Deteriorating governance makes the urgent drive policy

What should South Africa learn from the Indian race for example? Whilst Whites had long prioritised education and had reached what South Korea has reached, the Indians took an aggressive path towards education. File photo.

What should South Africa learn from the Indian race for example? Whilst Whites had long prioritised education and had reached what South Korea has reached, the Indians took an aggressive path towards education. File photo.

Published Nov 13, 2023


The continuing dissonance of priorities in South Africa begs a number of questions that remain unanswered. It raises a deep-seated concern of the extent to which the constitution manages to define who a person referred to as a South African should be.

To date, using the lens of priorities, South Africa seems to be a country at odds with itself, where the urgent have mutated in a violent way to become important. The urgent is what now drives policy and national psyche leaving the triple challenge in the back banner.

It is now common cause that for attention to a problem to be raised, deterioration on a path should reach rock bottom. This practice has become national past time and has become what frames and informs our priorities.

A non-issue is allowed to deteriorate to a point of making itself visible by its absence – induced scarcity to stimulate attention. Only when that happens policy is triggered for attention and action.

This is a formula of a disease called the undeserving urgent getting promoted to the important. When that happens everything is so badly done that all and sundry are priorities.

In a matrix of analysis this confused state of affairs is driven by high public expectations and law public satisfaction. And as the public lose faith in the government, it reduces its expectations and finds itself in an ever-accelerating vicious downward spiral of low expectations and low satisfaction.

A move in that direction pushes a country into a failed state.

The important question in South Africa is what are the real priorities of the country and how are these interrogated to arrive at a conclusive consensus whereby they are endorsed as such.

This is important because when a country reaches a point where the urgent become the important, then you know the nation has lost the plot.

The National Development Plan (NDP) ceases to be the lodestar, which of course it long lost. When the nation that is multiracial fails to pause and is not prepared to learn from each other then you know cultural intercourse, the essential ingredient for a leap forward serves as a sterile seed.

It becomes good only for societal divisions and anti-progress. When we are blind to dipping our buckets where we are, then the nation fails in the badly needed demand for a vision.

To date these ingredients have converged and connived in a very wicked way in South Africa’s 30-year increasingly fragile democracy. When there is no vision, the nation perishes.

The Indlulamithi Scenarios released on the 9th of November, might have put the cat among the pigeons. It pointed to a new priority problem as seen and defined by South Africans.

The Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) and the National Development Plan (NDP), two of South Africa most important diagnostic documents that identified the wicked problems of South Africa that had to be tackled defined three challenges.

These challenges were identified as unemployment, poverty and inequality. The two documents constructed two decades apart came to the same conclusion of what colloquially got to be known as the wicked trinity or the “triple challenges”.

So, parrot wise, as we now sadly discover albeit long coming, politician after politician for three decades, rose to the podium to recite this rosary of key challenges.

Indlulamithi has identified from its surveys what has become the new problem which breaks this monotony of parrots singing. Electricity is the new tune in town. It is followed by unemployment and corruption.

The question is when did this non-issue of electricity get so rapidly promoted to rank tops and dwarf the well thought through problems and challenges defined through a consultative programme over a protracted period of time.

This is the typical problem of the urgent becoming the important. In this new configuration of the so called the important, unlike what society broadly defined in the new environment as the important, business and government have appropriated for themselves a different set of priorities.

This is in the form of logistics and crime. This in addition to electricity which has been defined as the most important mission challenges of our time.

The divergence of priorities is palpable and in good part it is driven by our different constituent make up but importantly because of failure of basic services.

The downside of this dramatic failure is that it creates conditions for absence of common cause for a nation. We may have to sit back and ask when did the triple challenges disappear from the radar as the most important.

Fashion is an interesting concept. It breaks the monotony. It breeds and induces new tastes and dazzles the consumer and drives impulsive actions. So, it does not surprise that the new tune in town on priorities is electricity.

The urgent have become the Cinderella.

How can the four races of South Africa learn from one the other?

In a national survey of 2016, South Africans were asked about their priorities. First on the list was water, second was unemployment, and guess what, education came as the fifteenth priority.

What should South Africa learn from the Indian race for example? Whilst Whites had long prioritised education and had reached what South Korea has reached, the Indians took an aggressive path towards education.

However, the trajectory of Blacks and Coloureds is one of obfuscation to obscurity. Obviously when society ranks education as priority number 15, they are content with the mediocrity and the politicians will let the sleeping dogs lie.

The process of priority identification is protracted and painstaking. It is complex as it should transcend the spectrum of felt and real needs.

Left to its own devices and allowed to depart from the two national systematic efforts contained in the RDP and the NDP, the self-induced crisis of the urgent has become the important. In that context a downward spiral of low expectations and low satisfaction become the character of the nation – one that has no vision and one destined to perish.

We have as a nation left the most complex to the most incapable.

In this vacuum of thought we continue to look for the wicked one who bewitched us.

We are simply bewitched by the incapable to whom we surrendered power.

* Dr Pali Lehohla is the director of the Economic Modelling Academy, a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician- General of South Africa.

Dr Pali Lehohla, Photo: Supplied.