9 major problems facing South Africa - and how to fix them

Trevor 'Nightingale' Manuel and his colourful coterie of battle-hardened soldiers recently emerged from their year-long bosberaad at the National Planning Commission (NPC) with insights into the key challenges facing South Africa.

It doesn’t take Einsteinian wisdom to realise that the Rainbow picture would be lacking in rosiness, but a chunk of change was spent on getting to the bottom of our country’s ills, and a frank assessment is what we got:

  1. Too few South Africans in work
  2. The quality of school education for most black people is sub standard
  3. Poorly located and inadequate infrastructure limits social inclusion and faster economic growth
  4. Spatial challenges continue to marginalise the poor
  5. South Africa's growth path is highly resource intensive and hence unsustainable
  6. The ailing public health system confronts a massive disease burden
  7. The performance of the public service is uneven
  8. Corruption undermines state legitimacy and service delivery
  9. South Africa remains a divided society.
Being the, ahem, think tank that we are, Leader.co.za decided to assemble our own posse of respected intellectuals to thrash out the issues at hand. But this time round, we went in search of solutions. 

1. Too few South Africans in work


Accepting that unemployment has current causes is the necessary first step in fixing the problem. So long as we cite historical causes, we live in a fantasy world where unemployment can only be addressed when the legacy of apartheid itself is finally addressed. Click here to read further.


Rather than being trapped in a paradigm of blame and entitlement, it is up to all who call South Africa home to shift the way we think about these issues and to tap into some of the magic of 1994 and 2010 to find a way out of this crisis. Click here to read further.


If you reward non-performance then you get non-performance, and if you penalise performance then you get non-performance. The balance of fair exchange has been educated out of us, and that balance would need to be restored if one is to seriously consider tackling unemployment. Click here to read further.


A national strategy on Entrepreneurship could offer a solution to the unemployment figure, currently sitting at a staggering 51% of young South Africans. Click here to read further.


Jobs are created by the private sector within the conditions as determined by the state. In SA we need a renewed attempt at collaboration between the state, business and labour to place the country on a new growth trajectory away from conflict to joint goals around economic growth that creates jobs.

2. The quality of school education for most black people is sub standard


Recent ANAs (Annual National Assessments) are a serious wake-up call. Our kids are not getting it. Educationally, our country is in trouble. But, it doesn't help to get desperate and make simplistic calls. Within 10 years, we can surely achieve 100% literacy passes if we work with dedication and urgency. Click here to read further.


Factors internal to the education system carry the major responsibility for the schooling crisis and merit particular interventions because this can raise the quality of educational provision to black children in this country. Click here to read further.


With the experience of almost two decades behind us we must now take the long view, and accept once and for all that there are no quick fixes. Raising the quality of education in this country will take a generation. Click here to read further.


Research on the performance of SA learners over the past decade has revealed that they perform appallingly in literacy, numeracy, language and mathematics. Increased funding and more resources have not had the desired effect. It is therefore primarily our teachers who can make the difference. Click here to read further.


For fifty years, apartheid education had been deliberately designed to privilege whites and disadvantage black South Africa. But, the pattern of unequal academic achievement is also about children’s health, pervasive poverty, language practices, resources/funding and classroom teaching. Click here to read further.


Reestablish nursing and teacher training colleges. Reopen technical and vocational educational institutions. Reduce the number of "academic" universities. Downplay "academic" qualifications and promote vocational and technical education.

3. Poorly located and inadequate infrastructure limits social inclusion
    and faster economic growth 


It is not generally true that South Africa's infrastructure is inappropriate for its level of economic development, but viewed as a determinant of growth, there may be infrastructure inadequacies that are binding constraints on economic growth. Click here to read further.


If the thinking is about the whole, we may even find that there is enough existing infrastructure to takes us very far, but then we need to make our autonomous boundaries more porous; and share our knowledge, our people and our infrastructure in a far more creative way. Click here to read further.

5. SA's growth path is highly resource intensive and hence unsustainable


We are at a second tipping point around economic freedom, in contrast to the first one around political freedom in the early 1990s. We need a new deal to launch South Africa onto the growth path of becoming a winning nation; or no deal, plunging the nation into penury or, worse still, civil war. Click here to read further.


I don’t see how the dependence of South Africa upon high resource levels makes its growth path unsustainable. We should be laying plans to exploit the favoured position in which we find ourselves. Click here to read further.


An optimal and efficient exploitation of natural resources may be identified at all points in economic development. It is not generally accepted and definitely not proven that South Africa's growth is based upon excessive exploitation of natural resources. Click here to read further.

6. The ailing public health system confronts a massive disease burden


While the challenges identified by the NPC refer mainly to the public health sector, the private sector also does not optimally serve SA's needs. The solution therefore lies in addressing both systems, to generate an integrated national health system that can provide a solid foundation for reforms like the NHI. Click here to read further.


Key to improving the ailing health care system in South Africa is creating greater integration between the public and the private health care system. Click here to read further.


Pivotal to rebuilding the health care system is the need for ensuring that the country has sufficient health care professionals to meet the need of an expanding population and an increasing disease burden. Click here to read further.


Recent evidence from the Lean Insitute Africa at the UCT Graduate School of Business shows that by changing the way people think about the problem and reorganising the way they do things – dramatic changes can be effected. Click here to read further.


In providing the service of healthcare, there is a constant tension between critical needs and economics. This places healthcare practitioners under immense pressure particularly when economics are low, or tend to decline. Click here to read further.

7. The performance of the public service is uneven 


Anyone reasonably informed by strategic planning processes will tell you what the crucial requirements are for success: A CEO that is absolutely committed to the vision and direction. Click here to read further.


There are too many obstacles to service delivery at local level. The structural inequities of the past are being reproduced under the current democratic regime and are likely to remain a feature of the country for some time to come. Click here to read further.

8. Corruption undermines state legitimacy and service delivery


Without political will from the top at national, provincial and local government level, calls for the fight against corruption remain empty slogans that only breed cynicism. Anti-corruption institutions can themselves lose legitimacy when political will is absent. Click here to read further.


There can be no debate as to whether the public service is corrupt or not. This has been openly stated by leaders in government and the trade union movement. But, turning corruption around is an inter-generational task. Click here to read further.


South Africa is rudderless, leaderless, drowning in bureaucracy, suffocated by committees, poisoned by rivalries, weakened by corruption and drained by overpaid and under-qualified staff. Click here to read further.

9. South Africa remains a divided society


There is little doubt that the cultural legacy we have inherited over the past 400 years in South Africa, and Africa for that matter, can be summed up in one word – exclusion. So as the Diagnostic Report suggests, maybe we should start by talking to each other across our fault lines? Click here to read further.


Self-confidence and self-respect: this is what an unjust past helped destroy. Now I believe that it is what South Africa needs to foster, both among the privileged as well as the impoverished. Click here to read further.


Few things are better at uniting a divided nation than heroic behaviour. We saw this in the effect that Nelson Mandela, a struggle hero adopted by many across all colours, had on a divided nation in the mid-nineties. Click here to read further.


Our research and experience at the USB’s Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement indicate that, in light of such challenges, it is not enough to have the will to collaborate – though that’s a good foundation. It also takes skill. Click here to read further.


It is my understanding that dividedness is equal to a lack of needs-fulfillment. For this reason I believe that the values love, justice and confident dependence should be the basis of interpersonal relations that should be taught and practiced at grassroots level within our institutions of tertiary education. Click here to read further.

Overarching thoughts 


South Africa has come a long way since 1994 and there are many positive factors that can be highlighted. However, we would be naive to think that all is well, when clearly we have fundamental problems. Click here to read further.

What do ordinary South Africans think? Below follows selected reactions from Leader.co.za's Facebook page:


The ruling party needs a radical shift in their strategy. We need to get more qualified and capable individuals to lead these positions. In education, I believe someone like Prof Jonathan Jansen (UFS) is the most suitable and able person to radically improve the situation.


The ANC is not the problem. South Africans are divided because they all feel like victims of someone else, Blacks and Whites alike. We will grow, eventually - there is no shortcut.


In order to address these challenges, it's time the government realises that we need to appoint skilled people in leadership roles - not fellow comrades and family. Education is key for all the challenges we face, but I'm not convinced we have the right leadership to address this; damage that was done by the apartheid system is huge, but the current crop of leadership is clueless on how to reverse this legacy. It's time we stop labeling issues as black or white, but work as South Africans irrespective of colour or political affiliation - but this can only happened if we have the right leaders who will work for South Africans, not a political party.


The fundamental problem is that we are a divided nation. We first of all need to realise that we are all South Africans, but that will never happen at the rate at which the government and the ruling party are causing division. When we are one nation, we will be able to tackle all the other challenges. But, I can tell you now that the bomb will explode because how will anyone keep up the rate that this government is handing out grants - and free this and free that - from such a low tax base?


In so far as education goes, stop focusing on and trying to change functional/high performing schools! The only way to improve education is to sort out the management of dysfunctional schools. Don't allow good principles to retire or leave education - appoint them with the required authority to sort out the poor performing schools!


If the fraud and corruption were eliminated overnight, I believe we would be surprised just how much money would be available to resolve some of the other items listed. On top of that, put the right people in the right jobs with meaningful, measured objectives, and make them fully responsible and accountable.

Importantly, what do you think? Click here to post your views.

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