It seems like everywhere I go people are talking about the crisis in South Africa. Some people define it as an economic crisis, others a political crisis. There is probably a bit of truth in both.
Last weekend, while trying to enjoy the benefits of a long weekend, I ended up becoming engaged in several conversations about what is wrong in our country and whether we have any hope of surviving.
Fortunately for me, I don’t engage only with people who feel negatively. I also have the benefit of engaging with some people who believe that, in the words of the old Struggle song, “we shall overcome”.
One of the people who feels like this is former minister and constitutional negotiator Roelf Meyer, who found time in his hectic travel schedule to speak at a breakfast hosted by the Ubuntu South Africa Foundation in Cape Town last week.
Meyer is one of those who are realistic about the problems we face as a country, but who feels optimistic that we have it within ourselves to come out better in the end.
He started by saying that many people felt hopeless because they were suffering. But he warned that people like himself and others who were privileged to listen to him did not have the right to feel hopeless. There were many under-privileged people who had much more reason to feel hopeless.
Meyer said South Africa had lost 20% of its wealth in the past four years. This was partly due to mismanagement of public enterprises, looting of the government purse and reckless firing and hiring of finance ministers by former president Jacob Zuma.
“We can turn the lack of hope around if we can turn the economy around,” Meyer said.
He explained that, before 1990, apartheid South Africa was on its knees. Our deficit was high because of a successful international sanctions campaign; the ANC’s well-organised campaigns driven from outside the country; the internal uprising which had made the country ungovernable; and the internal recognition that apartheid was not justifiable.
Meyer said that under Madiba’s presidency, we had some of the best growth, but we seemed to have lost our way. “We have a good president now, but the effects will not be seen immediately or even in a year. We have to help him make it happen.”
Among the factors he feels we need to address are education (“the biggest damage done under apartheid was to the education system”), the civil service at all levels and black economic empowerment, which had good intentions but benefited only a few.
Even before we became a democracy, there were attempts to derail the peace process, and Meyer thanked civil society for stepping up to save the process, through peace committees set up under the National Peace Accord.
While he believes we should look only towards the future, Meyer acknowledges that we can learn from earlier experiences to fix what is wrong.
However, he believes we fixate too much on the past. “We can’t keep moaning about what went wrong under Zuma. It won’t solve anything.”
On Tuesday, we remember the thousands of men and women who gathered at the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain on August 20, 1983, to launch the United Democratic Front which led the internal opposition to apartheid. In their memory, it would be prudent to draw on the lessons of non-racialism and democracy that we learnt in those days.
If we want to fix what is wrong with our country, we need to know what kind of society we want. That should be our guide as we work on making this country the great place we all know it can be.
* Fisher is chief executive of Ikusasa Lethu Media.
** Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.