Has South Africa Lost Its Political Will To Develop? – OpEd


By Shiru Soni*

Amidst all wrangling and shenanigans going on in South Africa, I read that Singapore was ranked the world’s most competitive economy in world. The first question that came to mind was how did a small island state measuring about one third the size of eThekwini Municipality become the most successful economy globally? I was truly astounded.

For Singaporeans, the recipe for their success is the ‘shared vision’ collectively owned by the nation’s leaders with a national zeitgeist to invest in its key resource – its people. The economy is one of the most stable in the world, with no foreign debt, high government revenue and a consistently positive surplus and a two percent unemployment rate.  The country is famous for its zero tolerance towards corruption and litter.

I reminisced about South Africa and remember fondly how our fledgling economy was also poised to become the shining star for global economic growth and the gateway for ‘Africa’s rising’.

I remember the hopeful dreams we had for our beloved country and how the world affectionately singled us out as an exemplar for post-independence development. I remember the euphoria of an emergent nation being led by a global icon – our own Nelson Mandela and other heroes who exemplified integrity, upheld moral values and planned for a better South Africa.

I remember vividly the robust debates in almost all sectors of society as to how we were going to unshackle our minds and physical selves from the bondage and excesses of apartheid, one of the most pernicious systems of oppression of our time.

I remember how we waited with bated breath for the birth of our new Constitution – a document that would guarantee our human rights. 

Some 25 years later our dreams and hopes have been shattered and the country’s mission has been hijacked by miscreants of the worse kind. Malfeasance, corruption, state plunder and social injustice are reigning supreme.

We are reminded of Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote about the predicament of development when he said, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

We are reminded by Frantz Fanon’s predictions regarding the moral bankruptcy of the ‘new ruling bourgeoisie’, which will be unscrupulous in its quest to accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor masses.

We are reminded by Mandela’s extraordinary attack on the country’s black leaders in 1999 when he alleged the ruling African National Congress party’s reputation had been tarnished by a series of financial scandals and abuses of power. He said: “Little did we suspect that our own people, when they got a chance, would be as corrupt as the apartheid regime. That is one of the things that have really hurt us.”

What happened to our aspirant rainbow nation? Why did we as a country brimming with hope, resources and resolve fail to achieve the success accomplished by Singapore?  Why are we inexorably moving from one crisis to another? Why are we at a precipice and now being billed for ‘junk status’ by international rating agencies?

Were we naive to believe that the liberatory spirit of our struggle heroes that triumphed in 1994 and shortly beyond would continue to prevail?  Have we lost our political will to develop as a nation? Indeed a ‘perfect storm’ was gathering and brewing for some time and reached its apex in the [Jacob] Zuma era.  Corruption undermined South Africa’s democracy, leading to the destruction of the economy, the mismanagement of state resources and exacerbating poverty and inequality. Powerful elite (remember Fanon’s forewarning) captured key state institutions and repurposed them for their own benefit in ways that subverted the legal and constitutional framework, rendering these institutions incapable of executing their societal responsibilities.

Metaphorically our political economy is now analogous to a battle-ravaged war zone where opportunistic leaders from all political parties acting as ‘dogs of war’ and similar to vultures descending on their prey are only concerned about seizing their ‘spoils’ and scoring inconsequential and ludicrous political points rather than working as a collective for the greater good of our beloved country. As Chinua Achebe said, “the centre cannot hold and is falling apart”.

The most recent Bloomberg misery index found South Africa was the most miserable economy in the world after Venezuela and Argentina and that the country’s performance on a range of social, economic and governance measures had deteriorated in the past few years more than any other nation not at war.

Yet despite all the pessimism, South Africa remains one of a handful of countries in Africa that can be considered a true liberal democracy, boasting a strong free press, an independent judiciary and a tradition of civil society activism to hold our all political entities to account.

Our democracy has reached an important milestone in its history. It is desperately begging for transformative and ethical leadership, unity, cohesion and good governance – important elements for a prosperous future of our fragile economy. And to boot, a capable, efficient, and fair state is needed to support it and partnerships, based on mutual trust are vital. Unless we work together, sacrificing short term gains for long-term prosperity we will not be able to recover and aspire towards a Singaporean exemplar.

Despite all the pessimism, South Africa holds great promise, which can be realised if we recognise the flaws and attempt to correct them and find a consensual way forward with a shared sense of responsibility. It is an imperative that as a collective we restore habitus for struggle.

While there is a demand for jobs, a hunger for education, and a desperate need for health, Ramaphorean growth enhancing reforms cannot be paralysed. The challenges facing us are immense but so are the policy choices confronting our economy. We have to ensure that the national interest and inclusive and sustainable growth trump other impediments, including vested interests.

Though we may not have a perfect formula for igniting growth, we will have to be persistent, determined, pragmatic, and experimental, as in Singapore and other successful emerging economies where these issues are being dealt with on a regular basis.

We urgently need a political will to collectively move forward with agility in the face of adverse pressures emanating externally from global forces such as trade wars and the fourth industrial revolution, and internally from the demagogic practices exhibited by some political parties and their popular leadership.

We owe it to the future. And no, we are certainly not naive to aspire towards achieving a South Africa of the people and for the people that can also stand out as a benchmark amongst emerging nations, especially in the spirit and legacy of our liberatory heroes. The time for a re-imagined united front is long overdue. The power belongs to the people!

*Professor Dhiru Soni is a South African academic and researcher. He writes in his personal capacity

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