Both pictures are real — progress since 1994 and stagnation - Business Day

3 September 2018 - By any measure — especially in the present climate of political tension and uncertainty, rising unemployment, volatile protest action and popular fears about a resurgence of racism — these indicators disabuse those who insist SA gained nothing from its democratic transition or has declined since 1994. Nevertheless, unignorable indicators point to a country that has stumbled since 2007.

Michael Morris

More often than not, probably, hope is a distrusted sentiment, a devious pretender that only ever offers more than it can deliver.

By this standard, it doesn’t promise much. As Jonny Steinberg wrote on this page in early December 2017: "I suspect that we are entering a time in which people’s views are becoming wildly unstable, with deep cynicism and blind hope entwined."

Blind hope is indeed cynicism’s duplicitous confederate. But hope is not always an empty cup that optimists anticipate the future must naturally fill.

Where it is a demonstrable possibility, hope can be a realisable outcome rather than merely a wished-for one. And it is this kind of optimism — a stimulus to effort — that undergirds the latest report, "Life in South Africa: Reasons for Hope", produced by my colleagues at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

Some find it hard to credit, and seem almost incredulous that anybody could be so daft as to suggest that SA’s post-1994 trajectory could be anything but a falling index.

In fact, while the report is much less a praise song than a sober reckoning that points to that striving we might be willing to commit to, there’s no question that its contents show "substantive improvements in economic performance and the living standards of millions of people — sustained over a long period".

Here are some examples:

• Black people with a job increased from 4.9-million in 1994 to more than 12-million in 2017 (the total employed having roughly doubled).

• People estimated to live in the lower third of the living standards spectrum fell from nearly 40% in 2001 to just 10% in 2015.

• Formal houses increased 131% after 1996, families with electricity 192% and households with access to clean water 110%.

• Motor car ownership, a key middle-class indicator, increased from 3.8-million in 1999 to 7.1-million in 2017, or by 85%.

• Students at university have almost trebled since 1985, growing by well more than 100% since 1995. In 1995, just under half the national university class was black, but by 2015 that proportion had increased to 70%.

• Infant mortality and child mortality rates have fallen by 31.8% and 40.5%, respectively, since 2002.

• The murder rate has been halved through the democratic era.

Author of the report Kelebogile Leepile writes: "Over the past decade, that story was lost. The tone and inflection of media and other reporting and activist commentary became predominantly negative — often with good reason.

"But we became concerned that balance was being lost and that, amidst their fears and frustrations, South Africans would come to believe that they had failed in the main at what so many people had bravely set out to do in 1994."

By any measure — especially in the present climate of political tension and uncertainty, rising unemployment, volatile protest action and popular fears about a resurgence of racism — these indicators disabuse those who insist SA gained nothing from its democratic transition or has declined since 1994.

Nevertheless, unignorable indicators point to a country that has stumbled since 2007.

While real GDP per capita increased from R42,386 in 1994 to R56,020 in 2017, or more than 30%, most of that was before 2007 and it has plateaued since.

Post-2007 stagnation is similarly reflected in per capita income that, having increased from R23,686 in 1994 to R31,460 in 2007, or more than 32%, advanced by less than 10% over the subsequent decade.

And, after sharp reductions in the budget deficit to 2005-06, counterproductive government policy deterred investors to the extent that, by 2017, the deficit was again flirting with 1994 levels.

Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest conundrum of the South African way is that we seem to spend almost as much energy nurturing pessimism about a future that cannot work as we do on the hard graft of ensuring that it does.

But if the latest IRR report disarms groundless pessimism, it also dispels any illusion that SA can match the early successes of the democratic era through policies that weaken the economy and starve it of investment.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

 

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2018-09-03-michael-morris-both-pictures-are-real--progress-since-1994-and-stagnation/

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