The state of the state By Shaun de Waal

A variety of authors and contributors ruminate on the challenges facing South Africa, offering insights and advice that the government is unlikely to heed.

It seems odd that South Africa's new growth path should have come out six months before the diagnostic overview of issues facing the country. Surely you diagnose the problem and then ­propose the solution?

Of course we know that these two items, the growth path and the diagnostic overview, come from two ­different government departments: the first from that of economic development, led by Ebrahim Patel, and the second from Trevor Manuel's planning ministry in the presidency.

And now the latter has produced its own development plan, with a "vision" stretching forward to 2030, so it may be said the two plans have now ­converged, more or less. They ­certainly both make big promises about jobs to be created by a certain date, though no commentator I have read on the issue imagines either ­target is reachable.

As Hein Marais notes in his magisterial book on South Africa's political economy, government pronouncements on the matter have already slid from talk of "jobs" to talk of "employment opportunities". And there is nothing in South Africa Pushed to the Limits to make promises of jobs any more likely to be fulfilled.  

Even at the fairly decent growth rates of the Thabo Mbeki years, South Africa expanded employment only minimally; now we face a global financial crisis, deindustrialisation and a ballooning public debt, which will make it even harder to create jobs.

Marais's own "diagnostic overview" goes back to the late apartheid government and takes the reader through the transitional period, in which, he argues, little was done to restructure South Africa's economy to make real redistribution ­possible. Yes, there was the reconstruction and development programme, but that was soon replaced by the growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) programme, which reverted to neoliberal thinking: balance the budget, do not get into debt, do not spend too much money, ­facilitate foreign investment.

Mbeki and Manuel applied their own "structural adjustment programme" as a way to avoid falling into the hands of the International Monetary Fund and the like — a pre-emptive move, as it were. Marais points out the continuities between Gear and the adjustments attempted by the apartheid state, long before that, to try to stabilise South Africa's tottering economy.  

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