THERE are many factors indicating this will be a critical year for SA. Number one is the shaky economic outlook, especially the predicament with our currency, which has reached historic lows and shows no signs of recovery.

While the weak rand may thrill a few exporting companies, it will have a major negative effect on our imports, which include a growing number of consumer goods. At a time of shrinking demand for commodities, which make up a crucial part of SA’s exports, the weak rand will make almost no contribution to the country’s income, while inflicting a heavy blow to households and businesses.

With no or little growth in an economy designed to function at a high rate of gross domestic product growth, the middle class (including self-employed workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, small business owners and the large variety of families sustaining the day-to-day functioning of our economy) will struggle to make ends meet.

The second factor is the water crisis, with its effects on health, food and energy. The lack of water caused by the drought and poor planning and infrastructure management doesn’t just make us thirsty — it also makes us sick, hungry and powerless.

As is always the case with environmental dynamics, there is a lag between the occurrence of a phenomenon and its effects on societal wellbeing. In the next few months, the shortage of water will trigger illnesses and epidemics, especially in the poorest communities, while reducing the availability of food.

Our country is already importing considerable quantities of maize and other staples to satisfy its needs. Coupled with the weak rand, we should expect a severe hike in food prices. More rains in the coming weeks may partly improve the situation, but they may also worsen it, especially if the downpours are too heavy and destructive, as they have been in many cases, courtesy of climate change.

With little water, there is also less hydropower and limited cooling capacity for Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. More load shedding is not unlikely, with a knock-on effect on the economy.

Then there is the social factor, exemplified by the recent student and worker protests across universities. As the World Economic Forum’s rankings attest, we have the worst labour-employer relationship in the world.

No matter how many CEOs complain about this state of affairs, it is clear that it is the result of a two-way dynamic: bad business practices are as much to blame as the behaviour of unions. Indeed, exploitation is a form of structural violence equal to, or more pernicious than, the broken glasses and vandalised buildings we often see during protests. Bad working conditions have become widespread across our society, not only in the informal sector.

The new public management, with its plethora of subcontracting and outsourcing, has generated aberrations in supposedly high-quality institutions, including our top universities. We have to thank the students for highlighting the conditions affecting thousands of outsourced employees. We have heard of salaries as low as R2,000 a month, with neither benefits nor decent social security provisions. The demand for a minimum wage of R10,000 a month sounds not only reasonable, but long overdue.

It is reminiscent of the mineworkers’ struggle leading to the Marikana massacre in 2012. It also reflects the profound unfairness dominating the South African economy: as in the mining industry, these contract workers are negotiating with academic executives who earn millions a year, pampered by benefits and allowances.

None of these three factors (economic crunch, environmental crisis and social justice demands) is going to fade this year. If anything, they are likely to become worse.

The global economy is limping, with emerging markets’ woes adding to the longstanding malaise in the economies of Europe and North America. Markets are contracting, despite an oil price that should excite producers and consumers. Among other political factors including risks associated with terrorism and migration, the coming elections in the US will also add uncertainty, especially if certain candidates make it through the primaries.

Against this backdrop, we need a radically different approach to governance. What we have seen playing out at some universities in the past few weeks can provide some lessons. First of all, the time has come for all parties involved to listen. There is no easy-fix or prepackaged recipe available. We need inclusive deliberations and innovation, which are only possible if all concerns and demands are given space.

Secondly, we need to rethink our economic fundamentals. Traditionally, economic growth was heralded as an alternative to redistribution. The theory was that a growing pie would satisfy everybody. This was obviously a mirage, yet it carried the day for a few decades.

In SA, we cheerfully subscribed to the creed "growth first and the rest later". It was a huge mistake, especially in the early 2000s, when the relative economic bonanza could have been used to tackle the systemic imbalances we are left to face now, in an era of global contraction.

With the end of growth, a collective approach to redistribution is the only way forward. This need not happen through top-down reform. On the contrary, it should be the outcome of a participatory process involving all important sectors in society, radically redesigning the way in which taxation works.

As some university negotiations have demonstrated, different parties can come to a satisfactory agreement involving resizing of salaries, benefits and other contributions when it becomes clear that the future of a public good — education — is at stake. There is no reason to believe that the same cannot happen for the economy at large.

We need new rules of engagement and a new social contract to move forward. If done properly and with a clear vision, this will make everybody more confident about the future of this country, reassuring its citizens (of all races and colours), as well as those foreign investors interested in the long-term wellbeing of the economy (not the speculators who have always been so keen to make money at the expense of our society).

To break the impasse and the widespread complacency dominating SA’s public debate, we need progressive leaders in policy, business and civil society to speak out. We also need academics to come out of their shells to bring evidence into policy making. And we need better advisers. We often tend to forget that behind our leaders is a wide range of "experts" paid to offer guidance. They must stop deluding politicians that a return to the past is possible (let alone desirable), and must accept that our only hope of success is to embrace the future with new ideas.

• Fioramonti (@lofioramonti) is director of GovInn at the University of Pretoria and a member of WE-Africa.org