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This is who we may become …

When the South African state president addressed the majority of his countrymen and women this week while a few others continued rampaging through more than 800 stores in some 200 shopping centres across the most populous provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, he said words to the effect that this is not who we are. Well maybe, but it’s certainly not a promising sign of what may become of us in years to come.

To ease the anxieties of a nation already on tenterhooks as a result of a pandemic that has taken 65,142 lives and counting at an average of 137 deaths a day since March last year, the president would rather have is believe that the images of fathers, mothers both young and old and their children running through the streets weren’t a true reflection of who we are as a nation. Sure to many if not all of us, this is not what our mothers and fathers would have taught, but the events of this week will teach a new generation, some new lessons of despondency.

So maybe this is not who we are, but we are sliding to.

The socioeconomic realities for the vast majority of South Africans has been fertile ground for mass protests or “revolutions” of the sort seen over the past week where some 72 lives have already been lost. Political “opportunists” have used the pursuit of freedom for their favoured former ANC and state president, Jacob Zuma, to agitate for a seat at the table by riding on what has sadly become a norm in society, service delivery protests. In the 183 days between August and January this year, Police Minister Bheki Cele, told parliament that there were more than 900 protests in the country despite Covid-19 restrictions. 

It’s fertile ground as any for future opportunists to ride on the misfortune of an increasingly urbanized population that is being serviced by an increasingly incapable state in an economy facing a growth crisis many decades in the making. Where the state really interacts with its citizenry is at municipal level, where the auditor general continues to paint a worrying picture of the state of the 257 municipalities across the country. Only 27 received clean audits in auditor general Tsakani Maluleke’s most recent report with more than R26 billion in irregular expenditure.

For a greater sense of perspective, the City of Johannesburg has a budget bigger than that of Lesotho and Eswatini. And yet it cannot fix potholes, ensure that streetlights  are working. 

On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, in an informal settlement that now forms part of Copesville, there were protests in the days before former president Jacob Zuma was sent to prison. But in the aftermath of his detention, flames burned ever brighter as the former president’s supporters stoked the seeds of discontent.

These are conditions on the ground, the “tinderbox.” 

It’s perhaps a harsh reality for a generation of leaders such as President Cyril Ramaphosa, who were at the centre of the country’s transition from the evils of apartheid regime to the promise of new South Africa. A period where the country was set to usher in a new age of shared nationhood amongst its disparate people. 

It’s a project, whilst boasting its fair share of successes including the creation of a young black middle class central to stability, has stalled under the pressure of a still rapidly de-industrialising country unable to compete with China and other emerging Asian economies such as Vietnam, to name but one. Successes such as the black middle class have become ever more capricious as the country’s competitiveness continues to fall — a malaise that can be traced back to the mid-seventies. 

Romantics of the age of former president, Thabo Mbeki, speak of the glory years leading up to the last global recession in 2008. Boosted by a Chinese inspired commodity cycle, growth reached the magical mark of 5% and had an effect — not much — on our unemployment levels. However, the truth is that the country’s glory years came after the end of World War II and lasted till 1975.

Gold production in South Africa peaked in the beginning of the seventies at 1,000 tons, the industry has been managing its sunset even before labour unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers were first recognised in the eighties, and conveniently blamed for its rapid decline. Today, the country produces just over 100 tons annually, according to the Minerals Council of South Africa.

Between 1946 to 1950 as the world recovered from the ravages of a global conflict, growth came in at an average of 4.2%. In the Fifties, growth came in at an average of 4.5% and, in the Sixties, we peaked at an average of 5.7%. The final decades of National Party rule saw growth fall to an average of 3.4% in the seventies and 1.6% in the eighties. 

In the 2002 book, “The Decline of the South African Economy,” economist Gavin Maasdorp identified a few reasons for the collapse of our economy after 1975, namely the limited potential for growth, the bantustan policy which absorbed public funds for wasteful infrastructure projects (Odi Stadium) and, of course, sanctions.

In the nineties and the years of ANC governance under both Nelson Mandela and a hands-on deputy, growth came in at an average of 1.7%. With greater control of the levers of power, Mbeki would oversee average growth of 2.2% in the 2000’s before his successor in Zuma would oversee an economy where the average growth rate dipped well below the 2% mark.

Suspected looters were made to lie down after police apprehended them in Soweto. (Photo by James Oatway/Getty Images)

While Zuma may have taken over just as the global economy was crashing as a result of the US subprime crisis, his time at the helm of both party and state would usher in a period of governance failure across a great many institutions of state as corruption took root under the cover of his appeasement. It undermined the transformational objectives of his own party and clearly a necessity for a country still reeling from the effects of apartheid and colonialism before that.

But the unravelling of the South African story truly began in the seventies and it’s why “tinderboxes” are spread throughout the corners of the country. In the decades that followed, what were very necessary international sanctions against a morally bankrupt and corrupt apartheid state would bludgeon the economy. It was a critical period especially as China under Deng Xiaoping, its father of market reform, began to sell itself as the world’s factory because of its vast oversupply of cheap labour. 

Towns like Pietermaritzburg and bigger cities such as Durban, had a strong textiles sector albeit much smaller than the Chinese clothes and shoemaking cities that have emerged over the past four decades. As South Africa opened itself to the global economy in the nineties, trade barriers lowered and South Africa’s monopolistic industries couldn’t compete with the flood of imports from the mid to early nineties. Here too, we should look at big labour’s role in our declining competitiveness across large swathes of industry.

Cement producer, PPC, founded in 1892, today faces a most uncertain future as imports continue to flood the market. Chicken producers such as RCL Foods, big employers in far flung towns across the country, face a barrage of imports from Brazil in the main.

The entry of cheap goods and appliances may ultimately come as a benefit for the South African consumer, who has become well acquainted with the goods. It has fuelled the country’s transformation into a consumption-led economy in much the same vein as the US economy. However, as is evident with the fullness of time, it has had its advantages in certain sectors, but it has also come at the expense of jobs and more importantly low-skilled jobs. 

Unemployment sits at 32.6%, the highest since Statistics South Africa began following the quarterly figures 13 years ago. The youth, who were central characters in the looting we saw over the past week, live with unemployment levels at 50%. 

If the economy was moving at the speed of knots, this may have not been a problem as a better growth environment would have created jobs and higher tax proceeds afforded greater social services from the fiscus. Already, more than 17 million people – pensioners and children included – rely on welfare spending. Alas, the past decade has been “wasted” in the words of the current ANC leadership, and Covid-19 pandemic has set the economy even further back.

GDP per capita, which represents the size of South Africa’s economy divided by the number of people who live in the country, decreased last year to its lowest level seen in 2005, according to Statistics South Africa.

The country has long reached its fiscal limits, exacerbated by the looting that took place in the “State Capture” project. For all the spend on public servants to support the black middle class project at the end of 2008, the state hasn’t hired quite as many people as it could have, and vacancies weaken its capabilities. The inflated wage bill is not a question of too many workers, but pay increases that rival and often outdo those in the private sector. Since 2009, the state has only hired just above 190,000 new public employees.

Who we are is a nation faced by crippling socioeconomic conditions as the economy continues to flounder in this ever-changing global economy. The rapid pace of urbanisation swelled by the influx from our hinterlands and neighbouring countries isn’t going to change, and as people enter cities and towns they’ll continue to demand to be seen by a state too concerned by the “trappings” of political power. 

Some 63% of South Africans live in urban areas and that is expected to rise to 71% by 2030. By 2050, eight in 10 people will be living in urban areas. Should their struggles continue on the periphery of society, they’ll provide perfect ground for opportunists to seek and find their relevance. Men and women, who share their more humble beginnings, will use that commonality for their own purposes.

This week’s looting under the guise of protests may not be a true reflection of us, but are a harbinger of a world to come. The only fear is that our particular brand of politics has no answers to ward it off.

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