|Our Biggest Challenge is Ourselves
By Marius Oosthuizen
Having spent the best part of the last year studying the ‘Future of South Africa’ given current trends, I have developed an acute awareness of our national challenges, both current as well as historical and systemic. The list is enormous and any reader will know its contents well; poor education levels, lingering poverty and spiraling inequality… bla, bla, bla. These realities do not exasperate us as South Africans because they are unimportant or trivial. Not at all! They exasperate us precisely because we recognize their importance and the grave future they predict.
By one estimate you could win a national election in South Africa in 2030 without a single voter over the age of 35. In a country with soaring youth unemployment and deep-seated historic injustice, such a prospect is paralyzing. But this is not our greatest challenge.
Twenty or so years ago South Africa was a de facto "police state". A country where a nationalistic minority used the political power which they wrestled from their Colonial masters of yesteryear to exact a brutal and dehumanizing exclusion on the so-called "black majority". This phenomena of race-based oppression resulted in a comfortable nest of hegemonic favoritism preserved for the white minority elites. Therein lay the paradox of the Apartheid police state. If you were black, you stared down the barrel of a pistol at raw power wielded by ignoramuses blinded by prejudice. But if you were white, you were hidden behind an iron curtain of isolationist bourgeoise benefits. The other side of the Apartheid coin was a "nanny state" that turned the might of a developmental state apparatus, compete with state-owned enterprises for energy, telecoms, transport infrastructure, a range of industrial segments and mass media, into an escalator of upward mobility for a small portion of settlers of European descent. If you were black you faced unflinching discrimination. If you were white you benefited from the benevolence of your state. We did this for whites. Why can’t we do this for all South Africans?
Therein lies our greatest problem as South Africa today. Not in the structural "legacy of Apartheid", but in its psychological legacy.
South Africa is a nation rich in mineral resources, amicable climatic conditions, a vast coastline, breathtaking natural beauty and the human capital potential to rival any nation our size. But our developmental deficits are so great in some pockets that we rival the gutters of Calcutta and Rochina with undignified despair. So where is the problem? Is there simply too great a task ahead of us given our history? Is the problem the African National Congress and their current pirate captain, President Zuma? Is the reason why we are stuck the poor foresight of a business community locked into a Eurocentric model of capitalist pioneering which consumes more value than it creates? Perhaps it is the lame tea-time chatter of civil society at a loss for a mission in the democratic dispensation.
I would argue that our greatest challenge is that we are at once victimized, traumatized and spoilt and indifferent. Those who hold but a glimmer of hope that the "better life" will come are so disempowered that they are waiting for some externalized hero to offer them redemption and decency in the form of a job. Those who have the means and the knowhow to turn social needs into economic opportunities have neither the awareness or the impetus to act in the interests of their countrymen – and in doing so, in their own interests.
The paradoxical Apartheid police-nanny state has made us a nation of waiters and complainers. The previously disenfranchised wait and the previously advantaged complain. We ask either "what can I get and take" or "what am I no longer getting that I used to by taking it?" These two ditches of post-traumatic national despair are not helpful nor do they accurately assess history.
South Africa is a poor country at the tip of a vastly underdeveloped continent. We are unsophisticated in economic terms and uneducated in real terms. What do we expect? The Royal Hotel was a European import into the dust of a mining venture. In some ways we are all members of a community of migrants attracted to the lure of Egoli. But Egoli is to date the preserve of the few who through the favor of history, wit and mostly injustice have climbed the ladder of access and excess on the backs of the desperate workers of the modern and industrial age. The brave new world of post-industrial opportunity is equally unforgiving but increasingly demanding in areas where we are weak.
Simply put, the sweat of black brows will not suffice. We need the acumen of black minds to be unlocked and unleashed. Instead, we’ve been quibbling about the "ownership of the means of production", when in a knowledge economy; technology is typically the means and human ingenuity is the mode of production.
South Africa can awaken from our post-Apartheid hangover and emerge from the low-growth middle income trap in which we find ourselves. But that will necessitate conscientising ourselves to our individual potentials more so than our class collectivism. It will necessitate the relinquishment of inherited comforts and idle benefits to embrace a form of industrious people-building as a national cultural trait.
Marius Oosthuizen is a faculty member and researcher at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and heads up the Future of Business in SA Project.
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Main Tel: +27 11 771 4000
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