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The negatives are ever-present and we’re all aware of them – Marikana, service protests and the grief surrounding Nelson Mandela’s ailing health. But the panel also drew attention to the positives. We have a judiciary that works, a vibrant media force that holds the government to account, and a citizenry that wants to see the country succeed.

As always, the reality and the truth lies somewhere in between – leading the panel to question whether SA is at a crossroads or at the precipice of something great.

All agreed that we’ve come a long way over the past 20 years. “The National Development Plan (NDP) spells out the challenges that deprive SA of a higher growth rate,” said Masilela, “but we cannot rely on the state to resolve the problems. Every citizen has to be responsible for turning the economy around.” He urged citizens to find a niche for themselves to enable them to contribute towards changing the situation. “We need to take a long-term view. We need to consider the next 50 years, not the next five,” he said.

Saville gave the country a rating of six out of ten, stating that we’re unquestionably in a better position than 20 years ago. “In the long-run we’ve made massive strides, but there’s more to be done in the near-term, especially when it comes to education,” he said.

Leon pointed to new infrastructure we’ve never had before, such as the Gautrain. “However, we need more engineers,” he said.

Masilela expanded further on the NDP, saying that it was nothing new, “but we need to move to implementation, and we need better interaction between the public and the private sectors in order for the NDP to work effectively.” The problems he highlighted are not new, education once again being key. The country needs the right intellectual capital. Lack of sufficient investment is another problem. We’re simply not saving enough as a country. A third problem highlighted was service delivery. For the economy to be efficient, government needs to be efficient. “We need a change in attitude in the public sector,” said Masilela.

Saville agreed, highlighting the need to move towards less policy and more implementation. “The likelihood of the NDP growth trajectory is low,” he said. “SA will likely grow at 3%, not 6%. We don’t have the structures in place to achieve 6% growth, especially with regard to education.” He stated that economic improvement without social inclusion means nothing.

Leon emphasised the importance of staying oriented on the future. Policy decisions must lead to long-term benefits.

Masilela reminded the audience that as a country, SA can adapt and mobilise resources to be where we want to be in 30 years’ time. “We went into independence without World Bank credit,” he said.

Leon pointed to SA’s position when it comes to competitiveness within labour relations, adding that we need to create jobs for the employees we have, not necessarily for the employees we want right now. He stated that we produce world-class international companies, but they don’t necessarily generate new jobs. “Government is responsible for creating the enabling environment,” he said.

SA has had jobless growth since the 1980s. The panel agreed that growth alone won’t create jobs – companies, especially smaller companies – are needed to create jobs. With a population of 50 million people, South Africa has only 600 000 small firms, whereas Chile, for example, has a population of only 17 million and yet it has 700 000 small firms.

Looking towards the rest of Africa, Masilela stated that with a slowing global economy, SA needs to look towards Africa from a trade perspective. “All SA corporates that have gone to Africa have realised better returns than at home.” Saville stated that SA is a province of the fastest growing continental economy and has to make the best of this relationship.

Considering China, Masilela commented that the bulk of Africa has exposed itself too much and too quickly to the country. “China will soon become an average economy and it will start relying on the internal economy for growth rather than international trade. Its competitiveness will dissipate.”

When questioned on a South Africa without Mandela, Leon said he didn’t think the passing of Madiba would derail the country. “I think the country will come together when Madiba passes, not split apart. It will be up to us, and we need to separate the man from the idea of Mandela.”

The panel concluded with all agreeing that they hoped that people would listen and take note of the challenges and take individual decisions about their role in changing South Africa for the better.

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