South Africa: following the North African path?
By Hein Willemse
In the weeks following the uprisings that brought about regime change in Tunisia and Egypt several local social commentators predicted that in the not too distant future the South African government might face similar expressions of popular disenchantment.
Even Pravin Gordhan, the usually sanguine Finance Minister, warned that the country could face widespread upheaval, “North Africa is about allowing inequalities to grow, allowing joblessness to grow. It is about a state that hasn’t actually performed, about a minority that accumulates things for itself. If you want to follow that path for the next 20 years, we’ll end up like North Africa.”
These dire predictions prompted President Jacob Zuma to quell such speculation “There will never be uprisings in this country because our [independent oversight] institutions are working.” Rather than addressing matters of economic discontent alluded to by Gordhan and other commentators the President had chosen to highlight the autocratic nature of the North African regimes. It was a deft shimmy on his part, for South Africa has evolved into a vibrant, if uneven, democratic state and in that respect, is unlike the autocracies up north.
Neither Zuma nor his detractors are clairvoyant, but this spat points to the brewing levels of popular disillusionment. Ask any South African to name his or her main social concerns and it would be no surprise if poverty, unemployment and job creation, service delivery, crime and graft (at all levels of government) top their lists.
Some of these concerns are the bitter consequences of our past, and any government in South Africa will battle to get poverty and unemployment, or for that matter, crime under control. Notwithstanding several government policy designs drafted since 1994, the country still has some of the lowest employment levels in the world. In a recent discussion document on its new economic growth path the government indicated that most jobs created during the preceding decade were in “retail, security, other low-level business services, and housing construction”. Many of these jobs, according their estimate “were poorly paid and insecure”.
The government estimates that the current unemployment figures to be are around 25 percent, i.e. counting people who are unemployed but are still looking for jobs. The truth is that the real joblessness figures, including those who have given up hope of finding any gainful future employment, are greater than 40 percent. In 2010 more than 40 percent of job-seeking young people between the ages of 16 and 30 did not work. In spite of a growth rate close to 4% at the beginning of this century, these figures have not changed significantly over the past two decades. Cosatu, the biggest trade union federation in the country, estimates that in 2009 alone the country shed upwards of 1 million jobs.
Gross unemployment is not new. In South Africa joblessness is structural, since most of the unemployed are young and black and many of them unemployable due to poor schooling or inappropriate skill sets. It is a recognition of how deeply embedded this phenomenon is when an inventive bureaucrat added yet another acronym to government speak, in this instance “neets” – “neither employed educated or trained”.
In the face of such disparities the government has turned to an ever-burgeoning “social grant” system currently supporting more than 14 million people. In the long run this kind of welfare strategy is unsustainable as a drag on the fiscus, and it also institutionalizes social dependence and hinders self-reliance and personal initiative.
As so often in the face of mass unemployment, the official strategy boils down to massive public sector employment and what is called vaguely “restructuring of the economy”. Whatever that means is yet to be seen, but it would certainly entail greater state intervention.
The effects of social discontent are seen in the increased number of local service delivery protests around the country and mostly in the central economic heartland of Gauteng. Most of these protests emanate from the black townships over the lack of provision of basic utilities, i.e. water, electricity, sanitation and refuse removal. Quite often these protests aimed at African National Congress (ANC) councillors for their non-performance, i.e. their lack of appropriate executive or operational skills and invariably the scourge of public office: nepotism, fraud and the misappropriation of public funds. With the looming local government elections scheduled for May 2011, much of the debates will revolve around matters of service delivery.
Underperforming local councillors have sallied their parties’ names just as the fostering of a culture of entitlement and excess by the newly economically empowered have impelled Pravin Gordhan to warn about “a minority that accumulates things for itself”. In its most perverted expression, a wealthy entrepreneur opened his nightclubs (aimed at people with “class, elegance, style and money of course”) with nyotaimori parties where the nouveau riche ate their sushi from the naked bodies of young women. For the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, who attended some of these shindigs, the nightclub owner is “an inspiration to African children”.
To the disgust of many, among them, Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary-General of the ruling African National Congress, the nightclub owner thanked the party for making Black Economic Empowerment possible. In a country with a significant percentage of poor people, the flaunting of wealth can only be seen as a travesty. According to Cosatu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, this cultivation of bling culture “turns (his) stomach” and is a clear sign of the excesses of a “predatory elite”.
Much of the conspicuous consumption goes hand in hand with reports and rumours of corruption. Newspapers publish daily on ill-gotten gains, flashy cars and the corruption of government officials. The Finance Minister revealed in a recent budget speech that his Ministry and the Revenue Service are investigating incidences of more than 25 billion rand of procurement and tender fraud in government departments. A corruption-busting agency, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), reported to parliament that 16 separate government departments are under investigation. In one province, North West, every municipality is under investigation for fraud, corruption and maladministration.
Even the Police department is under scrutiny. The SIU found that police officials have undeclared interests in procurement services, and that their practices involve over-quotation, unbudgeted expenditure and excess payments. The Unit questioned the expenditure related to the construction of 33 police stations where they found “significant irregularities”. In the case of the SABC, the public broadcaster, the SIU found that several of its employees had undeclared interests in firms that did business with it, amounting to 2.4 billion rand.
It is not surprising that resentment among ordinary South Africans is palpable. The increased levels of corruption not only distract from the fight against poverty and dependency, the deepening of democracy and the creation of a more equal society, it also degrades the efforts and memory of people who fought for so long against apartheid and social injustice.
Corruption and the suspicion of corruption blight the revolutionary history of the ANC and it has reached its highest office. The leader of the party, Zuma, himself is not immune to rumours of ill-gotten gains. He came to power with a cloud hanging over him and the serendipitous withdrawal of a lengthy corruption case against him. The prosecuting official who oversaw the case’s withdrawal was later appointed as an acting judge in North West province.
Since his rise to power in 2009 serendipity seems to have looked kindly on the extended Zuma family, their friends and associates. In a disputed deal, Zuma’s son, Duduzane, acquired shares worth billions in ArcelorMittal, South Africa’s largest steel maker. It is rumoured that the family may also have interests in shipping and mining.
The President’s 28-year old son is a director of several companies, some of them linked to high-profile projects, among them a multi-billion rand high speed rail consortium. Of this prospect, a senior member of the breakaway ANC party, Congress of the People (COPE), Phillip Dexter said: “We are shocked at the brazen way in which Zuma’s son is being put into these deals. It is daylight robbery. We need an inquiry into relationships between politicians, their relatives and big business.”
Government officials often argue that the high levels of revelation over corruption and graft is the result of greater official transparency and the pursuit of wrongdoers and grafters. Pravin Gordhan, in a recent BBC interview, maintained that corruption could be checked with the strengthening of internal financial systems and independent anti-corruption institutions.
However, the major part of any anti-corruption campaign has to involve public awareness, civil society action, education for ethical behaviour and the sensitization and cultivation of personal morality.
South Africa finds itself in a space where the first sproutings of Gordhan’s foreboding are visible. Only a vigilant civil society can turn back this threatening state of affairs and the ensuing culture of impunity. The public’s greatest allies in the fight against official graft are a free press, a rigorous justice system and above all the constitution.
Yet, it appears that the ANC government may be devising ways of curbing the free flow of information. They have proposed the Protection of Information Bill and a media tribunal, if passed these measures will impact on media freedom and severely curtail the fight against graft and corruption.
As the Finance Minister has said: “If you want to follow that path …”
Hein Willemse is a Professor of Afrikaans Literature at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa.