Voices

If Ethiopia and Rwanda can do it, why can't we?

2020-02-18 01:00

While those countries’ leaders are lauded for driving change, SA remains mired in sluggish growth as our president appears incapable of acting decisively, writes Chris Maxon.

Everything in Rwanda is seen through the prism of the genocide – 100 apocalyptic days that wiped out 800 000 men, women, children and babies, and left no family unscarred.

Similarly, Ethiopia is seen through the prism of the famine that shook the world with grief and pain.

As for South Africa, it was known for the miraculous transition and the reconciliatory symbolism that the late statesman Nelson Mandela represented.

However, today the hypnotic pictures of a miracle are fast being replaced by images of failure and grand-scale state looting.

That is the context within which President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the 2020 state of the nation address (Sona).

After seeing a picture of the two leaders – Ramaphosa and Ahmed – travelling in a car last week, in a country that has moved so fast to become the “fastest-growing economy in the world”, it was not unrealistic for South Africans to have waited for the #Sona2020 with bated breath
Chris Maxon

Just a week earlier, Ramaphosa was hosted and driven around Addis Ababa by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in April 2018.

Ramaphosa started his full term as president in May 2019, after the ANC’s electoral victory.

The difference between the two men lies not in the lack of glamour surrounding their respective entourages, but in the fact that, once elected, Ahmed wasted no time in effecting fast-paced changes.

News media described his efforts at effecting these changes as “almost like observing a different country”.

The reforms he put in place were unthinkable some years earlier.

We would remember that just 35 years earlier, the world was shocked by pictures of the famine in Ethiopia – and for many, these images remain.

For many years, the government seemed impervious to criticism from human rights groups that the state stifled free expression, sidelined and imprisoned opposition leaders and cracked down on protests.

It also appeared steadfast in its disagreement with a border commission ruling that was meant to end the two decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

Stats SA released the following figures: the country’s population is estimated to be 58.8 million; the unemployment rate remains at 29%; female workers earn approximately 30% less, on average, than male workers; and the earnings distribution starkly depicts the heavily racialised inequality prevalent in the labour market

But all that has changed. By 2017, Ethiopia was declared the fastest-growing economy in the world.

After seeing a picture of the two leaders – Ramaphosa and Ahmed – travelling in a car last week, in a country that has moved so fast to become the “fastest-growing economy in the world”, it was not unrealistic for South Africans to have waited for the #Sona2020 with bated breath.

In the week preceding the address, Stats SA released the following figures: the country’s population is estimated to be 58.8 million; the unemployment rate remains at 29%; female workers earn approximately 30% less, on average, than male workers; and the earnings distribution starkly depicts the heavily racialised inequality prevalent in the labour market.

In addition to having the worst employment outcomes, black Africans also earn the lowest wages when they are employed.

Another country that contrasts with ours, and makes South Africans impatient about the pace of change, is Rwanda.

In early April 1994 – while South Africans rejoiced at the democratic breakthrough – Rwanda’s President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali.

This sparked a campaign of genocide against the Tutsis and their moderate Hutu allies.

In response, then military commander Paul Kagame led a force of more than 10 000 Front Patriotique Rwandais soldiers against the Hutu forces perpetrating the genocide.

By avoiding direct assaults and using protracted artillery attacks on enemy strongholds, Kagame’s forces were able to minimise casualties and retake the capital, Kigali, in early July.

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and its fastest-growing economy today.

Rwanda and Ethiopia stand today as flagships of great possibilities and symbols of the “Africa rising” adage.

Kagame became president of Rwanda in April 2000. His government is trying to position Rwanda as something exceptional in Africa: a place to do business.

According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 survey, which assessed the business environments of 190 countries, Rwanda is ranked 29th.

And it has made striking progress when it comes to gender parity: 61% of its lawmakers are women, higher than in any other country.

The World Economic Forum says only five countries have narrowed their gaps more significantly.

On the other hand, Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and its fastest-growing economy today.

With a population of over 100 million and an annual economic growth rate of 10% over the past 15 years, it presents a unique opportunity.

This is the result of no miracle, but rather, of determined action, conviction and drive from the leadership.

Key interventions that one expected Ramaphosa to announce, as opposed to making promises, had to do with investment in the youth.

More than 70% of citizens in Ethiopia are under the age of 30 (South Africa’s median age is 27.6 years), and nearly 50% (28% in South Africa) are under the age of 15.

In 2017, a World Bank report found that enrolment in higher education in that country had multiplied five-fold since 2005, with the number of public institutions increasing from eight to 36 over that period.

The government has also implemented a 70:30 higher education policy: training 70% of students in technology and science, and 30% in the social sciences and humanities.

Despite the mind-bogglingly high dropout rates at South Africa’s schools and tertiary institutions, the government seems comatose to act on improving education outcomes.

We have a policy on community colleges, but actually rolling these out is another matter – like a person possessed, it remains a puzzle.

Given the estimated 60 million mobile and fixed-line subscribers in Ethiopia (there are more than 100 million mobile subscribers in South Africa), tenders were published for more operating licences in the telecoms sector – leading to more competition and broadening of the service offerings

The president announced the refurbishment of railway lines.

This, for example, could be easily linked to skills development by employing young people who have trained at community colleges.

It would go a long way towards improving skills and providing employment.

Technology and knowledge-based industries have the potential to thrive, thanks to the cost advantages and the availability of human capital.

If our youth can be given the relevant skills training at community colleges, this human capital will become a key economy-boosting asset.

We could also learn from Ethiopia when it comes to the pernicious area of driving infrastructure development.

The executive committee of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, disclosed a plan to fully “privatise state-owned sugar plants, railways and industrial parks” in June 2018.

And, although Ethiopian Airlines is currently owned by the state, there is a non-interference policy in place which allows the airline to operate as a business – dealing only in the business of people and profit.

Unlike in South Africa, the Ethiopian government does not interfere in the management of the airline.

This surely settles the ideological debate about the need to privatise state-owned enterprises or not.

The June 2018 announcement was followed by an immediate partial privatisation of “four crown jewels of the economy: Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation and Ethiopian Shipping & Logistics Services Enterprise”.

Given the estimated 60 million mobile and fixed-line subscribers in Ethiopia (there are more than 100 million mobile subscribers in South Africa), tenders were published for more operating licences in the telecoms sector – leading to more competition and broadening of the service offerings.

In addition, Ethiopian Airlines is the only profitable airline on the continent.

This reinforces the possibility of selling off state-run railway projects and key manufacturing industries, which have created enough buzz to boost investors’ confidence and, in turn, the possibility of attracting investments.

The government has also created five industrial parks, which have spurred the creation of 45 000 jobs.

It aims to set up 30 in total and increase their manufacturing capacity from 5% to 20% of gross domestic product.

The #Sona2020 was an opportunity for the president to quell the storms of despair and give direction for South Africa’s recovery
Chris Maxon

Now, Ramaphosa need not fear reprisals from within his party but should rather be determined to build a better South Africa for and with the people.

To illustrate this point: In June 2018, Ahmed was targeted in a grenade attack at a political rally, held in support of him.

Two people were killed in the explosion and more than 100 were injured.

There was also some opposition to him in Tigray, a province that used to dominate the country.

Later that year, a group of soldiers – some of them armed – marched to his office to demand a pay rise.

It has been widely reported that Ahmed commanded the soldiers to join him in doing press-ups.

Any solution will remain far-fetched until it has meaning for the citizens and changes the daily lives of the people.

The #Sona2020 was an opportunity for our president to mitigate what pundits have predicted as a looming political explosion, which may result in violence.

The opportunity was there for Ramaphosa to regain confidence and build consensus around a bargain that reconciles the interests of various sections of society, and in so doing, reforge a more unitary state.

Unfortunately, creating a mechanism to support this kind of euphoria has proven all but impossible in the current political atmosphere, which is highly polarised, fragmented and unstable.

Having gone through decades of intra-party zigzagging, our political sphere is awash with the irreconcilable demands of various sections of society and other interest groups.

Pulling these antagonistic interests together will require that Ramaphosa learn from Kagame and Ahmed, and also provide leadership and determination.

It is sheer tenacity – or what some have called leadership with “bold ambition and a clear vision” – that is credited for Ethiopia’s economic success.

The excuse that the president leads a divided ANC is waning as people’s expectations and impatience grow.

If Ahmed could rein in belligerent soldiers and get them to do press-ups, Ramaphosa can – and should – rein in the ANC.

The #Sona2020 was an opportunity for the president to quell the storms of despair and give direction for South Africa’s recovery.

Sadly, it was an opportunity not effectively utilised.

Maxon is a public servant and social commentator


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March 29 2020