By Ferial Haffajee
If Chumani Maxwele were Chinese, there is a good chance he would own a string of start-ups and be well on his way to becoming a multimillionaire. Instead, this student leader is engaged, almost full time it seems, in the #RhodesMustFall movement. He is a symbol of a country that has decided, 21 years after democracy, that we will look backwards, not forwards.
The war on the statues is remarkable for the chords it has struck in our society as it has reverberated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) into every corner of society.
Until the xenophobic attacks occurred, the statues debate was all that opinion shapers and contributors to City Press’ pages wanted to discuss. What does that mean? Almost certainly, the universities have work to do if their culture (curriculum, faculty, life) feels so alien to black students.
It also means black South Africans need a great cathartic moment to signal a power change and an overhaul of physical heritage.
There is an alternative reality. Say Maxwele leveraged all his smarts and opportunities as a young black man to win contracts through his start-up companies. He makes a fortune by the time he is 34 years old and endows a portion of that to UCT, thereby earning himself the power to make all the changes he is trying to make by throwing poo at a statue.
In Vietnam, I was amazed at how young people run multiple small businesses, hurling their country into the future. The war with the US, which I had gone to learn about, was a mere backdrop to the country’s fierce and visible ambition. If anything, the war is now only a way of making money off hapless tourists like me.
Instead of valorising its past, I found that Vietnam had shrugged it off to grow and the country had its national eye set ahead. Its young people are impelled by a vision I found very different to our Generations X and Y, who have retreated further into the past than I ever imagined they would.
In India, I discerned a different pattern in the middle class. Young professionals are often serial entrepreneurs clocking up huge fortunes as their country competes with China for pole position as the next global superpower.
Their social ambitions are of similar scope.
In my work there, I met people who set themselves targets of getting thousands of young women into school, or providing ambulance services to the underserved in an entire state (the Indian version of a province).
Both those countries have as many reasons as we do to do battle with the past, but they choose not to. I wonder why we’re so obsessed with the past and not focused on the future.
It’s a difficult truth to hold and to say – especially on Freedom Day. We are seeking refuge in the past because the future is too hard to conquer. And this cuts across all sectors – from student and state to business and union.
For example, the governing ANC has returned to the beautiful but nebulous framing of the Freedom Charter to govern us. The National Development Plan is less beautiful, other than its opening vision statement of what we might look like by 2030. And it has, in effect, been ditched.
The plan sets out tough choices for our country. How do you make a capable state? By dropping cadre deployment, ending the political appointment of key state functionaries and stopping public servants from owning businesses.
We don’t want to do this. How do you get the youth to become employed? Three million jobless youth wander aimlessly and pennilessly – the young man who knifed Emmanuel Sithole last week is possibly one of them.
Pulling these young people into the economy means slicing through vested interests in the private and public sectors.
We don’t want to do this. How do you grow the economy and employment? By growing new sectors, substantially improving infrastructure and ramping up the ability to generate power. To do so requires business to take a leap of faith in South Africa.
With notable exceptions, this is not how our business community operates. Look at the rampant collusion on infrastructure to understand how old practices hold sway. And neither is it how our trade union community operates.
Look at how strikes have held up the new Medupi Power Station to understand how self-interest hobbles us at every turn.
Instead of tackling these to propel us forward, the ANC has returned to the Freedom Charter as a centrepiece of state planning because it’s easier to look back.
It makes it easy for President Jacob Zuma to peddle the untruth that black people own only a sliver of wealth. It negates decades of good work by his government and enshrines hopelessness.
This fundamental shift backwards places us in the realm of old thinking and calcifies debates for the next 10 years, at least until the ANC regenerates itself.
We will, as we have done, spend years and billions of rands considering the relative role of the state in development instead of simply developing. We will, as we have done, labour under the false notion that the state can lead development. It can’t. This savage fortnight has taught us how little government can do. After the bloody xenophobic attacks of 2008, we had an ambitious slate of things to do. We did not do one of them.
Growing us and our country is going to take a special effort.
The twin impact of our trip into the past is to make us believe that nothing has changed because then we can blame the past. This profoundly disabling narrative defines the opinion pages and our mental space and is a perceived wisdom that no sets of statistics to show otherwise can dislodge.
This week, one of the country’s most perspicacious commentators said the South African social structure remains that of whites at the top, Indians and coloureds in the middle and blacks at the bottom.
But that is not true if you look at our graphs to see how the living standards measures of society have changed since 1994.
We are all wealthier, and the middle strata of our society has grown substantially, as skilled black people have enjoyed the opportunities of freedom. There is a lot of work to do, but to suggest nothing has happened is wilful blindness and makes the future seem hopeless.
Instead, with a history of post-1994 success, the foundation has been set for us to build more quickly. This narrative propels a once forward-looking ANC to go into battle with the past rather than take us forwards.
Is this the Freedom Day we will remember as the one on which we decided to go even further backwards?
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