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One leader as cause of a nation’s problems

One leader as cause of a nation’s problems

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’Tunji Ajibade

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This month, 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The sense of optimism was great at the time. Nigerians were happy for their South African brothers and sisters. I was too, because the shackle of oppression on blacks in that nation was dropped.  Well, now we know in what ways a few shackles haven’t been dropped.  Black South Africans don’t let anyone forget it. Attack on Nigerians who live in their townships is one tell-tale sign. Relentless criticism of government officials at local, provincial and national levels by citizens is another. And there are the political party rivals.  At every opportunity, they say the ruling party is a non-performer.  They don’t say it only at home. They travel abroad to beat the gong.

Not long ago, Julius Malema, leader South Africa’s opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters, spoke at Oxford, England.  Rather than salute the memory of Mandela as most people would, he said the first black president of South Africa was a reason his fellow blacks hadn’t enjoyed economic freedom.  Malema said Mandela  jettisoned the elements of the Freedom Charter of the ANC at the time he negotiated with the white apartheid government in the early 1990s.  This charter had been drawn up in the 1950s and ANC still held it as the manual for an equal, non-racial and democratic society. While Mandela negotiated to have a political transfer of power, Malema said, he walked away from the negotiation table without the economic equivalent. The result? The kind of frustration that makes unemployed South Africans see Nigerians as enemies who take their jobs. Malema isn’t alone. A few South Africans have also argued that Mandela bargained a deal which left the white minority in firm control of the economy and by inference the society. They said he adopted a reconciliation policy that white South Africans loved, but which left blacks where they had always been.

I’ve paid close attention to the arguments by South African academics over this debate. Steve Friedman of the University of Johannesburg  recently argued in The Conversation that Mandela alone shouldn’t  be blamed, that he was part of a collective, that strategic roles were played by former President Thabo Mbeki and the country’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and that the ANC’s decisions hadn’t ever been a one-man show. He further notes that whether Mandela and his colleagues could have done better depends on what their critics think they should have done. If the answer were that they should have insisted on far more radical change, Friedman argued, then how were they to achieve this since the apartheid system was not at the time defeated militarily? In any case, they couldn’t have realistically frightened away the capital which remained in the white minority’s hands.

Back in 2015 and writing in The Conversation also, Alan Hirsch of the University of Cape Town in his papers showed that growth in South Africa since 1990 had been very slow compared with other middle income developing countries. The country, he says, has performed poorly in exports, investment levels, domestic levels of competition, and innovation indices.  More importantly, poverty remains  high at over 40 per cent. This in spite of the fact that the reduction of poverty accelerated in the 2000s with faster growth and the extension of social grants.

Hirsch also pointed out that South Africa’s capacity to transform the economy was undermined by accidents of poor thinking, or the by-products of political horse trading. His examples regarding this observation include the excessively radical liberalisation of agricultural markets and structures; some very poorly conceived reforms in basic education in the first two post-1994 governments; the very poor design of privatisation of some state owned enterprises; and the constrained and complex designs for the liberalisation of some key network industries, especially in the ICT and energy sectors. Hirsch went ahead to situate all of that in the larger context of the 1990s which was characterised by the poor economic performance of most other African countries. Latin America itself was overwhelmed by debt crises. In the event, reassuring investors on whom South Africa’s economy depended was a high priority for the ANC while it negotiated with the white minority government.

He further explained that attempts to build a mechanism to drive economic transformation failed as the level of trust between business, labour and government deteriorated through the late 1990s and early 2000s. Had the ANC not been constantly looking over its shoulder over these issues, a few things might have been dealt with differently. These include  assets such as wealth and land that could have been more radically redistributed; the Reserve Bank that could have been given a full-employment mandate (like the Fed in the US); also competition policy could have attacked oligopolistic structures; a more vigorous industrial policy might have been introduced;  small businesses could have had more committed support; and the apartheid structure of cities could have been more urgently addressed. However, as the Cape Town University professor explained, such interventions were constrained by concerns for economic stability by the first black majority government.

I identify with these analyses. For they provide insight regarding internal and external conditions in relation to how South African blacks are where they are more than two decades after they’ve taken over power. I have stated it on this page that I take enormous interest in internal occurrences in South Africa more than any other country on the continent apart from Nigeria. The regular reader is familiar with my reasons. I’ve expected more from South African black leadership that they’ve offered. I thought the previous white minority governments laid a foundation that saw whites prospering on most indices, and that all that the black leadership needed to do was built on it. Instead, what I see is protest against corruption in high places for the past 24 years.  This week, the central government had to take over power in the North West Province as South Africans protested even more over expectations that the government didn’t meet. Across the country, citizens accuse everyone from the local government level to the central government of corruption, one that reached an embarrassing proportion under President Jacob Zuma. Therefore,  if blames should be shared regarding where South Africans find themselves today, Mandela’s bargaining skill with the apartheid government alone can’t be responsible.

However, I have a more general argument when some resort to sharing blames as things skew out of hand for the people of any nation. One, by inclination I don’t share blames; instead, I look for solutions. Two, no generation has the right to place the blame over what it’s passing through at the doorstep of any other generation. For throwing accusation doesn’t solve a problem, but doing something about it does. The power to change an unenviable condition is ever in the hands of the person that’s passing through it. All he needs to do is roll up his sleeves and work at it. It’s what I practice and it works. It’s the reason I’m never impressed by anyone who takes pleasure blaming colonial masters for today’s problems in Africa. I’m of the view that we’ve done worse to ourselves through corruption and bad leadership than the Europeans ever did to us. If China and Japan could bounce back from foreign subjugation, why is Africa different?

Regarding the debate over Mandela’s bargaining skill, younger generation of South Africans have a choice. It’s either they sit and let the world roll them over or they place a demand on the world through acceptable means of doing so. The democratic process is one. Developing oneself  and working one’s way to the top of the ladder constitute another. White apartheid governments disempowered blacks. But the post-apartheid generation has the freedom to empower itself and move on. It’s the way to go; the surest way not to be left behind in an imperfect world. This thing is ever about being given a lemon and making a lemonade from it. If any black man chooses to sit and nurse a sense of frustration and unrealistic entitlement in South Africa as it is currently configured he might sit forever.

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