Looking for work: tradesmen tout for business south of Johannesburg
As Thandi grapples with life’s challenges growing up in South Africa, her prospects appear grim.
There is a 46 per cent chance the black teenager will drop out of high school. If she manages to overcome that hurdle there is only a 4 per cent chance she will get a university level qualification. In the job market her prospects are equally bleak, with the likelihood that she will still not have employment five years after leaving school.
Indeed, the odds suggest she will remain below a poverty line income of R418 ($53) a month for her entire life until she is eligible for a state pension.
Thandi herself does not actually exist, but is an imaginary character created by the government’s National Planning Commission to highlight the poor education, high unemployment and widespread poverty in South Africa and the plight of the millions in the continent’s richest and most developed state who face a similar fate.
The NPC used her example as it released its “national development plan” – a 444-page document that lays out ambitious strategies to wipe out poverty and drastically reduce unemployment by 2030.
The timing might have been coincidental, but the two developments highlight the critical choices South Africa must make and the different directions a nation with one of the world’s most unequal societies could take.
At face value, both Mr Malema and the NPC seek the same goals – lifting the Thandis out of poverty and transforming an economy still dominated in many areas by minority whites. But that is where the similarities end. The release of the development plan could be seen as an attempt to counter the forces that provide space for Mr Malema and others to make populist outbursts.
Mr Malema has gained notoriety over his calls for the state to take at least a 60 per cent stake in the country’s mines and for the expropriation of white-owned land.
His detractors say he represents a clique seeking to enrich themselves through the state. Many South Africans also dislike his crude admonishment of critics, his racially charged utterances and his lavish lifestyle even as he claims to champion causes of the poor. But his messages on inequality and poverty have resonated with frustrated black people who feel they have little voice.
On the other hand, the NPC is headed by Trevor Manuel, a respected former finance minister who helped South Africa liberalise its economy in the post-apartheid era.
The urbane 55-year-old, a veteran of the apartheid struggle, is among the senior figures who have spoken out against mine nationalisation, describing it as a “seriously bad idea”. He also says that it needs to be known that property rights – protected under the constitution – are entrenched.
The NPC’s vision to turn South Africa around focuses on significant increases in infrastructure spending, improving public service performance, boosting exports, revamping education and training, reducing political influence at state-owned companies and battling corruption.
The NPC acknowledges: “There is a real risk that South Africa’s national plan could fail because the state is incapable of implementation.”
It also comes with a health warning. “Failure to address these [social/economic] challenges is likely to result in economic decline, falling living standards, rising competition for resources and social tension,” the report says. “Persistently high levels of poverty will prompt social instability, leading to a rise in populist politics and demands for short-term measures that lead to further tension and decline.”
Mr Malema’s suspension may force him from the political stage, although it comes into effect only once appeal processes have been completed, which could take months. He is also facing investigations by tax and other authorities.
But even if he is banished to the political wilderness, the ANC’s internal battles of which he is a symbol are unlikely to recede. And the causes he claims to represent will not disappear as long as disgruntled black people feel the political freedom ushered in by the democratic election in 1994 is not matched by economic transformation.
“We have had 17 years to follow Trevor’s route. The reason Malema has currency is because he has recognised the mood,” said one black manager at a bank. “He gives me a voice.”
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