The unrest in South Africa: what would Madiba say?

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The unrest in South Africa: what would Madiba say?


Written by Jamela Hoveni: Senior Lecturer: Investment Management, Milpark Business School

Every year during the month of July, we reflect on Nelson Mandela’s legacy, his ethos, and how it intersects with education and leadership. It is an interesting time to reflect on this legacy, given the events that unfolded in our country over the last few weeks. In response to the looting and destruction of property that ensued, I think many of us were left wondering: What would Madiba say?

In respect of the events of the past two weeks, some analysts argue that the unrest that took place over four days will set us back by up to 3% of GDP in the third quarter. Others are less generous and argue that it will take us back some 10 years in terms of economic progress and development. Others argue that this will accelerate South Africa’s (SA) descent into a failed state. The idea of SA as a failed state is not new, and in 2020, Eunomix Business & Economics, a Johannesburg-based consultancy, reported that unless it changes its economic model, SA faces the risk of becoming a failed state by 2030. If we focus on the events of the past two weeks, there is a lot of bad news and the political risk trends are negative.

However, I don't think we can necessarily draw a straight line from here to a distant future where everything would have collapsed in a heap. Similar to the climate change crisis, the future of the country depends on the action taken today. There is a lot that counts in our favour. SA has a big population of young people with the potential for a demographic dividend. This also represents a risk since most young people are unemployed. At the same time, most of them have access to the internet, since SA ranks well compared to other African countries in terms of internet penetration. This is true: people in the remote parts of our country such as a village in Limpopo have access to a smartphone and the internet.

Remembering Nelson Mandela and reflecting on his legacy, the future of South Africa rests on education, leadership, and our ability to use technology to solve some of our most pressing problems. The idea that education and skills are critical for lifting us out of the current state of low growth, high inequality and unemployment is not new. Education is a key priority in SA, as evidenced by the R402 billion of the national budget spent on education. Education represents the highest item of expenditure on our budget. It is true that we haven’t yet seen the actual returns to the money spent on education, with most schools in SA under-resourced and pass rates critically low; but finding low-cost good quality educational and technology-driven solutions for the majority of South Africa youth is our only hope.

Coming back to the key question, what would Madiba say? His legacy and ethos are still relevant today, and more relevant given the crisis that we face. How we navigate these waters will depend on political leadership. Having said that, I think Madiba would remind us that we still have much to celebrate, our constitutional democracy and strong institutions being prominent examples.


28 Jul 2021