In a recent presentation on the latest ‘African Economic Outlook’ report, African Development Bank chief economist Professor Mthuli Ncube displayed a slide showing what he believed provided the underlying rationale for the recent revolution in Tunisia, which, in turn, set in motion the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ across North Africa and much of the Middle East.
The slide shows how youth unemployment in Tunisia surged, despite a fairly stable overall unemployment rate of around 15% between the 1980s and 2010.
The “trigger”, he argued, was the rise in the number of unemployed graduates. Joblessness among this grouping of Tunisian society rose from around 2.3% in 1984 to 20.3% last year. “That’s your Jasmine effect, that’s your Arab Spring in the making,” Ncube argued.
For South Africa, which has truly dismal overall unemployment figures and an even more devastating rate of joblessness among young people, the Tunisian experience surely must hold some lessons.
One of these, in my view, is that the ongoing economic exclusion of young school leavers and graduates is entirely unsustainable. It either has to be dramatically reduced, or society should expect a backlash.
Another lesson is that society needs to engage formally with the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League on its legitimate call for ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’.
That said, the league also has to show a willingness to enter a genuine conversation, which requires it to abandon rhetoric in favour of analysis.
Should such a discussion eventually take place (and it’s quite likely that it will not, given that the nationalisation debate seems to be more about the mobilisation of alliances ahead of the ANC internal leader- ship elections next year than about policy), the Youth League’s call for economic freedom “in our lifetime” is actually a good starting point.
Would that cause be advanced by spending billions of rands in scarce public resources in a programme to acquire the mines, the banks and the farms? Would that cause truly prosper from a rewriting of the Constitution in a way that makes such compensation unnecessary?
I’m pretty convinced that, once properly analysed, the answer to such questions will be resoundingly negative.
However, such empirical analysis should merely serve as a starting point. The next step is to use that analysis to offer practical alternatives – ones that offer some hope to poor South Africans and economically excluded young people that it will no longer be ‘business as usual’.
Moving from simply knowing the problems to having implementable solutions is never easy. But such a journey can only begin when all agree to abandon slogans and ideological positions in favour of honest analysis.
Making that transition requires broad- minded leadership. Unfortunately, there is currently not much evidence of such, not only in the Youth League, but also in the ANC proper, where so-called leaders appeared to be in a state of fear-induced paralysis.