In 1918, American financial titan and international statesman Bernard Baruch riposted that “anyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts”.
More than a century later, in a country and world and corroded social media universe where facts, conjecture, falsehoods and opinions (often unhinged or tethered to an alternative reality) all jostle for attention, Baruch’s dividing line is far harder to delineate.
Take the hot mess topic of Lindiwe Sisulu’s slander of black (“mentally colonised”) judges, our “foreign” constitution and their joint and several responsibilities for current levels of impoverishment and inequality. Leaving aside her defiance of her notional boss, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his apparent inability and/or unwillingness to run his writ over his own cabinet, never mind across our lawless land, there are two further aspects of her contentions which are worth reflecting on.
First, there is her nasty and clumsy deflection of responsibility for the misgovernance of the country and its current and past state of economic corrosion, infrastructural collapse and mountainous unemployment. She offered no facts, cited no judgments and named no specific culprits in her all-purpose smear: she did so by both category (judiciary plus constitution) and race (certain black judges).
Part of her diatribe ostensibly addressed the issue of “the restoration of land and meaningful redistribution of wealth”, which in her view has not been “addressed as matter of urgency”.
It is noteworthy on the failure to urgently address the topic of the restoration of land that the very Constitutional Court, subject to the Sisulu defamation, anticipated her attack by at least 17 months.
In August 2019, in a unanimous judgment in the case of Mwelase and others v director-general for the department of rural development and land reform and another, the court found that more than 11,000 land claim applications — many of which had been lodged more than two decades previously — had not been processed or finalised by the government and its bureaucrats. The court wasted neither time nor words in skewering the government, in which Sisulu has served for more than two decades, on its failure to make land restitution a reality for poor black South African families. Interesting here, note, that the court came to the rescue of the impoverished landless in the face of governmental negligence and indifference.
Though the case narrowly concerned the betterment of conditions for labour tenants, the contentions before the court were far larger, more in the mould of the Sisulu article on land reform. On this issue, and in his valedictory judgment, ConCourt justice Edwin Cameron (who does not easily fit the Sisulu smear category), noted: “At issue is the entire project of land reform and restitution” which as the court then confirmed “our country promised to fulfil when the first interim constitution came into effect in 1994, and afterward in the final constitution of 1997” (which, note please, Sisulu voted in favour of).
But as the court found, it was neither the constitution nor the legislation which were to blame for the lack of delivery on the promise of land reform and restitution. Rather, as the court held unanimously, it was the department of rural development and land reform’s failure to perform its basic functions which had caused the crisis. In the words of the judgment this core failure “to practically manage and expedite land reform measures in accordance with constitutional and statutory promises has profoundly exacerbated the intensity and bitterness of our national debate about land reform”.
This inability to “practically manage and expedite” is a sort of all-purpose calling card for serial failures on all fronts of governance these days.
And as for the anticipatory self defence which the court used to forestall a future attack such as the Sisulu January fusillade, the court again proved its prescience. In its August 2019 judgment, it opined: “It is not the constitution, nor the courts, nor the laws of the country that are at fault in this. It is the institutional capacity of the department to do what the statute and constitution require of it that lies at the heart of this colossal crisis.”
In other words, if government, its ministers and servants actually did their jobs with the requisite expertise and due diligence a lot of impoverished and black South Africans, the ostensible victims on whose behalf Sisulu speaks, would be a lot better off today than they are.
The second issue is that, in one narrow instance at least, Sisulu is correct. She decried in her original opinion piece “the sea of African poverty” awash in the country. It is for this that she blamed the constitution, the collaborating class (“mentally colonised Africans” suborned to a “foreign belief system” and ‘’so-called liberators … co-opted into the capitalist class and leafy suburbs”). Leave aside for a moment her monumental hypocrisy (she lives in just such suburban splendour and her revolutionary stance is clothed by Gucci), and the example of governmental neglect cited by the ConCourt, above.
Let’s briefly separate fact from opinion in her blame game.
On the fact of the persistence of poverty I was recently assisted by a friend with a sharp eye for both economic statistics and political analysis. He sent me a link to Our World in Data, an impeccable databank published by Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. What is really useful about its statistics is that it compares changes both between countries and within a single country and uses a relatively long time line (from 1981 to 2019). Further it adjusts the figures to account for inflation and price differences between countries as expressed in US dollars at 2011 prices.
So in a quick series of graphs you can easily see the distribution of a country’s population across different poverty thresholds.
But at the bottom end it is a different story. In 1981, 2.2% of the population lived on less than $1 (R15) per day. By 2019, it had more than doubled to 5.65% of the population. That is more than 3-million people.
Back in the heyday of apartheid (1981) over 60% of South Africans lived on less than $5.50 (R84) per day. That figure had reduced to only 58% in 2019, so barely much movement. And compared to us, and using the same poverty brackets, India, Brazil, China and neighbouring Botswana have shot the lights out in progress.
Thus, as my interlocutor expressed it: “Nearly 30 years of the most progressive government in the world have produced almost nothing in the way of improvements.” This is true of income levels, though not of the spread of services, corroded though many are.
To improve the data and doubtless to earn re-election, Ramaphosa is seeking to extend the R350 Covid grant to all indigents by way of a basic income grant. Only problem is that this amounts to the princely sum of $22.89 (R350) a month, not even crossing the lowest threshold of the data.
Of course, to really make a material dent in the “sea of poverty”, and to do so in a sustainable way, so amply demonstrated by the data and denounced by Sisulu, would require a massive economic course correction, the ditching of enshrined job-crushing, anti-growth policies and collectivist practices.
And that would require real political courage and leadership. The continuance in office of Sisulu, who serves entirely at the pleasure of the president, suggests this key ingredient is not to be found.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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