‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,” is an ancient Indian proverb that is reverberating in my ears. It was articulated by Craig Wing recently at a Global Shapers Johannesburg hub meeting.
Its pure simplicity is quite piercing because it shows the effect of our ancestors’ actions on our current situation and it also serves as a warning on our current actions’ impact on our children.
Apartheid’s architects effectively created a problem for everyone by creating artificial boundaries that were inherently going to be brought down. Anything artificial does not have staying power.
The social, political and economic separation created took the country towards the extreme right swing of the pendulum.
This ensured the minority of the population enjoyed the majority of the social, political and economic benefits.
When the pendulum swung back in the democratic era, it reversed the exclusivity of the social and political benefits from the minority while the economic ones are still lagging far behind.
The constitution of the country has guiding principles that help the pendulum to swing to a neutral position at the centre and not to the extreme left because that is also dangerous.
Broad-based black economic empowerment policies are meant to accelerate the swing to the middle point. This makes them temporal policies that cannot be allowed to stay forever because they will swing the country to the extreme left.
The greatest blind spot suffered by apartheid’s architects was they disregarded the circular nature of life where things swing back. The result is their children became adversely affected when their policy of separation unraveled.
This is also a warning to the architects of transformation policies in South Africa to make sure they understand the circular nature of life and factor it into the design of the policies.
There is now a lot of resistance to move the economic pendulum from the status quo, where only the minority benefits, because of fear of an uncertain future.
The problem is the greater the resistance to economic transformation, the greater the amount of energy invested and extreme measures taken to make sure the economic pendulum swings back – but to the other extreme, which could have unintended consequences.
The reality is the pendulum will swing back, but at what cost to the country and its economic prospects?
A variation of the proverb, “treat the earth well – it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children”, can be applied to the issue of land Pieter Mulder so brazenly dealt with.
Infrastructure is another recent example. Today’s youth are effectively going to pay for the infrastructure based on decisions by people who will likely not be there when the full impact of the cost is felt.
So the issue of e-tolls provided a victory to the litigants who successfully argued for the interdict to stop the e-tolling system temporarily.
It is an important political victory of making sure people’s concerns are heard and for the separation of powers between the executive, the judiciary and parliament. It also raises important questions about who benefited from the R20 billion tenders and questions the fairness of the tariff structure and who will benefit from these fees.
So transparency was the winning principle at the end of the day.
But it is a pyrrhic victory because the ultimate solution litigants seek is the shifting of the burden of paying for the roads from road users to all taxpayers.
So the bottom line is young people will bear the burden of e-tolling’s long-term cost through increased taxes or less support from the government, while older people will enjoy the retirement-fund returns this generates from the bonds they bought.
Furthermore, this replaces the user-pays principle which is much more equitable for future generations at risk, and in turn scares away investors, especially in areas where we have an infrastructure deficit.
So we might be solving the problem by borrowing from our children to solve power politics of old people who have no enduring interest in intergenerational equity.
Young people are the ones who should be shaping the decisions that affect their future, represented by their informed and decisive leaders, while making sure they don’t inherit the unhelpful habits of their ancestors.