20/11/2016 18:00 SAST | Updated 21/11/2016 09:03 SAST

South Africa Cannot Afford To Take The Populist Route

Deaan Vivier/Gallo Images
Mmusi Maimane addresses the audience during the Save SA civil rights movement gathering on November 02, 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa.

What happened just over three months ago in our Local Government Elections was of huge significance. Not only to the millions of people living in the metros that used to be run by the ANC and are now governed by DA-led coalitions, but to each and every South African – young or old, black or white, urban or rural. The results of these elections signalled an important shift in our politics, a shift that will undoubtedly change the game in the 2019 national election and beyond.

Prior to these August elections, many South Africans had still been holding out hope for some kind of recovery by the ANC. Which doesn't mean they were satisfied with the governing party's performance, but for many people the idea of a South Africa without a dominant ANC was impossible to imagine. Surely the ANC would correct itself. Surely it would eject the president who had brought the party, and the country, to its knees. Surely change was inevitable.

But nothing changed. Communities' grievances around service delivery were not taken seriously. The plight of poor students was not taken seriously. The concerns over corruption and waste in government were not taken seriously. Every day South Africans had to watch as their legislature – their Parliament – descended into embarrassing chaos. Every day South Africans had to read about scandals involving the looting of our resources by politicians and their crooked friends. Every day more and more South Africans joined the ranks of the unemployed and the hopeless. And still nothing changed.

But then we had a chance to go to the polls and elect local governments. And if you had any doubts about the health of our democracy, the August elections surely cleared this up. If government wasn't prepared to change, the people certainly were.

I spent months on the road in the build-up to the elections. I visited just about every corner of every province and, without exception, the people I spoke to were fed-up. They were tired of being excluded. They were tired of being lied to.

Believe me when I say there are many angry people out there. I spent months on the road in the build-up to the elections. I visited just about every corner of every province and, without exception, the people I spoke to were fed-up. They were tired of being excluded. They were tired of being lied to. And they were tired of waiting for things to change. The people were angry about what has been allowed to happen to our country, and that anger showed in the results of the election. Voters in four of our eight Metros showed the ANC the door.

So what does this mean for us as a nation? And what is the next step towards our country's recovery?

For starters, we have to agree that we're in a tough position as a country, and that we have no time to lose in getting ourselves out of this position. Anyone who is not prepared to admit that our stalled economy, our sky-rocketing unemployment, our swelling public debt and our scourge of government corruption pose a grave threat to our young democracy, has no business leading us through this period. We need to name the crisis so that we can face it head-on.

And secondly, we need long-term thinking. None of these problems are going to be solved in one political term of office. We need to look well beyond the next election, and the one after that. We need to lay strong foundations so that we can build the capable state required to deliver on all the progressive rights guaranteed in our Constitution. This will require cooperation, and this will take time.

But I look around me today and I see too many people fixated on short-term goals, whether it's clinging on for their own political survival or trying to amass personal power.

The period following the shake-up of August's election could have been a time of introspection and change. It could have been a time for all to reflect on the message that millions of South Africans were sending – that jobs, poverty, basic services and human dignity are far more important than past loyalties, or the racially divisive politics that failed so spectacularly to find fertile ground among voters. It could have been a time to say "Hang on, the plight of the people is the only thing that matters right now."

But instead of introspection and change, the ANC, along with their troubled offspring, the EFF, have reverted to an even more extreme form of "divide and conquer" tactics. Perhaps emboldened by the recent surge of populist nationalism in the politics of the USA, the UK and several other European states, they have upped the ante when it comes to inflammatory statements and behaviour. The "us and them" drum has never been beaten so loudly and so relentlessly.

This kind of incendiary populism will never be of any use to the people of South Africa. If any nation in the world has learnt hard lessons about the dangers of hateful and divisive rhetoric, it is South Africa. We can never go back there again. We also just don't have the luxury of time. We can't spend five years trying to undo a bad decision. Our social and economic ills are a ticking time bomb, and we'll have one chance to fix it.

Almost nine million South Africans don't have work, and most of them are under the age of 35. If we don't reignite our economy very soon to include these people, it will spell disaster for our young democratic project. We need investment, trade and growth, and the only way to achieve this is through the governance of a strong, stable centre in South African politics.

This means a party that includes all people instead of excluding some. A party that understands the importance of protecting the Constitution, respecting the Rule of Law and building a Capable State. A party that cherishes a free and independent media. A party that recognises the importance of strong democratic institutions. A party that doesn't tolerate corruption and waste. A party that knows what it takes to attract investment, and what it takes to support precious, job-creating enterprises.

The to-do list is virtually endless, but we must start by addressing these key issues:

  1. Education. Firstly, we need to improve the quality of our basic education, and we must do so by taking it back from the unions that have captured it, as well as by improving the quality of our educators. And secondly, we must resist every attempt to shut down our universities. It is crucial that our institutions of higher education remain globally competitive.
  2. Health. We need an inclusive health plan that our country can afford, which is not the pie-in-the-sky NHI put forward by the government. And within this health plan, we need to focus more of our resources and energy on preventative health.
  3. Public Sector Wage Bill. We need to cut our civil service down to a size we can afford and we need to freeze high-paying posts. If we fail to do so soon, we will face the same fate as Greece.
  4. BBBEE. Our interventions on behalf of the poor must genuinely benefit the poor. This means re-designing Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment to ensure that the poor become shareholders and active participants in our economy.

While other parts of the world have chosen, for now, to flirt with populism, extremism and nationalism, this kind of shift to the radical fringes won't work for us here in South Africa. We need a revolution of the centre – a revolution that builds an inclusive economy and places the poor at the heart of everything we do.

If our recent election results are anything to go by, it would seem that most South Africans realise this too.