WHICH would you prefer: to be jobless most of the time, but able to afford cheap Chinese-made sandals; or employed in a shoe factory that contributes to the economic and social stability of your local community? Globalisation is a complex part of modern life, but stripped to the basics it presents contrasts as stark as this. Even worse, ordinary people and entire nations can do little to control it.

The argument for globalisation is that it drives down production costs so that greater numbers of the poor can afford the necessities of life. Up to a point, this is true. But other, generally disregarded, costs are those suffered by the workers who produce the goods. By definition they are badly paid and work in unregulated conditions in countries with abysmal human rights records. While some of the world’s poor may benefit, the system’s main winners are the rich. This, after all, is the same old capitalist system globally re-engineered. Amongst the major casualties are the professions whose independence and standards have been undermined by outsourcing and deregulation. It’s enough to turn you into a socialist.

South Africa is, to an alarming degree, insufficiently equipped to deal with this. On almost every count it lags behind competing countries and there is little to suggest that the situation will improve. Unhappily, precisely at the moment when the majority of South Africa’s people celebrated their liberation, the rules of the game changed. Indeed, political change in South Africa was in part made possible by the end of the Cold War and the events that ushered in globalisation. The latter put paid in large measure to the ability of any country to determine its own socio-economic agenda. This is highly frustrating and potentially explosive, a fact that the globalisation gurus living comfortably in Washington and Zurich can afford to ignore. There’s always another labour force to exploit somewhere.

And so people take to the streets. We are particularly good at this in South Africa after many years practice at toyi-toying, waving placards, singing, and shouting slogans. The repertoire has recently expanded to include rediscovered struggle-era songs about someone’s machine and the flaunting of wooden replica AK-47s. All of this had some purpose 20 years ago in persuading an illegitimate government with racist policies to give up power. It makes absolutely no sense now.

First, the demonstrators are protesting about the very government they put into power. If the tripartite alliance has any purpose, other than providing a free ride for the South African Communist Party, surely it is to facilitate dialogue on behalf of the poor. Second, bringing the economy to a halt by staying away from work and preventing others getting there makes no financial sense whatsoever in a time of economic slowdown. It simply worsens the situation for everyone.

In this day and age governments do not create jobs; and their ability to regulate prices, most of them at the mercy of global trends, is restricted. If anyone doubts government’s limited options over price control, they should take a look at the empty shelves of Zimbabwe’s supermarkets. Nor is nationalisation the solution. The discriminatory policies of post-liberation South African governments have driven away the skills that might have made it theoretically possible, and in any case a serious attempt in that direction will turn off the foreign investment tap vital to the economy.

There are two simple words vital to development today: education and health. Physical and mental well-being encourage the initiative, drive, determination and longevity necessary for a community or nation to hold its own with others in the modern world. Yet South Africa’s schools, universities, clinics and hospitals are at best marking time, obsessed by transformation issues that are often a thin disguise for power struggles rather than a commitment to national development.

Zimbabwe’s politics resemble those of the dark ages; South Africa’s hark back to the last century. The ruling alliance hasn’t a clue how to deal with modern realities. Singing and dancing on the streets, endless conferences, wrangles over the spoils of power, and the building of a cult around a leader are the politics of yesterday. The tired old terminology of comrade this and comrade that, the latter with a knife sticking from his back as he failed to obey party orders, is linked to a siege mentality that takes the easy option of imagining enemies everywhere rather than identifying the hard road forward.

One of the few successful cabinet members, Minister of Education Naledi Pandor recently got it right: the nation has to work harder and more effectively – at everything. And unless South Africa’s leaders come up with something consistent with this, that road is signposted to nowhere.

This article was first published in The Witness on 12 August 2009 and entitled ‘Politics of yesterday’.