One On One

Q & A – Sethulego Matebesi

The Free State Weekly’s Martin Makoni sought the views of Professor Sethulego Matebesi the head of the University of the Free State Sociology Department on the State of the Province Address (SOPA) and the National Budget which were both delivered this week. The Free State, has among other things, committed to rebuild struggling municipalities and improve service delivering while in the national budget, the government has cut social spending, bailed Eskom and South African Airways, and reduced the tax burden on individuals. Excerpts:

What’s your general view on the SOPA, what important issues do you think were tackled in that plan for the coming year?

I think you will realise that all the State of the Province Addresses are aligned to what the president said in the State of the Nation Address. But provinces are unique. If you look at the Free State, the issue of unemployment is quite critical. Other parts of the country are also faced with the same challenge. It is our hope that our leaders will have the wisdom to be able to ensure the so called radical economic transformation and also deal with the issue of youth unemployment.

There are a number of projects that have set aside for economic transformation and youth employment in the coming year, do you think the programmes are sufficient or there is more need for private sector involvement?

It’s not even a case of calling the private sector. I think everybody knows that we are a country in crisis for reasons which to some extent are beyond what is happening in government today. If we are patriotic about our country, then business and the private sector should join hands with government. I don’t think government has been emphasising that point enough. That has been one of the fundamental points made by the Premier (Sisi Ntombela) to say the private should come on board to assist government. I can’t see how the government will be able to do this on its own.

Of course government cannot do everything on its own, but some critics say government has outsourced too much of some of the key functions it should be carrying out, how do you view that?

Well, while the government has the resources to create short-term employment, it is the private sector that will be able to create decent employment, assist with infrastructural development, outhitting empowerment and others. So, yes the private sector should come on board but at the same time, government should play its role.

But the minister of finance Tito Mboweni announced that government will be taking measures to cut its wage bill, yet the Premier in her speech, announced several initiatives to employ the youth, women and people with disabilities in government, is possible to strike a balance on this?

It’s a very difficult thing because I strongly believe that if the government can cut down on unaccounted expenditure, it could help. The provincial government could cut on the entertainment bill as well as luxuries like people travelling to the same area in 4-6 vehicles. That has also been the talk of national treasury for many years. But remember, for the government to execute their duties, they will need financial resources and that’s why it is very  difficult for them. I think at some point, there needs to be a skills audit. Do we really need some of the people in certain positions? I for one believe that people in certain positions in government or unemployed right now could be more useful elsewhere if given the resources. We need to create a conversation around that.

What sort of skills do you think are not being utilised but could be in abundance in the country?

If you look at a province like the Free State or any other part of the country, the moment they employ more people skilled in building houses, we could see some change because housing is a primary function of any province. Why not hire skilled people who can do that? Don’t put out a tender. There are people sitting in each and every little town who can build. Hire them, say for five years and see how that works. If we go that route, government will be saving a lot of money. And in the meantime, one builder may be able to feed 10-20 people. The same can be done for road construction and other projects. Another example, maintaining government buildings, why put out a tender for people to maintain gardens? If you put that money together, it could add up to something. It’s all these small little things that can make a difference. That could inculcate the culture of saving. I know it’s difficult but it’s worth trying.

Labour unions said it won’t take lying down, government plans to retrench workers because it believes there are other ways to cut the wage bill, what else can be done?

Of course it won’t be easy to lay-off people but I would expect Cosatu to say ‘well, we do understand the tricky situation that the government is in and where jobs have to be terminated, but proper research must be conducted. If people are skilled enough and there are vacancies where the very same people can be placed somewhere else, that’s what should be done. There are situations where you find 3-4 people doing the same job and sometimes there is absolutely no reason for this. You may only need one or two people. But I also understand where the trade unions are coming from. They need to stay relevant and one way of doing that is to come up pronouncements of this nature. But when the situation is dire, it also means we have to make rational decisions.

Government is bailing Eskom and South African Airways, what do you think about such a move, given that there is a proposal to cut on social spending such as housing, does the country really need to be spending so much on the two companies?

There is absolutely no need. This is what’s going to happen forever if we substitute proper planning with accountability with spoon feeding which is open on both ends. We have to ask ourselves questions as why we are at the stage where we are with Eskom and SAA. It’s a clear indication that there has not been proper planning and a lot of things went wrong there. We need to identify the root cause and fix it. We can’t take the next 10 years to identify what is happening there. I that is money that could on other stuff which would have enhanced the fiscus of the country. We are in a serious problem and I don’t think they realise that. The moment we are downgraded, below junk status, that will have a huge impact on the economy. The middle class will be able to cushion the impact but it’s the poorest of the poor who are going to feel that.

Are you therefore saying the bailout is not money well spent?

Eskom and SAA in particular, only benefit a few people. The majority of South Africans are using public transport like taxes and they are not subsidised. So, while the government has a responsibility to assist these state owned entities, they should also be a stage where we say, we have had enough of this. There should be a plan and if whoever is responsible does not stick to the plan, there should be consequences.

There is a proposal to establish a state bank, does the country have the capacity for that and is it the right decision given the state of the economy today?

I don’t know what the purpose of having a state bank is. If you want to go the route of a state bank, it should be that the private sector has not been coming to the party. Maybe the state wants to provide subsidies for housing and they have been negotiating with the private sector to no avail. But there have been a lot of challenges in managing our state entities and the question is, what’s going to happen with the state bank? We all know that to start a bank, just the start-up could be quite enormous. So, the question will be, at this stage, where are we are actually at our back foot in terms of the economy, do we really want to take the money we have received from the taxes and put it into a bank? I don’t see such a bank yielding any rewards within the next five years. But there could be other goals such as accelerating many of the goals of the National Development Plan resolutions which the private might not have supported well.