I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of making the odd contribution to Newsi since it started up. Kudos and grateful thanks to my good friend Sharon for that. And to her offer to me to write a biweekly column. Which raises the inevitable question – what should I write about?
This is not a general musing about journalism in general, or at least it isn’t right now. It’s not that there aren’t topics of pressing importance; indeed, from a content point of view, there is a veritable embarrassment of riches.
Or perhaps just an embarrassment?
The past few weeks have had an echo of the detritus deposited by a major disaster – many of us might think of the haunting visuals of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, both as it was in progress and in the devastation it left behind.
But unlike a tsunami or an earthquake or a hurricane, our recent tumult should not be seen as a random and unknowable occurrence of nature. It did not so much place any new problems before South Africa, but has forced our attention on some many of them at once. They have been brewing for years, the product all too frequently of conscious choices.
The breakdown of order that consumed parts of the country was an outgrowth of the breakdown of the South African state. No image captured this better than the forlorn figures cut by police officers before crowds of looters, pausing occasionally to fire a shotgun or accost a looter. But ultimately it was pointless.
This is seen in the Police Service, whose mandate has been described by its own Commissioner as ‘over stretched and impossible to [fulfil].’ Opinion polling suggests that it is one of South Africa’s least trusted.
The mobs that laid waste to shopping centres – pillaging and sometimes torching them – were carried on the convergent swells of socio-economic dysfunctionality that seem to be South Africa’s lot.
More than half the country’s population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank – over 30 million people in 2020 equivalent to over half its population. Nearly 14 million struggle to afford food – a figure that might now be even higher. Alongside this is our catastrophic unemployment. Stats SA numbers the unemployed at 7.2 million, although understand that this includes those without work, available for it and actively seeking it. Remove the last condition, and 7.2 million swell to 11.4 million. Only around 15 million are actually working.
Meanwhile, it could hardly have gone unnoticed that self-help wealth acquisition has become something of a national pastime in the upper echelons of our society. Whether this is the outright crookedness of corruption, or the consequence-free outgrowth of mismanagement (will the last one to leave please turn out the lights – if they’re still working), it communicates something truly sinister to those in more straitened circumstances. Everyone’s doing it right?
Against this background, ripped open storefronts would have been a tempting prospect indeed.
And for the umpteenth time, we are treated to earnest declarations and acres of commentary about the imperative of ‘change’. True as far as it goes, but something we’ve heard over and over again. Heard, yes… taken seriously, I’m not so sure.
South Africa’s only prospect of clawing its way out of its present malaise is some combination of administration that is able effectively to provide the basic conditions for socio-economic activity and rapidly accelerated (and sustained) economic expansion. A state that is able to govern and an economy that grows.
We have neither. In a moment of revealing irony, President Ramaphosa earnestly declared in a recent missive that vigilantism would not be tolerated. As it happens, I share his concerns about rough justice meted out by frustrated and frightened communities; it is a grave threat to the rule of law. But it is inevitable where the state cannot reasonably claim to protect those under its authority. Besides, the capacity of the state to act on its ‘toleration’ or otherwise of just about anything is compromised, sometimes to the point of irrelevance. The developmental state in South Africa is the developmental delusion.
No matter though, the official vision of the future is an avowedly statist one. It is one premised on the intrusion into property rights – think the multiple assaults through the Expropriation without Compensations drive – on the extraction of ever more from the diminishing productive economy, and on expanding racial edicts in respect of employment and ‘empowerment’. There is no reason to suppose that these will mediate any change of course. Based on the record, quite the contrary in fact. And as long as the ANC refuses to back off from the deliberate politicisation of the state – its cadre deployment abomination – it’s hard to imagine this changing.
Delusion can tip into absurdity. Maybe the difference becomes notional rather than substantive. Police minister Bheki Cele declared that South Africa’s crime problem was essentially one of perception. Our depressing crime statistics were part of a malign conspiracy to keep investors and tourists away. The asininity of this does not – sadly – beggar belief for anyone acquainted with governance in South Africa. But perhaps the minister wears a tinfoil lining in his fedora. Or maybe this is just very crude and reckless spin-doctoring.
And in times of stress, sometimes the sinister arrives in the guise of salvation. The keystone of any democratic order worthy of the name is the holding of regular, free and fair elections. Whatever else South Africa may have experienced, it could take some justified pride in these. Well, odds are now more than even that South Africa will be deprived of its municipal elections this year. All about the pandemic, you understand. Leave aside that COVID has become a new normal of sorts, and that voters in a democracy have every right to pass judgement on the incumbents within it. Leave aside that South Africans are permitted (interesting view, this…) to engage in all sorts of behaviour that risks transmission. Leave aside that dozens of elections have been conducted worldwide under conditions as challenging as our own…
Leave all that aside at our peril. South Africa may find itself infected with something more enduring than a respiratory virus.
What should I write about? Perhaps the question doesn’t capture the challenge of a society teetering on the precipice of disaster. South Africa’s challenges are vast in scope and existential in nature. We must face the fact that its failure is a real possibility – but it is not its inevitable fate. Over the past weeks, as swathes of South Africa unravelled, we saw ordinary people stand up to stem the anarchy themselves. There is a resilience to the country that constitutes our best chance at survival – but only if this resilience is nurtured and applied to South Africa’s challenges as they exist in reality, not in the imaginaries of commentators or the dreams of ideologues.
This, then is my writer’s prompt for Newsi – to explore both challenges and solutions as we navigate a perilous road into an uncertain future.