New Agenda 88: Editorial

“You will be glad to know that according to the analysts, the economic fundamentals are in place” by Zapiro

Beyond the tipping point

By Martin Nicol

Economists debate the impact on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and whether lost production should be measured in billions or trillions of rands. Ordinary citizens suffer transport disruption, cell phone outages and the closure of government offices, which shut down when the power fails – Home Affairs, courts, UIF, social grants offices, post offices … Lives are just put on hold. Every day South Africans are faced with the relentless electrical power blackouts. Government has declared a “state of disaster”.

The huge impact of the loadshedding is ironic. Democratic South Africa has become much more widely dependent on electrical power and on government services because of the pro-poor policies of the ANC government.

As a retiree from government, with 12 years of pensionable service, I have been able to take an annual break on the rural Eastern Cape Wild Coast. In 2022, electricity arrived – or the poles and cables able to carry electricity did. The remote rolling hills are now spiked with an electricity reticulation system provided by a subcontractor to Eskom. This should herald development. “Soviets plus electrification equals socialism” was the slogan of Lenin in the 1920s. But the switch-on was delayed. And there is no promise of affordability or reliability of supply.

Our “soviets”, representative assemblies at all levels, are each in differing degrees of extreme crisis. They all reflect weakness in financial management, leadership and public confidence. From corrupt school governing bodies to the burnt-out benches of Parliament, our public sector is ravaged by institutional decline.

Fifteen years ago, the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA), the publishers of New Agenda, issued a book reviewing ANC economic policy titled “From the Freedom Charter to Polokwane”. It was written by the founder of IFAA, the late Professor Ben Turok. The cover illustration was a Zapiro cartoon with a biting satirical comment against the then Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and his policies of austerity and fiscal discipline.

The cartoon features a young person – who would almost certainly be an unemployed youth still today – reading a newspaper (remember them!) in an abandoned informal settlement next to a city. The comment reading: “You will be glad to know that according to the analysts, the economic fundamentals are in place”.

Just a few years on, the question is what happens when the economic fundamentals are no longer in place?

Cde Trevor went on to head the National Planning Commission, a body tasked with plotting the next phase of developmental progress. The ten-year anniversary of the ambitious National Development Plan (NDP) went by completely unremarked in 2022. Government stopped publishing the useful annual statistical report on NDP performance several years before. The fundamental economic indicators have long been in the toilet.

One could talk further of the dystopian scenes of congested chaos every day on the crumbling N2 and N3 highways between the Durban airport and Pietermaritzburg – all made worse by the collapse of the Transnet rail network.

One could reflect on what happens when criminal gangs (in Cape Town too) begin to assume local state responsibilities as they take power over communities. (There are bleak parallels here with Haiti and with accounts of the role of violent extremist groups across Africa – see page 4, below).

And the beyond disgraceful behaviour of NEHAWU and its members in their strike against hospitals and patients.

But this does not give hope or provide a way forward. The fact is that rescue can only come from ourselves. And that does not mean 4x4s to glide over potholed roads, gated security compounds and personal off-grid solar power. It has to come from strong institutions and from what I can only call “better behaviour”.

IFAA has in place initiatives to support institutional recovery and development. The most recent is the project to Defend Constitutional Democracy (Decode) – supporting Parliament and civil society in implementing the specific recommendations of the Zondo Commission for improving the accountability of public institutions.

This issue of New Agenda reports on another new IFAA project, which is about re-jigging New Agenda itself to meet the standards for an accredited journal set by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Existing IFAA research projects are reflected in the section on Young Climate Voices, where the challenges of adapting to, and mitigating, the effects of global warming are considered by young scholars and analysts.

Other contributions include reviews of three new enticing and important books – on Tigray, on colonialism and on the defeat of apartheid. Also inside is an incisive analysis of the State Security Agency; and a controversial commentary on the history of Eastern Europe and Muscovy (to which reader reaction is invited). We are grateful to Vrye Weekblad for permission to reprint a chilling article by Anneliese Burgess on Fort Hare University. In the face of university staff being murdered by corruption criminals it praises the determined fightback of its VC, Sakhela Buhlungu, to “uncapture” the university.

A slogan of hope, dating from the 1930s and widely used in South Africa in the darkest days of apartheid was: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. In his reply to the debate on the 2023 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa criticised “merchants of despair”. So must we all.

Citation: New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy No 87, First Quarter 2023, March: p2.

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