Brace Yourself For Good News - Weekend Argus

28 July 2018 - Much of the country’s successes can also be attributed to ordinary, hard-working South Africans who rolled up their sleeves and committed themselves to the post-apartheid project.

Marius Roodt

If you listened only to the chattering classes and those who vent their views on social media, you’d think South Africa and the world were on the brink of disaster.

It’s true enough that the future does seem bleak at times. But the statistics tell a different story, both in South Africa and in the world beyond.

Oxford University economist Max Roser says there are three statistics everyone should know about the state of the world. These are:

-         In 1960, the child mortality rate was 20 million a year; today, that number is six million;

-         Since 1960 the global fertility rate has fallen by half. As more women have gained access to contraceptives they have been able to decide how many children they want. Research shows that the fewer children a woman has, the more career and other opportunities she has; and

-         Between 1990 and 2015, some 137 000 people escaped extreme poverty every day (defined as earning less than US$1.90 per day).

These three statistics are clear evidence that the world is becoming a better, not a worse, place. Other statistics back this up further – average global incomes are on the rise and there are more people living in a democracy than at any other time in history.

Although the world still faces many challenges, there is no doubt that the broad global trend is positive. And South Africa is no exception.

A soon-to-be-released report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) will show that, contrary to the opinion of many people, South Africa is a much better place today than it was in 1994. The IRR is unrivalled in its analysis of long-term trends in this country and the conclusion is inescapable; people are richer, healthier, and better educated than at almost any other time in our history.  

For example, between 1994 and 2017, real per capita incomes grew by 32%, with incomes rising in real terms from R42 000 in 1994 to R56 000 in 2017. This is partly because the demon of inflation was brought under control, thanks to a strong and independent Reserve Bank and, in the main, sensible economic policies. Between 1980 and 1992, annual inflation was never below 10%. Since then, inflation has never been above ten percent in any year, with the exception of 2008, when it reached 11.5%. Containing the destroyer of wealth that inflation is, is another unheralded success of post-apartheid South Africa.

We are also far more educated than we were in the past. There has been a very large increase in the numbers of people receiving degrees. In 1991, some 40 000 degrees were awarded in South Africa. By 2015, this number had leapt to 125 000. The largest increase in awards was among black students. In 1991, some 8 500 black students completed a degree course, a number which grew by 1 000% to 87 000 in 2015. There has been a similar increase in enrolment.

The proportion of black people in top management positions is also far higher than it was in 1994. In 1996, some 8% of top managers and executives were black. By 2016, nearly 40% were black. A similar increase was seen in the proportion of managers who were black. Some will attribute this to government meddling in the form of employment equity and affirmative action policies, but a far more likely explanation is the large increase in the number of black people completing tertiary education.

The middle class is also growing. More South Africans are buying cars than ever before (a key indicator of middle-class status). Looking at Living Standard Measures (LSMs), which measures key lifestyle indicators rather than incomes, the proportion of South Africans in the lower LSMs has dropped from 40% in 2001 to less than 10% in 2015.

On almost every other metric that one chooses to look at, South Africa is doing far better today than it was at the end of apartheid. For example, the number of people living in formal homes was far higher in 2016 higher than it was in 1996. Our health outcomes are also better, with mortality rates and mortality of children under five also dropping.

Even crime is also falling (although for many it may not feel that way). South Africa’s murder rate in 2016/17 was less than half of what it was for most of the 1990s.

The evidence is indisputable – South Africa is a far better place than it was under apartheid, and at almost any other time since the death of that odious system.

However, we must not assume that this will continue. South Africa improved rapidly on most metrics between 1994 and 2007, and has either been stagnant, or improvements have been far slower, since then (with the rollout of anti-retrovirals being an outlier). Between 1994 and 2007, South Africa had a government which worked to control government spending and encourage a positive investment environment (even if more could have been done). Since then, the country has, if not regressed, stood still. It is obvious why this is.

The Zuma administration spent taxpayers’ money profligately, with no concern for the consequences of increased borrowing costs. Instead of looking to solve the country’s problems, non-existent bogeymen were created, such as ‘White Monopoly Capital’, which were proffered as the reason for South Africa’s lack of progress, rather than the economic policy that retarded growth, investment, and job creation, and the large-scale corruption and looting.

Equally, of course, South Africa’s successes since 1994 are not the consequence only of a sensible government creating an environment conducive to investment or being careful to keep us out of red.

Much of the country’s successes can also be attributed to ordinary, hard-working South Africans who rolled up their sleeves and committed themselves to the post-apartheid project. These people, whatever their background, are the real reason why South Africa was well on its way to finally realising the promise of 1994.

However, 2007 was a turning point. The rise of a venal and corrupt administration, attempts by nefarious elements to increase racial tensions, and the jettisoning of sensible economic policies meant South Africa’s progress has slowed markedly since.

All is not lost, however, as our research shows that ordinary South Africans are as committed to building this country. But they cannot do this alone. A vital component is a government which allows South Africans to do this. This is not hard to do. The government needs to go back to the basics which it did so well a decade ago – keeping government spending to manageable levels, creating an investor-friendly environment, and appointing capable people to important positions.

What the current administration can also do to see South Africa progress once again, is scrap black economic empowerment (which only benefits the connected) and implement a policy predicated on economic disadvantage rather than race. Black people would still be the overwhelming beneficiaries of such a policy, since the flawed empowerment efforts so far have done far too little to overcome real disadvantage.

The government should also protect property rights rather than threaten them, and work to extend such rights to those who have been denied them too long (such as people living on tribal or customary land). Red tape and regulatory hurdles for businesses must also be cut, and restrictions on the labour market lifted.

With these policy changes, the progress we have made since 1994 (and which slowed after 2007) will continue, and rapidly. South Africa has much potential and we can become a prosperous, successful society in a short period if the right decisions are made now to create an environment in which all South Africans can contribute to that goal.

Marius Roodt is a campaign manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) ), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.