An Open Letter to Steve Hayes

Steve Hayes, CEO of the US Corporate Council on Africa, gets alarmist. Wearing my Brand South Africa hat, I respond:

Dear Steve,

If nothing else, it takes courage to go public with a piece like your latest column on the US News and World Report website. One has to assume that dues-paying members of the Corporate Council on Africa might prefer its CEO to abstain from sounding shrill alarums about the continent’s most advanced and diversified economy particularly when that economy’s president is due in Washington in a few weeks time.

You lament what you see as South Africa turning away from the US and Western Europe and towards its partners — China, India, Brazil and Russia — in the BRICS grouping of major emerging markets. Could you blame us if the analysis in your article accurately reflects thinking in America’s boardrooms? Happily, I don’t for a moment believe it does. Nor, I would argue, is it correct to see the BRICS partnership as necessarily hostile to US or European interests. That smacks of Manichean oldthink.

South Africa — and on this you are right — is presently in a difficult place. But the one place we are not is in denial. The woes you list we fully acknowledge. Have you read the diagnostic on which our National Development Plan based? Were you listening when the ANC embraced Goldman Sachs’ “Two Decades of Freedom” evaluation not just for the laudatory sections but in its warts and all totality? Have you been keeping current with everything our government has been saying, especially since the election? You do not have to listen that closely to hear genuine urgency in the voices of our leaders. The ratings agencies are not telling us anything we don’t know or that we aren’t addressing.

Our unemployment levels, particularly among the young, are unsustainable and, if not reversed, might strengthen the appeal of potentially suicidal populism. We know that. Not only do we know it, we are working on constructive, non-ideological solutions within the framework of the market-friendly National Development Plan which enjoys overwhelming support across party lines. Jump-starting growth, the kind that creates jobs, lifts all boats and reduces inequality, is the government’s number one priority — and the government is in no doubt that such growth will only be possible with the full buy-in and participation of the private sector, domestic and international.

We are fixing education. We are ramping up our vocational training system and making it both more accessible and more tightly linked to the job market. We are building new universities and making it easier for poor students to attend. We are making it easier for employers to hire young people. There will be many more jobs for them to go to. Public spending on infrastructure is set to top $300 billion over the course of the next 20 years. US companies have won and will continue to win many of the contracts to be let in the course of the South African economy’s radical transformation.

At the highest level, South Africa’s elected leaders know there is a trust deficit born of promises not kept and words not translated into action. Change is now palpably in the air. Last week, seven mayors were summarily fired for not doing their jobs properly. Look for incompetent and corrupt heads to keep rolling to make way for public servants who are both qualified and honest. This is democracy in action. During the election campaign, the ANC’s door to door canvassers heard bitter complaints about poor service and malfeasance. With municipal elections due in two years time, the wake up call came across loud and clear.

To the unseasoned eye glancing lightly at newspaper headlines, South Africa’s divisions may look hopelessly stark, but it is simply ridiculous to compare what’s happening in our Parliament with what’s (not) happening in your gridlocked Congress. 94 per cent of South Africans did not vote for Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters in their red dungarees and hardhats. Anyone who knows South Africa knows that the hooliganish theatrics of this splinter are a massive turn-off to the vast majority of South Africans.

South Africa is a country of pragmatic solution-seekers and -finders. It has consistently refused to be the ticking time bomb, the tinder box or powder keg prophesied by commentators. Need a citation for that? I direct your attention to accounts of the years 1989-1994 and to the constitution we adopted in 1996. Actors who resist the centripetal pull of our politics toward rational consensus have routinely found themselves consigned to permanent irrelevance.

So lighten up, Steve. Nelson Mandela may no longer be with us. Last I looked, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt aren’t with us either, but America seems to have done pretty well notwithstanding.


Simon Barber

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