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Rewards for reconciling must outdo social grants

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On the basis that “time is money” the millions of South Africans who receive government grants each month are spending a fortune on them.

Every month they queue for hours and hours. For the most part they do so quietly, patiently and without complaint. Busy people who believe deeply that time is money are sometimes inclined to disapprove of these grants and the idea of people apparently getting something for nothing.

So the good news for them is that no social grant recipient in this country is getting something for nothing. They have to stand for hours and hours, often in extreme heat or in bitterly cold weather to receive a payment that would make little or no difference to a busy person but is crucial to their survival.

Some weeks ago, just a few days after a tax payment that was painfully extracted from me, I spent a morning at Shoprite stores watching the month-end payment of grants. In general the process seemed to be handled with dignity by all concerned. By the end of the morning the resentment I had felt about my income being gouged by the SA Revenue Service had turned almost to gratitude.

Last Sunday I was reminded of my morning at Shoprite when in lieu of a day spent in mourning or prayer as suggested by President Jacob Zuma, I decided to re-read The Long View: Getting beyond the drama of South Africa’s headlines by political analyst JP Landman. The subtitle speaks to his frustration with the media’s fixation on the story that South Africa is on the verge of collapse or implosion.

“If one follows the daily headlines and social media, things may not look good. But there is far more to this complicated land than just the headlines,” he writes in a book that offers as good a way of celebrating Nelson Mandela’s life as any prayer.

The essence of Landman’s story is that “for the vast majority of its population, South Africa is today a much better place than it was 20 or 30 years ago. In the span of one generation we have made enormous strides.”

Landman, who is often “accused” of being an eternal optimist, is aware of the enormous problems facing the country and says the momentous leaps achieved during the 1990s will not be repeated.

“But I do believe we shall see incremental improvements… On balance incrementalism will, in all probability, make South Africa a better place in another 20 or 30 years from now.”

In our seeming determination to be worried and miserable we overlook so much progress – the millions of jobs created (of course not enough); the enormous amount of social development undertaken, including water, sanitation, housing and the monthly grant payments; the ambitious infrastructure projects to develop roads, universities, rolling stock, power stations (perhaps a little late); and the fact that per capita income has grown by a third since 1994 despite the 1998 global crisis and the 2009 recession.

Of course, our economic growth record may not be as good as some of our Brics partners or of other African countries but no other country in the world has the sort of riotous democracy that South Africans enjoy. Governments of the exceptionally fast-growing developing economies of recent decades have not been restrained by the demands of democracy.

There is, of course, good reason to worry about our future and wonder how we will survive. As a foreign visitor pointed out to Landman: “All the fault lines that one can possibly have in a modern society are present in South Africa: rich vs poor; white vs black; educated vs illiterate; rural vs urban; traditional vs patriarchal vs gender equal; Christian vs Muslim vs Jewish; immigrant vs locals.” In theory, said the foreigner, this country should not exist; it should explode at least once a week.

That it doesn’t and that it won’t is largely down to Mandela, who managed to persuade tens of millions of South Africans to embrace reconciliation. For many South Africans the dividend from that reconciliation has been little more than the monthly grants for which they spend so many hours queueing. That dividend urgently needs to be improved upon.

Of course it’s not entirely down to Mandela. As a Cape Times editorial remarked, Mandela held out a future that the vast majority of us desperately wanted, so we all played a role – no matter how small – in making it happen.

Now we have to work out how to up our game before the fault lines start to crack.


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