A nation in need of a vision

South Africa needs strong political leadership to navigate economic recovery, up until and beyond the 2010 World Cup, writes JAN HOFMEYR.

In February, President Jacob Zuma used his State of the Nation Address to report back on the first months of his administration’s tenure, and present its agenda for what will be an immensely important year. While difficult to ignore the cloud of controversy surrounding his person, it was important that this not detract from the solemnity of the Address.

With only a few months to go to the kick-off of the 2010 Soccer World Cup (SWC), Zuma’s Address focused on both the country’s achievements in preparing for this prestigious event, and the need to fully exploit the economic opportunities that it offers. With reconciliation and national unity already recurrent themes of his presidency thus far, Zuma also impressed upon South Africans the prospects that the sporting spectacle offer in this regard.

This message makes sense in a country that remains highly divided in many respects, including over perceptions of what a common nationhood entails. The findings of the IJR’s 2009 SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey underscored the limited degree to which meaningful social interaction occurs between the country’s historically defined population groups: almost half of all South Africans never come into informal social contact with people from population groups other than their own. While increased contact would not automatically translate into stronger social capital, it is a minimum requirement.

Zuma’s emphasis on national achievements, pride and unity may also bring knock-on economic effects, in terms of consumer spending and domestic investor confidence. The German summer of 2006 demonstrates how an event of this magnitude can impact on a national psyche, with ripple effects across all spheres of society.

Various public surveys, including the SA Reconciliation Barometer, have over the past three years recorded significant declines in perceptions of economic and physical security among South Africans, as well as in optimism around prospects for the country as a whole. This is unsurprising, given that hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs since the start of the global economic downturn in 2007. Many South Africans feel deeply vulnerable at the start of 2010, and the president will do well if he harnesses the potential goodwill and positive sentiment that the SWC offers.

Yet as parliament and government departments begin the work of 2010, any attempts to extract political mileage or unduly raise expectations, at the cost of honest reflections on the impact of the economic slump on delivery of the developmental agenda, will be short-sighted.

The fiscal space to expand assistance to society’s most vulnerable at the rate of previous years is under pressure. Government’s flagship initiative to stimulate domestic growth, the multi-billion infrastructure build programme, will not be rolled out within its original time frames. Any underplaying of social realities or commitments to unrealistic targets may offer short-term political expedience, but its longer-term consequence – public cynicism towards democratic institutions – will weaken efforts to create a more equitable society beyond 2010.

The 2009 edition of the IJR’s annual Transformation Audit publication, launched in January, has brought together insights from among the country’s most eminent scholars and opinion leaders to assess the consequences of the country’s 2009 economic contraction for its longer-term transformational goals. Titled Recession and Recovery, the Audit finds that while the general health of the country’s economic fundamentals has absorbed a significant measure of the global shock, its impact has been severe, and disproportionately so for the country’s poor, unskilled and unemployed. The Audit contends that this is unlikely to improve significantly over the short term due to the expected lag between growth and job creation, despite recent favourable prognoses of GDP growth of 2–3%.

The Audit also cautions that this vulnerability will remain an entrenched, longer-term feature of our economy for as long as the country continues to underperform in human resource development. Using international comparative data, one study shows how the quality of education in many marginalised South African communities contributes little to the life chances of learners. Another reports on a pilot study, conducted last year among first year students at a leading university, which showed that a substantial percentage of students did not possess the required numeracy or literacy skills to be successful in tertiary education. This has far-reaching implications for the sustainability and trajectory of equitable growth in years to come.

Success in addressing these urgent developmental challenges demands more than government action alone. Greater alignment is required between its strategies and those of other key social stakeholders, such as the labour movement and organised business. Ironically, as Adam Habib argues in the Audit, the convergence of circumstances within the global economy may have facilitated an environment more conducive to the building of such social pacts than at any time during the past 16 years.

Yet, it will remain government’s task to frame the parameters of engagement, and communicate policy with consistency and integrity. Unfortunately, Zuma’s ANC has in recent months sent mixed signals on a number of key policy issues, which appear to be resulting from the posturing of factions within the party. It is important that this does not expose South Africans to the degree of governance paralysis experienced while Zuma and his supporters challenged the Mbeki presidency.

To date, the president has appeared reluctant to take a clear stand on many contentious issues that his party is grappling with. His silence, while ANC office-bearers publicly dissent the policy positions of their comrades in government, makes it increasingly difficult to discern official policy positions, and draws government’s integrity into question.

Such behaviour does not reassure key role-players in an economic climate that remains volatile, nor does it offer hope to the growing number of citizens who have been rendered vulnerable by their material circumstances.

As the SWC approaches, it is up to Zuma as our head of state – albeit in challenging circumstances – to take the nation into his confidence and to inspire citizens with his vision and the concrete steps to achieve it. In a year that this country has the opportunity to showcase everything that is good about it, we deserve no less from our government.

Jan Hofmeyr is programme manager of the IJR’s Political Analysis programme. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Cape Times on 10 February 2010.

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