Whitfield: Running out of good stories

We have a national obsession with looking backwards. If we could turn it into an Olympic discipline we'd walk away with all the medals. The 20 years of democracy commemoration is a case in point. Sure, there is much to celebrate, but we are so busy looking in the rear-view mirror congratulating ourselves on our narrow escape from economic purgatory, that we are failing to see the potholes in our path.

Most of the past 20 years have been positive for South Africa and have given President Jacob Zuma "a good story to tell". The only problem is that he is telling of the success of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki rather than looking forward to navigate the path that will become his legacy.

His successor will have fewer good economic stories to tell than he does - his government will regularly blame the global economy for our slump, but the first Zuma administration has not exactly liberated ordinary South Africans to create the jobs we so desperately need to create a sustainable future.

A recent bout of ill-considered pieces of legislation also run the risk of undermining confidence in our long-term future: rules around foreign control of security companies, for example, plus new laws that give the state 20% of any new oil and gas projects, as well as legislation that makes land ownership vulnerable, according to the Institute for Security Studies, all contribute to the perception that South Africa is not particularly serious about its own future.

Depending on who you are and where you are in the South African pecking order, you may have a good story to tell about the past 20 years.

The story is captured in a book by the analyst JP Landman called _The Long View _and is also reflected in a detailed report by Goldman Sachs.

Accordingly, in the past 20 years:

• GDP almost tripled from $136 billion to $400 billion today;

• Inflation fell from an average of 14% between 1980 and 1994 to an average of 6% from 1994 to 2012;

• Gross gold and forex reserves rose from $3 billion to $50 billion today;

• Tax receipts of R114 billion from 1.7 million people rose to R899 billion from 14 million people;

• In the last decade a dramatic rise in the middle class with 4.5 million consumers graduating upwards from the lower (1-4) living standards measure (LSM) and in total 10 million consumers added to the middle to higher LSMs (5-10); and

• Social grant beneficiaries rose from 2.4 million to over 17 million today.

Generally speaking, if you are white, you are more likely to be in a higher income group by virtue of the fact that your parents had a decent start in life and helped you do the same. If you are black, the odds are more heavily stacked against you. That's changing - but the stats still show that to be the case.

On average, we are better off today than we were 20 years ago. Of that there is no question. The problem with averages though is exactly that - our society is made up of considerable extremes.

Addressing inequality is a national obsession - we do, however, run the risk of entering into a debate about redistribution rather than in creating new wealth. Black economic empowerment (BEE) in its early form has been fantastic for the chosen few - broadly speaking though it has been a failure for most South Africans who are unlikely ever to feel the positive impact of a BEE deal come their way.

BEE has helped alleviate a tiny bit of South Africa's racial inequality, but the failure of the past 20 years has been in terms of education and our inability to create an environment in which every single one of us wants to go out and start a business that truly will empower more South Africans through providing a decent income and the dignity of knowing a job well done.

We need to scrap the idea of creating jobs and set out to create enterprises, argues scenario planner Clem Sunter, who says we need to turn the jobs debate on its head. Create the enterprises and the jobs will follow. It makes perfect sense. So much so that government is considering a small business ministry after the next elections.

If all it does is add another layer of form filling and compliance then it is going to do nobody, other than the legion of civil servants it will employ, any good.

The National Development Plan (NDP), assuming it survives the election and the departure of Trevor Manuel from government, is going to have very little real impact on our future unless we all get off our backsides and do something more meaningful than simply draw up plans.

If Zuma wants his successors to have good stories to tell that will reflect well on him, he urgently needs to get South Africans to work.

To do that he needs to loosen some of the shackles of economic constraint and bureaucracy that sap the entrepreneurial energy of a generation of South Africans who, properly empowered, could lead an economic revolution at the southern tip of Africa, which would ultimately be good for all of us.

Bruce Whitfield presents The Money Show on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk.

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