Some Thoughts on the State of the Nation

Before you start jumping up and down, I am referring to South Africa and more specifically to Thabo Mbeki’s State of the Nation Address from almost ten days ago. As with many such addresses, it skirts a number of issues, but on the whole it does address the state of South Africa as a whole and the progress made by the country over the last few years. Most importantly, Mbeki admits to a number of problems that the country still faces. (He also brings up many of the government’s successes, which isn’t surprising either.) But the real impetus behind this post is not a desire to critique Mbeki or the speech he made. Rather I want to look at some of the points he brought up in the speech and how much those points in and of themselves say about the country.

One of the things that really struck home for me was how far the country still needs to go before Apartheid is truly overcome. The spectre of poverty is one of the most accurate reflections of the lingering effects of Apartheid. Despite the number of people who have been provided with running water, “8 million people are still without potable water.” In other words, close to one in five South Africans doesn’t have access to water-related infrastructure. And much as the government may try to rectify the situation, it won’t be able to in the near future. Access to electricity is an even bigger problem. As Mbeki points out, more people lack access to electricity than they do to water. On top of this, however, South Africa has been having problems with demand for electricity as a result of improved access. There have been fairly serious black-outs and the like over the last few months due to Eskom, the state-owned electricity provider, not having the capacity to provide enough power to the country. (That is a topic on its own, wherein it would seem the government is partly to blame for preventing Eskom from expanding its infrastructure five years ago. See SA electricity supply ‘uncertain’ for more.)

Other areas that are truly worrying are the fact that municipal management is in disarray. Statements like

[I]n September last year, 27% of municipalities did not have municipal managers; in the Northwest Province, the vacancy rate at senior management level was over 50%

don’t inspire confidence in the government’s ability to meet the targets it has been setting itself in terms of basic service delivery (i.e. water, sanitation, electricity and housing). The above statistics don’t include municipalities that are mismanaged, which makes things even more worrying. There are simply not enough people on the ground making a difference on a local level for the government’s large-scale policies to have much purchase. I wish it were otherwise, and I really don’t know how things are going to change in the short term. One of the main problems, of course, is that non-whites in general, but blacks in particular, are the primary victims of governmental problems on a local level. Apartheid’s legacy is that people living in ex-homelands and in rural areas are those without water infrastructure and/or electricity. And they are the people who really do need services and infrastructure.

Arg. I get frustrated and think myself into circles. So I will stop that train there. I will, however, say that Mbeki does bring up two very interesting points. The first is that “South Africa is one of the few countries that spend less on military budgets than on water and sanitation.” The problem, of course, is that much of the money budgeted for these things doesn’t necessarily find its way to the right places. The other point that Mbeki raised was the fact that 11 million people receive social grants from the state (which is about 1 in 4), a serious statistic. I will have more to say on these grants at a later stage, but not quite yet. Also forthcoming are some thoughts that come out of response to Mbeki’s comments on land restitution and black ownership and management of companies. So stay tuned – I’ll keep the posts coming a bit more regularly than they have been.


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