What are South Africans prepared to die for?


What are South Africans prepared to die for?

Other than the Springboks, what else do we have to rally behind? There is no idea that binds us, says MCEBISI JONAS.

  • 03 November 2023
  • Free Speech
  • 7 min to read
  • article 10 of 19
  • Mcebisi Jonas

IT HAS become a trend, not only in South Africa, for people to vote for who they think is least objectionable rather than the people who really represent their views, hopes and interests. In our country, we have witnessed the slide towards populism and kleptocracy, while the state has been stripped of capacity and rendered virtually ineffectual. 

Any objective analysis of the political scene has to include how the nature and orientation of the ANC has changed. Many of us yearn for the ANC of yesteryear but we all know it no longer exists. The changes, sadly, have not been about modernising or adapting to current conditions. If anything, the ANC has retained old rhetoric and irrelevant concepts, even with more youthful people in leadership structures.

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Under normal circumstances, an aggressive drive to draw younger people into the political leadership would be encouraging. Irrespective of age, leaders should be defined by their values and commitment to the greater good rather than personal aggrandisement and the pursuit of power and wealth. This applies to political parties across the spectrum. 

The trend of political parties celebrating artificial victories will not take the country anywhere. Neither will the inclination to camouflage old-style politics with new black faces fronting for the old guard and vested interests. The tendency to peddle conspiracy and blame problems on maligned forces detracts from where responsibility should lie. It demonises contrarian thought. We must take responsibility for our problems. 

Trusted leadership

We certainly need trusted leadership that can coalesce society behind a set of values and principles, and an inclusive agenda with achievable targets.  

While the public discourse is dominated by political squabbling, the biggest political predicament is the lack of clarity of vision. There is no common idea that binds us. We do not know what we are meant to be working towards — even with a litany of plans, reports and roadmaps. It is no wonder decision-making in government is so difficult. South Africa has been unable to adapt to changing conditions and global shifts and we are still held hostage by outdated ideological concepts.

Our country, like many parts of the world, is witnessing the phenomenon of demographic anxiety. Resentment of foreign nationals has become a major political factor, driving party alignment and voter sentiment across the globe. The chilling effect of this phenomenon is its coupling with the dehumanisation of “the other”. The war in the Middle East is a demonstration of the consequences of violent nationalism and the denigration of common humanity. 

The state of society

It would seem everyone has lost their place. Government is full of people but emptied out of skill, capacity and credibility. Business is struggling to survive the crippling power, logistics and crime triumvirate, and at the same time trying to supplement the functions of government. Civil society organisations are battling funding challenges, and many are opting to steer clear of controversy to survive. Some are having their bona fides questioned as a way to suppress their work.

Labour has lost its voice in the public discourse as well as its leverage in politics. The media is generally not trusted as there are variations of truth and reality. People now want news that is packaged to confirm their perspectives and interests, not information based on objective reality. Misinformation sometimes trends more than truth. 

We have to ask: other than the Springboks, what else do we as South Africans have to rally behind? More seriously, what are we prepared to fight and die for?  

We now seem to have tumbled from the euphoria of the New Dawn into the dread of the Dark Night, with social anxiety, political disillusionment and uncertainty looming large. 

The issue that smacks us in the face every day is the state of our economy. A big mistake many people make is to try to grapple with the constraints in the economy without considering the political context. 

Weak growth remains our biggest bugbear. The core reasons for our weak growth are well known.

The worsening state of our economic infrastructure and the performance of the state-owned enterprises are among the reasons the private sector is not investing. The public-private partnership (PPP) frameworks haven’t exactly delivered to date, with the obvious exception of the renewable energy programme.

It is mind-boggling why the government is dithering with PPPs when there is desperate need for private sector resources in the system. Private sector involvement in public assets remains a bogeyman, yet business influence on political decision-making is the new normal.    

Global conditions

Global conditions are not conducive for foreign direct investment flows to the developing world, with high interest rates in the developed world keeping capital at home. Our non-aligned stance in the context of the emerging trend of “friend-shoring” associated with the shifting geopolitical sands also means we will be walking an investment tightrope for the next few years. The war in Ukraine demanded that countries define their alignment.

I am afraid the war in Palestine will cause deeper fractures in the global community as this is a profoundly emotive issue. Trade relations are bound to become even more weaponised as geopolitical tensions escalate.  Even more, we are likely to see people across the globe retreating into religious, tribal and ethnically exclusive enclaves. The world is becoming a more dangerous place in which the voices of rationality are drowned out by the noise of the mob.  

All these issues ratchet up the pressure on political leadership and how it is exercised.

Distribution dilemmas

Transformation and the distribution of economic benefits in society will always be a core dilemma in managing the economy. This also underlies our weak growth. Our high asset and income inequality is growth constraining. 

The black productive stratum remains thin and has been dwarfed by the growth of a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie”, comprised of a consumptive elite (government) and a tenderpreneurial class that is less vested in the growth of innovation and productivity.

Another recent trend associated with declining state resources is the movement of corruption networks into private markets (the construction mafia being a case in point), with extortion now becoming a significant investment constraint.    

When the rebuilding of the state occurs, it should not be in its past image but a future fit. We need a smart state that is digitalised and leverages technology and 4IR to improve service offerings, accountability and customer interface. The technology is available and inexpensive. 

Like so much else in our country, political will is the missing ingredient. 

Our politics featured at the centre of state capture where politicians at the highest level facilitated mass looting and the associated dismantling of institutions meant to protect the national interest. 

There must be reform of the political system itself to manage the risk of malfunctions in the governing parties. Some might think the risk is lower as we likely enter coalition governments, but we must learn from Nelson Mandela Bay, the City of Joburg and other metros where coalitions didn’t improve governance.    

Essential to the political reset is insulating the public sector from inappropriate political influence. Politicians must lead and take accountability, but the lines are crossed far too often, normalising political interference and governance breaches. The danger of political leaders using their positions to favour friends and family and serve corruption networks is real.

For many of us, the state of our nation and the dilemma of what to do is not so much a political issue as a matter of conscience and an existential issue. 

We have to ask, who will be the drivers of change if it is not us. 

This is not a matter of some of us having a 30-year itch. And let us be clear that we are not conceiving some sort of regime change or an entry into the political arena. We are saying our country is broken and we need to help fix it. 

Gone are the days where we defer responsibilities to political parties, only to be continually disappointed. This is a co-operative democracy where progressive people and social formations should rise up to play their leadership role in driving the reset agenda we agree on. 

*Mcebisi Jonas is a former deputy finance minister and chairperson of MTN. This is an abbreviated version of his address to the fourth Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Drakensberg Inclusive Growth Forum.

♦ VWB ♦

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