South Africa on the up and up, says prof

NORMAN MCFARLANE

His trademark bandanna and casual garb – denims, boots and a lounge shirt – disguise a razor sharp mind that ranges widely over where the world is at, and where we – South Africa – fit into that world.

“Things have never been better in South Africa, than they are now,” says Dr Piet Croucamp to a rapt audience at the Lord Charles Ladies’ Club monthly luncheon at The Lord Charles Hotel, in Somerset West, on March 30.

No stranger to controversy, Dr Piet Croucamp, who lectures at the University of Johannesburg, has infuriated conservative Afrikanerdom with his forthright views to the extent that a charge of hate speech was laid with the Equality Court by pro-Afrikaner activist Dan Roodt, for allegedly calling Afrikaners “dumb”.

He has been lampooned by the Afrikaner Volksparty in a blistering attack against him on the white supremacist political party’s website, but he is as forthright as ever, and utterly unrepentant.

His delivery is an intriguing mixture of upbeat and bleak, but on balance, he believes that South Africa is on the right road.

“I’m not in the business of fabricating good news,” he says by way of introduction. “I teach political risk, which allows one to extrapolate where we are headed. It’s about identifying the key risks, how to manage them, and figuring out what goes on in the minds of people who lead. Having said that, a single unanticipated variable can change the whole equation.”

Nobody foresaw that the economic downturn would coincide with the rise of Zuma, he said. “Nobody predicted the exponential growth of the middle class, or how it would behave,” he adds.

A key focus of his delivery is the impact of what he calls the “demographic dividend” – ownership of assets like a car and a house, which in turn facilitates access to capital and debt.

White middle class people have this demographic dividend, whereas black middle class people are only now beginning to build it, having been deprived during apartheid of the right to own assets. “It means we have access to things such as medical aid – better health and longer lives – and better education.”

The demographic dividend means that it is easier for white middle class families to educate their children through access to loans, than for black middle class families to do so.

“The demographic dividend is interpreted as white privilege,” he points out, adding that this perspective causes conflict but sidelines the real issue. Turning to the recent unrest at tertiary education institutions, he explains: “The young black people coming to the formerly white institutions are largely the children of the black middle class, but they can’t sustain themselves, because they do not have access to the demographic dividend like their white counterparts.

“The black middle class cannot leverage that demographic dividend to benefit their families, relying instead on government patronage.”

But things are improving, he says: “Black people in Gauteng currently buy 48% of houses, and 36% of assets are owned by black people. In eight years, the middle class has grown from two million to six million people. We have reduced absolute poverty from 10% of the population to 1%, through the medium of social grants.

“Freedom is embedded in property and asset ownership,” says Dr Croucamp. “We need to ensure that all South Africans are given access to this demographic dividend. Not a job. Access to ownership of property and assets.”