Time to Focus on the Economy

6 Jun 2020


Our economy has been held back by the government itself. I have written a book about this, but more importantly, so have others. The title, After Dawn – Hope After State Capture by Mcebesi Jonas, is a very impressive contribution.

Before I say more about After Dawn, I have started reading Lawrence Freedman’s book, Strategy: A History (700 pages). It is all in there. Not surprisingly, the early chapters on the origins of strategy give some prominence to ancient Greek history, including the battles between Athens and Sparta. There were some physical battles, but mostly, in the era that gave rise to democracy, in-depth discourse about logic and reasoning took place; a great deal of this within the cities themselves. Athens led the way.

In about 400 BC Athens went through a particularly bad patch, even suffering a plague rather like our Coronavirus. At the time, the astute and visionary ruler of Athens, Pericles, was overcome by the sickness. To quote from Freedman:

For Pericles it was the plague in its terrible suddenness, symbolising the destructive and incalculable power of actuality, that undermined his vision and denied the control he sought over the historical process.

Could these words  be applied to South Africa at this time ?.

After Pericles’ death intellectual discourse in the city state of Athens deteriorated. To quote again:

They had given up on the search for the truth in order to play rhetorical games using their persuasive powers on behalf of any case – however unworthy the cause or perverse the logic – in return for payment.

Sounds like state capture.

In ancient Greece philosophers were replaced by sophists – in modern language, spin-doctors – rhetorical strategists, relativist in their morality, disinterested in truth, suggesting that all that mattered was power. Heaven forbid that these words should be written about South Africa in the present day.

It was at this time that Socrates was forced to commit suicide.

“Plato’s strategic coup” is a heading in Freedman’s book. Plato had been a devoted student of Socrates and could be regarded as the saviour of Athens. One of the themes expounded by Plato was the political role of philosophy. He framed philosophy as being a choice between the ethical search for the truth, on the one hand, and the expedient constructions of persuasive argument as a form of trade, on the other. This word ‘expedient’ is always regarded as a weakness – again, will this become part of our history?

So, dare we want our political leaders to embrace philosophy? A paradigm shift for many of our politicians.

Plato went on to say, “Philosophers could acquire the highest form of knowledge, grasping with clarity and certainty the essential quality of goodness, which they could then employ to watch over and care for the citizenry.” Words that come to mind are fairness, respect, honesty, hard work and generosity.

 Freedman uses the term scientific truth’ as part of the language of strategy. Again, in our current discourse, the true facts associated with scientific truth are yet to permeate the language of our politicians.

Let Africa Lead by Reuel Khoza is up there with Plato’s philosophy, claiming that politics needs the highest of ideals and practices. I will end later with a quote from Khoza’s book. We have our own pundits on a winning philosophy for our country. Plato and Khoza have in common their search for the truth and their insistence that this must be one of the tenets of philosophy. It must rub off on our politicians – first search for the truth.

After Dawn (Jonas) is also up there with Plato’s philosophy. Jonas has searched for the truth in writing about our socio-political and economic policies, and the truth has a great deal to do with being practical. What is going to work for all of us (inclusive), what is humane and just, what are the realities of our economy, competitiveness, being pragmatic, the need for trade-offs – these are some of Jonas’ themes.

The first half of After Dawn is an excellent critique of where we have gone wrong. His analysis is backed up by facts and numbers relating to where we stand. One example is our competitiveness in transporting containers. The average cost of transporting a shipping container in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is US$ 2,148 for exports and US$ 2,745 for imports, compared with US$ 823 and US$ 800, respectively, in China – nearly two thirds less than for SADC member states.

Regarding expenditure on Research and Development (R&D) we spend 0,76% of GDP, compared to 4% in South Korea and 2% in China. R&D has been neglected.

In electricity generation South Africa has lost all sight of what should have been the benefit of an SOE – doing it cheaper than anyone else to support the competitiveness of our industries. Jonas says this about SOEs:

Most crucial of all will be to avoid policy dogmatism either in favour of privatisation as an ideological goal, or against any privatisation at all. Pragmatism must be placed above expediency and doctrine.

Jonas is also blunt in his criticism of the ANC. To quote:

The ANC has already flirted with popular positions in a number of areas including land policy. This could have serious implications, including entrenching the ANC into a populist trajectory with potentially catastrophic ramifications for South Africa.

In the 2019 elections, the figures show that, for the first time, less than half the adult population voted, with just a quarter supporting the winning party (ANC). This is explored in Jonas’ book.

Another option is a Government of National Unity, but what is certain is that the last election (2019) was the last hurrah of the 1994 political era, and an uncertain future awaits. This is a warning from Jonas’ book.

In the second part of the book Jonas maps a possible way forward. He comes up with five obsessions we should espouse. The first obsession is built on the logic that we need both economic growth and transformation. Another obsession is inclusive growth, which should also tackle constraints on competitiveness and investment. Competitiveness must cover the restraints BEE places on our competitiveness.

Finally, Khoza’s book, Let Africa Lead, emphasises both transitional and transformational dynamics, through the philosophy of Ubuntu. A quote from his book:

Ubuntu then offers a comprehensive moral blueprint, if I can put it that way, for the reconstruction of Africa on the basis of human common sense: it is at once idealistic and pragmatic. This pragmatic idealism endorses human dignity and diversity. It fills us with the energy to initiate change and a mutual trust to sustain economic activity.

Ubuntu teaches the value of inclusivity, co-habitation, harmony, and the search for reciprocal understanding. Respect for diversity is the first proof of genuine adherence to the principles of African humanism.

My own formulation of serious leadership encompasses both transactional and transformational dynamics. It suggests that leaders transact with followers to accomplish gains for all, and they also transform their followers by empowering them. Leadership and management need to be backed by philosophy.

“Our [new] economic strategy will require a new social compact,” words from our President. We await details. Is he suggesting an economic CODESA, done through the internet – Zoom? This newsletter hopefully will be part of the preparation for this strategic session. We can learn from the wisdom of Plato, about leadership from Reuel Khoza, and socio-political economic realities from Mcebisi Jonas‘book.

By Neil Wright