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Development has taken a back seat in SA’s national discourse

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Development has taken a back seat in SA’s national discourse

17th September 2010

By: Aubrey Matshiqi

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According to some poverty statistics, 50% of South Africans live in poverty, and about 38% of people between the ages of 15 and 25 are neither in a job nor receiving an education.

This is probably why Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan argued that we need sustained gross domestic product growth of about 7% for at least 20 years. In addition, we need to turn around the performance of the public health and education systems while, in the short to medium term, we grapple with the impact of the global economic crisis, slower-than-expected levels of global economic growth and what some economists argue is the 20% probability of a double-dip global recession.

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The ruling party, on the other hand, still maintains that the solution is the creation of a developmental State and an expansion in the number of black people who become part of the middle class. If President Jacob Zuma’s economic diplomacy is anything to go by, looking East and joining the league of emerging powers, such as India, Brazil and China, is one of the answers.

Now tell me, why, in a country faced with such serious challenges, it is debates over narrow political battles in the ruling alliance that have dominated discussions about this month’s national general council (NGC) of the African National Congress (ANC)?

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Tell me, why have disagreements between the media and the ruling party over the idea of setting up a statutory media appeals tribunal dominated the national discourse? As important as the freedom of the media is in any democracy, why is it that, in debates about the NGC, our national developmental challenges have become a secondary issue?

The possibility is that the media and the ANC are the two elephants that are trampling the grass of national developmental goals. They must, therefore, be hesitant about claiming to be the foremost champions of the public interest. In fact, it appears it is only the media that understands what is in the public interest, and the ANC is the only one that knows what is in the national interest. The truth between these two contending powers lies in political realities that are defined by the parochial interests of both. What this means, at least for the moment, is that we cannot rely on the ANC or the media for a long-term vision regarding the measures we should put in place to ameliorate the poor socioeconomic conditions of the poorest of the poor among us.

Instead of focusing narrowly on political battles within the ANC and the alliance, and between the ANC and the media, we should be having a conversation about the kind of country we want to be in 2060. This, in part, is the source of my disappointment about our attention deficit when it comes to the national developmental agenda. A case in point is the National Planning Commission (NPC). Ironically, the NPC was one of the outcomes of the battle between the supporters of former President Thabo Mbeki and Zuma. The left (the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party) complained in their respective policy discussion documents that, under the leadership of Mbeki, the postapartheid State and the ANC had developed a bias towards capital, narrow black economic-empowerment interests and the middle class, in general, at the expense of working class interests.

The cure, they argued, would be a developmental agenda which reversed this bias. It is in this context that demands for the creation of an NPC were made. There are two ways in which we can interpret this demand. Firstly, it was an attempt by the Left to create a centre of power within the State that would be responsive to its policy desires. This would be in line with the argument that the alliance, and not the ANC, should be the strategic centre which informs the content of government policy.

Secondly, the demand indicates that there are people in the alliance who are committed to a broad national developmental agenda instead of the narrow goals of accumulating political and economic resources. But we should not rule out the possibility that some were driven by a mixture of both and other motives. Whatever the motives, I was hoping that the creation of the NPC would be a historic moment as important as the events leading up to the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955. I thought the NPC would become an opportunity for the nation to have a conversation about its long-term future – a conversation born out of the realisation that the Freedom Charter remains a legitimate blueprint for a nonracial, nonsexist and prosperous democratic society but the means through which these goals would be achieved would be put up for review.

This is the conversation that should dominate debates about the NGC of the ruling party.

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