President Jacob Zuma speaks in the National Assembly after the debate on his state of the nation address.  Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
President Jacob Zuma speaks in the National Assembly after the debate on his state of the nation address. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address did not leave room for much optimism. The president recognised the structural problems affecting the South African economy, as well as the global instabilities that are compounding the domestic malaise.

Our country could do much more — for instance, within the Group of 20 and Brics group of leading developing nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) — to put the global economy on a sustainability track, but it needs to fix things at home first.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had a series of meetings with business leaders in the weeks leading up to the budget and committed to revising taxation and spending.

This could be the beginning of a new phase, but could easily turn into another "more of the same" recipe.

At the same time, this month has been marked by the tragic events at Lily Mine in Barberton, where three employees were swallowed by the ground in an unprecedented structural collapse.

Pretty Nkambule, Yvonne Mnisi and Solomon Nyerende are now buried under the 20,000 tonnes of soil that fell into a pit at the entrance to the mine.

It seems as if our leaders are going around in circles. They try to do whatever they can to sustain an economy that is killing us. They commit essential resources to keep a moribund industrial system on life support, even when this pushes us deeper into the abyss.

The breakdown at Lily Mine’s sinkhole is a poignant metaphor of what is happening to the entire country: the foundations upon which this society was built are floundering, swallowing families, businesses, universities and the vast majority of people with them.

The water crisis is another example. We call it a "drought" and keep blaming El Nino and other atmospheric events, as if bad policies, irresponsible management and an obsolete economic system are not equally responsible. I have publicly discussed this on various occasions, but it’s worth repeating: we waste billions of litres to feed industrial activities that are dysfunctional or serve only a subsection of the population.

Every day, enormous quantities of water are taken away from citizens, especially the poorest, for reasons that have got nothing to do with drinking.

Eskom needs it to cool its polluting and dysfunctional power stations. A small clique of commercial farmers appropriate it to irrigate their fields, whose produce serves a few (mostly urban) supermarket chains. Wealthy home owners purchase it to feed their lawns, pools and the like.

Many river catchments have been compromised irremediably by acid mine drainage, a reality we regularly sweep under the carpet until the poisonous waters reach us downstream, triggering diseases and destroying the ecosystems we need to live.

As reported by SANParks, the mines’ acid is killing fish, crocodiles and endangered species across the Kruger National Park, one of our country’s leading tourist attractions and a major resource for the economy.

So, what is to be done? Business as usual won’t help. The storm is not going to pass. Tinkering around the edges will, at best, postpone the problem by a few months. At worst, it will make us sink even deeper.

By contrast, we need a bold plan for a systemic transition to a new economic and industrial model.

In a recent article published in The Conversation, co-written with my colleague Phoebe Barnard from the South African National Biodiversity Institute, we argue that investment in, among others, communal land, shared water pools, wetland systems and marine rehabilitation has immense benefits for our development, not only from an ecological point of view, but also from an economic perspective, with thousands of decent jobs ready to be created.

Wetlands are nature’s kidneys that purify water for all sorts of uses including irrigation and potentially, for drinking. And they provide this service free. We need to avoid monocultures and incentivise industrial farmers to diversify and to phase out pesticides if we are serious about combating soil erosion and tackling food insecurity. Despite the ubiquity of flashy supermarket chains, many South Africans go hungry every day.

My colleague Sheryl Hendriks, director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Wellbeing at the University of Pretoria and codirector of the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security, recently presented data to Parliament about the state of food insecurity in the country.

Her research shows that SA is one of the few countries in the world in which childhood stunting has been on the rise despite the official commitment to the Millennium Development Goals.

She says that with more than one in four households struggling to feed their families, current food prices and economic conditions will lead to more families struggling to feed their households, further threatening the future of our children.

And we need to stop mining. Or rather, we need to rethink what mining means. Think about it. Mineral deposits are the result of sediments over millions of years, like millennial scrapyards of the physical processes unfolding on our planet.

We dig them out and use them for all sorts of functions, then trash them. So? The new mines are not underground, but above the ground. They are the innumerable dumping grounds we have built across our land. That’s what mining should be about: sifting through everything our civilisation disposes of to find and separate minerals for reuse.

There is much more money to be made through mining landfills than in underground digging. What’s more, employees are safe, they get decent jobs, nobody dies and we help clean up the planet.

The multinational Umicore, formerly known as Union Miniere, began its operations as a conventional mining giant in the Congo in the early 1900s.

Then in 2001, it changed its industrial profile to become a leader in clean technologies, such as recycling, emission-control catalysts, materials for rechargeable batteries and photovoltaic panels.

Umicore has used its mining technology and experience to become the world’s largest recycler of precious metals and a leader in recycling and refining nonferrous metals and nonmetals such as selenium.

With annual revenue of more than €13bn, it was declared the most sustainable company globally by the World Economic Forum in 2013. Why can’t our mining companies do the same? We have the technologies that could make us global leaders in this field.

A bold ecological transition for the country’s economy is needed desperately. It makes so much sense from all possible economic, social and environmental perspectives. It’s a win-win. Delaying it means heading deliberately for total collapse.

The government should call urgently on the brightest minds in the country — not the "usual suspects" — to help prepare a blueprint for change. Not a general statement like the National Development Plan, but a practical step-by-step guide outlining how to convert our industrial system into something fit for the 21st century.

As Albert Einstein once said: "We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

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