ANALYSIS: South Africa at 25, what does the future hold?

Last week academics, activists, private and public sector professionals and entrepreneurs joined President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 25-years of democracy conference. The conference, organised by the Presidency, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ), was aimed at the collaborative reflection of the successes, progress, and challenges of the first quarter-of-a-century of democracy. The need to pause and reflect on the achievements and futures of South Africa’s democracy were even more important, given that three decades ago, very few would have foreseen apartheid’s replacement by an inclusive and stable democracy.

In his opening address, President Ramaphosa’s posture of frank assessment, his openness and welcoming attitude to new ideas and knowledge energised the discourse, allowing spirited discussion by presenters and delegates. This energy of robust and frank engagement permeated through the conference’s three interconnected themes of governance and leadership; socio-economic transformation and citizenship and identity. Guided by these themes, the papers presented and discussed were wide-ranging in topic, method of analysis and sectoral focus. The papers were also in-depth in assessment and ultimately useful for imagining the next 25 years of democracy.

While anchored by the above-stated themes, the central area of interrogation and resolution was how to consolidate democracy through deepened socio-economic transformation. Discussions thus centred on improving South Africa’s constitutional democracy’s capacity to reverse the persistently high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality – and in general – ensuring growth and prosperity of all. Risenga Maluleke, the Statistician General, recognised major increases in the delivery of electricity; water and sanitation, formal housing and that South Africa’s singular recession resulted from the global economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009. Indeed, as the Kelebogile Leepile of the Institute of Race Relations argued, South Africa has many reasons for hope – the gains thereof, it argued at the conference, can only be maintained through ‘sensible’ policy decisions.

As many delegates recognised, at the core of post-1994 macroeconomic policy choices were informed by the need to address high government debt, mass unemployment, poverty and inequality. This had to be done in a social climate characterised by major disparities and poor unity between the white and advantaged minority, the poor black majority and tenuous relationships with white domestic and international capital and unions. Thus, in balancing multiple and often conflicting societal needs, discussants interrogated the results of South Africa’s constantly changing macroeconomic policy terrain. The policy shifts between 1994, from the Reconstruction and Development Programme of 1994 to the National Development Plan of 2012, delegates identified inertia in implementation, regression in governance and misalignment between the different arms of government as major blockages to success.

For example, significant improvements were noted both within the legislative terrain and in the provision of clean and safe drinking water. However, delegates observed that the poor alignment between land and water sectors would negatively affect emerging farmers, who might find it difficult to access water. In the coming democratic period, such a development was identified as a risk that would dampen the success of socio-economic transformation and redistribution in the future. Besides poor policy coherence, minimal adherence to the 30-day payment period by government departments emerged as an area that was also severely hampering socio-economic transformation.

Recommendations were that Parliament was identified as an important sphere of accountability, and where instruments of accountability, such as parliamentary enquiries had to be evoked in long-standing or stubborn, inimical departmental problems.

Delegates recognised that if youth economic activity was to be advanced – and black industrialists encouraged and produced, the state’s own enterprising capacity had to be drastically improved. This would necessarily have to be in its technical and administrative capacity, as well as its capacity to work collaboratively with private sector partners seeking to improve their social citizenship. One of the key areas necessary for this to happen was local government. Alongside recognising the separation of political and administrative offices in local government, local enterprises and young traders could be nurtured and take off in the next 25 years but this requires, as Dr David Mohale argued, consistent, secure tenure of senior administrative personnel.

Of course, this capacity also included government personnel’s ability to build social compacts with civil society and private sector players. Central to this was the recognition that government performed well in areas where a functioning social compact was operating.

As we calibrate the National Health Insurance (NHI), one speaker implored government to take seriously the role of traditional medicine in the well-being of the population. The argument was that the polarisation that exists between ‘traditional medicine’ and ‘western medicine’ is not necessary, and that properly integrated, these two can work harmoniously together.

A former student activist also took time to contextualise the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements as struggles that were broader than what happens within the high walls of higher education institutions. The argument proffered was that these movements ought to be properly understood as a framework that students chose to use in order to express a multitude of challenges faced by the generation of the ‘born frees’ since the dawn of democracy. These challenges include the right to a decolonised education, access to economic opportunities, funding for higher and post-graduate education, entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as access to land and housing secured with tenure.

Careful, evidence-based analysis of policy results and impacts was needed before changes and reformulation become activated. This was recognised as particularly essential at local government level. This recommendation was invigorated by the need to obtain greater levels of policy coherence across and within different spheres of government.

In the range of recommendations for the next 25 years were the development of innovative, non-orthodox economic policies and institutions that should be responsive to prevailing economic conditions. There is also an urgent need to adapt educational curricula at different levels so that requisite skills necessary for economic development can be nurtured.

The next 25 years were seen as needing the elements of development state – people-centric, presence of social compact, the technical and organisational capacity of all players in the delivery of developmental objectives.

_Busani Ngcaweni and Lawrence Matemba work in the Policy Unit in The Presidency. Khwezi Mabasa is a senior researcher at Mistra and Dawn Nagar is in the Dean’s Office at the University of Johannesburg. _