Polarisation is blocking economic progress

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On Monday afternoon I had the privilege of sitting a few metres away from Alvaro Garcia Linera, the Vice-President of Bolivia, while he addressed a lively crowd at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina.

Linera, a mathematician by training but a widely published author on politics and sociology, was presenting a case for a more integrated South America to act as a unified economic unit.

His talk was a cocktail of visionary insight and populism but once reason was separated from the radical, key lessons were to be found. Linera explained how Bolivia had gone through, and continued to grow, a process of social inclusion in the key decisions of government.

He promoted the idea that voting should not just take place every few years but social organisations should be empowered to represent minority groups on an ongoing basis in key decision making.

The talk shifted from the theoretical when he said: “The less you incorporate the voice of a certain group, the more likely they are to form a polarised opposition and restrict expansion and progress.”

Back home, one sees that these are not just the musings of an academic. The platinum strike has continued for four months with workers preferring to survive off the scrapings of aid and goodwill rather than return to work. The relationship between the government, business and labour has broken down. And judging by the contraction in the economy as evidenced in the gross domestic product figures released on Tuesday, the fallout from the strike is real.

The Economic Freedom Fighters led by Julius Malema put on an impressive show being signed into Parliament wearing mining overalls and domestic cleaning outfits. Its proposed policies and manifesto are in disarray – many are even contradictory to its own goals. If implemented, regardless of political ideology, the country and the economy are sure to go backwards. Despite this, it represents an impressive proportion of the population for a party that went to the polling stations for the first time.

The reason is that it is listening to the voices that no other leadership is offering action to. In times of frustration the reaction is to turn to polarised positions rather than constructive debate.

Linera proposes that only through collaboration of South American leadership can the continent hope to become a force in the world economy. South America is rich in all the factors of production necessary for economic success: abundant minerals, oil and natural gas, some of the world’s largest fresh water reserves, fertile land and educated labour. Linera argues that if internal competition replaces co-ordination then no country will be able to reach its full economic potential.

The same could be said of South Africa internally. Instead of co-ordinating the diversity that the country offers, disparity is setting different agents against each other; companies versus workers, one union versus another, provinces competing for growth, locals versus immigrants, Nkandla versus “the bright ones”.

Unity is not just a heart-warming celebration of a common heritage on “Braai Day”, it is necessary for economic growth.

Without it no national Budget or 2030 infrastructure plan can work and the new cabinet – now larger and more disparate than ever – must provide better mediums for communication and negotiation, as well as easier access to economic activity for those who are currently excluded.

* Pierre Heistein is the convenor of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter: @PierreHeistein


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