It’s time for South Africa to rethink the economy

develop me Tapiwa Gomo

ON May 8, South Africans go to the polls to choose their next governing party for the next five years. The election this year marks the country’s sixth general election since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

While next month’s election is not expected to result in a major shift in terms of political dominance, it comes at a very crucial political season for a nation whose democracy and economic stability were born out of several compromises.

These compromises form the core of South Africa’s Constitution, mainly the Bill of Rights, a human rights charter that protects the civil, political and socio-economic rights of all people in South Africa — which is paradoxically curtailed by the protection of property rights when it comes to the redistributive agenda.

This scenario has reinforced and cemented the historical economic imbalances between black people and their white counterparts. Some have argued that unless blacks resort to corruption, the environment makes it hard for black people to compete fairly in the economy. For many black South Africans, this situation needs urgent attention, while the other side sees that as disruptive and a threat to economic stability.

With new political players joining the scene, these compromises are fast becoming a new political currency, but also a new source of political cracks threatening to tear apart the adhesive that held together the Rainbow Nation.

There is no doubt that a new strategy that balances between saving the goose that lay the golden eggs and seeking to ignite a new economic energy is required.

This is very clear to everyone except that no one has a clue on how to move that idea forward.

Perhaps, this would be an ideal post-election project once done and dusted.

The governing African National Congress (ANC) is unsuccessfully trying to do everything. Their current preoccupation is winning the next election. So far they have done so by reaching out to the poor and the working classes — the groups that hold political sway in general elections.

They have been trying to keep the business community in their fold using Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)’ land reform and nationalisation as threats to their own business interests.

It is not clear if the same business community are passing this message down to their workers who are largely disgruntled due to poor working conditions, remuneration and services. They also feel that foreign labour is“eating” into their opportunities.

It is the same disgruntlement that has seen a protest citizen leaning towards socialist ideas premised on nationalism. Malema’s EFF party has occupied that space as a willing sounding board, but also advancing and reviving the socialist ideas in a largely capitalist State. The EFF’s nationalisation and socialist agenda will definitely appeal to the majority for nothing other than the freebees. But these have also been disastrous where they have been implemented.

For the ANC government, it is indeed a tight balancing act between preserving the economic status quo, while responding to disgruntled citizens’ concerns. The citizens are yet to see the benefits of the late President Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. In fact, they feel side-lined and they are running out of patience.

This is evidenced by the growth of the oppositions parties, mainly the Democratic Alliance and the EFF.

The citizens’ resentment is understandable as this election comes against a tumultuous background. While the economy remains solid, it has not been in a stable state of late.

In its budget review statement, the Reserve Bank of South Africa revised downwards the economy’s growth from 1,7% to 1,5% in 2019. Unemployment remains one of the huge concerns at 27%. Access to water and electricity are fast emerging challenges without long term solutions being offered.

Labour and service-related protests, including xenophobia, continue to destabilise the country’s economic growth. The public health system which serves the vast majority of the population is chronically underfunded and understaffed. The ability of the education system to supply competent labour and help generate employment to support South Africa’s economy remains a huge glaring question, which explains the industry’s continued reliance on foreign labour.

In addition, according to a 2018 World Bank study, more South Africans have loans than jobs. Huge household debts in an environment with slow economic growth and high rates of unemployment scatter individual and household financial capacity of millions of people and slow or lack of loan repayment will dent economic growth.

The social grants and security system — an important facility to improve the welfare of South Africans in vulnerable circumstance is, meanwhile, overburdening the national budget.

As of 2017, there are more people relying on social grants on a monthly basis than those with jobs. As economic growth slows down, revenue streams will dry up, jobs will be cut thereby increasing the demand for more grants.

The government will have to make three tough choices: To cut down on the social grants spending, which means pushing more people into destitution; to increase taxes on the remaining revenue streams, which may trigger price increases; or to cut expenditure in other sectors, which may compromise its ability to deliver in that sectors.