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We’ve dodged the kleptocratic bullet – 7 reasons to be hopeful – Marius Oosthuizen

CAPE TOWN — We’ve dodged the kleptocratic bullet of state capture and it has yet to shatter the half-full glass of significant post-Zuptoid change. Yet we remain a country that has moved from the ICU to a High Care ward, says strategist, teacher and ethicist, Marius OosthuizenUrging the politically-frozen middle class to get off their backsides and stop outsourcing the country’s future to lone heroes within their ranks, he provides solid evidence of post-Zuptoid change that can be leveraged to turn this country around within a decade or two. It’s nutritious food for thought. The middle class should be demonstrating zero-tolerance towards cronies and phonies masquerading as public servants, he believes. Oosthuizen may even be encouraging us to take a good look at SA’s multi-racial middle class so that the whites in it can shed themselves of the historically liberal tendency towards inaction through fear of being labelled privileged racists when speaking out. It’s a fear that the incompetent and corrupt have used to huge advantage, best illustrated by comedian Trevor Noah’s parody of Julius Malema’s cry,‘you’re racist!” whenever rendered uncomfortable by accusations. While the middle-class naps, the fat cats feed on the public purse. We cannot relax – not ever. – Chris Bateman

By Marius Oosthuizen*

We are today in a totally different country than we were under Jacob Zuma. The looter-in-chief has retreated into his chicken-kraal, and except for a few brave appearances at party meetings, the stealing-spree is basically over.

Marius Oosthuizen, GIBS profile picture
Marius Oosthuizen

But for the uncertainty holding sway in the global economy, resulting from the unpredictable prospects of a US-China trade war, which has had the effect of weakening emerging market currencies, South Africa is in a much better place. High oil prices are weighing on our consumers via petrol price increases and looming inflation, but the ship is steady. We took a few fiscal punches during Zuma’s maladministration nightmare, but the truth is, we dodged a kleptocratic bullet that could have sunk us. Since lancing the ANC “capture” boil, a number of very good things have actually happened in South Africa. Let’s take stock:

  1. A business-savvy president:

We now have a state president that appears to understand the chain reaction, of how policy certainty drives business confidence, spurring investment, bringing growth in business, leading to jobs and employment, higher income levels and improved quality of life through progressive taxation and social support. It is unfair to measure the president by the numbers quite yet, since he is currently leading in the after-burn of incompetent Zupta economic management, but the president is making all the right noises, and moves. He is wooing investors, talking the talk and walking the walk.

  1. Engaged captains of industry:

Through the likes of the CEO Initiative and sectoral strategies under development, big business is at the table and proactively engaged with government on issues of youth job creation and skills development, such as through the National Youth Employment Scheme (YES). Big business is now thinking about the future prospects of the country and not only about their respective business interests, in a narrow sense, or perpetually worrying about ratings downgrades and late night cabinet reshuffles. This is good and we need more of it.

  1. Economic policy focus:

The cascading effects of the state president’s investment drive abroad, jobs summit and upcoming investor conference, are likely to normalise relations between the public sector and private sector further, and set a social capital platform for better coordination and planning between them. While it will take years to align the policies of Minister Davies’ Department of Trade and Industry (DTi), and that of Minister Patel’s Economic Development Department (DED), and thereby crystallise measures to improve South Africa’s overall economic competitiveness, at least the economic cluster in cabinet is talking shop, rather than shopping in Dubai while selling the country. We’ve come along way in a short space of time.  

  1. SOC cleanup:

The steady-as-she goes clean-up of state owned companies by the minister of public enterprises and the gradual appointment of new, seemingly competent executives in these institutions, is equivalent to being taken off a deathbed and placed on life support.  While it will take more than a decade to right our armada of SOCs and bring them back to profitability and efficiency, this is a crucial step in restoring public trust and a functional economic core in the country.

  1. Demilitarised labour:

A combative labour relations landscape serves nobody, and the apparent broad support, by labour, of the state president’s minimum wage initiative, his summits and general policy approach, bodes well for the national economic environment. Whether the narrow interests of specific unions can be tempered in the medium term, in their dealings with respective industry counterparts, remains to be seen. What is certain is that we are a long way away from the days of COSATU campaigning for Zuma’s election or AMCU selfishly paralysing the entire platinum belt. We should keep these relations broadly constructive in the interest of the unemployed and voiceless poor, who do not benefit from collective bargaining at NEDLAC.

  1. Faith meets national reconstruction:

The engagement of the faith community leaders, such as through the South African Council of Churches’ (SACC) Convention for SA initiative, which seeks to get South Africans talking about the future of the country, represents a welcome return to a more active civil society. Such initiatives assist the country by restoring relationships, opening avenues for mutual respect and mutual understanding, the prerequisites for mutuality, which is an important antecedent to collaboration and a vital ingredient in the construction of a workable social compact. Additional engagements of these kinds, such as between Anglo American and some in the mining sector and the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, as well as the town-by-town multi-sector dialogues being undertaken by the Dutch Reformed Church, are good omens in a country with our history and are necessary steps on a journey of healing.

  1. Going local

The appointment of minister Zweli Mkhize and deputy minister Andries Nel to Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), effectively placing new impetus in government’s agenda for improvements in local government, was a critical step in fixing the country. Through the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) this relatively young and energetic team have spawned a serious institutional conversation about improving capacity and coordination with other sectors and local government. As someone said, “everything that happens in a country takes place in a municipality”. The fact is, in a three-sphere democracy such as ours, we rise and fall on the strength of our local government.

With all these good developments ongoing, one might be lulled into complacency, believing that the technical recession will resolve itself, or that we will soon wake up from a bad dream wherein the VBS bank heist was the final scene in a nightmare of Zuma malignancy. One would be wrong to think so. There will be more smallanyana skeletons tumbling out of the ANC, EFF and perhaps even the DA, some, unexpectedly as was the case with former finance minister Nene’s curry pit-stops in Saxonwold, revealed this week. No, South Africa has only begun down a path of rehabilitation and many many more steps will be required.

So what is missing? What remains to be done to secure the future of South Africa? In simple terms, three things remain undone, namely; the middle class remains disengaged, nationally we still lack the execution to match our idealism, and we don’t have a clear, ambitious plan for the South Africa we want.

File Photo: A South African celebrates after casting his first vote and waves the national flag. Photographer: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg News
Middle class discomfort zone

The South Africa middle class will need to take ownership of their democracy, if they are going to ensure the preservation of their liberties such as property rights, freedom of expression and free enterprise that it affords them. Behind their security walls, consumerism and emotional disengagement, the middle class still seems to have outsourced the country’s future to politicians and occasional lone heroes such as Mark Haywood and Sipho Pityana. This is dangerous.

Historically, nations have succeeded as liberal democracies only when their middle class stands up to the propensity of political elites to entrench themselves in extractive enclaves and thereby tend incrementally towards overreach and authoritarianism. The rising tide of protest and civil disobedience by the poor will eventually provide the pretext to governing elites to overreach (Julius Malema’s dream scenario), unless the middle class joins the poor and take a zero tolerance stance against cronies and phonies masquerading as public servants. If a protest march was called today against the presence of Gupta-allies still in cabinet, how many suburbanites would come out to support it? Therein lies the problem. As long as the middle class naps, fat-cats binge on the public purse.

Integrated development plans

Every town and city in South Africa should have an Integrated Development Plan (IDP), that among other things, guides the budget-making process required for these spheres of government to access monies from National Treasury. The problem is that these plans are usually poorly conceived, often in isolation by incompetent bureaucrats and party insiders, with little or no concern for the basic question of; what will constitute viable economic activity and inclusive growth in a geography now and in the future? As a consequence there is a mismatch between our national planning, day-to-day management and consequently, governance and accountability across government.

The further one moves away from national government, the worst the quality of use of this basic instrument and institutional mechanism. If we are to secure our democratic gains, South Africans will need to take these instruments of public management much more seriously and find creative ways to enhance the levels and substance of what is called participatory democracy. OUTA and even the narrow-minded AfriForum, are doing some good work in this area but more needs to be done. Only then will we see service delivery protests be replaced by service delivery progress, and evolve from being a developing state to a capable, developmental one.

Dream 2050

At the turn of this half-century, South Africa would have enjoyed more than 50 years of democratic freedom. What will we have done with our freedom? If the plan is only to “pay social grants on time and avoid a SASSA crisis”, we will have failed. If the plan is, to simply replace Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) with the Black Business Council (BBC), we would have failed. If it is to turn our unskilled, unemployed youth into spaza shop owners who can only out-compete Ethiopian and Somali or Pakistani migrants on low prices for consumer items in townships, we would have failed. Nothing would have changed and we would still be plagued by unemployment, inequality and poverty.

South Africa can be a country where one travels by speed train between Fish Hoek, Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria, in under five hours. We can be a nation that exports Agro-processing drones and 3D printed toys and augmented reality digital textbooks, to our neighbours on the African continent and elsewhere. We can be a country of welders, plumbers, electricians, builders, supporting a generation of engineers, technicians, programmers and medical technologists, who in turn provide expertise to industrialists, additive manufacturing entrepreneurs and visionary business leaders. We can choose to have open borders, integrated communities, friendly social relations and be a winning nation. Or we can celebrate mediocrity, such as slowly delivering flushing toilets (a technology invented by John Harington in 1596), to our children, as they learn about tourism in theory while they sit in pre-fabricated classrooms in the baking sun. That is hardly an achievement.

South Africans deserves better. But better will only come from fresh, bold, inspired vision – a image of a future that makes us proud of ourselves and hopeful for our children. A vision that inspires tenacity and perseverance and forges unity. When that vision becomes clear, it is no longer hard to see which of our leaders deserve our attention and which represent an unfortunate distraction from the national interest. South Africa is not a failed state and we should be proud that we are ridding ourselves of a group of state capturers – but we are still in need of intensive care and active citizenship, especially from the business community, who now represent a network of reluctant but capable caregiver institutions on whom the future of our country largely depend.

  • Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics. He oversees the Future of Business in South Africa project that uses strategic foresight and scenario planning to explore the future of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.
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