SOUTH AFRICA AT 30:
PRESENTED BY GEORDIN HILL-LEWIS

 

Delivered by Geordin Hill-Lewis and published by the FW de Klerk Foundation on 02/02/2024 

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen

It is my great honour to have been invited to speak here today, and to share the stage with such distinguished company.

These conversations about the state of our country and the paths we might choose are hugely important, and particularly in 2024.

This feels like a big year for South Africa. On the occasion of our democracy’s thirtieth birthday, and on the eve of our seventh national and provincial election, there is a growing sense that our country stands before a crossroads.

My hope is that this translates into in increased interest and participation in the democratic process when we go to the polls later this year.

A whole generation has now passed since South Africans voted in 1994. The first cohort of born-frees have now grown up and have started families of their own.

Young South Africans who took their ID books to voting stations for the very first time back then – eager to make their mark and excited at the enormous possibility for change – are now middle-aged. Many of their children will vote for the first time this year.

That passage of time – a generation – feels like an apt period over which to judge our progress as a nation. To take stock of the ground we’ve covered so far, to speak about the challenges and opportunities we face today, and to consider which path into the future we might choose.

It is also fitting that we do so on 2 February, on the anniversary of the Parliamentary address that began the process of dismantling apartheid and negotiating a brand new democracy.

When former State President FW de Klerk stood in front of the National Assembly for the opening of Parliament 34 years ago in 1990, he delivered a message that our country desperately needed, but which not everyone was ready to hear.

Branded a traitor to his people by those who stormed out, he became a divisive figure to some, but a unifier to so many more.

And, at a time of great change throughout the world and Eastern Europe in particular, he set in motion the process of South Africa’s biggest ever change: the birth of the Rainbow Nation – the world’s miracle democracy.

Much of his speech that day was about the organisations that were to be unbanned, the prisoners that were to be released, and changes around emergency regulations, media restrictions and the death penalty.

But I want to highlight a short passage that appeared near the start of the speech, in which he implored of his fellow parliamentarians the following:

“Let us put petty politics aside when we discuss the future. Help us build a broad consensus about the fundamentals of a new, realistic and democratic dispensation. Let us work together on a plan that will rid our country of suspicion and steer it away from domination and radicalism of any kind.”

He knew that things like ego, power and suspicion were the biggest threats to finding a lasting, negotiated solution for our country, and so he focused upfront on the importance of working together and finding common ground.

He would return to this theme of cooperation later in the speech – this time addressing the broader South African community and other political movements – asking for an end to hostile postures and the replacement of slogans with deliberate debate, saying that the time for reconstruction and development had arrived.

He then listed what he considered to be the aims of this period of dialogue and discussion – aims which he said should be acceptable to all reasonable South Africans. Those aims included:

  • A new, democratic constitution
  • Universal franchise
  • No domination
  • Equality before an independent judiciary
  • The protection of minorities and individual rights
  • Freedom of religion
  • A sound economy based on proven economic principles and private enterprise
  • Dynamic programmes aimed at better education, health services, housing and social conditions for all

 

Looking back at the past 30 years, we can proudly say, as a nation, that many of those aims were indeed achieved.

Our Constitution is held up as one of the most progressive and well-crafted in the world. We live in a country with absolute political freedom, with firm protections for individual and minority rights, and with a free press, an independent judiciary and the freedom to worship in whichever way you choose.

However, it is at the last two points – a sound economy and all the social programmes and services enabled by such an economy – that we have missed the mark, and by some distance.

South Africa’s economy is in a dire position, strangled by a perfect storm of bad policy, shrinking revenue and a crippling energy crisis.

And as a result of this, the state’s capacity to maintain, let alone improve, its service delivery to its citizens has been significantly eroded.

Our real national unemployment figure is stuck on the wrong side of 40%, with an ever-increasing number of South Africans dependent on social welfare to survive.

This massive and growing number of grant recipients is not a government success. It is a ticking time bomb, as national revenue is squeezed and budgets across all departments are cut.

The simple reality is that you cannot fund an expanding redistribution programme with stagnated or shrinking revenue. The maths does not work. You need growth.

I think this is something we all agree on.

When we look at the hopelessness of the millions of South Africans without work, who depend on a tiny grant to survive, when we look at the crumbling state of public infrastructure in so many towns and cities across the country and the impact this has on the dignity, health and safety of those residents, we all know that this is not the country we envisaged three decades ago.

And we all know that the only way to get out of this hole is through a growing economy that brings work, that brings tax revenue and that brings the ability of the state to invest in infrastructure that is able to meet the demands of a fast changing future.

If we all agree on this, then perhaps it is worth revisiting that part of Mr de Klerk’s speech from 34 years ago where he called for cooperation, real debate and an end to the political hostilities that so often get in the way of progress.

If we can settle on a shared, realistic future ambition for our country – and if we agree that the only way to unlock that future is through a robust and growing economy – then surely we can also agree to put petty politics aside in order to pursue that goal.

The window for doing so will not be open forever, as the social conditions across the country deteriorate.

Waiting in the wings, ready to profit from the disillusion and frustration of poor South Africans who see no hope ahead, are people who do not share the same future ambition for our country. And they will turn that frustration into anger and violence as they seek to divide us.

That is why we need to find our consensus now – those of us who want our country to work – and grow the centre so that the radical fringes remain just that: fringes.

I strongly believe that we have enough time and enough people to do so.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of South Africans do not want violence and chaos. And I believe that the overwhelming majority of South Africans would choose the dignity and independence of a job over the struggle and dependence of a grant any day of the week.

Our task now is to ensure that this majority unites around a common goal and a shared future ambition for our country.

If we allow the one-upmanship of petty politics to stand in the way, we will not realise that ambition. And we will open the door to those who thrive on division, chaos and violence.

We can, and we must succeed. And I know it can be done.

However, the often chaotic coalition governments of some of our country’s metros have made many South Africans sceptical about such an era of cooperation. But let me remind you that Cape Town too had a turbulent seven party coalition government just over a decade ago, and that government was somehow made to work.

From that rocky start, Cape Town has steadily built a reputation as a city that works – in more ways than one.

It is a city that works for its residents through improved service delivery and more favourable conditions in which to operate a business, and it is a city where more people find work than anywhere else in the country, with an unemployment rate that is a full fifteen percentage points below the national average.

That is not to say that everything in Cape Town is perfect. Far from it. We grapple with the same big issues that all other metros do – poverty, unemployment, rapid urbanisation, lack of housing, crime, vandalism and, of course, a crippling energy crisis.

But there are many things that work in Cape Town, and which perhaps offer some guidance on the way forward for our country.

We are investing in public infrastructure at a scale not seen before in our city, nor anywhere else in the country. And we are able to fund this investment without placing undue pressure on our ratepayers, but rather through growing the revenue base of the city by growing the local economy.

We know how fast our city is changing through urbanisation and semigration. The recent Census report confirmed what we already knew – that Cape Town is fast approaching 5 million residents and that we will soon overtake Johannesburg as South Africa’s most populous metro.

Within a generation, we will be a metro of close to 10 million people.

That’s a big number, and potentially a very daunting prospect. But rather than fear that future, we are determined to meet it head-on by doing all we can to prepare for it. And so we are taking a long view in everything we do.

One of the first things I did at the start of my term was to set up a directorate called Future Planning and Resilience that reports directly to my office. This is not some side project looking at niche environmental issues – they are instrumental to every plan we draw up in the City and every budget allocation we make.

Through this directorate, we look a whole generation into the future in terms of demographics, spatial development, climate and environmental resilience, water and energy security, housing and safety, and we then plan for that future.

I believe that this obsessive future focus is not only the path to success for our metro, but indeed for our country. And I hope that by showing its value in Cape Town, we can demonstrate to the rest of South Africa why it is so crucial to follow a similar approach.

And so, as we pause today to both reflect on the first thirty years of our democracy and to look ahead to the next thirty, I would like to share with you some of the approaches to governance that I believe have set Cape Town on a different trajectory.

I consider these universal truths, and I believe their application at any sphere of government will have a similar outcome.

If these principles will help make Cape Town of 2054 a place of opportunity, dignity and safety – what we call a City of Hope – then there is no reason why the same approach would not turn South Africa into a Country of Hope too.

The first of these is the need to define a bold sense of national ambition. In other words, an answer to the question: What are we aiming for, and what kind of country do we want to be?

I don’t believe we have done that. Certainly, no one in national government is painting such a picture in a compelling way.

In the absence of such a shared national ambition – and against the backdrop of growing poverty and the increasing neglect of the state and its infrastructure – people have instead become acclimatised to this deterioration.

South Africans have begun to accept this as the new normal – that the neglect is permanent and the damage too far gone to fix.

Well, I refuse to believe that, and I refuse to accept that our country now only has a reverse gear.

My colleagues and I spend a lot of time talking about what the Cape Town of the future can and should look like, and in doing so I’d like to think we are creating an ambition for our city that everyone can share.

This makes our project a massive group effort, and leads to an incredible level of buy-in and partnership with residents, businesses and civil society.

I believe that this is a critical first step for our country too. If we want to achieve a better future, we need to start defining what that future looks like so that everyone is energised and mobilised to pull in that direction.

The second universal truth is that you cannot make progress in society and build for the future without a merit-based state.

And by this I mean you cannot prioritise party loyalty over expertise when it comes to staffing the state. A glance at any of our struggling state owned enterprises or dysfunctional municipalities demonstrates this very clearly.

In Cape Town, we set about the task, many years ago, of re-professionalising the administration and reintroducing the idea of the public service as an excellent career choice for ambitious candidates.

This has been an absolutely critical part of turning our city around and allowing us to plan for the future. And it is a virtuous cycle too – as our reputation as a place of excellence grows, so too does our ability to attract talent.

Today the City of Cape Town is considered a highly desirable place to work, and we’ve been able to fill positions with people of outstanding quality in their fields. This has enabled us to dramatically expand our capacity to deliver on our goals.

This has to be the way forward for our country too. It will be of little use to define a bold national ambition if the state is not able to deliver on that ambition.

Professional merit has to be the only criteria for filling positions in the state.

My third universal truth for a prosperous and growing South Africa is something I briefly touched on earlier, and that is investing for the future through public infrastructure.

Failure to do so comes with devastating consequences, as we are now seeing in many towns and cities where the infrastructure – particularly the water and sanitation networks – cannot cope with rapidly growing demand.

Once this happens – once the future arrives and you are ill prepared – it is very hard to catch up.

In Cape Town, our biggest obsession is to avoid that scenario. And so we are laying and replacing sewer pipes, upgrading wastewater treatment plants and pump stations, and securing new sources of potable water at a scale that dwarfs every other city in the country.

Our infrastructure spend over this three year medium-term framework is more than that of Johannesburg and Durban combined.

And it’s not just water and sanitation. We’re putting massive budget allocation into our electricity grid and into the procurement of power from independent sources. We’re ramping up visible policing through our local law enforcement. We’re rolling out, in partnership with social housing companies, more affordable housing in well located areas than ever before. And were investing heavily in the cleaning of our waterways, vleis and beaches.

We’re doing all of this because we know what the future of our city is going to look like, and we are determined to be ready for that future.

If we’re now looking ahead at the next thirty years in South Africa, and we want to be in a position to not only meet the challenges of population growth and urbanisation, but indeed turn those challenges into our competitive advantage, then we have to be doing the groundwork today.

Not only does such investment in public infrastructure deliver more dignified services for communities, it also sends a signal to the world that we are a solid bet for the future. It indicates that our country is open for business.

And that brings me to my final universal truth for progress and prosperity, and that is the power of economic growth.

You cannot have ambitions for the improvement of communities through better basic services, better public transport, better safety through policing, or better housing options if you do not have the growth to pay for it.

Redistribution without growth is a one-way ticket to state failure.

In Cape Town, we manage to run the most redistributive government in the country, with a full 75% of our budget spent in poorer communities. But we are only able to do so thanks to our efforts to grow our revenue by growing the local economy.

Everything we do depends on this, and so we are obsessed with throwing the doors wide open and declaring our city open for business.

Our mission is to make Cape Town the easiest place to do business on the entire African continent, and we regard the city’s business owners, entrepreneurs and investors as the job-creating heroes of this mission.

There simply is no place for a worldview that treats private enterprise with suspicion and disdain.

That is a lesson that everyone in South Africa is going to have to take to heart if we are to pull our economy out of its slump, reduce our high unemployment rate and fund the kind of infrastructure investment needed to prepare our country for the future.

I am of the firm belief that if we were to apply those four principles at a national level – if we clearly expressed our bold national ambition, if we made professional merit the only criteria for appointments, if we ramped up our investment in infrastructure and if we prioritised growth over everything else – then we could put our country on a trajectory to success.

We’ve been following this recipe for long enough in Cape Town now for it to start showing some meaningful differences in outcomes.

Yes, we still have many big challenges, and life is still harsh for our poorest residents. But all the critical metrics are moving in the right direction.

Our city is the single biggest source of new jobs in the country, creating more than all the other cities combined.

We are the biggest spenders on public infrastructure.

We have the widest access to basic services and the biggest basket of free services for indigent residents.

Our property market is booming, our skyline is dotted with construction cranes as investment continues to roll in, and we’ve just been named second best city in the world to visit in the prestigious Time Out survey, after New York.

We continue to set ourselves ambitious annual targets in our mission to deliver a City of Hope, and I am extremely proud to say that those targets are all being met, and more often than not surpassed.

And while this is incredibly important for the residents of Cape Town and for the future of our city, I think it is of equal importance to South Africans elsewhere.

Because we want to show that decline in our country is not inevitable. We want to prove to South Africans that you don’t have to accept the prospect of a bleak future with few opportunities in life.

You can dream bigger, and you are allowed to want more for yourself and your family.

For us in the City of Cape Town, the dream of 1994 is still very much alive and worth pursuing.

And if we were to look back in another thirty years’ time, I’d like to think that the work we’re doing today and the example we’re setting would’ve helped put South Africa on the road to prosperity.

Thank you.

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