THICK END OF THE WEDGE: If we really focus we can transform SA

IT IS difficult, in the US, not to be swept away a little by the clear evidence of vision and single-minded determination that must have created that society and that economy.

I took the Amtrak from Boston to New York and back a week ago. It is beautiful in the sunshine; the Atlantic coast bristles with inlets and bays and holiday homes and thousands upon thousands of boats.

You’re suddenly reminded of what real Super Power wealth looks like.

But it’s when you look inland that the economic story is laid bare. Mile after mile of infrastructure. Bridges, roads, railway lines and the extraordinary thing is how much of it is made of steel.

It is impossible to pass all of this and not despair for SA. We can make the steel, we need the infrastructure, we have the plan and so little is being done.

It is a tragedy that we are so distracted. That distraction is our burden. It is the menacing daily work of the ghosts of colonialism and of apartheid.

Even on Thursday, after a heavy scaffolding bridge across an important highway in Johannesburg collapsed, social media erupted with argument that this was “at least” not a black or government failure but, probably, a private sector (white) one. Two people were killed in the collapse.

It is going to take a hell of a big leader to get us all pointing in the same direction. Lindiwe Sisulu asked the right question at the ANC’s national general council last weekend. “How,” she wanted to know, “do we form a common South African identity?”

I don’t know. It might be good to start with what we know most citizens want — a compassionate, safe and increasingly prosperous society. And understand that this will take time. We could add that we want measurably to reduce and eventually to eradicate poverty.

And perhaps go even further. We could say that we want to achieve “full employment” however out of reach that might seem. The point is to share common goals. Full employment doesn’t mean 0% unemployment. Rather it is the best you can do over time.

In the US, the year with the lowest unemployment was 1953, with the jobless rate just below 3%. That would have been just after the Korean War.

The country was pumping.

We have our own war here, on poverty, surely. It is easy to get distracted by other battles — inequality, language, race, tribal authority, East or West, poor governance, scandal and gossip.

But anyone with a serious eye on the prize of a confident and contented country would let nothing get in the way of fighting poverty.

I agree with Julius Malema and his party that land is the key to reducing poverty. And even inequality. In fact, every South African should have a right to half a hectare of arable land. They should be given it at the age of 21 and be able to work it, sell it, combine it or develop it within the confines of reasonable laws. The state can claim back reasonable costs from a citizen’s estate when they die.

The state should be much better at freeing up land for development, especially near cities. It is the scarcity of land that drives up property prices and sharpens inequality.

Make plenty available and the scarcity would go away. Then let the private sector grow new companies to employ more people to get steel and concrete infrastructure to where people are living. We can, with a little courage, save ourselves or at least begin to talk about new ways to help ourselves.

I was so disappointed with the outcome of the national general council. It promised a series of things that will just never get delivered and yet it was amazing how merely promising them seemed to cheer the gathering up.

SA will still be a member of the International Criminal Court this time next year and this time the following year. There will be no media tribunal and nor will there be a wealth tax. Workers are not going to be given 50% of the commercial farms they work on. It’s just typically ANC. It spent its entire exile talking and making decisions and not implementing them and it’s still the same beast.

THE big lesson from the US is how important it is to grow yourself first. Their opening up of the country, often not a pretty sight I’m sure, demanded vast industrial resources and consumed them with equal intensity.

We can do that too. I have enjoyed learning a bit about the Zuma administration’s approach to its relatively new Phakisa programmes. These are drawn from a Malaysian approach to quick development and targeted goals that, while happy to accept and seek investment from abroad, try to ensure as much local involvement as possible.

So, orders for new Transnet and defence force ships and boats have, for instance, gone only to local shipyards.

A similar approach in the mining industry is also about to start a test or “laboratory” phase right now and may promise a much better local investing environment.

The thing is, the rand is now so weak and the things we no longer make are so basic and so numerous that we will have to begin to try to substitute imports and to buy local. What has happened to our forges? Can we even supply circuit-breakers to Eskom? (The ones I’ve seen in Transkei are imported!)

It is our habit to get ahead of ourselves. The first step in re-industrialising SA is to make the basic things we need ourselves, even machines. Then we can start talking about beneficiating our minerals and exporting exotic things to richer countries.

TO LISTEN to the Springbok rugby coach, you’d think we had just beaten some of the giants of the game to reach the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals. Instead we’ve beaten Samoa, a second-string Scottish side and the US. And we lost to Japan. Where all this optimism comes from is beyond me.

On Saturday we finally play a match against a real rugby team. The Welsh are battle-hardened by now and we will have to play unbelievably well to beat them.

We can do it, of course, and the genius of Fourie du Preez changes everything for the Boks, but it will be close.

Before he goes on and wins the World Cup, I have to say though I still think Heyneke Meyer should not be given a new contract.

We need to make SA rugby, even in the style we play, a more inclusive game and he is not the man to lead it.

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