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For most citizens who live in squalor, drink water with animals or drop out of school, it means nothing where our economy is ranked, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Pretoria - In a classic Zapiro cartoon, the cartoonist drew a picture of a woman doing her laundry in what looks like a stream running through her neighbourhood of shack houses.
She has a baby on her back. A man reading a newspaper near her tells her: “You will be glad to know that according to analysts, the economic fundamentals are in place”.
It remains one of the most piercing commentaries on the chasm or perceptions between those who bear the brunt of economic decision-making and those who analyse the decisions.
We find ourselves in that ballpark again.
Nigeria has toppled South Africa as the biggest economy on our continent.
The poor are required to mourn with the analysts and society elites.
For many poor citizens, that South Africa was the largest economy for the longest time was irrelevant. It was as fictive as it must be for the woman in Zapiro’s cartoon who hears that “the economic fundamentals are in place”.
And they may well be. But if you are on the periphery, it matters little.
It is as irrelevant as the supposed rivalry between South Africa and Australia. It is a rivalry between certain sections of the two countries’ communities, who know why they have reason to have the rivalry.
I cannot imagine the Aborigines in Australia meeting the subjects of Queen Modjadji of the Balobedu and immediately thinking “rival”.
In the same way, the poor, who make up the majority in South Africa and Nigeria and who have been on the peripheries of the economy in both countries, cannot be expected to mourn or celebrate the changes on the podium they can see from afar only.
The purpose of an economy cannot just be so that we can brag to our friends and neighbours that ours is bigger.
In the same way that it is true in other areas of life where conventional wisdom has it that the size of the wand does not help if the wielder does not have the ability to create magic for all parties concerned, so it must be with an economy.
It must be about how it changes the lives of those who depend on it.
For most of South Africa’s history, the problem of the economy has never been its size.
It has been that only a few defined by the colour of their skins have benefited from having such an economy.
These days the economy benefits the same group as it did in the past with a little sprinkling of colour, but excludes just as many as it did during apartheid.
For most citizens who live in squalor, who drink water with animals and who will once again drop out of school and university because they cannot afford it, it matters little whether South Africa’s economy is first or 15th.
It mattered little to millions of unemployed and sometimes unemployable young South Africans that all along they have been part of the biggest economy in Africa.
It will matter just as much that they are now silver medalist in the race for the biggest economy in Africa.
Many of those, who have wondered why it was that countries poorer than South Africa did not have the same levels of crime, have missed the point that it is precisely because thieves realise that there is more in the economy to go around but they are somehow excluded.
To correct this, they have felt entitled to the piece of the pie and to be as fat and shiny as others they see around them, even if they have to depend on criminal methods to get there.
Instead of bragging or mourning the size of the economy, we should make more noise about the size of the gap between those who benefit from the economy and those who are exploited by it.
Instead of massaging egos bruised by the relegation to second place, the development can be used as a wake-up call to create a more inclusive economy whose growth and decline will be celebrated or mourned by all.
Without celebrating the same exclusionary flaws in the Nigerian economy, we must pay attention to what we can learn from how it grew to be where it is.
Contrary to the stereotype, there is more to Nigerians than running drug and prostitution rings.
They are reputed for having some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial people not averse to travelling outside their country to find and exploit opportunities.
Few countries export more PhDs than Nigerians.
More importantly, whatever steps are taken to reclaim the top spot must take as many South Africans as possible and make them real shareholders and beneficiaries of a process they are asked to cheer or mourn from the sidelines.
* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is executive editor of the Pretoria News