JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
“HISTORY is to states what character is to individuals.”, former United States Secretary of State, Dr Henry Kissinger, who turned 100 last month, said in the 20th century.
It was a powerful, resonating comment from one of the most influential political scientists of the 20th century. A comment that Kissinger’s authorised biographer, Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institution, has cited many times in the media, as he is currently working on the second volume of Kissinger’s biography.
If a nation’s history is its character, and I totally agree, then the question I ask is, how are we shaping our history, our character, as a nation of South Africa? It’s a very important question, ahead of 2024 elections. The time to reflect on that question is now.
How our history has evolved over the past centuries, explains our present. The challenges we grapple with, from the energy crisis to terrifying homicide rates, can be addressed speedily. But that can only happen with a dedicated leadership that advances the wellbeing of South Africans.
Just as people are different by character, nations are different by histories. As a society of 61 million people, we choose and will choose the kind of history we want for our country.
The public policies we adopt both domestically and internationally, are part and parcel of our history. We’ve made blunders before, which we must not repeat.
What must not be forgotten is that how we transform our history will have a material impact on future generations. If we choose to bungle the matters of government debt, and persist on debt-financed consumption policies, it’s future generations that will have to repay the debt.
We must think of our history in relation to the world. Are we a globally competitive society that is capable of withstanding competition from nations like India, Brazil, China, and others? What are our aspirations in the globally competitive, hyper-connected world?
The design and the effectiveness of our public policies will answer the above crucial questions. We must understand where we come from as a people, to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Our history has been marked by the stories of horror and oppression, but also stories of heroism and purpose for unity.
In my observation, there are already troubling signals that suggest we are forgetting our history, which disturbs me because as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
With race-based policies, we are repeating the policy actions that have had ruinous consequences for our country in the past, before 1994.
Last week, the angry coloured community in Westbury, Johannesburg, protested the newly proposed race-based policies as per the amendments of the employment equity bill. They feel the current government headed by the African National Congress (ANC) is engineering policies that disadvantage them in the market.
The justification for race-based policies is that we must address the injustices of the past. But we can still address the injustices of the past without race-based policies that divide and fracture our society.
We can help those who need help, and we must, without incorporating race into policy programs. With that approach, most beneficiaries will still be black people. To incorporate race is nothing other than nationalist dogmas.
It is disheartening that most of the people who govern us refuse to learn from history for dogmatic reasons. Hence, we are in this dire socioeconomic situation.
We can avoid being a failed state
We are at a time where there is a raging debate on whether South Africa is a failed state or not. That we have reached such a point in thirty years of our democracy is proof that our nation is in trouble. It also proves that we have citizens who have lost hope in the country.
Last September, I was invited to speak at the South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA) convention in Sun City, North West. The exact title of my talk was “Can we pull SA back from the brink of a failed state?”
The point I made at the SAPOA convention was that we are not a failed yet, and being a failed can be avoided. South Africa’s institutions work, from the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) to the judiciary. They may not be perfect, with all the challenges they face, but they work. What has harmed South Africa is bad public policy on things like energy and labour markets. With the problems we face, we endure the consequences of bad policies.
Since we are a vibrant democracy where every citizen has a voice to have a say on how the country is governed, we have an opportunity to write a chapter on our history in 2024.
We are a better country in contrast to most Sub-Saharan African countries
South Africa has a stronger, more advanced economy, with a stronger financial services sector, and stronger institutions. Our standards of living are better in contrast to most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
With these relatively stronger foundations, and a vibrant democracy, we have an opportunity to make South Africa one of the most formidable countries in the world. What lets us down currently, is our decision-making at the polls and the leaders we elect.
In a conversation with one of the senior leaders at my workplace this week, we spoke about the dire state of Africa and the dynamics that have prolonged such a dire state for decades. He said to me the problem in the African continent is leadership. He was correct. Like me, he has been moved by the remarkable development story of Singapore under its founder Lee Kuan Yew.
Kuan Yew took a country that was dirt poor and elevated it to the riches in few decades. Kuan Yew once said that its people and their leaders who ensure the nation has “an honourable place in history”.
As South Africans we can develop a culture akin to that of the people of Singapore to ensure that our nation has an honourable place in history.
We must keep our government leaders on their toes. That is how a mature democratic system ought to operate. It must ensure that politicians are aware that if they mismanage the country, they are booted out of power. Currently, such a setting is non-existent in South Africa.
We must reform our democracy so that it’s efficient in holding leaders accountable.
We must renounce political correctness
To create a society whose history inspire across the globe must begin with the renouncement of political correctness.
Political correctness is counterproductive. We must be frank about our socio-economic problems. With political correctness, we adopt disastrous policies. The diagnosis of our socioeconomic problems must be accurate, so that policies adopted are accurate and effective.
Policymakers must understand what matters to South Africans and craft policies that will get us to a state where the needs of the people are met in a manner that safeguards individual freedoms.
South Africa is a beautiful country with huge potential. Its history, if transformed the right way, can inspire millions around the world again. It is our responsibility to make that happen. Every South African citizen of every colour, in every culture, every religion, has an enormous role to play. PM
© PHUMLANI M. MAJOZI