The ANC leadership is experiencing a credibility crisis and much of its discomfort has its roots in the prolonged economic hardship that’s making South Africans fed up.
And the scandal-ridden ANC politicians have done themselves no favours either — they no longer “enjoy the trust of citizens”, says independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga.
He and Dondo Mogajane, a deputy director general in the treasury, agree that South Africa would have been “in a different space” if the economy had lived up to expectations.
People have a “reasonable expectation of earning a certain amount” and at the very least live in decent homes with running water and flush toilets 21 years into democracy, Mathekga says.
Contrary to citizens’ expectations, a quarter of the workforce is unemployed. That’s a conservative estimate. The expanded definition of unemployment includes discouraged job-seekers — those who’ve lost hope and have given up searching for jobs. That increases unemployment to a third of the workforce (34.9%), according to the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR).
The unemployment figures put South Africa on a par with countries such as Greece, Senegal, the Republic of Congo and Lesotho. And unemployment is four to five times greater than in Brics partners Brazil (7.6%), China (4.1%), Russia (5.2%) and India (4.9%).
Half of unemployed South Africans are between the ages of 15 and 24, and 85.8% of unemployed people are black — a set of facts that puts the #FeesMustFall campaign in perspective.
At home the youth and their parents are no better off. More than half the population still live without piped, clean water in their homes and more than a third don’t have access to flush or chemical toilets, says the SAIRR. About 20% of people still don’t live in a formal home.
This year the sense of hopelessness bubbled over and was nowhere more vocally expressed than during the #FeesMustFall clashes.
But why now, Mathekga asks, and why not during former president Thabo Mbeki’s tenure?
“The same hardships were present at the time. The reason is that Mbeki’s leadership enjoyed the moral authority. Under President [Jacob] Zuma the political leadership doesn’t have legitimacy to moderate the discourse. They don’t enjoy confidence or trust, at least in the eyes of ordinary citizens.
“The demands of protesters will become more extreme, with no willingness to entertain the middle ground.”
This is a conundrum giving Mogajane grey hair. He is the keeper of the country’s purse at the treasury.
During an interview at the treasury’s head office in Pretoria, Mogajane pulled out a weathered notebook in which he jots down ideas specific to the higher education crisis.
“South Africa’s money problems have a history,” he explains, as he pages through the notebook.
“In the rosy years around 2000 we had a much larger income than what we spent.
“So we ramped up our spending — we were doing well as a country. Then the global crisis of 2008 hit, revenue dropped and we had to maintain the same kind of spending. We couldn’t just stop [spending on social and infrastructure programmes].”
The result: South Africa’s debt as a percentage of gross domestic product now sits at 48%.
To appease ratings agencies, the treasury had to devise a plan that includes an expenditure ceiling not to be breached.
Says Mathekga: “It simply means we have R10 and six priorities. Where do you spend and what are you willing to forego? The students should answer that; it will directly relate to their future.”
Neither Mathekga nor Mogajane think a poor economic policy is to blame. They say it is a matter of priorities catching up to the decision-makers.
Housing and infrastructure is very important, Mathekga says: “These same students protesting about fees will protest about water when they’re off campus.”
Mogajane concedes that in “some cases we were caught unawares, mainly because of the many other things government deals with. And when students bring their problems to you, you have to sit back and say: ‘This is so true.’ ”
To assist the students and other urgent projects, the treasury devised a plan to free up R26-billion over the coming months.
It means money will be channelled away from public entities, housing grants and funds needed by provinces.
As Mogajane says: “We are in a fix.”
So what do we do about it?
“We need a proper roadmap and we must engage with students openly and fairly.”
He fundamentally differs with the students in that they want free education for all; he wants those who can to pay for their education.
It is a “difficult conversation” held with students who were often hostile.
“They have legitimate demands, like having to pay ‘black tax’ and that NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] didn’t take care of the missing middle — those few who are too rich to get a NSFAS grant and too poor to qualify for a loan from the banks.”
But students shouldn’t include “burning the bank” in their demands, says Mogajane.
“What the students are doing now is akin to borrowing money from the bank to buy a car and a house and, after doing that, they burn the bank to ashes.
“This is what will happen if you don’t pay back your NSFAS loan. There will be no money left tomorrow to fund others who may have the same desire. Let’s not be selfish.”
Mogajane concedes that NSFAS must function properly and needs help to collect money owed to it effectively.
“We are devising plans to do that and to create a proper dialogue with students. Proper debate is almost nonexistent at the moment.
“We cannot allow the destruction of property to take centre stage. Through anarchy you destroy proper lines of engagement.”
Big business should also not shy away from investing in the future, Mathekga says. “They are the biggest consumers of higher education output and will not have their doctors and auditors tomorrow if they do not assist.”
In the end there is no quick fix, Mathekga says.
Business, government and citizens should solve South Africa’s plans together and “should start to speak the same language”.