SA’s glass – half full or half empty?

FF_graphic_27WEBHow we see this country’s progress and government’s performance probably has more to do with what filters we choose to look through than anything else. If you’re determined to see failure all around, then there’s no shortage of available evidence to confirm your prejudices. The same applies in opposite fashion to those wanting to see only the good. But life, and our society, is more interesting than that.

Last week I chaired a discussion at the Pretoria Country Club of mainly businessmen wanting to make their corporate social investment work more effective. Part of the recently launched “Nation Builder” campaign, these were, in other words, people already committed to poverty alleviation and to expanding opportunities for especially society’s most marginalised. When an attendee asked the question of how best to get “government to start delivering services properly”, there seemed general audience assent.

That service delivery performance should be imagined as an out-and-out failure should perhaps be no surprise, given that last week’s release of the annual National Performance Indicators report by Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane told of a fall from about two thirds to just over half of South Africans approving of government delivery performance. This comes on the heels of a growth in perceptions that corruption is on the rise.

One journalist delighted in suggesting South Africans take mood-enhancing medication, saying that the indicators report only showed “bad news and really bad news”. But to do that, she had to ignore all its news of progress, which far outweighs its acknowledgement of the bad. Although bad there is.

So, since 1994, the number of unemployed people has risen, although the proportion is more or less constant. The country has had credit rating agency downgrades and there have been increasing numbers of public protests, now running at more than one a day, although the vast majority take place peacefully.

But this has also been a time where income inequalities have decreased, living standards on virtually any measurement you care to use have become better and, most importantly, where health and longevity have improved dramatically. We’re getting richer across the board; we’re more educated than we’ve ever been; we live in better physical circumstances; falling crime rates mean we’re safer; national debt as a percentage of GDP is less; and more of us are contributing to the common weal through taxes.

Of course, it is critical always to remember that whatever successes the state can claim can only ever be paid for through taxing the profits of the rest of us. Economic growth and private sector expansion is the root of all our progress and often the direct cause of living standard improvements that government may try claim for itself.

To suggest, as some journalists and commentators are wont to do, that the country is simply going to the dogs and that there is only “bad news and really bad news” isn’t just intellectual laziness – it is to lie. This disservice to the truth, when done as a matter of daily course, not only ignores the interesting nuance that makes for societal change, but it must also help determine the general public view of how we’re doing as a country. But that doesn’t change facts on the ground.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 27 August 2013)

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