WARM HEARTED: Hlumelo Biko admits he does not have all the answer but hopes his book can contribute to finding them. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
WARM HEARTED: Hlumelo Biko admits he does not have all the answer but hopes his book can contribute to finding them. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

HLUMELO Biko gets straight to the point about his book with its compelling subtitle: A Plan for a Nation Gone Astray.

The African National Congress (ANC) negotiated a flawed settlement in 1994, he avers, which favoured those leaving power by guaranteeing the pensions of the departing National Party government.

He calls the settlement "The Great Fraud".

"It was a huge amount of money," he says, and the cost of underwriting it, plus a conservative fiscal policy, constrained South Africa’s development for nine years.

In its rush for political control, the ANC chose power over the people, instead of power of the people. He believes history will judge it harshly. In the ensuing 19 years, the compact it signed has been compounded by a litany of errors that could see a once potentially great country sinking to its knees.

In The Great African Society (Jonathan Ball), Biko details the ANC government’s mistakes, what led to them and, most important, he offers solutions. Too often we have dirges about our problems without answers. The ones he suggests will no doubt be criticised but the gentle, warmhearted Biko is upfront about not knowing it all. He hopes "the book offers some paradigms through which we can make decisions".

He has taken South Africa by the scruff of its neck and given it a good shake as he details his vision of a harmonious meritocracy. Biko, whose struggle parentage verges on royal, is the son of two medical doctors. Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was tortured to death by apartheid police in 1977. His mother, Mamphela Ramphele, was heavily pregnant with him when she was forcibly removed from her Eastern Cape home and banished.

Thirty-five years after his birth, Biko, philanthropist, businessman and executive chairman of growth-capital-oriented investment company, Spinnaker Growth, is not happy with the nation’s health: "We are in a mess and it’s my generation that will have to deal with what is to come."

Like most South Africans, I am desperate for this country not to follow the low road prophesied by Moeletsi Mbeki, one of violence and a failed state by 2020, if we do not change our ways. So Biko’s words are good on the ear for those who want change. And that includes hundreds of thousands of restlessly unemployed young people and the 12-million people who go to bed hungry every night. "South Africa has 71,000 dollar millionaires and more than 4-million people living on less than a dollar a day. We are the most unequal society on earth."

No wonder the government has had to create a welfare state alongside a free-market based economy. Biko views this as "a confession" that South Africa is neither politically or economically stable. He compares South Africa unfavourably with Brazil, which had an economy roughly the same size as South Africa’s 15 years ago. "It has left us far behind. Nigeria is slated to surpass us in 2025 as the largest economy in Africa."

Biko’s proposed solutions won’t make either the public or the private sector happy in the short term. But maybe they are the bitter medicine we need to swallow for the future. He wants a complete overhaul of the education system, with teachers writing exams to determine their skills. Those who fail will be offered voluntary retrenchment with a pension and a funded skills-development programme.

If they refuse the offer, they must be fired.

Teachers’ unions should "be encouraged" to accept this proposal "as a solution to a national emergency".

He would like the private sector to play a helping role by adopting failing urban public schools — "and I know it’s prepared to do this, given the opportunity".

He also discusses establishing charter schools, well known in the US, to bridge the gap between public and private schooling. "They need to be completely private-sector run and owned, with teachers’ salaries that are unregulated by the government."

But the latter would also need to step up to the plate by "equalising the quality of rural school infrastructure".

The money for this and many other projects Biko envisages, would come from what he calls the Re-engineering SA Fund — "a once-off redistribution programme".

He envisions the private sector investing R500bn in it — about 10% of the market capitalisation of the JSE, in mandatory equity grants that will translate into permanent black economic empowerment credits. He would like to see the fund managed by the private sector but monitored by the Presidency. "We have to adopt a partnership mentality to solving national socioeconomic challenges. Imagine living without fear of crime because more people have jobs."

Biko also suggests a "silent truth and reconciliation commission on corruption in the public sector — one without public hearings.

He would like to see government officials who know they are guilty of participating in corrupt transactions, and who confess, being immediately retired with benefits, and an agreement never to work in the sector again. Those who don’t own up in a prescribed amnesty period — he suggests 12 to 24 months — will be arrested in an ensuing corruption crackdown and be prosecuted.

Further, he would like to see the professionalising of the public service by setting high entry standards and then supporting them with continuing skills upgrading. This would also apply to the police.

A vastly improved health system focusing on primary healthcare for mothers and their young children is also on his list of priorities.

There’s a personal component to this because he’s seriously dyslexic: "Learning maths and statistics was incredibly difficult for me."

His condition was diagnosed only when he joined the World Bank as an intern before attending Georgetown University in Washington DC on a scholarship. “Despite the fact that I got the top mark in my final exam, I did not in fact get my degree because I didn’t finish statistics due to my dyslexia,” he said.

"It’s the most cosmopolitan university in the US and it was there I realised for the first time that I could compete with the best."

Biko worked for the World Bank in Washington in 1998 before returning to South Africa to work in companies that generate jobs. He lives with his two small children and partner in Sandton.

He wrote his book "because I experience the same emotions that other South Africans do in terms of trepidation about our country’s future and its economy". An intense period of self-reflection on what he could do as "an agent of change beyond my philanthropic work" resulted in The Great African Society.

I couldn’t put it down.