Picture: Zanele Zulu/African News Agency (ANA)
By Dr Wallace Amos Mgoqi
In less than 18 months, South Africa will mark 30 years of our democracy (1994 – 2024). The question is: What will we be able to show for it? What will our balance sheet look like in terms of assets and liabilities, given that at present we seem to be on course to hit an iceberg – will we sink, swim, or change course in time to avert utter disaster?
There is no gainsaying that we are a nation in decline, our early euphoria and optimism giving away to the harsh reality or a post-democratic slump and a disillusioned citizenry.
It’s time to take stock. Rip the blinkers from our eyes and focus on what needs to be done to gain back those democratic rights of a stable, growing, and socially cohesive, economically active, materially sound, politically wise country. One of the benchmarks to check where we are is our National/ Sustainable Development Plan to measure where we are in terms of our aspirational goals.
No doubt when we look at the performance of our government, especially over the last ten years, we are lagging – by far – behind our targets. This is not so much because of extraneous factors such as climate change, for example, but because of our own misguided actions, such as a few powerful individuals decided it was time to loot state resources and
collapse all governance controls and systems to allow corruption to reign supreme.
We are where we are now, principally because of these activities over a sustained period.
Pressing challenges needing our urgent attention include:
Congestion of cities and towns – in a failure, post-apartheid, to anticipate the rush to urban areas from people previously prohibited from doing so and all seeking the proverbial pot of gold, our infrastructure has become overloaded.
To bring about the mitigation or reversal of the rural/ foreign-urban migration as countries such as Taiwan have done, we must mobilise appropriate funds for infrastructure development, focusing on areas like transport – road (car, bike, bus, or taxi) and rail – to make commuting between rural areas smooth and seamless.
Vitally, infrastructure needs to be developed that will encourage economic growth and opportunities in the rural areas themselves to lessen the influx of people to existing urban areas, thus encouraging families to stay together too.
Decongesting urban areas should also include an aggressive approach to creating smart villages, such as the project being undertaken at Nkuzana village, in Limpopo, by the property developer, Mike Nkuna. This programme could be fast-tracked, ensuring that in every province there is a smart village/town and ultimately, a city.
Having access to the Internet and such basics as communications will fast-track growth obviating the necessity to migrate to urban areas to look for opportunities. Leaving would then become a matter of choice.
Decaying and old urban infrastructure – the sheer number of people flooding urban areas has exacerbated the lack of investment and maintenance into existing infrastructure. This has resulted in the wholesale breakdown of basic services. There are daily reports of sewer
spillage, water leakages and no water at all. There are hours and for some, days, where there is no power because the government’s power utility Eskom, is antiquated, broken, and held hostage by a ‘mafia’. In a growing number of locations across the country, road infrastructure and rail infrastructure is disappearing.
Mobilising financial resources on an unprecedented scale to attend to this mega-need that affects the rich and the poor is needed now. Not tomorrow or in 18 months’ time or when there is a need for some politician to be the hero. Building new infrastructure that not only caters for the demands of today but that plans for capacity for the future. Think big!
Add to this affordable and accessible communication networks and a comprehensive public works programme that can take up some of the slack of our youth unemployment numbers and which can move quickly as speed is of the essence here.
High levels of crime – The country is experiencing ever-increasing levels of crime. The desperation in young people, without education and skills, is also exacerbated by drug trafficking in the country, which many fall into either as pushers to earn money or users to detach from reality.
There is also an increase in extortion in the ‘townships’ where criminals demand to be paid bribes by small businesses, as well as contractors who have won tenders. Whilst many are willing and able to deliver on their contracts, they are prevented from doing so on account of the demands. Works come to a standstill and the infrastructure continues to crumble.
There are good men and women in our police force, but they are few and far between and often lack the resources to be able to combat crime.
Often, opportunistic crime is committed by people with low levels of education, who have no skills to sell to the market, and are thus forced to hustle to survive. To do so, they may prey on other people falling foul of the law, and ending in prison, where they learn how to be better criminals and frequently land up being guests of the state.
The government has been extremely remiss in developing and deploying education for the unemployed to upskill themselves towards new industries such as 4IR. Unfortunately, this the tragedy starts at the early childhood stage where the absence of access to development and education is a crime.
High rate of unemployment – With a growing majority of our people being younger than 35 and our future, it is highly concerning that as StatsSA reported a few days ago, our youth aged 15-24 and 25–34 recorded the highest unemployment rates of 59.6% and 40.5% respectively.
As aforementioned, our future workforce and tax contributors need to have access to the necessary skills and training that will allow them to become meaningful participants in the economy. The speed at which the digital realm is moving can be quite intimidating, but it is a warning to the government and the private sector, that we need to get a bustle on to catch-up otherwise, men (and women) will simply be left behind.
For us to prepare for a celebration of thirty years of democracy, it would be good to start work now on the new trajectory for the country, to start the fourth decade, 2024 onwards.
We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to make sure that we put in place a new foundation, including a moral code.
Constitutional democracy work is not about producing a copy of our Constitution from our briefcases or bags, or pointing out what our laws say, but by acting out what is contained in its page.
There is much to be said about the resilience of South Africans, who have survived crisis after crisis. The hope of a better tomorrow has always been our mainstay; what we can imagine we can also create into reality. It is the kind of hope that Vaclav Havel had in mind when he said:
“I am not an optimist, because I am not sure that everything ends well. Nor am I a pessimist because I am not sure that everything ends badly. I could not accomplish anything if I did not have hope within me, for the gift of hope is a big gift of life itself.”
Let us pull ourselves together again and put our country back on track and stay the course.
Advocate Mgoqi has honorary doctorates in Law from the University of Cape Town, Walter Sisulu University and The City University of New York School of Law.