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Reimagining South Africa’s Economic Future

July’s ALI Dialogue Series event was a sparkling – and, participants felt, long-overdue – discussion focused on “The Constitution and the Economy: Renewing and Implementing the Social Compact.” In heartfelt comments both from the panellists and the floor, participants from all walks of life – economists and businesspeople, social justice advocates and media people, researchers and political analysts – grappled at the intersect between the economy and human rights, and shared their perspective on the tension between a Constitution that is all about social justice and an economic framework which, in practice, doesn’t align.

 

The discussion was facilitated by Fazela Mahomed and co-hosted by the Centre for Constitutional Values, represented by CEO Edward Shalala. Leading the discussion, on the panel, were:

  • Economist, activist and political commentatorGilad Isaacs,formerly of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the Social Justice Coalition;
  • BusinessmanGlen Heneck;
  • Social justice activist Mark Heywood,who has just stepped down as head of SECTION27 to make way for younger leadership;
  • Business and communications strategist Muzi Kuzwayo;
  • Nicole Dunn,strategy and innovation consultant;
  • EconomistNjabulo Sithebe;
  • Tshepo Mokoka,senior lecture at the school of economics and business science at Wits, and ministerial advisor; and
  • Webster Mfebe, chair of the Limpopo Eco-Industrial Park, the world’s first zero solid waste industrial park, and CEO of the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors.

The evening kicked off with panellists making a short statement in response to the general question: what is the one thing – something we as a country could do within the year – to renew and implement the social compact?

There were three dominant themes to their comments:

  1. The structure of the economy: how it works; the expected outcomes; and whether we can produce an economy that is fair and just;
  2. The concept of a human rights economy; and
  3. The radical potential of the Constitution – where we are right now in our relationship to it, and where we need to be.

Panellists’ perspectives ranged from the pragmatic and optimistic, to profound frustration, regarding a business and political environment that is perceived as entirely untrustworthy. Though it was generally acknowledged that capitalism as a system is in crisis globally, it was argued that business was or could nevertheless be a real and critical driver of better socio-economic and socio-political outcomes. Business knows it “cannot succeed if society fails,” said one of the panellists. “Every time South Africa has been on the brink,” said another, “business has come forward.” Others were more cynical: business is comfortable, they said – it does not seek to change; and when it steps up, it does so only when it is itself threatened.

A powerful theme in the evening’s dialogue was that although the South African Constitution is a blueprint for a just, values-driven and equitable society, it remains an abstraction for most of us. “Every weekend in the township, there is a funeral,” said one of the panellists. “People have lost their loved ones but also – if it’s an elderly person who has died – a source of income. The conversation around the Constitution often comes down to this: we want food on the table. We want a job…” Others agreed. A contributor from the floor likened South Africa to “the guy who drives a car with a faulty fuel gauge who says: I know my car; I know there is enough to get me there. After ‘94, we thought we had arrived; we over-celebrated. We became too individualistic. There is now no common purpose that unites us. Democracy has broken us as a society.”

One of the panellists suggested South African disenchantment with its Constitution is part of a global trend away from constitutionalism. “The rule of human rights law is becoming less and less popular,” he pointed out, due to the failure of constitutionalism to meet the bread-and-butter needs, and the dignity needs, of most of the population. “The reason the Constitution is under attack,” added another, “is because it has failed to deliver the transformation we need. Either we adopt the Constitution for the radical transformation it offers, or we will have it torn away from us by populists who seek something to blame.”

In many ways, the finger was pointed at how “insiders” have subverted a good, moral Constitution to serve their selfish needs. Insiders, it was generally agreed, are those who are politically connected. Although the separation of powers is enshrined in the Constitution, a speaker from the floor pointed out, “the government has its sticky fingers in business – e-tolls, Gautrain, stadiums for 2010…” In theory, said another contributor from the floor, “our Constitution guarantees us protection from theft. But the only people who are protected are those who are connected.”

“BEE is to protect the insiders. It doesn’t work for most people,” added one of the panellists, himself a black entrepreneur. “I grew up in a world where the only person who is on your side is yourself – so I believe in SEE, or self economic empowerment.”

Generally, the session agreed that change is critical. Business needs to look hard at itself; the “haves” need to reflect on the sometimes insurmountable barriers to access experienced by the “have-nots”, and government has a role to play. Stabilisation policies aimed at the majority of struggling South Africans would be a start for government; change could also be effected through stimulation of the economy by monetary policy and through transforming into a capable developmental state. “We need a wholesale restructuring – state intervention, industrial policy, development finance, leveraging our current advantages, the role of SOEs, etc… a developmental path that self-consciously aims at achieving certain normative objectives. We need to give a lot of thought to what a sustainable developmental path looks like.”

In conclusion, and in response to the focusing question around what South Africa could do within a year to begin its critical course-correction, the room made a call to put a copy of the Constitution into every household in a language they could understand, and to seek to socialise its principles across the wealth spectrum. The Centre for Constitutional Values’Edward Shalala invited ALI and its guests to join him in this and other supportive endeavours.

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