Few gains, but many mistakes

On Wednesday, thousands of people in Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape and North West took to the streets to protest against high electricity and food prices.

On Wednesday, thousands of people in Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape and North West took to the streets to protest against high electricity and food prices.

That same day an Ipsos Marknor report said South African workers had every reason to be unhappy because, in real terms, they have become poorer in the past 12 months.

The report indicated that from May 2007 to May 2008, food prices increased by 16,8percent while earning per capita increased by 12percent. Despite this deluge of bad news, I still feel optimistic about the future of this country.

My optimism was fuelled by a panel discussion I attended at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Wednesday night.

Titled The Hill, the high-level televised discussion was hosted by Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya. Its objective was to discuss the social, political and economic challenges facing South Africa.

The panel was chaired by Judge Dennis Davis. Panelists included former director of World Bank Human Development Network Mamphele Ramphele, chairman of BHP Billiton in South Africa Vincent Maphai, former DA leader Tony Leon, International Marketing Council chairman Wendy Luhabe, SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin, businessman Saki Macozoma and international strategist Chantal Illbury.

Setting the scene, Davis used the seminal "I am an African" speech made by President Thabo Mbeki during the adoption of the Constitution in Parliament in 1996.

Mbeki said: "The Constitution whose adoption we celebrate . recognises the fact that the dignity of the individual is both an objective that society must pursue, and is a goal which cannot be separated from the material well-being of that individual.

". It aims to open the doors so that those who were disadvantaged can assume their place in society as equals with their fellow human beings without regard to colour, race, gender, age or geographic dispersal."

Davis asked to what extent has South Africa achieved the vision encapsulated in Mbeki's speech?

Especially in a situation where there is high unemployment, increasing income gaps between the rich and the poor, rising cost of living that has created a situation where workers cannot afford basic necessities, high crime rate and a sense of foreboding about the future of institutions of democracy like the Constitutional Court.

The panelists agreed that there had been some progress towards attaining the vision. But they said the situation has been undermined by some bad policy decisions by the government.

Commenting on education, Mamphele said unlike other African or underdeveloped countries facing massive legacy challenges, South Africa adopted "a Rolls Royce model completely unsuitable for the serious backlogs the country faced".

She said South Africa was stuck with a Rolls Royce that did not have the means to run, while Malawi adopted a Volkswagen model that was now running far ahead.

Macozoma said one of the pitfalls was government officials who were not up to the challenges of redressing the legacy of 300 years of colonialism and apartheid.

Luhabe said the government had "wonderful policies, but no coherence".

Maphai decried the commitment of teachers. He said teachers had an important role to play as agents for human development.

The South African Democratic Teachers' Union's (Sadtu) Thulas Nxesi said teachers needed quality training and equitable salaries. He pointed out that they were leaving the public sector to join the private sector where they can earn higher salaries.

Cronin said the situation was also undermined by the government's "wild spending of projects like the arms deal and Gautrain which had very little bearing in improving the quality of life for the poor".

What really lifted my spirit were the conclusions that the panelists came to.

They all agreed that "the honeymoon is over and South Africa must pull up its bootstraps".

They also came up with proposals as to how this should happen. Ramphele said some of it is already happening. She said more than 600 schools in poor communities throughout the country are involved in pilot projects aimed at improving performance in key subjects such as maths and science.

The panelists agreed that the government must move away from believing that it can deliver everything to the people, but use them as resources for self-development. This could be in the form of projects such as community gardens and communities building their own schools.

Cronin said the country must accept that it has a large underclass of unskilled people. It should intervene by boosting sectors where specialised skills are not needed such as tourism and the textile industry.

Most importantly, the panelists said there was a need for a competent government run by skilled people.

Maphai said the quality of public servants is a key factor when it comes to service delivery.

"We should develop the culture of competence and stop rewarding mediocrity."

The fly in the ointment was that the ANC was invited, but did not attend the event.

Commenting on the ANC no-show, Davis said in the build-up to 1994, when he ran the Future Imperfect programme, the party that was always difficult to get to participate was the ruling National Party.

Davis ascribes this to unwillingness by ruling parties to be held politically accountable.

It seems that the ANC has learnt from the best.