Making South Africa truly modern

JP Landman

In conversations, the same sentiment is repeated over and over, whether around the supper or breakfast table or when answering an opinion poll: South Africa is in decline. Eskom, xenophobia, crime, the poor economy, political uncertainty … we are going downhill fast. Many prefer to leave the country. Those in the know talk of a sixth wave of emigration. The first happened in 1948. The fifth wave occurred just before and after 1993.

The mood is not about to lift miraculously either, it seems.

Political uncertainty will remain for a year or more. Elections for a new dispensation are still months away. Afterwards, the newly elected still have to find their feet. To make matters worse, some of those elected may be found wanting.

While political divide and confusion reign supreme, the world economy, like the local one, is slowing down.

Can South Africa escape this sticky, despondent situation?

The country experienced a major change in circumstances following 1994, leapfrogging from a traditional society to a modern one. Seen in context, this change is part of a much bigger picture, a much longer continuum.

It started off slow enough. One hundred and fifty years after Jan van Riebeeck first set foot on South African soil “…the (Cape) Colony contained one town worthy of the name and five or six little villages,” writes CW de Kiewit in his classic 1941 work, A History of South Africa. Using the dry language of his economic-historical perspective, he paints a picture of the Cape becoming lame because of “deficieny in consumption, activity and animation” and how the Cape “built … its capital slowly”.

South Africa really only emerged as a modern society with the discovery and mining of diamonds in the 1860s, and gold in the 1886s. And following this, the institutions which came about as a result of mining became the bedrock for modern South Africa. By comparison, Harvard University was established 200 years before South Africa got its first university college, and 16 years before van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape – a sobering thought.

Modernisation was further stunted with the exclusion of black people from the process of participation. From the time that Cecil Rhodes passed the Glen Grey Act in 1894, it took exactly 100 years for South Africa to become democratic.

Martin Meredith quotes Rhodes in his address to the Cape parliament, where he motivated the act as follows: “It must be brought home to them [black people] that in future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in manual labour…”

The country’s slow start and the economic exclusion of the majority have brought us to today. Our generation are left with three tasks: to establish a democracy which includes everyone; to build a modern economy whose growth exceeds that of the population; and address the enormous disparities by eroding the social imbalances which still exists among the previously disadvantaged.

The two aforementioned tasks have largely been achieved. Despite showing only 3% economic growth this year, it remains higher than the population growth and is still more than the 1% with which we had to satisfy ourselves for almost two decades. But, other critical issues still need to be addressed – the attack on the judicial system should be averted, and economic growth needs to remain a political priority. Then, social development can follow.

Seen in this light, the current pessimism is a good thing. It may be the cause of much disgruntlement, but it also creates the opportunity for creativity and energy.

We hear of groups of citizens getting together, as was the case during the apartheid years, to discuss the state of affairs and the direction the country is going. Growing concern and general discontent with political parties are increasingly voiced.

That’s how we will escape the sticky situation. We need to loose our naivety. Change will not come easy. To be truly modern is not just about suffrage, about easy reconciliations. What we have to behold is the enormous challenge of social development. And decide from what moral foundation we want to approach the current situation – and then live these values.

Just maybe, a new generation is born out of this situation – a generation intent on making South Africa truly modern. A generation no longer crying over spilt milk.

JP Landman is a self-employed political and trend analyst. He consults to SA largest private wealth business, BoE Private Clients, and works with several SA corporates on future scenario trends. His focus areas are trends in politics, economics and social capital.

Among some of the unique research projects his consultancy has undertaken was the role of public institutions in battling corruption (quoted by the UN in a report on corruption), the interplay of demographics and economic growth, and an overview of trends around poverty alleviation in SA. Whilst working as an analyst on the JSE in the 1990s he was voted the top analyst in political trends.

He is also a popular speaker who has addressed diverse audiences locally and internationally and enjoys consistently good ratings.

He has a BA and LLB degrees from Stellenbosch (1978), studied Economics and Development Economics at Unisa (1979 and 1980) and later at Harvard (1998 and 2005), and obtained an MPhil in Future Studies (cum laude) from Stellenbosch (2003).