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Hopelessness stalks the land, but discussion, debate and disagreement offer hope

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The social fibre of our communities has been pushed to the brink. Hopelessness is prevalent throughout our country. Despair is now commonplace. The challenges we now face were there before Covid-19, but the pandemic has certainly pronounced all our challenges tenfold. These are the difficult conversations we have to have.

On Tuesday, 23 February 2021, I was privileged to form part of a very illustrious group of influencers via Zoom hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs). As agreed in the meeting, and in keeping with Chatham House rules, I will not be attributing anything to anyone. Suffice to say, it was a wide spectrum of people, many of whom for which I have only the greatest of respect and admiration.

There were captains of industry, academics, former presidents, young, old and wise, about 80 people at last count. And what a feast of ideas it turned out to be.

The question we were discussing and wanting to get a handle on was: “Where are we at?”

Panellists were allocated 10 minutes each to share with us where they thought we were at. Inputs varied from analysing the nationalist movements throughout Africa postcolonialism and indeed here at home too. The difference between Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism, for instance. Some spoke of the capacity of the state or lack thereof and others spoke of social compacting, the need for structural reform in our economy and so much more. It was food for thought all round.

One observation from a dear friend of mine was reminding us that as a country we have experienced six years of no growth in the economy as opposed to slight population growth of about 1.2% over the same period. In other words, the population has been growing but not the economy and this usually spells disaster. Having said that, all indications were that, this financial year, we would be breaking out of that drought, so to speak. Pundits, economists, Treasury, the Reserve Bank and, indeed, independent forecasters all say our economy will grow higher than our population growth for 2021/22. However, the bigger question is: Will we be able to repeat this mean feat of growth again for the next financial year? That is the question.

We were reminded that there are, indeed, three ways one can ensure growth in any economy. Notwithstanding a few slight disagreements among us, the mechanisms available to us are macroeconomic tools such as monetary policy, fiscal policy or structural reform. In our case, both monetary and fiscal policy options are extremely limited. Limited because the SA Reserve Bank, SA Revenue Service, Treasury and government have already exhausted most monetary options of inflation, taxes and other short-term relief. And fiscally, as you all know, we are already at the fiscal cliff, and borrowing and debt servicing is at an all-time high. This was further elucidated upon by the Minister of Finance on 24 February 2021 in the Budget speech. 

Thus, these two policy options are out. Which leaves us with structural reform. The problem with this option as was indicated is we don’t always agree with which reform must take place and where within the economy. Eskom, broadband reform, privatisation of SOEs, land reform; these are all structural matters. And you can see why many disagree over these matters. But we must endure and negotiate further. Agreements and/or consensus will come.

We, of course, as participants were neither policy- nor decision-makers and hence cannot resolve these contentious matters. But it was good that there was consensus over not only the problématique in SA but agreement on at least some solutions, albeit not all.

One of the critical concerns that everyone agreed on was the fact that hopelessness is prevalent throughout our country. That despair among our people is now commonplace. The challenges we now face were there before Covid-19 but the pandemic has certainly pronounced all our challenges tenfold.

The plight of ordinary South Africans was laid bare and the fact that not only are our people expected to contend with the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty, but increasingly with hunger and deprivation. Mothers and fathers cannot provide basic foodstuff for the family and, as a result, hope dissipates. And, as we all know, where despair and hopelessness breeds, discontent and violence will soon follow. Others choose drugs as a means to forget, to feel content in a permanent state of intoxication. Children who cry because their tummies are hurting from hunger and mothers depressed that they can do no more to alleviate this situation.

The social fibre of our communities has been pushed to the brink. And so some parents resort to hitting the children, demanding that they shut up. Men beat their wives and partners because they feel judged when they cannot provide, perhaps they feel judged because they, as men, aren’t doing enough. And so you declare war on women and girl children. 

Food insecurity was identified as the most immediate challenge during this Covid period throughout the country. Some participants argued passionately for the government to put “cash in the hands” of our people and though the extension of the Covid special grant of R350 is welcomed, a basic income grant (BIG) must be implemented almost immediately if we are to find a lasting solution to this dire situation in our communities. Not everyone necessarily agreed with a BIG, but understood that some social relief is necessary for the short term.

The way forward for the group was that everyone must, in their own little corners, advocate most of the understandings and solutions that came forth from the group discussion. That every conference room, lecture theatre, workplace and boardroom must know that these are the thought processes of the influencers on that Zoom call. This would be the beginning steps towards finding each other in the social compact. And even though hopelessness was identified as a major concern, the mere fact that persons such as yourselves are having difficult conversations and trying to find solutions to our problématique, is hope in and of itself.

I could not help but wonder whether similar conversations happened in the run-up to the Zimbabwe crisis under Robert Mugabe’s administration in the early 2000s. Was there sufficient dialogue and reaching out towards each other as we in Mzansi are doing? Could the situation on our northern border have been avoided had similar conversations and compromises taken place? I wonder.

I say again, the mere fact that we are engaged in discussions, debates and disagreements about our future, in and of itself is hope.

I am certain we will turn the corner; we will adjust structurally and use all available tools at our disposal to resolve this problématique.

We will rise! DM

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All Comments 3

  • May I ask who “our people” are that you refer to in the article – I’ve seen the term used elsewhere and wondered at the origin and meaning?

  • The flame of hopelessness is stoked by the unwillingness of our political fat cats to assist in carrying the burden. Millions have lost jobs and income and the political leeches are still enjoying their fat salaries and unreasonable perks.