SA Needs a Moonshot… Difficult, But Possible


Written by: Marius Roodt

One of the greatest achievements by any country in human history was the American Apollo programme, which culminated in the landing of a human being on Earth’s familiar satellite.

Outside of war, no country has contributed so much to a single goal – a huge undertaking that employed nearly half-a-million people at its peak, and cost more than US$100 billion (in 2016 dollars). At no time since the last Apollo mission nearly fifty years ago – in 1972 – have human beings left low-Earth orbit. It was a stupendous project.

It is thus no surprise that the term ‘moonshot’ (which originally referred to the goal of landing an astronaut on the Moon) is now synonymous with a huge undertaking, the success of which will have great significance.

South Africa experienced a political moonshot of its own in the celebrated transition to democracy in the 1990s. Today, we are in need of another.

In the 1980s, most people were predicting a bloody end for apartheid in South Africa. The country was in the grip of civil unrest and the army (when not patrolling the streets of townships) was involved in one of the many Cold War proxy conflicts in Angola and, what is today, Namibia. The government was intransigent in the face of the compelling necessity to engage organisations like the African National Congress (ANC) in negotiation, and attitudes on both sides of the conflict appeared to be hardening. Yet, in February 1990, FW de Klerk effectively initiated South Africa’s own moonshot by freeing Nelson Mandela and unbanning the ANC, among other key political groupings.

Like the American moonshot of the 1960s, the challenge of creating a democratic South Africa after the horrors of apartheid may have seemed an insurmountable challenge at first. But, like the Apollo programme, South Africa was successful. This was because, with some exceptions (including extremists on both sides of the political spectrum), most South Africans and their leaders were committed to the goal of a democratic post-apartheid South Africa.

There can be little doubt that the country needs another moonshot today, a goal which may seem out of reach, but could be achievable if we pulled together.

What we face is disheartening. Education, healthcare and the economy are beset with major problems. The numbers are frightening. Most government clinics and hospitals don’t meet national standards set by the Department of Health; a large proportion of our schools are dysfunctional; and, after a long decline, murder rates are on the increase. Unemployment is also high, with nearly 10 million South Africans without work. Put another way, South Africans account for about one percent of the world’s population, but three percent of all unemployed people across the globe. Poverty is also still high (primarily because of our high unemployment rate).

In addition, racial and divisive rhetoric is on the rise from influential politicians (despite evidence showing that we all get on pretty well with one another).

We are also now in a recession, and this will have serious implications for the things we are trying to fix. Low economic growth will squeeze the people and the companies who pay tax, the income that helps fund the government.

Yet, all is not lost. Just as the Americans undertook the herculean task of landing a man on the Moon in the 1960s, and South Africans succeeded in tackling the equally difficult mission of ending apartheid, there is no reason why we can’t turn things around once again.

In the period from 1994 to 2007, the country was improving on almost every measure, as a recent report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows. The country could reach those heights again, though to do so will mean confronting major challenges.

What would a new South African moonshot entail? It would require economic growth rates of five percent and higher – that will be the only way to reduce our high unemployment and poverty rates. At the same time, we need to ensure that the majority of South Africans have access to quality education and healthcare.

If we want to achieve much higher levels of economic growth we need to make South Africa an attractive investment destination. Despite what some in the chattering classes would have you believe, investment (whether local or foreign) is vital if we want to substantially reduce unemployment and poverty.

A first step towards achieving this will be to stop threatening people’s property rights. Nobody can deny that land reform is necessary in creating a prosperous South Africa, but taking away people’s property without paying for it will destroy any hope of creating a successful country.

In addition, to ensure that the majority of South Africans have access to quality education and healthcare, the government must stop viewing the private sector as an adversary, but rather as a partner. Ensuring everyone has a quality basic education could begin with giving parents a greater say in running schools, and incorporating interventions such as school vouchers and charter schools.

In healthcare, the government must abandon the planned National Health Insurance scheme, and look instead to expanding access to private healthcare. This can be done in a number ways, which, as the IRR has suggested, could include healthcare vouchers, allowing low-fee medical aids, and introducing mandatory medical aid for employed people (with employers contributing to the contributions of people on lower incomes).

Becoming a prosperous, safe country for all who live in it will be difficult, but it is possible. Like the American moonshot and our transition to a democracy, it will take the combined effort of all citizens and single-minded political leadership to reach these goals.

South Africa has confounded the naysayers before – and we can do it again.

* Marius Roodt is Head of Campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).