It’s the structure that screws us

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

I have said it before and I will say it again – Thabo Mbeki was the best president in the world at the time of his sacking.

(It's at this point in the conversation that most people huffily declare: "How can you say he was the best in the world?!!!" My response is simply, "Tell me who was better!" But I digress.)

Mbeki's policies led to the single biggest period of economic growth in the history of the country; even the Nats in their most repressive heyday did not do half as well. More to the point, the Mbeki era saw a 65 percent reduction in poverty levels for the poorest of the poor thanks predominantly to a massive rollout of fresh water and electricity and primary health care facilities.

(Again, at this point in the conversation, most people huffily declare: "How can you say that? Everyone knows the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer!!!" I tell them to look at the SA Advertising Research Foundation AMPS data for the period 2001-2007. But again, I digress.)

As a thank you to Mbeki, we fired him.

Continue Reading Below

Last week, the ANC held its national policy conference in Midrand. For me, there was a kind of morbid fascination of watching an accident happening in slow motion. You can see the truck hurtling down the hill, the brakes have failed, and in the cab of the truck, there are 5 people shouting simultaneous instructions to the driver who eventually throws up his hands and waits to see what happens.

The kids crossing the road on the way to school cannot see the truck about to slam into them.

To understand why I say this, one has to understand that the number of those who fund social grants – in other words, those of us who pay taxes – are outnumbered by social grant recipients by around 3:1.

Think of it as each of us supporting an extra three members per family based on what we earn.

The ANC is proposing to raise that bar even further. It's proposing a job seekers grant for unemployed youth. In other words, take kids who are not working and give them money to not work.

Now ask yourself, is that kid going to spend the money on taxi fare to look for work? If you were that kid, what would you spend it on?

Like the child support grant which sees kids having kids in order to draw an income, this is a disaster in the making.

How do we fix this?

My problem is that unlike our current rulers, I don't believe apartheid or colonialism or imperialism or patriarchy or lack of land reform is to blame for our economic meltdown. Thabo Mbeki is proof that we can prosper in spite of those things.

But our mindset has shifted. Margaret Thatcher said it well when she was Prime Minister of the UK:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.

So how do we fix it?

Here's a radical thought for us – it's not that Jacob Zuma won't fix it, it's just that he cannot.

It's the structure of our democracy that screws us. If Jacob Zuma does anything that goes contrary to what any faction of the ANC desires, he will simply be "recalled" as was the case with Mbeki.

The way to fix this is to have a president directly elected by the people.

Yes, I'm proposing that we do as the Americans do – hold presidential elections where individuals, not parties, square off against each other each with his or her own vision of what the country should be.

In such a scenario, Jacob Zuma would in all likelihood still be elected president, but would be free to appoint a cabinet focused on delivery without needing to pander to the party apparatchiks. Parliament would still be able to fire him, but only with a two thirds majority, and then too, only to call for fresh elections.

We are also then likely to see the ANC's intellectual powerhouses – such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Joel Netshitenzhe, Trevor Manuel, Pallo Jordan, and Pravin Gordhan – putting themselves forward to lead the nation.