SONA 2019: Mbeki without the poetry

Posted on February 9, 2019


South Africa is again in the midst of that five-yearly cycle when politicians make extravagant promises that, on even cursory examination, ignore reality. And that does not even mean looking ahead to the consequences of the fourth industrial revolution that the world has already embarked on.

Some promises and projections, such as those contained in the manifesto of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are more detailed, even more coherent, than most. But they also ignore the facts in a globalised world. Like much of the labour movement and most other political parties, the EFF retreats into nationalism and to what writer Samuel Johnson called “the last refuge of a scoundrel”: patriotism.

To quote another famous writer, John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This certainly applies equally to those artificial creations of history: nation states.

Yet politicians in particular — and not only in South Africa — continue to promote the idea that, somehow, their country is isolated from the rest; that successful recipes for growth and general wellbeing that applied in different regions in a less integrated world, can simply be adopted today for a better tomorrow. Were the consequences not so tragic, this sort of thinking might be laughable.

But there seems little thought for the consequences. As the electoral battle is joined, the major political parties seem to share in common proposals for greater foreign direct investment, a revitalised manufacturing sector and — especially from the EFF — more special economic zones (SEZs) that would grant tax free status to major employers of labour.

What it all boils down to, whether from the government, the Democratic Alliance or any other party, is: more growth, more jobs and at decent pay. It is a call joined, almost unanimously, by the labour movement. Yet it is all just another example of pie in the sky.

It is also dangerous to adopt — and try to carry out — policies based on the assumption that economic growth will lead to more jobs, let alone jobs that will provide a decent living wage to all. To do so merely entrenches to “race to the bottom” for the sellers of labour.

The reason is obvious: we live in a world not only of sufficiency, but in a global village of surpluses. Great advances in transport also mean that products and produce can move quickly to any part of the world.

We therefore have the potential to adequately feed, clothe, house and liberate humanity. But the policies now pursued within a system accepted by governments and most political parties, makes this impossible and the consequences are tragic.

A classic example is the fact — measured by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation — that “global hunger” has increased in the past three years, with an estimated 821 million people now malnourished. Yet, by 2017, there was a near record global glut of wheat, rice, corn and soybeans. And from the US agriculture department we hear that the US has stockpiled a record 1.39 billion pounds (3 million kg) of cheese.

This mad see-saw of famine and glut is obviously unnecessary. It also results in the dumping of food, sometimes literally into landfills or the sea or as cut-price exports to other countries, so undermining agricultural production in the dumped on regions. The same all too often applies to much subsidised “food aid”.

Similar situations apply right across the board and often have damaging consequences for the environment. The energy intensive and polluting production of steel, where there is massive global over capacity and over production, is an often quoted example. Yet the same criticism applies to products such as clothing, once a major South African manufacturing sector.

Take a pair of jeans, for example. It requires 7 000 litres of water — the amount the average person consumes in six years — for that single item of clothing to reach the market. On top of that, it is estimated that 30% of annual garment production is never sold.

What happens to much of this surplus is an horrific tale of waste: in the US alone, 12.8 million tons goes into landfills every year. And in Sweden in 2017, the global H&M brand provided discarded clothing to help power the furnaces to supply electricity to the town of Vasteras, south-west of Stockholm.

There are many similar tales of wanton waste and environmental degradation resulting in obscene wealth for the few and sometimes horrific penury for the majority. This is the reality that politicians and policymakers should face in order to set in motion actions that can have beneficial material effects.

Once, with the transition from apartheid, South Africa was seen as providing such hope. But this was an illusion, a rainbow that briefly obscured the underlying reality of the systemic rot beneath.

Hard questions now need to be asked. Hard facts faced. It will not be easy, but it can be done. And it has to start somewhere. All it requires is the political will to take the radical steps necessary to start a process that could lead our global village out of the mire it now wallows in. But, as South Africa’s 2019 elections loom, there seems nothing on offer for the local electorate but variations on the same theme.