Today we pause to celebrate workers the world over. One particular set of workers we should be honouring are our frontline healthcare workers, who have stepped up with great bravery and commitment over the past year. They have been true heroes, and yet our government has let them down by failing to secure vaccines to cover even this small critical group, let alone the rest of the population.

As other countries announce major milestones in their vaccination efforts – some even wrapping theirs up already – our is yet to begin. The bulk of our healthcare workers, who did not form part of the Sisonke vaccine trial, are yet to receive their shots and have no protection against a third or fourth wave of transmissions. It is now May and government is yet to administer a single Covid-19 vaccine shot. This is a shameful dereliction of its duty.

In a broader context, South Africa also has very little to celebrate this Workers’ Day. Never before has the plight of the South African worker been more precarious, and never before have the prospects of those looking for work been more hopeless. Our expanded unemployment rate now sits at over 42%. We are world leaders in this regard, and we were world leaders long before Covid-19 struck.

Instead of devoting today to empty platitudes in honour of our labour force or the history of our labour movement, we should use the opportunity to examine, honestly, the cause of this unemployment catastrophe. Because until we are willing to confront the real reasons, and not simply go along with government’s scapegoated reasons, we will make no inroads.

The truth is we have a government stuck in the past. They are deliberately stuck in their own past, because their handling of the present and their prospects for the future are so dismal. But they are also stuck in an ideological past, clinging to policies and an economic system that have long since failed the world over. Their insistence on broadening state control and ownership of the economy and rolling out socialist programmes under the guise of transformation and empowerment are precisely why our economy is in the doldrums and our unemployment numbers at the very top of the graph.

If we want to solve this crisis, we have to start judging every intervention, every policy and every government programme by its actual outcome, and not simply its stated intention. Because every destructive government policy – from BEE to EWC to the minimum wage – has a noble-sounding rationale, just as socialism itself does. But in the real world, where you have to compete on an open marketplace and harness the ingenuity and the drive of entrepreneurship to absorb labour, the outcome of these policies are, without fail, negative.

In the rose-tinted, pre-Berlin Wall version of the 20th Century in which ANC exists, they are still a revolutionary struggle movement and socialism is still a noble goal. But the reality today is that we live in a super-connected global world, and that we are one big borderless marketplace – not only for products and services, but also for critical skills. In stubbornly pursuing these outdated policies while the rest of the world has long-since moved on, we are deliberately shooting ourselves in both feet.

Investors don’t owe us anything. They don’t care for our backstory or our idea of our own exceptionalism. They don’t have to buy into our tag-lines, that we’re alive with possibilities. They have no obligation to go along with bad spin about how elite enrichment is actually empowerment and redress. Investors make rational decisions based purely on risks and the potential for returns, and we’re in competition with 200 other countries for their business.

If we can’t protect their investment through secure property rights, they’ll simply go elsewhere. If we can’t guarantee them uninterrupted electricity, they’ll simply go elsewhere. If we can’t let them do business here without inserting an ANC-connected crony – who adds no value but demands a cut – into their business, they’ll simply go elsewhere. If we make the administrative red tape of running the business more cumbersome and time-consuming than the business itself, they’ll simply go elsewhere. If we force them to adhere to unaffordable wage bargaining agreements that they weren’t even party to, they’ll simply go elsewhere. If we can’t protect their interest as well as the interests of the unions, they’ll simply go elsewhere.

If we truly want to honour workers today we need to forget about the cliched platitudes and the sentimental love affair with all things Cuban, and step boldly into the 21st Century. We need to reinvent our economy and our labour market for this new super-connected world. We need to roll away every possible obstacle that is preventing investors from considering South Africa. And, crucially, we must cast off the blinkers and start judging every single intervention by its outcome and not its intention.

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John Steenhuisen

John Steenhuisen is federal leader of the Democratic Alliance, opposition party of the Republic of South Africa.

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