Marikana massacre illustrates need for development plan
Unless you are trying to bury an unpopular announcement, an intervening news event of terrible magnitude is every spin doctor's worst nightmare.
So I thought last week as the horror of Marikana unfolded: it would obliterate all media coverage of the national development plan unveiled just 24 hours earlier. This would be a pity, I thought, because the plan deserves South Africa's full attention.
On second thoughts, though, I realised that Marikana provided the most perfect illustration of precisely why South Africa needs a national development plan.
All the worst and weakest elements of this complex society were laid bare: the vicious inequality, the indefensibly low pay for the most dangerous work, the apparent disregard of the employer and a refusal to accept basic principles of equity, the hopelessly inadequate and brutal policing, the division within the unions, the leadership vacuum.
In this regard, Marikana was a perfect storm, bringing all these elements together. The plan refers directly and indirectly to them all and with commendable logic and ambition wrestles with the issue of how best to address them.
The challenge, of course, is the deep divide between these two worlds. On Wednesday, the carefully considered proposals of the national development plan, elegantly written and packaged, charged with intellectual horsepower, decency, reason and progressive intent. On Thursday, the violence of despair, lives that were brutish, nasty and short - and lost needlessly.
It looked like Rousseau's reasoned search for a social contract eclipsed by a Hobbesian reminder of the cruel reality of life for the majority, the latter reinforcing the absence of the former and the urgent need for the leadership to forge it. The two South Africas, set against each other.
So, where to now? Can the plan provide the strategic framework that will enable South Africa to address the structural deficiencies that impede progress and transformation?
The plan is a final draft. Next it must go to Cabinet, which must presumably decide whether to accept it as a whole or cherry-pick from the lengthy list.
It is clear that the nine months since the publication of the "first draft" in November last year have been well spent. It is a much tighter document now. Many, though not all, of the inevitable inconsistencies have been ironed out. For example, the chapter on environmental sustainability is not only far more cogent, but also identifies much more clearly the trade-offs that must be faced and the choices that must be made in relation to South Africa's fossil fuel dependencies.
Next comes the implementation stage. The plan says that, as but one example of hundreds one could pick, a carbon-pricing scheme must be finalised by 2015 and implemented by 2020. The treasury has plans to do so even more quickly. There will be strong resistance from the fossil fuel sector and from within the government. Will President Jacob Zuma have the political will to back the plan?
Marikana will be used by some as an excuse for resisting change, saying jobs must come first, ahead of environmental sustainability. But the whole point of a national development plan is to look beyond the immediate and plot a stronger path. In this, again as but one example, the plan points out that removing South Africa's dependence on coal is a vital long-term strategic imperative. Otherwise, we will find ourselves tied to an expensive commodity as the world regulates and prices carbon.
The plan invites South Africa to make its own history. But as Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies reminded us in his budget speech earlier this year, Marx said men and women make history, but not in the circumstances of their own choosing. The global economic context remains dangerously precarious, a fact that will be used by some vested interests as an excuse for not making the changes needed, whereas others will recognise the added imperative it provides.
As has been pointed out, in a competitive, interlinked global economy, adjusting the price of labour to something approaching decency in one sector in one country may simply serve to price that country out of the market. Accordingly, fair pay can be effectively tackled only on a global level. The plan recognises this and gives sustained attention to how South Africa should position itself internationally.
Yet alongside this vision sits the hard politics. There are dangerous leadership vacuums to be filled: in the government, in the ANC and in the unions. The big political game-changer of Marikana was the contestation of power in the mining unions and its knock-on impact. Divided, the National Union of Mineworkers, and thus Cosatu, is profoundly weakened. The ability of the union movement and the ANC-led alliance to absorb socioeconomic pressures is sorely undermined.
This leadership vacuum can be exploited by Julius Malema and his ilk. That is why it is dangerous: it creates the perfect space for populism of the most venal sort.
There is little that you and I can do about this. But there are, nonetheless, numerous ways of responding to Marikana. Perhaps one of the most simple yet profound would be to read the plan and commit to engaging with it in some way. Manuel needs South Africa to mobilise behind the plan, or else, for all its good intentions, it could prove to be no more than a neat little package swept away on a sea of Marikanas.