Moved by Obama? Well shut up and act on it, fast
Our people are desperate for progress, but still we indulge in our SA habit of talk rather than action
We are a nation of talkers, not doers; of politicians, not entrepreneurs. We analyse problems brilliantly; we solve them poorly. We are a nation of great policies, but of little implementation.
On these shores you get elected for having a big mouth and a deft Twitter finger; you will get precious few votes for having achieved anything. We like political singers – we applaud them loudly and return them to office even as they rob us blind while lulling us into stupidity and acquiescence with their ditties; we save our harshest words for those who create products, factories and jobs.
Before Barack Obama became US president in 2008 we were talking about universal healthcare (the NHI). He left office in 2016 after two terms and had put in place Obamacare. Here at home, hospitals have no medicines, no specialists, no cancer treatment machines, no electricity and sometimes no water. We are still talking about the NHI. In 10 years we will still be talking about NHI. We talk, we don’t do.So last week Obama was in town. We love him here. We packed the Wanderers Stadium to listen to him. As soon as he finished speaking we left the stadium and went to our comfortable homes. Did we actually listen to the man? We certainly talked about his speech. The talk shows were full of it. Newspapers had wall-to-wall coverage. Every news site had its best talent at the occasion, and we got all the quotations.
But did we listen? Or was Obama’s address pretty much like the man he was honouring that day – Nelson Mandela?
We like Mandela. We talk about him all the time. Yet how many who talk about him incessantly actually try to emulate his leadership ethos? How many stand on principle where necessary instead of taking the easy road?
The future is full of opportunities, but it is full of threats too. Are we arming our young to be able to mitigate these threats and take advantage of the opportunities? Is talk about artificial intelligence just going over our heads? Obama spoke persuasively about this: “The biggest challenge to workers ... is technology. The biggest challenge for Ramaphosa is also technology because artificial intelligence is already here. This means we have to be more creative in thinking of new ways to offer jobs.”How many South Africans are unemployed? How many can survive or thrive in a world where employment means being able to mitigate the risks of technology that every day gobbles up jobs and gives them to machines? Do we have policy that thinks far enough, creatively enough, about such problems?
When one brings up inequality in SA one is very quickly shut down. Obama pointed straight at it, saying that “you don’t have to take a vow of poverty to say let me help out. It shows a poverty of ambition just to take more and more and more.”
Is South African business, in particular, listening? Where is Christo Wiese? As Obama spoke we heard from the Financial Mail and other media that the man allegedly owes the taxman – through blatant tax dodging – a staggering R3,7-billion. Why? As Obama pointed out, there’s only so much one man or woman can eat. Yet the dangers of a world where such deep inequality persists are lost on our elite.There will be a fire next time. Are we doing anything in our policies to make a more equal country and world? Is Christo Wiese and his ilk doing anything? No.
Do leaders act responsibly? The Zulu king, who recently spoke of secession and war if our democratic country’s land laws were changed to empower the poorest of the poor, was in the stadium as Obama said “strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretence of democracy are maintained – the form of it – but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. Will he change his ways? Will he understand the depth and meaning of the words that kick off our constitution: ‘We, the people ... ’”There was beauty in listening to Obama last week. There was pride in having had such a great leader at the head of the US. There was a lament, too. Here at home we have little time, precious little. Our people are desperate for progress.
We can only talk for so long. We have to act. Ramaphosa’s New Dawn needs to become tangible – more jobs on the ground, better economic growth, better education outcomes, stronger institutions, effective state-owned enterprises. The ANC’s 1994 election message was deceptively simple: jobs, jobs, jobs. Twenty-four years later, I say please let’s stop talking and deliver: jobs, job, jobs.