In this impassioned speech at the fourth BizNews conference, RW Johnson explores South Africa’s tumultuous post-1994 history and some of the decisions made by the ANC government at the time that led to the tragic predicament in which the country now finds itself.
Excerpts from the speech of R.U. Johnson on BNC#4
Johnson on the fears that arose after 1994
I remember meeting Tony Leon in the late nineties when the ANC had just released its deployment document. And I said, Tony, this is the worst. It will collapse the state. And he agreed. We both made a fuss about it, me in the pages of the Helen Suzman Foundation publications, and we were told to shut up and we were reactionaries. What were we talking about? It was all nonsense. And how could you rock the boat? And so it was for a long time. But as we know now that naivety has disappeared and we see that even today, although it has not completely disappeared in all areas, we find that many black people, African journalists and others are quite open in the way they look at things . But let me quote, for example, Barney Mthambati, who I think is a good man. He says: “Looking back, handing over the country to the ANC was like throwing pearls before swine. Never in our wildest dreams could we have foreseen the devastation it was about to cause.”
On contemporary issues facing SA
There are many crises: unemployment, inequality, poverty, crisis of electricity, water, sanitation, pollution, public hospitals and so on and so forth.
I think that if you look at the situation today, I would say that to describe it, you have to look at it a little differently than we have. We know that we have been limping along for a long time with very short stature. But I think we have to accept the fact that we have faced nothing less than regression, that we are moving backwards in many ways. And that’s a very new and startling fact, and it’s something that doesn’t really happen very often in history. And we know that’s a pretty disturbing thing. Remember, you know, all the talk about the dark ages and so on. But let me just walk you through some key metrics. Real GDP per capita has been declining since 2014. Eight years later, by 2020, South Africans were on average 10% poorer than in 2014. Currently, 18.3 million people live below the poverty line, which is almost one-third of the population. Malnutrition is common. As people get poorer and unemployment goes up, people get more and more desperate and we get a more and more savage society and we see the results in crime, vandalism, robbery and so on. And, you know, it’s very difficult to talk about it. A power outage, of course. We know all about it. But it is important to remember that electricity came to Kimberley in 1882 and to Cape Town in 1895. In other words, this is a 19th century industry. Oh, I guess in the 19th, 20th, back in 1960, we were only generating 4,000 megawatts, but by 1990, that number had grown to 40,000. Today, it’s 45,000. But we’ll need another 50,000 in the next 13 years, which seems very unlikely to me. We have big problems with water and sewage. 63% of the country’s sewage and water treatment facilities are in critical or poor condition. Well, I only have to go to Durban to see the problems of that or Port Elizabeth, both in different ways now suffering from very serious water problems. Decline of rural roads. A very serious point. We are getting to the point where many of these roads will once again be the tracks they were in the 19th century. Again, this regression is quite obvious.
On who can show the way forward
I think this is actually a very difficult question. The opposition, as I say, is in a very weak position. They have to force their way into Parliament, and Parliament is blocked in the manner I have described. I think more can be done. But it is difficult. If you look at the universities that were very important under apartheid and played a leading role in the struggle against apartheid, you will see that they have gone silent. It’s quiet. There are not many votes from universities. The ones you do are usually very politically correct, pretty much left wing. Part of the rainbow. And a lot of people who don’t hold those views are actually afraid to speak out because the atmosphere on our campuses is hostile to them. I’m afraid that’s exactly the situation we’re facing. We also have a so-called civil society. And again, not much happens. We still have quite a few NGOs that are really very left wing, ANC or more. The Communist Party, I mean like energy for economic justice and so on. There are very few liberal NGOs. You have an interracial relationship. You have the Helen Suzman Foundation. UTS Center for Development and Entrepreneurship – about eight, and most of them are struggling. So we don’t get much from them. What we get are scripts.
And that’s really my bete noire, because you often hear scripted planning talked about in the press as a form of research. And of course it’s not quite like that, you get scripts, especially now we get lots and lots of happy talk about 2024. And you get people to post things with a pie chart of the various results saying there is a 50% chance that the ANC will retain its majority. There is a 5% chance that they will get 40% of the vote, and so on and so forth. Now, none of this is research. This is all wild blue speculation. And no one knows the results of the elections in two years. It’s ridiculous to call it research, and I’m afraid only very stupid journalists do that. And in any case, it is assumed that political changes will occur as a result of parliamentary elections, which, of course, can happen. But there are many other ways this can happen. And after the riots of 2021, do we know this? And a lot more can happen. Most of the crises I have mentioned can trigger dramatic showdowns that do not depend on a parliamentary majority. So what does that really leave us with? Well, business, in a sense, has been the hero of this story because the growth we’ve had has been entirely at the expense of the private sector. Public sector investment has fallen to almost nothing. In total, investments make up only 13% of GDP. And everything that works is largely private sector. And this is achieved, despite the hostility of the authorities in many respects.
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