Posted on August 18, 2008

The Hill Debate

Brendan Boyle, Times (Johannesburg), August 17, 2008

Nothing was off limits when eight leading South Africans came together at Constitution Hill to debate how to put SA back on course.

The power struggle in the ANC gave them the space to question the dogmas of liberation and to say the unsayable about how well the country has used its second chance.

Not very well, was the consensus.

Academic Mamphela Ramphele and businesswoman Wendy Luhabe said that Bantu education under apartheid had served them better than those same township schools now serve the children born into freedom.

ANC stalwart Saki Macozoma acknowledged that race had become a tool in the battle for power and that the poor were no more than cannon fodder for some politicians.

Jeremy Cronin, the South African Communist Party’s leading thinker, challenged the self-congratulatory thesis that South Africa had performed a miracle in the first decade and a half of freedom, and called the pursuit of global competitiveness a pipe dream.

The government and its officials were damned as incompetent.

But ordinary South Africans hold the key to their own salvation, and the political season—if it is more than a Prague spring to be followed by brutal political censorship—offers a chance to pick the best of the democratic experience as the foundation for a better future.

In a discussion moderated by Judge Dennis Davis, South Africans with the capacity to do and not just to say wrestled for two hours in the first of a series of forward-looking conversations dubbed the Sunday Times Hill Debates.

Highlights are reported here; transcripts and a slide-show with sound are available at The best of the event will be aired on Summit (DStv channel 55) tomorrow at 5pm.

“The scales have dropped from our eyes,” said Davis; the Hill Debates hope to keep providing a clear-eyed vision of our society.

1. Our African Dream: Has race trumped excellence?

Davis: President Thabo Mbeki, in his “I am an African” speech, said the constitution constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins. I want to put it to you that many people would say the journey has come to a screeching halt, that the speech is now honoured far more in the breach than it is in the observance.

Ramphele: The journey has arrived at a point where you can no longer deny the unfinished business because we remain divided by the opportunities that are available to me which are not available to the rest of South Africa.

Cronin: The beginnings of wisdom are to recognise that we’ve actually squandered 10 years. There have been many lost opportunities; the momentum of the 1994 breakthrough was thrown away with unwise policies in many respects.

Leon: We have substituted practically every vision in this country and every policy for racial percentages; we’ve gone for demographic bean-counting as the essential pillar of current policy.

Ilbury: We’ve been a little too inwardly focused in some of our things in terms of looking into the country, and we’ve lost some of our competitiveness.

Macozoma: I think the answer is a typical South African ambiguity—ja-nee. If there’s anything I fear , it’s a situation where a society just stagnates and gets into the rut of a fruitless and useless cacophony, of a discussion about nothing. But we must not tell this nation that that dream was stillborn.

Maphai: I would be more concerned about watching trends. We were on the brink of being a Bosnia, a Rwanda, and if you think that we have survived all of that, then you have to say we have done exceptionally well.

Luhabe: We’ve alienated a lot of people; society has become disengaged. We have abdicated to a fantastic constitution, we’ve abdicated to government. We’ve been lazy; we assumed that achieving a democracy was the end of it.

Macozoma: I do not believe that the present government officials are competent up to the level at which they should be. The fact of the matter is that much more could have been done.

Davis: Are you saying we don’t have a competent government?

Cronin: Well, I think we have an uneven government; I think it’s very patchy in places. I think that it’s very unco-ordinated. I think we need much more effective planning.

Davis: But we have all these plans.

Cronin: Ja, but all over the place—vanity projects.

Davis: But it’s your party’s policy.

Cronin: It’s not the South African Communist Party’s policy. We talk about fiscal discipline, but there’s been very little fiscal discipline—I mean, wild spending which has benefited a small BEE elite. .. some of whom perhaps are present.

Davis: What do you mean, “wild spending”?

Cronin: Well, take the arms procurement, take Coega, take the Gautrain, things that are not transforming the reality for poor people in South Africa. The Left is often presented as being in favour of macro-populism. But who are the macro-populists around here?

Leon: I don’t think we’re actually addressing the core question, and that is the unemployed.

Davis: Saki, what about the lost generation?

Macozoma: I don’t really believe that we can lose a human being, but whatever we are trying to do in terms of getting them employment, there is just no spirit left in many of our people. Everybody’s just looking to the municipality, and there’s just nothing going on.

Ramphele: One of the reasons we don’t have a competent government in the way we could have had is that the powers that be chose to affirm certain people, particularly party political loyalists.

Raymond Louw (from the floor): All our problems, I believe, from crime to everywhere else, are dictated by the fact that we have adopted policies which are sending our people overseas—(from) the black community as well—and that is the thing that we should be worried about.

Macozoma: You have the audacity to argue that the emigration of white skills in South Africa is a substitution effect that arises as a result of affirmative action? Part of the problem is the propaganda that is peddled in this country about affirmative action.

Leon: The fundamental duty of the state, any state, is to secure its own citizens, and we have this violent psychopathy of crime; we are the third-most violent nation on earth , only beaten by Columbia and Venezuela in the last table that I saw. So to me, that’s got to be on the table.

2. The Race Card: Is it abused for political gain?

Davis: There is a sense out there that if you play the race card and show that you’re more populist and shout louder about transformation, you’re the person. You may say to me: “Oh, well, it’s just a stage.” But populism has a habit of staying longer than we sometimes want.

Cronin: I think we need to be very careful, particularly as white South Africans, when we throw around words like “race card” and “populism”. We know that elites of all kinds, including black elites in our country, play race cards for their own narrow purposes. But I think we need to recognise that I’m an African and that we’re all African—and that wonderful inclusive vision mustn’t conceal the reality that, for black people in South Africa, to be black, to be a woman , statistically marks you out for poverty, for unemployment, for being marginalised and so forth, and therefore we mustn’t reduce the issue of race in South Africa to “race card”—there’s a profound issue.

Leon: The problem with the race card isn’t that we don’t have a racial background, we don’t have 350 years of systemic discrimination against black people. The problem is, it’s being used in the debate to actually cut it off before it begins. It’s being used to actually reduce our political discourse to a form of democratic fundamentalism: I am right, you are wrong, go to hell.

Davis: Well, if you’re not a market fundamentalist, what policies of redress for racial discrimination?

Leon: Well, the first thing I would do is I would absolutely get a five-star education policy. The second thing I would do in this country, I would actually go and implement the constitution, which has an affirmative action clause in it. Mamphela put it so well when she was the vice-chancellor of UCT. She said it’s equity going hand in hand with excellence. You can’t have the one without the other.

Macozoma: This idea that the only people who play the race card are black people—I object to that.

Leon: I didn’t say that, incidentally.

Macozoma: It’s implied in all your career. But the fact of the matter is that in this country we do have the race card, and in my view it is a refuge of all scoundrels and we must eliminate it in our body politic. But in doing so you also have to be mindful of the hurt that you can cause by saying that every black person who is successful is successful because they played the race card.

Davis: But don’t you think to some extent that white people are extraordinarily mean-spirited in relation to these matters, and in a sense don’t celebrate black excellence?

Leon: I absolutely agree, but our country in the last 10 years has reached a point where it was impossible to differentiate between Hendrik Verwoerd and Helen Suzman. (We say) all white people should apologise for apartheid, (we don’t) differentiate between the various roles we played.

Ramphele: I think, Tony, we all as South Africans have to acknowledge that both sides of the divide abuse the race card.

Maphai: You can make race-based policies without using the word “black” or “white”. Listen to Mr Leon’s speech and that of all his colleagues in parliament. Once you decode them, they are always about white interests. I would have liked one day to hear Mr Leon stand up and say to white South Africans—the way Madiba challenged us as black South Africans : you have had it too nice; stop whingeing, let us now rebuild together.

3. The Economy: Did we underestimate the challenge?

Macozoma: If our fiscal policies were not what they have been, what we would be finding by now is that the rand, given all the other factors, would be so weak that in fact we would be in a far worse position than what we are.

Cronin: It’s a truth that we all know, that the war in Iraq is about oil. The very people who lecture us about free markets are themselves very, very far from practising non-intervention by the state, often in very aggressive forms. But public ownership, public intervention—the public sector—is incredibly important, particularly for a country like ours.

Leon: Okay, but, Jeremy, the private sector in South Africa actually does a huge range of things which are not its competency at all—it gets involved in the fight against crime, it gets involved in helping failing schools—so I don’t think you can just have this divide: public good and private bad. It’s actually very mixed.

Adam Habib (from the floor): I think the Left often doesn’t acknowledge that inflation was brought under control, that macroeconomic stability was brought under control. But it came at the cost of doubling unemployment. Colleagues here have said what we need is a competitions policy. I think that in part that may be true, but we also have a large amount of unskilled people. They need to be employed and that means we need to grow particular sectors that are export-oriented, but that are going to absorb large amounts of unskilled labour. That means hard choices. It’s not a complete free market; it means a regulated market. The big success story. .. is not the United States, by the way. It’s Japan. It’s South Korea. It’s China today. It’s India.

Peter Leon (from the floor): The panel almost without exception has focused on the government being the answer to the economy, which it would seem to me it isn’t. In South Africa it’s just ridiculous that the state, for example, owns an airline, which is costing billions of rand a year to recapitalise. The latest report on the economy by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) said that in our economy, 43% of the capital stock is owned by the state. Now, there doesn’t seem to be any focus by the panel on whether or not the state should be involved to the extent it is in the economy, or whether the state should be getting out of the economy more than it has.

Macozoma: Economics is about choices and life is about choices. We chose to tame inflation, to build the economic fundamentals. There was a cost to that, and the cost was unemployment. I think the problem with us quite often is that we label things and then cling to the label. If you look at the social security system there are gaps in it, but certainly to argue that there is a panacea called the basic income grant is one of these problems that we have, of putting up these straws and then clinging to them.

Ramphele: Today the law is dead in this country. You can kill, you can steal and you can get away with it; crime does pay in South Africa today. And that speaks to something which really is an overarching issue, which is our underestimation of what it means to govern a modern economy in a global context.

Michael Spicer (from the floor): The answer that the OECD provides is (that) you’ve got to open up the economy. That runs counter to a lot of those who’re trying to withdraw from the world economy. The firm wins of competition, internationally, allowing investment inside, that’s what we need. But we also need the action from government and from the unions to get this across the board—a new kind of activity.

4. The Education System: Are we aiming too high?

Davis: In the 2003 third international mathematics and science studies, in which the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council) tested grade 8 learners’ mathematics and science proficiency, South Africa came last of the 50 participating countries. I mean, that’s appalling.

Luhabe: For me, the greatest disappointment over the last 14 years has been what we’ve done with education. We are probably among the top 10 countries in terms of the resources we put into education, but there’s absolutely nothing to show for it. We continue to educate people who are of no value to the economy, who are of no value to the country.

Cronin: It’s true that we’re spending a lot on education now in budget terms, but from 1996 for a few years, terrible signals were sent into the health and education sectors: tighten your belts, teachers are drunkards and so on—a massive demoralisation of absolutely critical developmental sectors.

Ramphele: I think those figures speak to the issues that my colleagues here raised about the quality of the people who make policies and those who implement them. It is also about our mind-set in 1994. We were inheriting Bantu education, coloured education, this education—all mediocre education. We went for a Rolls-Royce model to deal with that—but the Malawians are driving a Volkswagen and they are driving past us. The reason we chose a Rolls-Royce is because we were trying to deal with the legacy of inferiority, superiority of an authoritarian kind of national Christian educational system by adopting a curriculum or a philosophy of education totally unsuited for our environment. Why? Because we didn’t have the self-confidence to acknowledge where we were. Now here we are. I am very excited. We have come of age, and we are now in a position to plan appropriately, to adopt policies that are appropriate, to harvest the lessons of the past.

Davis: Mamphela’s excited—the statistics show completely the opposite.

Ilbury: I have to disagree a little bit with the excitement. I think there’s a huge disconnect in education. I think that it does boil down a little bit to some of the leadership. I think we need to get back to basics—teachers need to teach; headmasters, headmistresses need to understand their role, and I don’t think that that’s happening. Plus, I think there’s confusion from the education department; there is a new curriculum that’s been put in place which is actually a world-class curriculum, but unless it’s going to be implemented and we start putting the training in place for that implementation, we’re not going to see anything.

Ramphele: I think what we need to put in place is faith in our young people, faith in poor people’s capacity to rise above their position.

Luhabe: My sense is that the quality of our education has deteriorated, there’s absolutely no doubt. I’m a product of Bantu education and when I look back it really seems much better than what education appears to be today. And I think the real difference  . . .

Davis: That’s an astonishing remark.

Luhabe: . . . might not have been the content of the education itself, I think that the difference was the quality.

Ramphele: I agree with her.

Luhabe: The difference was the quality and the commitment of our teachers. To rebuild that level of quality of commitment from our teachers is very far-fetched, I just don’t see where it’s going to come from.

Maphai: Good education is a product of one thing only—that is, committed teachers. In the ‘80s, township education virtually collapsed, but the only constant during that time was that teachers were continuing to collect their pay cheques. So we have almost produced a generation of teachers, for 10 to 15 years, who have got used to earning without working.

Cronin: The critical mistakes came post-1994, in which we sent a message of downsizing, or rightsizing, or monetizing precisely many of these professions; of contracting out, instead of understanding that we required, in order to turn around the huge deficit that we had, a developmental state that focused on healthcare, on education and on community services.

Davis: Are teachers taking their duties to their pupils more seriously?

Cronin: Unevenly so, and I think that we (can) certainly put pressure on the trade union to provide leadership in that direction.

Ilbury: Is it a government imperative to train? No, I think businesses should be looking at putting money in there instead of maybe sponsoring only infrastructure or sponsoring only pupils coming into schools and giving them a bursary.

5. The Way Forward: How do we become a decent society?

Macozoma: Part of the problem I have with these kinds of debates is that the kind of tone that we set for the country quite often does not inspire confidence among people who find themselves trapped in poverty and these kind of things.

For some people, poor people are political cannon fodder that must be used in whatever political agenda people have. In other instances, poor people are completely ignored as if they don’t have any capacities, they don’t have any soul, they don’t have anything to contribute. And I think that’s part of this equation. Poor people are not cripples. What I’m talking about is that we need to re-instil in people the confidence that they are human beings and that they can triumph.

Davis: Beyond the generalisations, practically, how would you do that?

Macozoma: We need to get competent government ministers, competent government officials. We need to reinforce the partnership between government and business. Practically, you need to make sure that you rebuild community institutions; your churches, your schools, your clubs.

Maphai: In this country we reward failure, and you are not going to get anywhere if you are doing that.

Leon: I’ve been involved with a lot of conversations over the last 14 years; they haven’t always been as direct and polite—so we have made a lot of progress.

If you look at failed policies, where we’ve made mistakes, I think we can look at violent crime. We should actually say, let’s make that a priority—that’s the first thing, prioritise it.

I believe, just my own anecdotal experience, that the skilled people who leave this country do not do so because of affirmative action—although some might; they do it because of their not wildly exaggerated fears, but their absolutely correct understanding that they, too, could be a target of a violent criminal act, and they’d rather not be.

Ramphele: We in South Africa and in Africa have got an opportunity to create employment in those areas where we have a comparative advantage—food areas, food security, tourism and dealing with rural development in a more creative way than we have dealt with it. We have made a mess of our land-reform policy; if we can get that right, we can absorb a lot of the people who cannot participate in the higher end of the global economy.

Luhabe: We have institutional capacity challenges that we have to address, and we have leadership challenges at various levels of society. That’s really where we can be most helpful to the next administration; to have the kind of conversation that says: “Having walked the last 15 years, this is what we believe would be most helpful to take us to the kind of future that we all want to be part of and that we all want to contribute to.”

Cronin: I don’t care if we’re not a globally competitive society if we’re a more decent society, a society in which all South Africans have basic real citizenship rights. If we begin to make progress in those directions—because I think the discourse of global competitiveness, of competitive cities, world-class cities, and so on, the 2010 discourse—all of that leads us into making decisions which I think are deeply fraught.

I like what a number of people have said, that despite everything, people survive. I think that’s where our attention has got to be—how do we, using state resources, public resources, policy resources, create the space for those things to happen more effectively? It needs an expanded public works programme which is not the rubbish we’ve got now. I think it’s about major agrarian transformation, rural development, I think it’s about a basic income grant. Let’s forget about global competitiveness.

Davis: The issue really at the end of the day is: on what basis do we become a decent society? Does that require high growth? Does that require egalitarian policies?

All of those are crucial. But what is important at the end of the day is that this country becomes one where the freedom, and dignity of all are not just guaranteed in a text, but on the ground and in substance.

[Editor’s Note: An audio slide-show and PDFs of the debate (both abridged and complete) are available here.]