Many of the challenges we have faced since the dawn of our democracy persist despite, arguably, an accumulation of billions of rands being thrown at them over the years.
It could also be because the same promises have been made over and over again, and the same approaches tried too many times without producing lasting solutions. The problem of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, and the need to build lasting bridges to heal historic race relations, are two such wounds that will lead to our downfall if left to fester.
Young people born in the early 1990s, especially the so-called ‘born-frees’, would be forgiven for thinking post-apartheid South Africa was meant to be a China-style one-party state into perpetuity – or that no other formation should or could ever govern South Africa.
Same old, same old
If the status quo continues, we shall not be any different from places like Zimbabwe, where up to three generations have known only Zanu-PF in power, behaving as though the country belongs to it.
Too many years in power by the same group of people is not – and never will be – good for any country claiming or aspiring to be a democracy. It’s certainly not good for South Africa.
Much of what we see now indicates the governing party not only to have run out of comrades – usually former exiles, their children and relatives – to place in key ministerial and other senior positions in government and state-owned entities. It has also run out of ideas, but will not admit this.
This is bad for South Africa.
Additionally, the longer the same political formation remains in power over several successive electoral mandates, the more determined it will be to remain there at all costs, as being removed might expose buckets of rot it may have been sitting on over the years, hoping outsiders never get to see it and that nobody is held accountable for it. We know that holding anyone accountable for long-festering rot often leads to other people and other areas that may be safer for an ordinary person to avoid.
A worrying sign of the ANC’s longevity in power is when people start being afraid to openly discuss, or to question policies and practices that have been put in place over the years that have failed to achieve the desired outcomes.
Some of these policies may have worked in the early days, or shown potential to deliver the sought-after Eldorado, but either failed progressively or become obsolete, as the world and its dynamics evolved, requiring new ideas and solutions.
It’s always hard, if not impossible, to expect the same people who have been around for decades and who, by all indications, have become blasé, to propose new, better ideas to help us confront the challenges of a fast-changing world.
Take economic transformation and empowerment policies like B-BBEE and Affirmative Action, for instance. Almost a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, many of the historic legacies of race-based inequalities persist. The two societies once described by former president Thabo Mbeki as “one Black and poor, the other White and rich” are still largely with us.
But, unlike during the Mbeki years, we can no longer place the blame at the door of apartheid alone, neglecting to talk about the many opportunities that have either been missed or squandered over the years due to corruption, state capture, incompetence due to the appointment of ill-suited people into strategic positions that should have unlocked empowerment opportunities for many, sheer neglect or unethical, unguided management of public resources.
How many times have we heard or read in the news of government entities paying double, triple, or a lot more for the procurement of simple items like office chairs and mugs, or for various forms of services; moaned for a short period, only to have the same people being allowed to get away with it, knowing a combination of political connections and our inflexible labour laws would shield even the most ill-suited people from being removed from the system?
While much of the government’s focus remains on trying the same ideas over and over again, despite persistent challenges, the dynamics on the ground are fast changing. Young, white born frees are being made to pay for the sins of previous generations. They’re increasingly made to feel that career and business opportunities for them are less likely to come from South Africa. After they’ve benefitted from our education system – and we shall have a separate discussion about the increasingly negative narratives around the quality of our education – they have to look in far-away lands for work and career opportunities.
At the core of this is the apartheid-inherited inequality backlog that has not been significantly dented over the years.
Soon, a time must come when we have open discussions about sunset clauses to B-BBEE and Affirmative practices as they stand. While we continue to tackle the stubborn legacies of apartheid, we will also have to invite and encourage new ideas that will enable us to grow South Africa into the future, by making it career- and business-friendly for all its children, Black and White.
We have an opportunity to turn the white ‘born frees’ growing up right before our eyes into positive contributors to a winning South Africa, or bitter outcasts who will be forced to leave their country and roam the world.
It may seem daunting to some, especially those who struggle to imagine a different South Africa, but we shouldn’t lose tomorrow because of our bitter yesterdays. There is a growing need and opportunity for us to create enabling conditions to make every South African child, irrespective of racial and ethnic background, feel they can compete on an equal basis for opportunities in their own country, with none placed ahead on the basis only of their skin colour.
Ageing policies and practices should, systematically, be made to belong to a past we should all be happy to leave behind. But real change will not happen while we’re led by people who, having run out of the capacity to generate new ideas, will do everything, and say anything, to appear forever indispensable to the gullible amongst us.