Last week, I was lucky to be one of the adjudicators in the 2019 Impumelelo Community Chest Social Innovation Awards.

Apart from being massively impressed by all of the 30 submissions that we meticulously went through over a solid two-day period, I was also saddened by something else; but I will come to that in a bit. The amount of work being done by NGOs in many communities around the country – much of which work constitutes services that should be rendered by government – is impressive, even humbling to an eye-watering point

In listening to presentation after presentation, it was hard not to wonder what things would be like if we had a truly caring government whose leadership had a zero-tolerance stance against and genuine annoyance vis-à-vis corruption, abuse of public resources, and wastage; a leadership that led from the front in ensuring that anyone found to have been abusing public office for self-enrichment – irrespective of their position – is summarily removed permanently from the system, with no prospects of being redeployed elsewhere when the authorities think no one is watching, or even in broad daylight – as it currently happens often.

The opportunity cost of state capture and other forms of corruption, resulting from the theft of at least R500bn from the public purse over the past decade alone, is numbing. The reputational cost to SARS continues to be felt in its inability to reach its tax collection targets, in part because of a weakened economy and a shrinking tax base, as more South Africans shift their money to countries led by people they trust to use it for the good of all citizens, and because of a perennially weak investor confidence.

Every single one of the projects that we adjudicated merited a prize.

In the best of worlds, where resources would be plenty, each one of them would have walked away with a cash prize that would enable it to return to the communities in which it operates and continue lightening the burden off the shoulders of poor parents and other caregivers, including school principals and teachers in many impoverished communities around the country.

The NGOs we saw provide books where there are none, literacy and numeracy skills to kids between pre-school and Grade 4 where they are lacking, and trauma counselling. Others feed the hungry and provide other forms of educational assistance right up to matric, including a whole basket of afterschool support.

They take care of the elderly in poor communities, create activities for physical and mental stimulation for the elderly in their homes and in special community centres. Put together, the roles they play in our society go a long way to building individuals, communities and bridges between communities where none are present, which seems to be pretty much all over the country. They deserve more funding and other forms of support from government.

Rural skills

I was quite taken back, even saddened, by a project whose activities consisted of training poor people in rural communities on how to farm bees for honey, how to take care of their chickens to make sure they laid eggs in the same place, where they could harvest them, and how to create food gardens.

I wondered aloud, “but aren’t these supposed to be skills that make up any rural existence? Aren’t people living in rural communities supposed to be the ones who master such skills and who should be earning incomes teaching them to us who live in more urban areas?”

Instead of teaching them the basics of what they’re supposed to be masters of, shouldn’t they be given skills and tools to help them transition from subsistence farming to accessing local, regional and, eventually, global markets, even in the form of local cooperatives to supply needed volumes, so that they too can make a living from their sweat?

All of this took me back to a discussion I had with Bennie Van Rooy, CEO of Grobank and someone who understands the dynamics and challenges of the local agrarian sector. In that discussion, Van Rooy made it clear that a lot needs to be done at policy, skills, and investment levels to turn the situation around in order for Africa, at a broad level, to be turned from a net importer into a net exporter of food crops and to grow levels of self-reliance in this area.

He went on to share that even the World Economic Forum (WEF) has long noted what keeps Africa from being able to export food crops to the extent that this would be meaningfully profitable.

“Firstly, climate change as a factor negatively impacts farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and has led to a decrease in cereal production. Mitigation requires both education and financing. Furthermore, infrastructure development is essential to increase the export capacity on the continent”. Accordingly, both emerging farmers and established farmers must be able to access the technology that is fast becoming a key to the successful planting, monitoring and selling of crops. “This requires education, both from the agritech manufacturers and from bodies that seek to assist the smaller farmer”.

Van Rooy will discuss the obstacles that hamper a seamless African Integrated Economic Development in the agrarian sector at the 2020 Brand Summit Africa, scheduled to be hosted in Cape Town during the first week of June. Such obstacles included but are not limited to infrastructure limitations and border delays that increase logistics costs for cross border movements of agricultural products, financing, and specialized skills.

Old tired ideas

A new way of thinking is needed in order to take the moribund South African economy onto a sustainable growth path.

This must include investing in conducive environments to turn those people who have the youth and the physical wherewithal from being regular recipients of government hand-outs into active makers of living and wealth creators who will help grow the country’s tax base back to healthier levels.

None of this will happen while we keep applying old, tired, ideas and hoping for different outcomes.

And it will also not happen while we keep recycling the same people over and over again, denying more qualified South Africans opportunities to play their part, making them feel they do not belong here.