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Khaya Sithole: Lessons to be learned from partitions

This week 73 years ago, at the stroke of midnight on August 15 1947, the Empire of India gave birth to the two nations of Pakistan and India. Since then, the political, economic and social fortunes of the two countries have fluctuated and diverged with often deadly consequences. The story of the partition provides insights into the dark history of colonisation, subjugation and confrontations. 

It also provides a unique template of how two nations with precisely the same starting point and separated by nothing more than a stroke of a pen on a map, can reach remarkably divergent outcomes decades later. Of particular importance to observers of history are the lessons to be learned from how the two countries have evolved since 1947.

A few social and economic indicators bear some revisiting. As a single nation under British rule, the assessment of key variables — life expectancy, education levels, income and wealth levels — were done on a universal basis for all citizens. Since then, the data is analysed discretely. 

In the 2017 United Nations Human Development Index, India was ranked 130th whereas Pakistan was ranked 150th. The index is unique in that it maps and measures social and economic outcomes to derive a relative ranking for a country. The higher the index of a nation, the better its socioeconomic indicators are. For two nations that started off on the same footing, the gradual divergence in India and Pakistan’s rankings reflects the difference in how the two nations have been managed on the social and economic front since partition.

As recently as 1990, the divergence between the two was evident, but marginal. In the 1990 ranking, India was ranked 114th with a Human Development Index of 0.427. Pakistan was ranked 117th with an index of 0.404. Since then, the divergence has rapidly escalated. India’s index in 2017 was 0.640 which implied an over 50% improvement in socioeconomic outcomes during that time. In the same period, Pakistan only improved by 39% from 0.404 to 0.562. 

Given the population of India, a 50% improvement in long-term socioeconomic variables and outcomes delivers a massive demographic dividend that translates to millions of people being lifted out of poverty. Yet, the granular elements of the index — female labour participation, political representation and secondary level education — indicate that both India and Pakistan still have a long way to go in harnessing and capitalising on the female demographic dividend.

The story of the 1947 partition resonated this week when — on its 73rd anniversary — Cyril Ramaphosa announced the planned move to level two of the lockdown in South Africa. At the stroke of midnight on August 18, the country’s provincial borders and economic sectors opened up. 

Having been in various forms of lockdown since March, the reopening of the country’s economy is an important milestone in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The intersection of the health question with the economic question and the socioeconomic dilemmas, is a delicate tangent point. 

In managing the healthcare question, closing down human mobility was fundamental in containing the spread of the virus. But with the shutdown in human mobility, came the loss of footfall in shopping centres, a dearth of visitors in places of leisure and tourist sites, and a lack of patrons in places of conferencing and worship. The resultant economic fallout was a loss of income for business and a loss of jobs for workers.

The multiplier effect — captured by the reality that a single person’s wage feeds many more people — meant that pre-existing social vulnerabilities were amplified. This required the rollout of various social protection measures for different sectors of society. Unfortunately, the reach of such social protection measures was limited by issues of affordability and a profound lack of capacity in various agents of the state. 

In a few weeks, the rollout of these mechanisms — social grants and unemployment insurance payments — will expire. Unfortunately, far too many people who have relied on them will not be able to find alternative forms of protection beyond that point.

What makes the South African case so contentious is that as the stroke of midnight came to pass, far too many citizens discovered that what little economic opportunities they have relied on prior to the lockdown, had simply ceased to exist. Job losses during the pandemic are still provisional at this stage, but some predict that up to 3-million people would have discovered that the stroke of midnight, brought a new sense of despair. 

This is particularly the case where the nature of jobs they used to occupy have been lost permanently for a variety of reasons.

The most common reason will be the fact that sectors that rely on the benevolence and discretion of customers in order to thrive, are going to suffer from a long tail of recovery because of the reluctance of patrons to engage in leisure travel; or the slow resumption of social activities. In the absence of a vaccine that is not only effective but universally available, far too many citizens are going to impose lockdown on themselves. 

The tragedy of this reality is that these sectors — specifically the tourism industry — play a critical role in enabling some economic participation for South Africans. The hospitality industry enables many young people to access work opportunities during the high-demand travel and holiday seasons. It also has low barriers to participation which — for as long as higher education remains elusive for so many people — is an important factor. 

The second contributor to the permanence of the job losses is the expected change in the behaviour of surviving companies. If survival was only possible through access to loan and equity financing, these would have to be paid back which invokes the tendency to keep running costs low in the medium term. Additionally, it is not just covering costs that will occupy the minds of business owners but also the move towards building a future safety net.

In addition to the newly unemployed citizens, the biggest casualties are the many more who had no employment before the lockdown, and whose prospects after the lockdown are now even bleaker. The country’s inability to marshal together an economic plan that is responsive to the need for mass absorption in the face of rapid automation, predates the lockdown. 

The sense of urgency that should have existed before, is now a sense of immediate crisis. 

Failing to deal decisively with this issue escalates the risk of millions being condemned into a lifetime of economic servitude. The big consequence of leaving a generation behind, is the intergenerational effect on society. For every job lost to a breadwinner, their ability to finance the schooling of their family is compromised. 

That on its own lowers prospects of academic participation and achievement which impairs the prospects of migrating into higher education and to the world of work. Evidence of this was witnessed at the height of the lockdown when those with means migrated to online platforms and those without means, waited for the public-school system to open.

The national problem is that the partition of South African society occurs across race, class and gender lines. And, as we know, education plays a critical part in tackling the intersectional socioeconomic variables that are assessed through the Human Development Index. South Africa’s ranking from 1990-2017, is compromised by the question of what the 1990 data truly represented. 

According to the index, South Africa’s score moved from 0.618 in 1990 to 0.699 in 2017. Although this indicates steady progress, a granular analysis reflects a disturbing state of social partition that exists 25 years after the introduction of democratic rule. 

The ranking of black South Africans in the latest Human Development Index, matches the national ranking of 116. White South Africans, however, are ranked 100 places higher at 16 reflecting a standard and quality of life that is vastly different for one race group compared to others in the same country. 

The risk of this divergence is that it has intergenerational effects on society which — if left unattended — invites social unrest that will leave us all worse off. The current interruption is poised to affect us adversely but also provide an opportunity for confronting structural challenges that result in the perpetuation and persistence of such social and economic divergences. This is particularly important when the brunt of the dire socioeconomic outcomes affects a vast majority of the population. 

This simply means that ours is a democracy built of fragile pillars whose capacity to carry us through this pandemic is rapidly disintegrating. As we now know from the case of Pakistan, failing to address the fractures within and across society in the short term, results in long-term effects that condemn future generations to a permanent state of declining outcomes. Finding a way of arresting the decline in the quality of life for citizens is our immediate challenge. 

The need to think differently about solutions is an urgent one. Calculating the cost of immediate interventions is a complex exercise. Failing to account for the long-term, intergenerational cost of not acting now, however, is an inexcusable venture into permanent social obscurity.

Khaya Sithole — chartered accountant, academic and activist — will be writing regularly for the Mail & Guardian and will discuss the issues raised in his columns on his Kaya FM show, On the Agenda, every Monday from 8pm to 9pm

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Khaya Sithole
Khaya Sithole is a chartered accountant, academic and activist who writes regularly for the Mail & Guardian and discusses the issues raised in his columns on his Kaya FM show, On The Agenda, every Monday from 8pm to 9pm

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