Counting Blessings

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By Paul Pereira



There must be few countries where the discussion about how things are going is as fretful as ours. Just a year ago there was much gnashing of teeth about the prospects of disaster we faced if Jacob Zuma and his lieutenants were re-elected to ANC leadership at Mangaung.

Now there are calls for Zuma’s impeachment, fanned by public spending on his private Nkandla property, implementation of Gauteng e-tolls, and a steady drumbeat of public disdain of the president. Expect the verbal temperature to rise dramatically in the first four months of next year as the country goes into full-scale election mode.

This may, then, be a time to take a little reflective stock of where we’re really heading. Are we about to go over a brink of corruption and increased poverty? Or have we been over-egging the pudding about our misfortunes a bit?

Would it really have been better if Zuma had been replaced by Deputy President Kgaleme Motlanthe, a man backed by the SACP, Cosatu and Julius Malema’s ANC Youth League, and who thinks Cuba is an example to emulate?

Instead, we’ve had management of state finances, where our budget deficit-to-GDP is down more than 4% on a year ago and, crucially, where economic growth is outstripping population growth by more than double.

This last simple fact is the basis on which SA’s future will be decided because off a higher GDP-to-population ratio comes increased wealth across the board. Even this year’s disappointing estimated 2.2% GDP growth should be seen against population growth of only 1%, and declining.

Indeed, our population of 51 million people is expected to peak at only 54 million at mid-century, falling to 52 million by century’s end. Already incomes are rising, living conditions improving, racial disparities fading.

This could happen more quickly if we wanted, for many things holding us back are self-imposed. These include restrictive labour law that has the World Economic Forum rank us at 138 out of 142 studied countries in labour market flexibility. Then there are new racial directives for the workplace; a feudalist refusal to allow individual private property in former “homelands”; an ideological brake on privatising our 715 state-owned entities; the misuse of the public sector to create employment instead of its downsizing; and an overall acceptance of a lack of excellence – even in global events such as last week’s Mandela tribute ceremonies – from fake interpreters to aged generals unable to march in step.

Yet we have many reasons to count our blessings at this year-end. Take corruption, the biggest bugbear of public and private concern. The office of the Auditor-General raises the alarm at R31bn in public spending that is qualified, or unwarranted, or “fruitless” and wasteful, or unauthorised. This means 2.5% of state expenditure, but by no means does all of it mean corrupt or illegal activity. For this truly is not Malawi, a place where entire cabinets have been sacked for worse.

The coy and highly-praised AG might want also to point to his other findings, whereby the number of qualified audits he has had to give to national departments fell 3% between 2000 and 2012; by 53% for provincial departments; by 25% for municipalities; and by 74% for public entities.

– First published in The Citizen, 20 December 2013.