OPINION: Lessons from our flawed transition

When speaking to a group of visiting Colombians, themselves going through a complex transition process (not for the first time), I was provided some pause for thought about South Africa's own transition.

Transition: 'the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.'

The word has an effortless ring to it, as if a country can simply move from one state of being to another and that all the centuries of conflict can simply vanish at the stroke of a pen.

Would that it were that easy.

The Colombian group, sitting in a Waterfront restaurant still seemed awed by South Africa's transition, impressed by our ability to have moved from a hurtful past to a common future. The South Africans present, so jaded by 20 years of democracy, were struck again by the mistakes we have made and by how very ordinary and, at times tawdry, our leaders have become.

But for many, South Africa still represents an ideal, with a Constitution which incorporates socio-economic rights and a court system which, though imperfect, is capable of holding the most powerful to account. Again last week we saw Judge Prinsloo of the North Gauteng High Court setting aside the suspension of Hawks head, Anwa Dramat.

So, this all seems to work pretty well. Except, of course, that sometimes democratic institutions become inconvenient for those in power. Allegations of political interference continue unabated, be it within the criminal justice system or SARS, with most of those allegations seeming to lead directly to the door of President Zuma himself.

Despite our progressive Constitution, we have also learnt that rights are still only won through struggle, even in a democratic society. Hindsight is 20/20 vision and often pointless, but if we had to do it all again, what might we have done differently as we sought to build a just and equitable society based on the rule of law?

It's still all about the economy. Last week the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released figures related to youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa. The average was 11%, with South Africa's youth unemployment sitting at 52%. A staggering figure, and therefore is it any surprise that many of those looting shops in Soweto last week were young people? Bored, without a future and a hope, driven to violence and turning on 'the other'. The element of xenophobia rears its ugly head for a variety of reasons - scarce resources but complicated by the inability South Africans often have in dealing with difference.

Some now suggest an 'economic Codesa' to deal with unemployment, poverty and inequality, our stubborn triple challenge. Yet the quotient of trust needed for such a discussion seems to be sorely lacking amongst our social partners; government, business and labour.

And yet, we dare not say it is too late to try. The best-laid technical plans of government often seem to lack the urgency and vision needed to fix the economy. A plethora of plans lies on the table; the New Growth Path, the Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP), the Presidential Infrastructure Co-coordinating Commission, the National Development Plan. Showing how stubborn the challenge is, National Treasury's Jobs Fund, which was to create 150,000 jobs by 2014, had delivered a mere 35,000 jobs by the end of 2014. Not through any fault of the Jobs Fund, it has to be said. Creating jobs is tough where skills are lacking and in an unforgiving international context.

So, Lesson One of the early years would have been to try to fix the economy in some way and create sufficient trust between the economic players based on an understanding that a fair wage, creating a proper skills base, artisanships and entrepreneurship should be supported. Importantly, too that some form of shared sacrifice would be necessary to deal with the ravages of the past.

Clearly, post-apartheid South Africa's greatest failure has been education despite the fact that we have spent more on education as a percentage of GDP than in any other area. Too many curriculum changes, the loss of experienced teachers and an insufficient embedding of the culture of learning, some errant teachers and weak administration have hampered our ability to educate the next generation for a different kind of economic reality.

Too many South African children simply drop out of school before reaching matric and the annual 'puff' surrounding the matric pass rate is just that - puff when only 28% of those who passed are able to reach university. In a post-1994 country based on a flawed notion of empowerment, education has often taken the back seat in a national discourse that prizes crass wealth accumulation above the emancipatory power of a decent education. This will continue to cost us dearly and there are no quick fixes. Lesson Two learnt is therefore a sobering one.

And then Lesson Three might be that our trust deficit was papered over by the 'rainbow discourse' of 1994 and our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) never allowed us to fully deal with the past. 'The past' lies between us in every debate about race and class, in every disagreement about structural inequality and an economy built on cheap labour. Too many victims' questions remain unanswered while the perpetrators walk amongst us.

And as Antjie Krog says so eloquently in the epic 'Country of grief and grace',

but if the old is not guilty

does not confess

then of course the new can also not be guilty

nor be held accountable

if it repeats the old

(things may then continue as before

but in a different shade)

And so 'transition' is indeed a 'process', ongoing, difficult, messy and uncomfortable. And despite the sacrifice and sheer joy of 1994, we have a long way to travel to arrive at 'another state or condition' as envisaged in the Constitution.

We have many lessons to teach the Colombians, after all.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).