Did you hear the one about the Ethiopian? Maybe not so funny any more

South Park's Starvin Marvin. Picture: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0705964/mediaviewer/rm141044480

One of these days, Ethiopians might be the ones standing around telling jokes about us starving South Africans.

When I was little back in the Eighties, I inevitably came to associate the word ‘Ethiopia’ with white people making jokes about starving Africans. As I said, it was the Eighties and, like most things we’d probably rather not have too much documentary evidence of today, it was acceptable in the Eighties.

As recently as 1997, South Park was still lampooning the Ethiopian stereotype when they created the character Starvin’ Marvin. You may recall, that was the one where the boys send money to an African charity hoping to get a sports watch, but are instead sent back a skeletal Ethiopian child.

Apparently much has changed since those end-of-days days of famine, Live Aid concerts and vultures waiting for children to die.

Ethiopia’s more than 100 million inhabitants have seen their GDP increase tenfold in the past 15 years, at an annual growth rate of between 8% to 11%. South Africa, today, would be lucky to even get to a measly 1%.

And, as if it’s not good enough for them already, the Ethiopian government, boasting their first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, is currently trying to further liberalise their markets to accelerate economic growth.

South Africa, by contrast, is bracing for a downgrade to junk by March, and we face the unenviable prospect of not knowing which of our many broken parts to try to fix first, or even how we might try.

The problem is not just that we’ve been working so relentlessly to become just another failed African state, but that we’re doing it when quite a few countries in the rest of the continent are going in the opposite direction. Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana and several others all have their problems, sure, but they are on an upward trajectory.

I never thought the words, “Well, maybe we should move to Ethiopia,” would be earnestly said at a dinner table with a cast of a few other white people in my lifetime, but that’s the point we’re at. It is far from heaven, sure, but Ethiopia at the very least has something now that South Africa seems to be losing: hope.

Hope matters. Many a poor Ethiopian can justifiably tell him- or herself something I’m not sure we still have the right to in South Africa: that tomorrow will probably be better than today.

All may still turn out well, and countries can often be remarkably resilient, but how confident are we really? We are not growing fast enough economically to keep pace with population growth, despite all the Ramaphosa hype, and every year there are, and will be, more of us fighting for a piece of the same old diminishing pie.

In the great story that is human history, progress is real. It matters. The spread of trade, democracy, science and technology has pulled billions out of poverty and will hopefully see the lives of billions more transformed. We are a problem-solving species and innovation will probably rescue us, somehow, from the existential perils of climate change, comets on a collision path, and maybe even Donald Trump.

But progress doesn’t happen simply because time is passing. If you want to flourish as a society, you have to earn it. You have to think and work hard to make progress, and the past century has offered steady progress for most people, in most places, despite all the challenges of inequality, the environment and various other setbacks.

Remember how South Africa was always called the biggest economy on the African continent? Then, as Nigeria overtook us, we took to calling South Africa the “most advanced economy on the African continent”?

What will be next? South Africa, that country that once had some sort of economy on the African continent?

We know it wouldn’t take much reform to unlock and release the vast potential that is still waiting to be unleashed in this country. We know it shouldn’t be that hard, despite the mire we’re in, to give this country the much-needed kick up the backside it requires.

Because instead of lagging behind, we should be riding the wave of African growth.

We know we need a civil service staffed with people who can and do actually deliver and a culture of accountability for those who don’t. We know we need policy certainty, and a more business-friendly environment with less red tape. We need all the things that people far smarter than me keep telling us we need. And then apparently we, too, can get to 6%, or even 12%, growth. Wouldn’t that be nice.

And yes, I know, huge profits will flow to those who are already super rich, and inequality will still be with us, and poverty will still be with us, and not all our problems will be solved.

But as Bob Dylan tells us: “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”

If you want the most obvious example of how we seem to be overly busy with the business of dying as others are busy with being born, you can take a look at Ethiopian Airlines, which is now the biggest airline in Africa. Their most recent profits reached more than R3.3 billion and they saw growth in operating revenue of nearly 30% despite one of their Boeing planes crashing.

Former South African Airways CEO Vuyani Jarana even suggested turning to Ethiopian Airlines for help last year, but presumably our own bumbling indecision saw even that come to naught.

Now SAA is canning flights and needs another R2 billion bailout from the taxpayer to pretend it’s still a business. It already has debt of more than R12 billion.

So much for laughing at Ethiopia.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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