Our society indeed has many things to celebrate, although still a lot more to be concerned about. In the 25 years since the end of apartheid, as President Cyril Ramaphosa put it at the launch of the election manifesto of the ANC, “even as we celebrate the great benefits of democracy, we know that the promise of freedom is yet to be realised by so many of our people”.
But it is not just “mistakes” that have been made and need to be corrected. Perhaps a correct description of what has happened since 1994, and more so in the past 10 years, is that the government forgot that the fundamental task at hand is to redress historical injustice. It was always going to be difficult to transform South African society because centuries of apartheid colonialism affected all spheres of life and also because of the much more complex national question — the complex ensemble of relations between state, nation, ethnicity and civil society, as the late Samir Amin put it.
At the top of the list of issues that could have been better handled in the past 25 years are the economy, the labour market and the national question. These three related issues, if not well managed, will ultimately burn society.
The challenge of the economy and, by implication, the labour market dates back to the colonial and apartheid periods. It is also a challenge of the labour reserve and enclave economies of Southern and Eastern Africa. The late Guy Mhone said our economies continue to face historical structural factors “as a consequence of the uncritical acceptance of the enclave formal sector as the engine of growth, as well as of the belief that trickle-down effects from formal sector growth will eventually absorb the rest of the labour force into productive activities”.
Essentially, we need to come up with lasting solutions to ensure that the economy is transformed, jobs are created and inequalities are reduced, as well as that poverty is eradicated.
But it seems we are still not able to deal with the historical structural factors. We talk about changing the structure of the economy but what gets implemented are interventions mainly aimed at economic development. We also need to deal with the view that our economy is a rentier economy, as in other African economies.
As explained by Thandika Mkandawire, rentier economies are those that derive significant state revenue from taxes on profits or from non-tax sources, and these economies are constrained by having few major export commodities. Hence, Amin spoke about coherent delinking as a “compromise between globalisation and local and regional autonomy”.
The labour market, linked to the economy, needs to be transformed. It has to use the skills that are at hand rather than calling for other skills. Of course, training and upskilling remain critical but it is wrong to blame graduates for not finding jobs because they don’t have certain skills or experience (after sweating through many years in higher education institutions). This issue of jobs is oversimplified by some people. It requires serious thinking.
The national question and the inequalities facing South Africa need proper attention; so does the challenge of poverty. Although important, policies and programmes, even when effective, are not enough to deal with this intractable challenge. Essentially, the answer is to reconfigure social relations and redistribution.
It is encouraging that the aspiration of a democratic developmental state is still on the agenda of the ruling party.
Among the critical factors that have not been properly prioritised in the 25 years of democracy is social policy. Indeed, a democratic developmental state implies that a social policy should be at the centre of socioeconomic development. As a series of public policies that ensure that the quality of life in a society improves, social policy also has an important role in nation building, or rather social cohesion.
The president is right in saying that “the most pressing task for our country is therefore to set the economy on a higher path of shared growth and to transform the structure of our economy to provide opportunities for millions of South Africans”. This has been a pressing task since 1994.
Mhone argued in the 1990s that “proactive measures by the state are necessary to restructure the productive base of the economy by making it more inclusive of the majority of the labour force”.
Where are these “proactive measures”? Overall, not to sound like a broken record, South Africa has not been able to come up with an approach to socioeconomic development that can work better.
The plan for the future of South Africa has to be informed by the reality that it is in Africa. The African agenda is critical for South Africa. The whole of Africa needs development and South Africa, as a relatively developed economy compared with other economies in Africa, must play its part.
But it would be difficult for South Africa to implement a different socioeconomic development model without pan-African unity.
African countries need to get together and pursue what is in the best interests of Africa and its peoples. African economies are still largely labour reserve, enclave, rentier and merchant economies. The structural transformation of African economies needs the whole of Africa.
Vusi Gumede, PhD, is a Unisa professor and editor-in-chief of Africa Insight & Africanus: Journal of Development Studies