South Africa, The Risks We Face Are Real - Huffpost

11 May 2018 - There are really two South Africas — one riven, brittle and pessimistic, the other resilient, cohering and hopeful.

Michael Morris 
There are really two South Africas — one riven, brittle and pessimistic, the other resilient, cohering and hopeful.

One is the attention-seeking South Africa of near-synthetic perception, the hyperreality of social media din, headline horror stories and heedless political rhetoric shot through with antagonism, envy, falsehood and insecurity.

 The other is the real life most people lead, in which typically, there is a daily exhibition of civility, a willing effort to see tasks done in furthering one or another goal, a stoic levelling with setbacks and a fairly hardy expectation that everyone is deservingly or voluntarily engaged in these things.

 This is a South Africa that goes to bed at night in anticipation not of a miracle or a cataclysm, but of another day that is an increment of a future that is plausibly promising — and not least because there is, after all, something to be done towards it.

It awakes, though, as a spectator of the first. Whether it's Mooi River, Mahikeng or Momberg, the shouting match is a clamour of blame and threat and abuse in which what passes for analysis seldom offers much more than the cliché of a ticking time-bomb; a hostile present and a future that doesn't look as if it could possibly work.

Of course, there aren't really two South Africas at all — the matrix is complex and indivisible, the optimism sometimes fragile and the confidence never wholly assured.

Jobs have doubled since 1994, from nearly 8-million to just over of 16-million, while the dependency ratio (the number of people who depend on every 100 who work) has fallen from 380 to 251.

The risks we face are real. The data shows that we can't assume that hope and social cohesion will last indefinitely, unless households across the country are better off and unless politicians focus on achieving that rather than diverting attention from their failures by exploiting despair only to sow division.

Part of the reason for this is precisely the very significant gains achieved in the years after 1994, when the democratic dividend went far towards delivering "a better life for all".

Urbanisation soared as the chance of a middle-class life in a city beckoned.

Between 2001 and 2015, the proportion of people estimated to live in the lower third of South Africa's living-standards spectrum dropped from nearly 40 percent to just 10 percent. The number of formal houses increased by 131 percent after 1996, the number of families with electricity by 192 percent, and the number with access to clean water by 110 percent.

Households cooking with electricity (a key living-standards marker) has increased from just over 4-million in 1996 to just under 13-million.

Car ownership — a telling measure of middle-class status and social mobility — climbed 85 percent from 3.8-million in 1999 to 7.1-million last year.

In 1990, the number of black children who passed matric was just short of 100,000. Today, it has risen to almost 400,000. In 1995, less than half the university class was black, but today the figure is more than 70 percent, and the number of young people with the opportunity to go to university has almost tripled since 1990.

Jobs have doubled since 1994, from nearly 8-million to just over of 16-million, while the dependency ratio (the number of people who depend on every 100 who work) has fallen from 380 to 251.

If this is a heartening picture (and there are many more positives), it also represents a crisis — it's a crisis of rising expectations in a political and economic environment which, for about a decade, has failed to meet them.

The chances of the unskilled are slim. Between 2001 and 2017, skilled employment increased at a rate of 56.9 percent, while low-skilled employment increased at only 19.5 percent.
South Africa, along with every other economy, was battered by the global financial crisis of 2008. Yet where the world's economic recovery has since registered a growth rate increase year after year from 2013, South Africa blundered into the Zuma era, its growth rate dipping sharply.

All through the wasted years of Jacob Zuma's presidency — with rampant corruption, state capture, counterproductive policy hostile to investment and certainty, and spuriously concocted distractions such as "white monopoly capital" and other trivia from the arsenal of racial nationalism — people kept yearning.

Between 2011 and 2016 alone, more than 1.4-million South Africans migrated from rural — and poorer-performing — provinces to the urban concentrations mainly of Gauteng and Western Cape, drawn by higher wages, more jobs and better schools.

For too many, however, it has proved a false promise.

With the continuing shift in the structure of the economy towards high-skills tertiary and service industries, those without skills are finding ever dwindling opportunities — not least, as in the case of mining, because government interventions have scared off investors, or because labour-market regulations price them out of jobs. The numbers are grim: 9.3-million jobless people, of whom 6-million are under 35, and 8.3-million are black.

The chances of the unskilled are slim. Between 2001 and 2017, skilled employment increased at a rate of 56.9 percent, while low-skilled employment increased at only 19.5 percent.

Education is thus the key. The labour market absorption rate for young South Africans with a degree is 75.6 percent, but it falls to 50.3 percent for those with matric, and just 34 percent, on average, for those with anything less.

And here, in 2018, lies the gravest obstacle to progress. The statistics make harrowing reading.

These are only a few of them: just under half of the children who enrol in Grade 1 will make it to Grade 12, and only 28 percent of people aged 20 or older have completed high school.

A good maths mark in matric is possibly the most important marker of a young person's chances of entering the middle classes — but in South Africa today, just 6.9 percent of matric candidates will pass maths with a grade of 70 percent to 100 percent, a smaller proportion than in 2008. In the poorest quintile of schools, less than one matric candidate in 100 will receive a distinction in maths.

Without a frank acknowledgement of mounting failures, we will not find the courage to drastically reframe damaging policies in the critical areas of education, healthcare, empowerment, labour relations and land reform.
It is no surprise that opinion polls commissioned by the IRR in recent years have consistently shown that the bulk of South Africans — with far greater rationality than their political leaders — rate jobs and education as their most pressing concerns.

Contrary to the obsessive focus of politicians on race and policies of redistribution, the latest poll showed that a mere 1 percent of black respondents wanted the government to focus on speeding up affirmative action, with the same tiny proportion of blacks wanting it to concentrate on speeding up land reform.

The poll results of recent years show consistently high levels of moderate and considerate sentiment among South Africans, with 92 percent of all communities — and 90 percent of black respondents — agreeing in the latest survey that the different races need each other for the country to make progress.

Households dividing shrinking resources between increasing needs may warm to the promise of a bigger slice of the pie. But the pie simply isn't big enough to match the hunger, however appetising an extra helping may seem.

It is obvious, especially set against the remarkable gains of the early years of democracy, that without a frank acknowledgement of mounting failures, we will not find the courage to drastically reframe damaging policies in the critical areas of education, healthcare, empowerment, labour relations and land reform, all of which have stalled the post-apartheid reformation, chiefly at the cost of the poor, the least educated and the most in need.

Only policy reform sufficient to rebuild long-term confidence in the economy will generate the investment that is the only means of resuming the "better life" project of the 1990s.

The better part of South Africa holds to that plausible promise — but the facts dispel any assumption that, by some natural law of homegrown hardiness, diligence or civility, everything will work out in the end. It won't — not on its own.

Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR)

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