As an organization committed to building a sustainable and inclusive economy through creating platforms for debate and conversation, Democracy Works Foundation welcomed an opportunity to collaborate with the Motlanthe Foundation and The Elders, in delivering a dialogue on advancing economic growth in South Africa.
The "Advancing Economic Growth in South Africa" dialogue on 4 September 2019 was addressed by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, and his Chilean counterpart, former president Ricardo Lagos. The two statesmen set the tone by drawing similarities between South Africa and Chile, highlighting the historic similarities between these countries which have both fought against oppressive regimes to emerge as democratic states.
Among the themes discussed, Lagos reflected on his learnings after taking power from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. He reflected on challenges facing countries that have transitioned into democracy including an expectation from society for democracy to deliver socio-economic gains. If people do not see a material change in the quality of their lives, society looks to populists for solutions. Former President Lagos warned that countries like South Africa and Chile, that are still in the phase of consolidating democracy and building resilient institutions, cannot survive with the degrees of inequality that currently exist.
Lagos went on to reflect on the development route of Chile, mentioning that in his six years as president of Chile, his administration managed to reduce the poverty rate from 43% to 10%, and the "extremely poor" rate from 22% to 3%, attributing this to the will to fight inequalities and the importance of leaders being bold and prepared to make decisions.
Former President Motlanthe also weighed in on the conversation of inequalities, talking about the shocking reality of South Africa's unemployment rate being at 29%, with 18-million people depending on some form of government grant for their livelihoods. He went on to echo the sentiments of former president Thabo Mbeki, when he spoke about South Africa having two countries in the same borders, one being a developed country and another an underdeveloped country, emphasizing how South Africans can be in the same country under the same government but have fundamentally different experiences about life in democratic South Africa. President Motlanthe urged South Africa's to prioritize, addressing existing inequalities and placing this central in their agenda of economic development.
Former President Motlanthe also touched on the importance of nation-building for a developing country. He looked back on some of the mistakes that he believes were made during South Africa's negotiated transition into democracy. When Motlanthe reflected on South Africa today (in the wake of recent xenophobic attacks in Gauteng), he said: "We are back to 1993; it's as though 1994 never happened". Motlanthe believes that the country has reversed on some gains made by the 1994 transition. He said that the demographics of South Africa's nine provinces still reflect the boundaries of its former homelands, giving currency to politics of identity and complicating progressing as a country.
In former President Lagos' closing remarks, he spoke about how the evolution of societies means government policies must be adaptable to these changing times. President Lagos placed emphasis on the need for countries like South Africa to embrace these changing times and look into new innovative ways of stimulating economic growth such as a green economy.