Opinion: South Africa needs an urgent reset to lead it from a path of national suicide

​Throughout the annals of history, national suicides have occurred. The events of the past week in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are examples of this. People looted and destroyed vital infrastructure such as shops, pharmacies and medical centres and brought the vaccination programme in KZN to a grinding halt, writes Professor Tshilidzi Marwala

Prof Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), a member of the Namibia 4IR task Force and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He recently penned an opinion piece published by Daily Maverick.

South Africa needs an urgent reset to lead it from a path of national suicide – Prof Tshilidzi Marwala (19 July 2021)

During World War 2, as the army of Joseph Stalin was on an unstoppable march to Berlin, mass murderer Adolf Hitler had one thing in mind: to end his life.

Germany was facing inevitable defeat. Its infrastructure was crumbling rapidly. Hitler’s henchman, Heinrich Himmler, was making overtures to the West to save his skin. The second-most powerful man in Germany, Albert Speer, who was in charge of arms manufacturing, could not save Germany by killing Hitler because he could not find a ladder to climb the chimney that had been erected around the air intake vent of Hitler’s bunker. It was a comical end to a 12-year regime that had plunged the world into the heart of darkness.

But Hitler had other plans. He reasoned that if Germany could not win the war, it did not deserve to survive. The Hitler approach is appropriately called national suicide. Accordingly, he ordered that all German infrastructure be destroyed. Speer disobeyed him and tried to preserve as much of it as possible. For this, he was handsomely rewarded by being saved from certain death by hanging at Nuremberg. He later rediscovered himself as “a good Nazi”, dying 36 years later in the warm arms of his mistress in London. Life has an ironic way of rewarding evil. A German who tried to curtail German “national suicide” was Claus von Stauffenberg. He almost eliminated Hitler in an assassination attempt and for that, he was executed by a firing squad.

What Hitler tried to do by ordering the destruction of infrastructure has many names. It is called the scorched earth policy. It is also called the Samson Option, named after a Jewish judge who brought down a Philistine temple, killing himself and hundreds of Israel’s enemies to save his people. In Hitler’s case, there was no saving of his people on the agenda.

Throughout the annals of history, national suicides have occurred. The events of the past week in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are examples of this. People looted and destroyed vital infrastructure such as shops, pharmacies and medical centres and brought the vaccination programme in KZN to a grinding halt. In addition to the current death toll, we will be calculating the number of people who died due to these protests for many years to come.

President Cyril Ramaphosa called this an “attempted insurrection”. The Thabo Mbeki Foundation called these events “counterrevolutionary activities”. Similar to Germany, it was “a national suicide”. Fortunately, this attempt failed, and South Africa got another lease of life.

But the damage is incalculable. It is estimated that out of these protests a million direct and indirect jobs will be lost. The biggest victims of this carnage are black businesses. For example, Maponya Mall in Soweto is disabled, possibly for a year. Customer traffic that benefits Soweto will now migrate to suburbs, benefiting what many still term as white monopoly capital. This term was revived by a now-defunct British public relations company, Bell Pottinger. The British are both positively and negatively inventive. They gave us both the Industrial Revolution and the Bell Pottinger revolution.

In a conversation this week, my friend Mike Nkuna, who owns the Jabulani and Protea malls, solemnly told me that the events of the past week would cost the nation billions and more than 20,000 jobs. By last Friday, it was estimated that more than 212 people had died. The loss of income to the taxi industry is incalculable.

Taxi drivers in Gqeberha, who realised how their counterparts in Gauteng and KZN had suffered because of looting, organised themselves to stop the same from happening to them. Though taxi drivers organised themselves in Gauteng to protect the malls, the loss and destruction were already palpable and the damage had been done.

The socioeconomic structure of South Africa cannot be absolved from this carnage. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. In fact, just a couple of years ago we were branded the most unequal country in the world by the World Bank. In other words, our economy does not equally benefit all of our citizens. The GINI coefficient, which measures the degree of inequality in the distribution of wealth, is 0.63, very high by the global standard. The unofficial unemployment rate is now close to 50%, while the official unemployment rate is 31%. One can only expect these figures to worsen in the coming years and months.

However, South Africa has the most comprehensive social grant system, with 18 million beneficiaries. Admittedly, these grants are too low for decent survival, particularly given the pace of inflation. They barely make a dent. It has also been established that one social grant often extends beyond an individual to cover an entire family. Africans and coloureds are the largest groups who receive these grants, indicating poverty’s racial dimension.

Ironically, despite this deep-seated inequality, South Africa remains a magnet for Africans from countries such as Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland, a situation that has fuelled sporadic and unacceptable xenophobic attacks.

Given all these factors, what is to be done?

First, let us put our people to work. We need to identify economic factors that will make our economy competitive. Economic developments are happening in Asia, Europe and North America, where machines are rapidly replacing human labour and turning Karl Marx’s theory of labour as a primary source of surplus value on its head. So, we need to invest heavily in these productive forces — such as robots and artificial intelligence — to increase our productivity and tax base to capacitate our ability to take care of our people. If we can make our industries competitive in the international arena, jobs will follow.

The World Economic Forum estimates that automation will result in a net increase of 58 million jobs globally. About two thirds of these will be higher-skilled and the rest lower-skilled. This has been apparent historically, such as in the mechanisation of farming in the 1900s, which saw a boom as people switched to industrial work.

Second, we need to embark on a skills revolution. The South African condition is primarily defined by the skills mismatch and deficit that has run so rampant in recent decades. To combat this, every aspect of our society must become a learning site. Basic education needs to be fundamentally rethought, focusing on tangible skills that can benefit students in an era of automation. Our schools must also serve as night schools to reskill our people where necessary.

When I was growing up, our villages were production sites with clay pots, mats and clothes made by the community. How do we replicate this elsewhere? We have to ensure there are opportunities in every pocket of our society. Naturally, such an education revolution should include lessons on what it means to be a South African to foster social cohesion, which has eluded us for some time.

Third, we need to incentivise our people to go and work. One solution could be that recipients of social grants be required to work. For example, in exchange for a social grant, we should give people tasks to do in our communities, such as cleaning streets or guarding critical infrastructure, like schools, against vandalism. This is not a perfect response, but it does encourage more of our people to enter the workforce.

Fourth, we should introduce a form of national service to enforce community work and public service culture. All university students must do community work. For instance, at the University of Johannesburg, we attempted to introduce a programme where our students do six hours of community service. The lack of dynamic partnership with the City of Johannesburg derailed this project.

The events of the past few days have demonstrated that South Africa needs to reset. To invoke the words of science journalist Ed Yong, “normal led to this”. We need to modernise our society and put our people to work. Our first task must be to make a dent in our unemployment rate to once again encourage those who have been discouraged and to ensure our people have a future. Failure to do this will have dire consequences for all of us.

We need our own successful Claus von Stauffenberg to save us from national suicide.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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