As 2017 draws to a close, South Africa finds itself mired in various controversies and on the brink of a financial precipice. The country finds itself at its worst since the dawn of democracy: the business confidence index is at its lowest since 1985, at the height of the punitive economic sanctions imposed by some in the international community against PW Botha’s apartheid government.
We have become so weary of political and financial scandals, mostly involving our political mandarins and those closely connected to them in the public sector. Our Head of State is a butt of justifiable, endless jokes and has proved to be such a major liability to South Africa Incorporated, and is in many ways responsible for the parlous state in which we find ourselves.
Disclosures or allegations of malfeasance and various other forms of corruption are made on almost a weekly basis, and these appear merely to disappear into the ether, without any visible consequences for those said to be the perpetrators. In a mere 23 years, we have moved from being the darling of the international community to being described as the most corrupt – or one of the most corrupt – countries in the world today.
Our economy is limping along and unemployment levels have reached frightening proportions – and continue to grow. While we began 2017 with much hope, in a matter of months international ratings agencies downgraded us from investment grade to junk status, with worse likely to come before the year is over, thanks to the destructive leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his merry band of myopic and insatiable supporters who can see no further than their own noses.
This was supposed to be the year in which our economy was meant to take a turn for the better, after a number of years of merely plodding along. Various forecasts had anticipated GDP growth of around 1,2% this year, with higher growth levels expected next year and beyond. With global demand for mining commodities recovering somewhat, South Africa was supposed to reap the benefits.
At a time when the country is crying out for inspirational leadership that rallies all of us to a common goal, we have the exact opposite: a leadership vacuum characterised by much cacophony, with whatever passes for leadership focused exclusively on personal survival and wealth accumulation by any means necessary. We have a governing party riven with colossal tensions and very much internally focused, with much of its energy expended on fighting internal battles. On the rare occasions when it does focus externally, it casts around for imaginary enemies.
Whatever its causes, the sad truth remains that post-1994 South Africa has never been as divided as it is now. Racial – and, sometimes, ethnic – cleavages are far more pronounced now that at any time in our democratic era. With our economy performing so dismally owing to the poor economic stewardship that we have experienced from our political leaders, fervent and legitimate cries have echoed everywhere for our economy to be radically transformed to include the black majority whose equity in SA Inc. is negligible, only to be countered by the understandable but mistaken refrain that all our efforts should be focused on growing our shrinking economic cake.
There is a clear, mistaken belief among some of our compatriots that real transformation cannot – and should not – take place until the economy grows. While theoretically a growing economy should make transformation easier, the reality is that transformation simply cannot wait until then. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot advance transformation even as we seek to grow the economy.
In this writer’s view, there are primarily two reasons for the widening and more pronounced racial tensions in the country at the moment. The first is that, with the exceptions of some individuals within it, the government of Jacob Zuma has simply excelled at embracing and celebrating incompetence, mediocrity and outright malfeasance, in the process giving potent ammunition to those among our white compatriots who had always had their doubts about black leadership.
In other words, the Zuma government did a fantastic job in supporting or affirming the stereotype among recovering racists that black people make terrible leaders and cannot run a sophisticated, modern economy. Given the terrible manner in which the scandal-prone Zuma has acquitted himself in office, even decent white compatriots who had believed that South Africa could be an exception on the African continent started to doubt and even question their initial optimism.
Secondly, our stuttering economy has made competition for opportunities and financial resources that much more acute, in the process sharpening the racial chasm. After all, while many may not consciously carry along with them the demon of racism, it is when they believe themselves to be likely to be locked out of opportunities to get jobs or to rise professionally in their jobs, or when they believe they have to give up or share their wealth – through the ownership component of the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment, for instance – that they retreat to a mental laager and feel impelled to fight back often covertly, given the considerable risks attached to doing so overtly.
And yet, what South Africa needs, in order to realise its full potential, is for us to leverage the strengths and talents of our compatriots. We need to work together as fellow citizens, with government, business and labour as strategic partners. We need to establish common goals that are indubitably in the country’s best interests and to work together single-mindedly towards their attainment.
As citizens, at election times we need to ensure that we do not give any one party too much power in terms of the electoral majority that it obtains. We need to make sure that we disabuse politicians of the mistaken belief that, once elected, they wield inordinate power. We need to do more than just remind them, but to make them feel that collectively we, the people, wield all the power and they are merely our servants whom we can ditch at will or reward with another term in office for good performance.
Like ordinary citizens, business has a very important role to play. By all means, it should continue to make its collective voice heard, but it has an even greater responsibility not only to respect and observe the country’s laws (including those dealing with transformation and BEE), but also to partner with the elected government and labour to rebuild our country.
Here is wishing you a Very Happy Christmas/ Festive Season and Happy New Year, dear reader. Thank you very much for your support of SEIFSA and our member Associations in 2017. We look forward to welcoming you back in January and we hope for a much better 2018.
Kaizer M. Nyatsumba
Chief Executive Officer