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Home Analysis South Africa’s economic crisis — How ordinary citizens can shape new policies

South Africa’s economic crisis — How ordinary citizens can shape new policies

South Africa’s financial situation remains constrained despite hopes that President Cyril Ramaphosa would create much-needed jobs and restore investor confidence. Mike Batley warns of the dangers of unilateral solutions for South Africa’s economic challenges. He calls for a more holistic and reflective approach to overcome the endemic structural inequalities of our economic landscape.

Recent major news stories about the new levels of unemployment in our country have rightly been labelled as an indication that we are in a “crisis”. Added to this is another huge bail-out for Eskom, increasing the risk of further downgrades from ratings agencies because of the impact on government finance. There are suggestions that this means “we will all be poorer”, adding significantly to our national sense of doom and gloom.

As the fourth industrial revolution becomes a greater reality, banks, call centres and car manufacturers have started retrenching workers. Ordinary wage earners are justifiably fearful for their own future and can be forgiven for thinking that there is little they can do about the situation. Is this really the case?

The trap of either/or thinking

In my reading of current affairs lately, I’ve noticed a helpful trend to highlight two dangers: if we over-emphasise the need for structural change, we’re in danger of abdicating our personal responsibility; if we over-emphasise what we can do as individuals, we’re in danger of overlooking the need for structural change at a macro level. The truth is we need both, sometimes for obvious reasons that are overlooked.

Jeff Rudin expertly links these two dimensions in a Daily Maverick article, where he shows how some influential activists in the areas of climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity impoverishment dismiss individual acts of conservation and consciousness-raising. He points out that, without a widespread change in consciousness on these issues and a rejection of the values of materialism and consumerism, no systemic change is possible.

without a widespread change in consciousness … and a rejection of the values of materialism and consumerism, no systemic change is possible.

Similarly, an op-ed earlier this year by Greg Mills and Wilmot James, and a commentary by Salim Fakir propose some structural changes to turn the economy around generally, and more specifically, create a green economy. Helpful as these might be, wage earners may feel these proposals aren’t directly relevant to them.

Colin Bundy challenges us to think beyond superficial structural changes. After tracing South Africa’s status as the most unequal country on earth back to our colonial and capitalist past, he concludes with this challenge:

Inequality was forged by settler colonialism and racial capitalism; its persistence in such acute form reflects the distribution of power (and the resources and opportunities conferred by power) in society.

Tackling inequality therefore involves more than “pro-poor” policies: it needs changing the social processes and relations that underpin it.

How can we approach changing these social processes and relations? Drawing inspiration from Janine Scott-dos Santos’ article on overcoming racism, here are some personal strategies for building a more equal society.

The complexity of inequality

Some of the intractable and complex dimensions of inequality were outlined during an encounter between Helen Zille and Thuli Madonsela, which they wrote about in two separate articles. South Africa’s economic realities are intertwined with contested history, political and ideological rhetoric and attitudes of racial superiority and prejudice.

Zille emphasises the need for personal agency and points to the power of individual and collective responsibility, holding up the Afrikaners’ development as an example. She also provocatively suggests that the rejection of all things “Western” and the focus on “whiteness” and “white privilege” absolves people from taking responsibility for addressing the enormous challenges of the task ahead. It is far easier to lay all the blame on a shrinking minority.

Madonsela responds by acknowledging the concerns of discounting individual effort and exonerating the ANC government for its failures and corruption. She also recognises the white fear of being scapegoated, especially in the light the genocides in Nazi Germany and Rwanda. But she points out that the Afrikaners were key beneficiaries of job reservation, land dispossession and other unjust laws. She suggests that “acknowledging the ugly and complex shadow of our past gives us solid grounding for a responsive theory of change, for win-win solutions that anchor sustainable, peaceful coexistence”. This is apparently the thinking behind her proposed M-Plan, to be discussed at a conference later in August.

“… acknowledging the ugly and complex shadow of our past gives us solid grounding for a responsive theory of change, for win-win solutions that anchor sustainable, peaceful coexistence.”

Thuli madonsela

So, what might some practical steps be?

Several years ago, I was shocked to realise how wealthy I was compared with the majority of the population. The son of a teacher, I’d always felt somewhat less well-off than my peers at school. This feeling was sustained as an adult, working in the civil service and for a non-government organisation. I gradually became aware of my own privilege, and how my middle-class expectations, while not wrong in themselves, might be out of step with the reality of our country.

Some points of reference that I find helpful are the Christian Social Teaching concepts of human dignity: the dignity of work, the expectation that individuals should develop to, and utilise their full potential, the structures of sin and grace, and the need to show preference for and solidarity with the poor.

I’ve also found the spiritual discipline of simplicity useful. What does “enough” mean in the light of the context in which I live and work, even as I face my own struggles for survival? Is there a way of ordering my life so that I recognise that whatever has to be done at a structural level does not absolve me from my responsibility in all these complex areas?

Striving for justice

All the issues cited above can be guided by the vision of Biblical justice. This is achieved when each person – especially the poor and those on the margins of society – has what she or he needs to survive, to develop and thrive (including food, health and education), and to give back to the community.[1] Individually and communally, we all need to grow in our understanding of justice. Faith communities can do this by creating opportunities for learning and engaging on the topic.

WATCH — Justice // The Bible Project, YouTube

Making environmentally-friendly choices

There are several things that many of us can do with limited effort: we can monitor closely the amount of water we use (following Cape Town’s example of, taking 90 second showers) and recycle as much of our household waste as possible.

The first would contribute to better water stewardship nationally and the second has the dual benefit of reducing the burden on landfill waste sites and creating job opportunities for the poor. If we are beef eaters, we could reduce the amount we consume. This would contribute directly to reducing the level of global carbon emissions.

Showing solidarity

Richard Rohr quotes Jim Wallis on our need to choose to be closer to poor people:

The critical difference between Jesus’s disciples and a middle-class church is precisely this: our lack of proximity to the poor. . . . The middle-class church doesn’t know the poor and they don’t know us. . . . So [we] merely speculate on the reasons for their condition, often placing the blame on the poor themselves.[2]

Jim says that “social location often determines biblical interpretation”. No wonder many well-off Christians miss the emphasis on justice, simplicity, and equality throughout Scripture!

This is extremely difficult to do in the midst of the daily pressures we all face. But we could make a start by building authentic relationships with the poorer people we interact with on a daily basis – people who work in our homes, colleagues, shop assistants, the many unemployed people around our shopping centres and neighbourhoods.

“The middle-class church doesn’t know the poor and they don’t know us. . . . So [we] merely speculate on the reasons for their condition, often placing the blame on the poor themselves.”

jim wallis, God’s politics

This would help us understand the realities of people from different socio-economic levels to our own.

Changing our economy

Although South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies, the international economy as a whole is in deep trouble. This prompted challenging words in a 2018 Vatican document on the global economic and financial system:

No profit is legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor.

While the document acknowledges that many financiers and stock traders are “animated by good and right intentions”, global markets have become “a place where selfishness and the abuse of power have an enormous potential to harm the community”.

With some diligence, each of us can reflect on our economic choices to ensure that we hold businesses, banks and political leaders to higher standards.

Influencing public spending priorities

As we struggle to absorb the evidence being presented at the Zondo Commission about the extent of corruption in South Africa, we need to realise that as voters, we have the power to hold political and administrative officials to account. This involves not only responding to or preventing corruption, but also influencing the way in which public funds are directed. This requires some knowledge, time and effort, but is potentially a powerful force for changing the nature of our public economy.

Changing South Africa’s economic structures is the work of policy makers. But policy makers act upon the mandate of the people who elected them into power. Economic policies are also not passed behind closed doors; they often are the product of wide-scale public consultation.

No profit is legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor.”

congregation for the doctrine of the faith

As individuals, we may have very little power. As a collective of South Africans who want something better for our country, we have the power to hold our elective officials accountable. However, none of us is in a position to meaningfully influence the public economic discourse until we have adequately educated ourselves on the complex issues cited above.

Our individual position within that economy also calls for deeper reflection and the adoption of a lifestyle and attitudes that are conducive to the development of the economic and financial systems that our faith challenges us to promote.

[1] Henriot et al. 2012 Catholic Social Teaching: our best kept secret. Maryknoll, Orbis Books and the Center of Concern

[2] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Harper Collins: 2005, 2006), 210-211.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Mike Batley
Mike is from Pretoria, South Africa. In 2001 he co-founded and has since directed the Restorative Justice Centre (RJC), a vibrant and multi-cultural civil society organisation. Within this context he played a pioneering role in bringing restorative justice into the criminal justice system and public discourse, and in developing associated services. He was recognised as an Ashoka Fellow for this work. He has published several book chapters and journal articles on restorative justice which have also been quoted in 2 South African High Court judgments as well as 1 Constitutional Court judgment. He was part of the group of experts that reviewed the UN Basic Guidelines for Restorative Justice in November 2017. Mike is a registered social worker with over 30 years’ experience in the public and private sectors. He also holds an MPhil in Applied Ethics and is an accredited mediator. He is committed to the vision of building an ethical society and works as an independent practitioner in the areas of ethics, moral education, conflict transformation and wellness. For more information see

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