SA needs business as unusual to find its way - Businesslive

24 August 2020 - Our best hope of a bright future is to ensure we never return to normal, Steven Friedman wrote last week, and how right he is (“Return to normal will not put economy back on track”, August 18).

Our best hope of a bright future is to ensure we never return to normal, Steven Friedman wrote last week, and how right he is (“Return to normal will not put economy back on track”, August 18).

Doubtless, Friedman would differ sharply with us at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) — and we with him — on core elements of what would constitute a better route to a brighter future. But it remains true that a “return to normal” would be the wholly unsatisfactory status quo of a country we might recognise in Friedman’s sketch of it.

“The economy,” he wrote, “has been underperforming for years; a key reason is that most people are excluded from its benefits, which sounds like a left-wing complaint but is endorsed by the IMF among other organisations. Race remains a crucial divide in the economy; that it is not considered polite to say so shows how deep the problem is.”

He went on: “It is no surprise that the divide between insiders and outsiders, which hobbles the economy and ensures politics often ignores the issues most people face — like how to protect yourself from disease if the only way you can feed your family is to ride in a full taxi every working day — is also reflected in society. People in suburbs inhabit a different world to those in townships and shack settlements. It is the world of the suburbs, where people have resources and access to media, that decides what is important and what is not.”

IRR research bears this out, broadly. But you just need to look around you to know it is true. When the hard lockdown was imposed nearly five months ago I wrote that “when we South Africans went home to self-isolate ... we slipped back, the vast majority of us, into a country we thought we’d last lived in the 1980s”. For all the vast scale of the post-1994 reformation ... “most of us — in the tens of millions — have gone separately to our homes, in the teeming townships and the still streets of suburbia, as if there remains a law that still separates us by the inerasable logic of apartheid”.
But does it follow that untried ideas have lost vitality to repetition, or that only new ideas will deliver us?
Much has improved; the acknowledgment of dignity long denied to millions is, on its own, an immeasurable value. But the differences in how we live, what assets we have, what schooling and what chances to make the most of what’s on offer, define a divide that SA’s long-standing policy trajectory has failed to close. Which is why one of Friedman’s most striking lines is this: “normal” he wrote, “also means a national ‘debate’ in which the same people say the same things and the last time anyone had a new idea was probably two decades ago”.

In a way, of course, he is right — much political argument is so jaded and habitual it is barely capable of inducing anything beyond indifference. But does it follow that untried ideas have lost vitality to repetition, or that only new ideas will deliver us? The expanding consensus on SA’s failures highlights the foolhardiness of defying the logic of economics: the importance of well-run schools delivering people willing and able to succeed; economic policies that attract investment, stimulate growth and generate jobs; empowerment policies that address the considerable disadvantage where it exists, and employment policies that match economic not ideological demands.

These might all seem old ideas, but they remain a robust alternative, and the surest way of opening the door to outsiders whose numbers still rank in the millions. Adopting them would guarantee never returning to normal.

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

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2020-08-23-michael-morris-sa-needs-business-as-unusual-to-find-its-way/

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