As President Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to unveil his strategy for turning the country around, it would be useful for him to take a leaf out of Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador’s book. South Africa has more in common with Mexico in terms of its developmental challenges than perhaps any other country, and Obrador has moved in leaps and bounds to transform Mexico in the 10 months since coming to power. His commitment to people-centered development, war on corruption, investment drive and progressive social policies serve as an inspiration for South Africa.
Obrador has become personally involved in structuring the proposed laws to fight corruption. He was quick to declare corruption a felony, and he cancelled the construction of Mexico’s new airport despite the fact it was already a quarter built, all because it had not been an open tender process.
In an effort to ensure that his Presidency regularly communicates with the nation, Obrador holds daily press briefings following his 6am security briefing. This has gone a long way towards bringing his electorate along with him, and conveying the rationale behind the government’s policy decisions. Obrador’s greatest frustration has been that the Mexican economy is not growing at the 4 or 5% he believes it is capable of, but projected growth for this year is expected to be 1%. Ramaphosa is also faced with a projected growth rate of !% unless he manages to speedily unlock investment potential and create jobs in order to grow the economy.
While the levels of inequality are not as huge as in South Africa, Mexico is still faced with a massive wealth gap that Obrador is doing everything he can to narrow. He has had to find creative ways to free up revenue from the national fiscus to finance his social programs. He has done this by reducing the bureaucracy, cutting government salaries, and eliminating private health insurance for civil servants.
Understanding that Mexico’s young people need greater opportunities if they are to avoid falling into crime, Obrador has vastly increased the number of government funded scholarships to the most disadvantaged populations. He has also set about boosting development in the poorest states of Oaxaca, Chapas, Vera Cruz, and Guerrero through infrastructure projects. The emphasis has been to promote private investment in order to develop these communities.
Most admirable in the context of Latin America, Obrador has placed special emphasis on the needs of the indigenous population which comprises 10% of the nation, as well as Afro-Mexicans, who number 1.2 million. Not only has he honored these communities, but he wants to empower them, and has ensured that for the first time they are appearing in national statistics.
Mexico’s energetic Ambassador to South Africa Ana Luisa Fajer has also taken the initiative to develop people-to-people contacts between Afro-Mexicans in the state of Oaxaca and the people of Limpopo province. Fajer believes Mexico has a lot to learn from the way South Africa preserves its indigenous languages. Mexico has 68 indigenous languages although most of them are dying as they are not taught in school. She has also initiated a creative cultural project of twinning the two widest trees in the world – the Baobab in Limpopo which is the second widest in the world, with the Tule tree in Mexico which is considered the widest. Mexico has an innovative underground pipeline which provides the Tule tree with 12 hours of water a day.
Fajer also believes that South Africa can learn from Mexico’s experiences in dealing with illegal migration and undocumented migrants, which remains a major challenge for the South African government. As Mexico has developed a stronger middle class, it no longer has a stream of undocumented migrants leaving for the US. Most of the migrants passing through Mexico to the US come from the more impoverished Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Mexico has developed a strategy to invest in these countries in order to boost growth and reduce the factors which compel their citizens to migrate.
South Africa is primarily a country of destination for migrants, and it would also be best served by focusing on improving the living conditions in neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi in order to reduce the number of people that are compelled to leave their home countries in order to seek an income. Mexico is working with UNHCR to look for best practices in dealing with migrants and fine tuning its asylum and refugee policies, much of which can be shared with South Africa.
South African can also learn from Mexico’s attempts to empower women by giving them microcredits, not just social grants, and making grants conditional on children attending school, and parents signing up with public health clinics. Giving the similar developmental challenges, South Africa and Mexico could collaborate on a range of issues, and perhaps even work towards Mexico joining the juggernaut of the BRICS grouping.
Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.