Take the long view

What is it that makes us South Africans see things in extremes? At one end, we talk of our country as a “rainbow nation”, a “miracle” with the “best constitution in the world”. At the other, we imagine all politicians corrupt, and take strange comfort from foreign publications depict everything here going to the dogs.

Human progress is of course far more nuanced and therefore more interesting and this society, coming as it does out of centuries of inbuilt cleavages where colour is a main determinant of life’s chances, is actually changing in ways more interesting than simple.

Beyond the hype of success or failure lie stories of extraordinary achievement and change, often carrying right through society. This regular column is about exploring these trends, bringing to light those underlying currents that will shape our realities as the years pass, and that will help determine the choices that those who follow us will have before them.

But let’s first accept that it is fun to see things in black and white – and that it’s a normal part of the human condition to want to believe – Chicken Licken-like – that the sky’s about to fall. When I was growing up in the Seventies, we faced a looming racial war, a coming ice age, global over-population. Then came fear of resources running out; then an ozone hole; then global warming; then just climate change; and now ideas that President Jacob Zuma’s government is beyond redemption, a cesspit of corruption and “service delivery failure”.

This flexibility of doomed days ahead allows for our need to imagine that our sinfulness in some or other way needs big behavioural changes if we’re to avoid damnation. ‘Twas ever thus, although it’s no way to grasp what’s really happening in this complex place in Africa’s south.

When we look to the disaster of education, for instance, how often do we see that this arena also has remarkable successes? We talk of a school dropout rate before matric perhaps without acknowledging that schooling is anyway only compulsory to age 16; that the UK sees 47% of its pupils leave school at that age; and even that this is the first generation of full schooling that we’ve ever had.

When worrying about public education, do we know that our tertiary institutions, continuing their high standards of teaching and marking, were able to award 81 000 degrees in 2008, double that of 1991? Back in ’91, fully 10,3 whites graduated for every one African in agriculture, but by 2008 Africans outnumbered whites 0,8 to 1. That matters hugely both in showing how “access” to higher education has opened up, and by quantity in tackling future farming needs. And so it’s also heartening that fully 94% of all land claims lodged since 1995 have already been settled.

Meanwhile, engineering degrees have also seen an astonishing racial change, where 1991’s white to African ratio of 44 to one has turned (by 2008) to 1,1 to one.

Facts are that – in almost any area one wants to measure, from healthcare to housing to service delivery to economic performance and increases in household income – South Africa has shown real, groundshifting positive change since 1994’s full democratisation.

This isn’t the faux wishes of “sunshine journalism” or state propaganda, but most often of a people grabbing new opportunity and expanding their horizons of possibility. Let’s arm ourselves for our changing South Africa by taking a long view.

(This article was first published in The Citizen, November 2012)

– By Paul Pereira