South Africa in 2018: Is there still a good story to tell?

The mood in South Africa has turned sharply pessimistic. A slowing economy, massive unemployment, and allegations of state capture have combined to form a dark cloud that overshadows the promise of 1994.

Amidst the funk, however, one organisation has, at times, taken a different view, producing a series of reports that show South Africa as a country that has also made considerable progress. News24 spoke to the CEO of the IRR, Frans Cronje, about what his organisation has been arguing about South Africa's post-1994 progress.

Many analysts say that South Africa is in serious trouble, but your organisation has been saying that things are not that bad. What is the truth? 

It's complicated. Of course South Africa is in trouble, as scores of our reports and assessments continue to show – in areas ranging from governance to crime, and education to employment. We are not saying that these many crises are exaggerated, but rather that even as we confront these problems we must not lose sight of the fact that a lot has gone right in our country, that life in South Africa is much better than it was in 1994, and that this is true for almost all South Africans and across almost all areas of social and economic development – even in those areas commonly associated with failure.

Give us some examples – what is the good news?

Let's start with the labour market and employment. Many observers argue that South Africa has experienced two decades of jobless growth – but this is not true. In fact, since 1994, the number of South Africans with a job has doubled from nearly 8 million to just over of 16 million today.

The number of black people with jobs has more than doubled. The labour market participation rate (which measures what proportion of people of working age work or look for work) increased by almost 30%. These are all very good things and have done wonders to improve living standards in hundreds of thousands of households.

The labour market is therefore a very good example of the point we are trying to make – that even in an area commonly associated with complete failure there has been some remarkable progress.

Many observers say that service delivery has failed, but you are on record as saying that service delivery was 'one of the key successes of the government'. Can you justify that?

It is, as you say, widely held that service delivery has failed, but our research tells a different story. For example, in 1996, there were an estimated 5.8 million families living in a formal house. That number has more than doubled to over 13 million today. In 1996, 64% of families lived in a formal house, but now the figure is almost 80%. Similar numbers are true for water and electricity delivery. For example, the number of families cooking with electricity (an excellent indicator of living standards) has increased from just over 4 million in 1996 to just under 14 million today – or from less than 50% to more than 80%. The number of families with access to clean water has doubled.

Is the ANC right, then, when it says there is a good story to tell about a better life for all?

There are major service delivery problems, as we know, but the scale of what has been achieved is sufficient to sustain the view that the service delivery efforts of the African National Congress (ANC) in government have been more successful than is commonly understood.

Education has been widely described as a failure. Have you found any positive trends on the education front?

Our reports routinely flag low standards and high drop-out rates. However, there are some trends that will surprise the cynics.

Let's start with a long-term example. In 1955, only 259 black children passed matric. Twenty years later, in 1975, the number was just above 5 000. In 1990 it was just under 100 000. Today, it has risen to just under 400 000. In 1994, less than half the university class was black, but today the figure is more than 70%, and the number of people being afforded the opportunity of university study has almost tripled since 1990.

A stunning number is that, in 1990, there were more than 40 white engineers graduating for every one black engineer. Now there are roughly twice as many black than white engineering graduates – even though the number of white graduates has not declined. None of this is to overlook or excuse the many failures in education – our intention is rather to bring some balance to national debates by saying that many things have also improved.

What are the positive trends on the healthcare front?

There are several if you look for them. The number of public sector nurses, for example, has increased by 50% since the late 1990s. The number of public sector doctors and specialists has increased by over 80% and over 20%, respectively, over the same period. The number of new HIV infections has been cut in half since 1999. The still-birth rate (a very useful measure of living standards and public health) has fallen by roughly a quarter over the past 15 years.

Is there any good new when it comes to crime and violence?

Violent crime takes a terrible toll on South African communities and the quality of policing is very far from what it should be. But there is one number on crime that we find very interesting and that is the murder rate. In 1994, we think that 67 of every 100 000 people in the country were murdered – an astronomical number as we have repeatedly said. However, we have tracked that number falling steadily to an estimated 34/100 000 in 2016/17. The murder rate tends to be immune from the under-reporting risks associated with other crime measures. It is, therefore, a useful barometer of overall levels of extreme violence in our society.

South Africa's economic growth rate has fallen to below 1% and levels of business and consumer confidence are very low. Is there a good news story to tell about the economy?

There was one, but most of it related to the years 1994 to 2007. Over that period, interest rates and bond yields were cut in half, ensuring much cheaper access to finance.

Economic growth, which had registered at negative levels over three years in the 1980s, rebounded to average around 3% between 1994 and 2003, and over 5% between 2004 and 2007 – the first time the growth rate had averaged over 5% for four consecutive years since 1970. Inflation adjusted after tax-per-capita income levels increased from just over R23 000 in 1994 to around R32 000 in 2008.

The budget deficit was cut from levels of around -4% to -5% of GDP in the early 1990s to levels of around -2% in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and two years of budget surpluses were recorded before the global financial crisis. Government debt levels were cut in half. These were all markers of economic recovery but unfortunately a lot of the progress made has been undone since 2008.

What about social cohesion – what is the state of relations among South Africans?

Relations, we think, are better than many people believe. We have been fortunate in recent years to be able to draw on quite a lot of polling about how South Africans feel about one another. A comment on the magnanimity of many South Africans is that this polling reveals that a comfortable 80%+ of the population believe that different class and race groups need one another if they are to realise the country's potential. This is a very different view on social relations from the fearful and hostile views often presented – especially on social media.   

You have said that you receive a lot of criticism when you point to the progress South Africa has made. Why is that?

You are quite right that when we publish this kind of information or say it in public briefings we face hostility. Sometimes we are accused of overlooking the crises facing the country, but anyone who is familiar with the bulk of our reports and articles will know that is nonsense.

Sometimes we are accused of pursuing political agendas, but that is nonsense, too, because we hand out (with good reason) a lot of criticism of failed policy. At times, we are accused of cherry picking successes – but as the numbers cited above attest, the trends of progress we identify are not peripheral or fleeting, but rather underpin substantive improvements in living standards. 

Too often, our critics see the world as a binary place – as if we must choose complete success or outright failure to describe the past 20 years. But rainbow nation idealism and the failed state represent two extremes of a spectrum, and the truth will always lie uncomfortably somewhere in the middle. Good analysts are those who do not get stuck in binary dead-ends, but navigate the great contradictions that characterise the progress of our first 20 years as a democracy – a still-poor country that denies its people much of what they rightly aspire to, but also a country that has done much to make the lives of its people better.

By, at times, emphasising the 'good story to tell', we are saying that, despite the many crises our country faces, there has also been much progress – progress that all South Africans can rightly be proud of, and often greater progress than many people realise.

It is not to say that we have done enough. Nor is it to say that the challenges lying ahead are not daunting. It is rather to say that, as we look to those challenges, let us pause to reflect for an all too rare moment on the good that has been done – so that we can build on it to ensure that tomorrow will be better than today.            

- Frans Cronje is the CEO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.  

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