On Monday the 23rd of July, 2018, the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute (UJCI) and the University of Johannesburg Library hosted a public dialogue titled ‘Progressive or Neoliberal?: South African Economic Policy since 1994’. The panel was made up of members of the Concerned Africans Forum, Professor Mongane Wally Serote, renowned poet and Professor of Philosophy at UJ serving as the chair with Dr Essop Pahad, former Minister in the South African Presidency and Mr. Alec Erwin, former Minister of Trade and Industry as the speakers. The panel members were both members of the post-1994 governments whose economic policy designs and outcomes were the subject of discussion and debate in the event.
The dialogue was attended by students, members of staff, members of the business community, NGOs, religious leaders, the general public and ambassadors of various countries, including Singapore, Syria, Morocco, Venezuela, Italy, Germany and the European Union.
It was a lively engagement with a question and answer session that was characterised by an inter-generational give-and-take with the students raising questions around what was done and the rationales for such courses of action. Implied within the seminar was the question of whether the liberation movement, in transitioning into being a government was “learning by doing” and inadvertently “sold out” and gave the private sector more benefits at the expense of the “masses” leading to the general economic exclusion of an estimated 55% of South Africans who find themselves living in poverty today.
In his keynote address, former Minister Erwin sought to take the audience back in time to the early 90s and conveyed the immense sense of pressure from all sides (international community, the South African business community and millions of South Africans) to get the transition right, and subsequently to foster stability while carrying out meaningful redistribution. He detailed the extent to which GEAR, which has subsequently been criticised as “neoliberal” was actually a well-intentioned attempt by the government to stabilise the economy. The criticism that it was an act of “selling out,” he argued was an ideological standpoint by the South African Communist Party (SACP) which happened to gather significant traction.
In his contribution, former Minister Essop Pahad detailed the impact of the changes taking place in the global arena and the impact they had in the incoming government’s policy options as the global arena was becoming unipolar, especially with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In the question and answer session, audience members raised questions around the phenomenon of growth with no job creation, the creation of monopolies by the post-1994 regulations, the availability of currency devaluation as a policy option and the inclusion of rural economies. In closing, the chair of the session highlighted the importance of holding events such as these, and the need for continuous research and publishing on these critical topics, especially if there is to be any hope to engineer a turnaround of the state of the South African economy.