille bluntly point out that “South Africa’s economy is "in ICU” - and she is right.

But what is the therapy?

The only way out of the mess would require the two things that our ruling elite is incompetent to deliver: a basic understanding of economics and the capacity to implement corrective measures even if it did understand. Right away government should -

> cut wasteful expenditure (how many times has that not been said?);

> punish corruption (which has been repeated ad nauseam without any effect; in fact, the president leads the sleaze race!); and

> make the bold policy decisions necessary to stimulate economic growth (but other than Trevor Manuel and possibly the Reserve Bank governor, no one has a clue).

Sadly, even if these basic skills were accessible to those in government, nothing would happen because accountability is absent and patronage rife.

In European and British democracies austerity works because accountability is understood. But it is alien to our politicians’ value system – and to the voters. European MPs know that if they “live it up” on public money during times of austerity, the media will expose them and the voters will punish them. Not so in South Africa.

And then - intellectual rigour and leadership are wholly absent.

Bold economic policy decisions are impossible in South Africa because our politicians are ignorant, out of their depth and schooled only in obsolete ideologies dating back a century and more. They lack the intellect for the issues at hand and misconstrue the role of the state in a sustainable society. In fact, the tripartite alliance is a repository for Jurassic ideologues subscribing to dogmas embraced only in Cuba and North Korea.

So our most senior decision makers are ignorant and have no interest in pursuing enlightenment.

Economic salvation is beyond reach.

CONCLUSION

According to all three of the ethical barometers I have proposed, we are on a worsening trajectory.

Ripping off taxpayers by catching chauffeur driven cars to work at their expense; laying waste to the nation’s natural resources through incompetence; and covering up the truth about our ailing economy because denial is the only alternative to logic, all have the same cause - a culture of impunity, non-accountability and denial.

I have no doubt that these anecdotes accurately signpost exactly where we are going and are not false alarms. They are for real, but we have become inured to declining ethics and values to a point where incompetence and dysfunctionality are routine and expected. We hardly notice them any more.

I am equally convinced that the time and effort invested in my exploring our societal competence those years ago reached the correct conclusion in the title of the publication - “(Is South Africa) Too Dumb for Democracy?” My answer to the question it posed at the time was “yes, it is". But I had so hoped to be wrong.

So - what can we now do as individuals? Answer: "Be prepared” for when the whirlwind comes. For it is picking up speed and heading our way.

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