HomeOpinionSouth Africa Reflects Failed African Politics

South Africa Reflects Failed African Politics

AS we commemorated Africa Day recently it is important that we reflect on the economic circumstances obtaining on our continent. Much discourse has taken place on the challenges of poor political governance and leadership failure in Africa.


Of particular interest here are lessons that can be drawn from Africa’s economic experience, as a basis for formulating new developmental trajectories. We are very alive to the fact that an economic model will depend on foundational matters of political governance and legitimacy. The economy cannot be de-linked from politics.

While it is imperative to address the fundamental issues of how political power is distributed and exercised, and to develop and live a new democratic culture characterised by people-crafted constitutions, political pluralism, leadership renewal, and freedoms of association, assembly and expression, it is equally important that we also work towards achieving freedom from poverty and breaking the cycle of destitution among all our people.

Africans’ economic rights to employment, decent housing, adequate healthcare, and affordable education should receive the same guarantees and safeguards as their political freedoms. It is therefore imperative that, as we celebrate the unity of our continent, some time be spent reflecting specifically on the nature of the African economy. 

The recent xenophobic attacks against black immigrants in South Africa signify a shameful and despicable development on our continent. This has been made worse by the fact that May is the month in which we are supposed to be coming together as Africans to celebrate our unity. These attacks constitute a terrible indictment of our collective and historical commitment to Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance, Ubuntu, African dignity and lack humanity.

However, rather than address the symptoms of the crisis we should deal with the fundamental issues that have caused this sad development. Both the push and pull factors of the tragedy must be attended to. The xenophobic attacks should be understood from the premises of two empirical factors.

Firstly, the poor people of South Africa have not yet economically benefited from their nation’s transition from the evil apartheid system to democratic rule. Secondly, the economies of other African countries in the Sadc region and beyond have not grown sufficiently enough to provide a decent standard of living to their peoples. Most of these economies are very weak in comparison to South Africa. 

At the root of the attacks are the South African poor people’s grievances of increasing poverty, growing inequality and unemployment, coupled with a deplorable social infrastructure where health, housing and education are woefully inadequate.

This is a crisis driven by incompetent delivery of social services and lack of economic opportunities for the poor. South Africa’s development programmes, including black economic empowerment, have failed to address historical economic imbalances inherited from apartheid. True broad-based social transformation has been elusive.

By and large, the traditionally rich whites, and their new black counterparts, are getting richer while the poor blacks are receding into abject poverty. Unfortunately, to the down-trodden South African have-nots, poor black immigrants are then conveniently perceived as job stealers, criminals and competitors placing unreasonable demands on scarce resources and a shaky infrastructure.

The foreigners, in particular the undocumented ones, are loathed for receiving slave wages for unskilled jobs, and in the process undercutting the South African lumpen proletariat.

Indeed, South African businesses have also mercilessly exploited this glut in cheap labour in pursuit of supersonic profits. They are guilty as charged. There is need to reflect on the role of capital in South Africa, and Africa in general.

We should debunk once and for all the outdated and flawed concept of the trickle down effect. Not all economic growth automatically benefits all the people in a country, nor is the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits.

Throughout the world, recent economic growth has benefited only a small portion of the population. Almost without exception, growth has led to the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. In many countries, including some of the richest countries in the world, there is increasingly no middle class to talk about. There are essentially the super rich and the desperately poor. South Africa is a classic case of this.

By any standard, the South African economy has had a good performance since the transition to democracy. The captains of South African industry have become super rich through obscene compensation.

Meanwhile, the majority of the population continues to wallow in poverty. This has perpetuated the unjust circumstances that used to prevail during apartheid. Squalid conditions have persisted in informal settlements such as Thembisa and Alexandra. So, while economic growth is crucial, there is need for active social justice to ensure that the prosperity is shared.

The crisis of unbridled capitalism is not unique to SA. Globally we witness the tragedy of unfettered market forces running amok as executives are paid exorbitant salaries while they hire people at near-slave wages to toil under inhuman conditions in Asian and African sweatshops.

Oil companies wantonly pump toxins down rivers consciously killing people, animals, and plants. The pharmaceutical industry denies life-saving medicines to millions of HIV-infected Africans. We are experiencing a global crisis that calls for business and political leaders to start thinking not unique to South Africa.

Globally we witness the tragedy of unfettered market forces running amok as executives are paid exorbitant salaries while they hire people at near-slave wages to toil under inhuman conditions in Asian and African sweatshops. Oil companies wantonly pump toxins down rivers consciously killing people, animals, and plants.

The pharmaceutical industry denies life-saving medicines to millions of HIV-infected Africans. We are experiencing a global crisis that calls for business and political leaders to start thinking differently.

In particular, governments must effectively play their role in setting the business terms of reference, levelling the economic playing field, and providing a safety net for the poor. This is clearly more imperative in Africa, and South Africa in particular, where there has been a history of economic exploitation, social degradation, and political subjugation, of one group by another.

It is on this score that the South African state is found miserably wanting. There has been a major policy failure on the part of the SA government with respect to the underemployed, the unemployed and the unemployable.

Any attempt by the Mbeki regime to link the uprisings to third force actors should be rejected with the contempt that it deserves. Even if such actors existed they would simply be taking advantage of systemic and structural policy failures rooted in inadequacy and incompetence of economic governance. The buck stops with Mbeki.

External to South Africa, the economic and political instability within the Sadc region and other parts of Africa has led to an influx of both skilled and unskilled Africans into a fairly stable South African economy. Of particular significance is the meltdown in Zimbabwe which has led to disproportionate displacements into South Africa.

Here again South African foreign policy failure has led to a harvest of thorns. It is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. If Mbeki cannot be convinced that there is a crisis in Zimbabwe, may be he can be convinced that events in that country have led to a crisis in South Africa. What a comedy of errors! We need to paraphrase Kwame Nkrumah into the language of a 21st century characterised by globalisation.

Economic prosperity in South Africa is meaningless without prosperity in the rest of Africa. More importantly, that economic growth and success must be shared with those at the bottom of the pyramid, the poor.

For the despicable xenophobia we have witnessed to be effectively contained, the needs of the poor in South Africa must be met. There must be efficient social service delivery and increased opportunities for the poor, through a radically overhauled and broad based economic empowerment model. We are not in any way advocating for equality of outcomes but rather equal access to opportunity. The importance of personal agency and responsibility cannot be overemphasised.

Beyond South Africa, there is need for an inclusive Pan-Africanist approach that puts regional sovereignty, stability and prosperity ahead of narrow and perverted definitions of sovereignty. This means, for example, the crisis in Zimbabwe must be viewed as an African catastrophe that undermines both strategic and economic interests of the Sadc region. It demands immediate and unequivocal African intervention.

We must totally disregard any claims to sovereignty by the illegitimate and kleptocratic regime of Robert Mugabe. It is the people’s will that is sovereign. Under globalisation, nations will only prosper as successful regional economic blocks. The collapse of one national economy is detrimental to the entire region.

Furthermore, there is need to ensure that economic paradigms and programmes are transportable across African borders. For example, will it not be sensible to have an Africa-wide, broad based economic empowerment model that ensures that South African corporates which operate in other African countries are legally bound to empower black people and poor communities in those countries?

What is currently happening is that white South African corporates are essentially exporting apartheid and unbridled exploitation to the rest of Africa, while carrying out minimum and ineffectual empowerment in South Africa (characterised by the enrichment and corruption of a few black elites). This is unsustainable for both South Africa and the rest of Africa. There is need to rethink. It is important that the economic growth and prosperity in South Africa is shared among all citizens and effectively extended to the rest of Africa.

This is the only sustainable way to reduce xenophobia African countries need to move from aid–dependent economic models to investment (domestic and foreign) driven economic development. Within this framework they need to migrate from resources based economics to manufacturing and value addition.

This should be driven by export-led investment leading to the production of finished products for both the domestic and export markets.

Entrepreneurship, innovation and leveraging of the ICT revolution should be the central organising mantras of our industrial revolution. All this must be backed by extensive investment in physical infrastructure and human capital development.

Beyond this, Africans must strive to be net exporters of capital. This means we should become competitive players in global financial and investment markets. Our higher educational systems, research and development, and intellectual property rights legislation need to be robustly developed and advanced as we seek to become net exporters of knowledge, ICT expertise and human capital.

This is how we should move up both the value and skills chains. This is the way to drive productivity and competitiveness of African economies. As we do all this we have a unique opportunity to leap-frog and bypass destructive industrialisation stages, by adopting green and clean technologies. Thus, we will be advancing the global climate change agenda through leveraging its business case. 

In pursuing all these economic endeavours there must national inclusiveness leading to shared economic growth and prosperity.

More importantly, there is need for a new type of Pan Africanism rooted in collective economics that invokes the dictum: poverty anywhere on the continent is an indictment of every African. The destiny and prosperity of all people of African descent are irrevocably intertwined.

By Arthur Mutambara: Leader of a faction of the Movement for Democratic Change.

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