Fixing South Africa

Franschhoek Literary Festival, 17-19 May, Franschhoek. ‘How to Fix South Africa’: Ray Hartley in conversation with Moeletsi Mbeki, Hlumelo Biko and Dennis Davis.


The Sunday Times book How to Fix South Africa: The country’s leading thinkers on what must be done to create jobs, is a collection of articles written by South Africans prominent in the socio-political-cum economic sphere. Brought together on a beautifully sunny day, four of the country’s “leading thinkers” – Dennis Davis, Moeletsi Mbeki, Hlumelo Biko and the former editor who commissioned them, Ray Hartley – speak in turn on, or rather around, the topic of job creation.

The school hall is packed to the rafters. Although the majority of the audience is white and over fifty, a considerable section is also (quite noticeably) not white. “Fixing South Africa” is a popular topic these days: ubiquitous injunctions towards reparation(s) abound, rubbing shoulders with an issue that’s arguably as much an ethical, cultural and racial dilemma as it is a political call to arms (so to speak). Depending on who you ask, responses to the question of what we need to do as a country to get back on track range from a change in the ruling party, rooting out corruption, eradicating poverty and unemployment to vast improvements in our education system and the ditching of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). What is bound to emerge, inevitably, is the need for job-creation.

In a conversation lasting more than an hour, Judge Dennis Davis features as something of a panoptic eye: not so much leading the conversation as steering it this way and that, he gradually and then forcefully prods the three other gentlemen at the table to better the usual anodyne rhetoric about “healing” and “integration” and “working together”. What emerges is a sobering, intelligent counter to anti-intellectualism in public discourse – refreshingly bereft of self-promotion- and aggrandisement, and for the most part, resistant to purely anecdotal rather than analytical or diagnostic repartee. This makes for an involving discussion.

After a quick audience welcome, the no-nonsense Davis gets the discussion going by asking each of the panel members to talk to their contribution to the book.

First up is Hartley, journalist at large, a former contributor to Business Day, editor of the Sunday Times and founding editor of The Times. For Hartley, the goal of the book was to “play the ball and not the man”. He contends that South African debate seems almost always to be focused on “crude ideological phrases” and rhetoric rather than being issue-driven. Hartley’s goal, then, was to “identify the ball”, to see people as more than just “ciphers”, to focus on practical input as the basis for a much-needed social contract, able successfully to transform our economy. He states that our society is not too fractured to have important conversations, and that “grounds for consensus” exist.

Next to speak is Hlumelo Biko. Businessman, philanthropist, vice-chairman of the Baxter Theatre and son of Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele, Biko is eloquent, quick-witted and frank when making his points.

By way of introduction, Biko offers that despite spending R500 billion to date under guise of BEE, the project is defined (defiled also?) by its “failure to transform society in any tangible way”. This statement is qualified by mentioning the increase in black South Africans in middle-management positions. He suggests that firms investing money through trusts that they set up and manage themselves are the best way to “avoid spending another R500 billion”, and notes how business and government have the chance to “invert problems into opportunity” through large-scale “capacitation” in an environment rocked by a “massive skills challenge”.

Biko continues, noting how government “isn’t very serious about education”: we need to find and nurture “talent in all corners of the country” by bypassing rote categories of race, and we need far greater scrutiny of our teachers and of the kind of absolution from professionalism seemingly granted by the labour unions.

“Re-setting” standards and re-calibrating expectations is essential, Biko claims. Since the “teaching profession is the most important one in the country”, we cannot allow a lack of commitment from teachers to continue “decapitating” the prospects of our children. Biko includes himself when he states that “[w]e have been deeply irresponsible” in allowing “bad SA” to encroach on “good SA”; he implores the audience to take a look at themselves, while on a more positive note commending the “frequency and pitch” of the debate currently raging in public discourse, at a level where it hasn’t been for the last three or four years.

If Biko is the poster-boy venture capitalist, Moeletsi Mbeki is the worldly, card-carrying member of the “always historicise” party. Son of Govan Mbeki and brother to former President Thabo, political economist and deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, Mbeki simultaneously seems the most relaxed and least optimistic about the country’s immediate future.

Mbeki’s opening retort is that SA newspapers are generally “not very serious”, and that he was drawn to making a contribution to the book after Hartley’s original “each one hire one” column. His contribution focuses on the mining sector and the concomitant confrontation with labour, of which the Marikana tragedy is a product. Mbeki speaks at length on the trend of re-militarisation under Zuma after Mandela de-militarised much of the state after 1994. He sketches the “evolving confrontation” between the state and the poor while drawing parallels between the underclasses of the UK and SA.

After posing the rhetorical question “How long can we emerge?”, Mbeki cites the Markinor study that was done after the vote in 2009, which revealed that approximately 70 percent of ANC voters had no schooling or failed to complete high school, and that a similar number are unemployed. What emerges is the fact that a lack of education and employment clearly does not stop people from voting for the ANC, and that it is perhaps this unfortunate state that propels them into such action. This is a question still requiring much debate.

The remainder of the discussion, a kind of back and forth between the panellists, punctuated by bursts from Davis, is framed around asking whether South Africa has a political culture that willingly and blindly accepts all that’s done by the ANC. This is a clever way to allow for a more three-dimensional and less closed-off approach to the session’s socio-economic/political inquiry.

Hartley mentions that the political competition in the Western Cape has led to relatively sound administration, and that the fear of being voted out at the next election motivates public officials to do their jobs. He believes that disillusionment is growing and that the Secrecy Bill is there for little else than to deter journalists from speaking out against state corruption. Davis plays devil’s advocate by using Zimbabwe as an example of a country where there is little political competition, but an education system that is much better than South Africa’s, to which Biko responds that citizens of Zimbabwe were happy to cede power to Robert Mugabe as long as the education system remained strong.

Mbeki arguably offers up the richest point of discussion for future debates when he speaks of the “two South Africas” housed within our borders: the one affluent, gated, guarded by its own army called ADT, the other poor, unprotected, left to their own devices, with service delivery protests their main weapon of reaching a government that seemingly refuses to listen or take note of their plight. Davis elicits a huge cheer from the audience when dryly commenting that the country’s middle class should get ADT to run the country.

Ever the pragmatist, Hartley steers the conversation away from the emergent discourse of disenfranchisement when he focuses his attention on the lack of synergy and co-operation between business and labour. By providing the irony of a recent survey in the United States which voted Mercedes Benz motor vehicles manufactured in one of the poorest parts of Port Elizabeth the best in the world, one has to wonder why so little is ever made of the jaw-dropping economic anomalies that are rarely reported in mainstream news coverage. Davis concludes by asking: Why is the economic debate so utterly weak in this country? Ultimately, as one does at this kind of event, I leave with more questions than answers, but the answers that did emerge were cogent, engaging and practical.

It’s no surprise that this event was one of the first to be sold out, as more and more of our electorate put forward their hunger and thirst for substantial engagement with real-world issues. As a parting shot I could take aim at the lack of youth in the audience and at the aforementioned “whiteness” factor, but for once that seems a tired, churlish critique of an event that drew impassioned applause upon its conclusion. I certainly left wanting more.

Tagged , , ,