By Ismail Lagardien
At the end of a talk on South Africa I gave a few months ago, I was asked that most pointed of political questions: “If you were king of South Africa, what would be the first three things you would do.”
The answer I gave was as sincere as it was blunt: “I would abdicate.”
There was a brief chuckle among the audience. Then faces began to drop. When people realised that I was not joking, smiles disappeared, and the audience started shifting in their seats uncomfortably. My answer was as serious as my contribution had been; the difference being that they asked me, personally, what I would do.
Earlier, during the formal part of my talk, I had already presented the standard National Development Plan perspective. As with most of these talks I have given in various places outside the country, I stayed within a fairly moderate framework. For instance, instead of saying that crime and violence are causing a lot of fear, anger and uncertainty, I would say that there is a need to reform the South African Police Service; that community safety was important; that we need to create an environment for people to live their lives to the fullest; that we should make the country attractive to domestic and foreign investments, that we should create jobs, improve education and health care, and generally create a society that is prosperous, stable, and with high levels of trust among the people.
This was not double-speak. In normative terms, I actually believe in all that we have to do, in order to pull the country from collapse. The main reason for not slagging off the country while I am abroad is because there are very many expatriates in Canada, Australia, in continental Europe, and in the United Kingdom who do that. I will not join that club. What I do not believe, however, is that change is possible. I believe we are too far down the road to ruin. I believe that current leadership of the ruling party will, someday, move on, but the outcomes are guaranteed.
When I started out as a journalist, all those years ago, we were tempted, almost always, to make predictions about the most inconsequential matters. After that initial period, when I sat through weeks and months of training in economics, statistics and econometrics, there was this constant thrill in drawing up models and predicting the outcomes. The more I learned, however, the more I realised, first, how little I knew, and second, how futile it is to make predictions about the social world. So, I have learned to leave predictions to economists, big-tent pastors, and board-walk fortune tellers.
I am setting this aside, here, and making a few bold statements about South Africa’s future. To the extent, then, that this is contradictory, well, as Walt Whitman said, I contradict myself because I am made from many parts. I should assure the reader that I find no joy in making any of the claims and statements that follow; I have given this country most of my adult life, and there was a time, briefly, when I believed.
But, the evidence, patterns and trends, and some things I have picked up behind closed doors, all point to a pretty grim future for South Africa. The evidence suggests, that we are approaching an extended period of authoritarianism, intolerance, of slow collapse, and systemic lawlessness – across society. If, and when we reach this terrible state of affairs, we’ll be living in a new normal.
In the new normal, the delivery of utilities will be presented as laudable achievements; politicians will stay in power, regardless of electoral processes; many of us will simply not vote, and do our damned best to avoid paying taxes, and we will have completed the creation of a parallel political economy, in which the poor rely on the post office, the South African Police Service, public hospitals, and those of us who can afford it will use private postal and courier services, private security companies, and private medical facilities. We will have criminalised poverty; already the poor are prohibited from entering residential communities that are barricaded from the general public, and secured by private security firms.
Once the sliding scale of transformation and affirmative action (both necessary and important processes) have reached their end-point, the ruling elite will have forced “non-African” minorities into the margins of society. Very many people, especially those who can, will simply pack up and leave the country. When that time comes, and come it will, disinvestment will blight our industries and manufacturing, consumer prices will be high – not quite as high as prices in Luanda, today, but more like Harare – and almost everything we consume will be imported.
Corruption will have become even more permissible than it is, at the moment. The population will have become inured to violence and insecurity. Lawlessness will be rampant and considered “normal”. I recall headlines in Sowetan newspaper, where I worked two decades ago, which read: “Only 30 people killed in Soweto over the weekend”. That is what normality was, then. It will return, and spread across the country. Already there is a sense that every-day violations on the country’s roads, hospitals, schools and in state entities, are “normal”; this will increase, and spread to other sectors of society.
The police will be almost completely untrustworthy, and arbitrary stops and seizure, extortion and violence will be standard operating procedure. The country’s assets will have been stripped, and political leaders, many of whom are, today, waiting in the wings for “their turn to eat”, will have amassed vast fortunes in off-shore accounts. If you have faith in the country, why is it necessary to have an off-shore account? One great danger is that there will, no longer, be an independent media to provide critical scrutiny, evaluate governance, and keep the government accountable.
Altogether this is not a horror story conjured in some twisted imagination. It is based on observations, experiences, and qualitative and quantitative evidence drawn from educational visits to countries as far apart as Guyana in South America, Haiti in the Caribbean, Mozambique, and Myanmar, in South East Asia.
The reader may want to consider the following, and reflect on the echoes in South African society. In Haiti, under the Duvaliers, the government used an extensive network of security forces to enforce control of politics and society. Haitian society was strangled by random and arbitrary imprisonment, expulsion of political opposition, and increased extra-judicial killings. Disappearances increased, and the press was censored, with individual journalists persecuted or co-opted. Political dissent was stamped out with brute force by security forces that are loyal to the leaders, and the ruling party.
All the while the political leaders amassed personal fortunes in off-shore accounts – in shameless disregard for the country’s extraordinary odious debt, poverty and overall misery. Under the Duvaliers, Haiti was probably the worst case of a single political force mistaking governance as ownership of the country. All of this has clear echoes with the way the ANC has assumed complete control of South Africa, and placed the needs of the party before those of the country.
Remaining in the Western hemisphere, in Guyana, diabolical policies stalled industrialisation, and public services became almost non-existent. Guyana is one of the poorest and most miserable countries in the world. The country is divided, almost in half, between persons of African, and of Indian descent, who were taken to the country during colonial rule, either as slaves or indentured labourers. Notwithstanding these shared pathologies, the two groups took turns, as it were, to persecute each other, and in the process ran the country into the ground since independence from Britain in 1966. One political group was so impressed by the African National Congress, that they named themselves the Peoples National Congress – with their own youth and women’s leagues.
In Guyana, public services are virtually non-existent, and those in government look out only for each other. During my last visit there, in 2011, I stood by, shocked and in disbelief, when a senior government official told a scholar to go and have sex with himself, and not to bother her. The scholar’s crime: He wanted government permission to travel into the interior to do research.
Criminal syndicates and shady characters from around the world converge on Guyana, stripping its mineral resources, and trade in drugs and human beings. In June this year, the Kaietuer News of Guyana explained that the country was “no longer on the fringes with respect to human trafficking, rather it is a source country”.
In urban areas, the ruling elites and their partners in construction firms conspire and provide low-quality construction projects. The motivation is to build a road or a bridge that would need maintenance and reconstruction, over and again, with contracts going (back) to private companies that are “friendly” with the elite. In some cases the initial contract went to persons directly connected to the ruling party. Corruption in Guyana has been described as “a chronic problem… of crisis proportions”.
Guyana, one of the resource rich-countries of South America, imports almost all consumer products. In this troubled country, everybody seems to work for a single purpose: to extract as much rent and then emigrate. Other than a small minority, few people seem to have any long-term ambitions to remain in the country and invest in its future, financially or otherwise.
In August 2011, shortly after I visited the country, one of Guyana’s more influential newspapers, the Kaieteur News reported that: “… entrepreneurs see little incentive to invest in businesses other than natural resource extraction… in a 2003 survey of 1,700 Guyanese high school students, 59 percent said they think they will leave Guyana permanently within 10 years. … total number of Guyana-born persons living abroad range from 500,000 to 1 million — a massive diaspora, relative to Guyana’s resident population…. the prediction for Guyana is dire… the UN projected Guyana’s population will be 488,000 in 2050 — a 35 percent reduction from today’s level… 2040 Guyana’s population will be shrinking faster than anywhere else on the planet.”
In a separate report, Kaieteur News reported: “Ambulance service is substandard; limited to transportation without any medical care, and frequently not available for emergencies … a serious lack of adequate medical facilities, equipment and trained medical staff … especially for emergency care… there was a severe nursing shortage across Guyana (most nurses emigrate soon after finishing nursing school), which means that medical facilities usually operate with only a skeleton staff of overworked nurses.”
All of this sounds terribly familiar in South Africa, today; see, for instance, the story about missing ambulances in Mpumalanga.
When I visited Myanmar in 2012, I found one of the most violent pogroms underway against the Rohingya minority. At the time, I did not write anything about my visit for two reasons: I did not want to be accused of a “natural” solidarity with Muslims. I do not have such tendencies; human rights and the humanism I believe in precedes ethnic, racial or religious identities. I also did not want to get my hosts into trouble. What I can say, now, is that Aung San Suu Kyi, the darling of the European world, has crude Buddhist nationalist tendencies that promote a deeply troublesome climate, with naught for the comfort of non-Buddhist minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi is feted by the West in the same way that Nelson Mandela was celebrated. There is, however, no comparison between the two. Like the current leadership, in South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly deflected blame from Buddhist Nationalists to the media for the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. The West has not helped, wedded, as they are, to an Orientalist view of Buddhists as happy, smiling and peace-loving people dressed in brightly coloured robes.
Under the current leadership of the country, South Africa’s “non-African” groups or “non-African” minorities (so described by the ruling party) may face increased persecution over the coming years. Already there has been talk about “coloureds” or people of Indian descent being “over-concentrated” in parts of the country. This, too, has strong echoes with the worst examples of bigotry and violence in history.
It is important to remember that “respectable” political leaders, and governments hide their bigotry and crude nationalism behind a veneer of democracy. Consider the following comments, about Jews being over-concentrated in places (reported by the Los Angeles Times in April 2013) made by the president of the country that presents itself as the bastion of freedom, democracy, and all that is great and wonderful about the world.
“In May 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the White House…. The two Allied leaders reviewed the war effort to date and exchanged thoughts on their plans for the post-war era. At one point in the discussion, FDR offered what he called “the best way to settle the Jewish question.”
“Vice President Henry Wallace, who noted the conversation in his diary, said Roosevelt spoke approvingly of a plan (recommended by geographer and Johns Hopkins University President Isaiah Bowman) ‘to spread the Jews thin all over the world.’ The diary entry adds: ‘The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia [where Roosevelt lived in the 1920s] and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”
“Roosevelt’s ‘best way’ remark is condescending and distasteful, and coming from anyone else it would probably be regarded as anti-Semitism. But more than that, FDR’s support for ‘spreading the Jews thin’ may hold the key to understanding a subject that has been at the centre of controversy for decades: the American government’s tepid response to the Holocaust.”
Key points in the above are, the implication that Jews were considered to be too concentrated in one area, and had to be “spread around”, and the role of loyal academics, notably Johns Hopkins University President, Isaiah Bowman. These comments were made by a political elite, politicians and intellectuals organically linked to the ruling powers, who speak about democracy and freedom, while concealing deep-seated bigotry, chauvinism and the worst aspects of patriotism and national pride.
These are powerful echoes with contemporary South African politics. These are all traits that are emerging from the background of South African politics. How, then, does one change all this? Changing the way the country is governed is impossible. Change cannot be achieved in the lifetime of the current generation of South Africans. At some point in the future, there may be centres of excellence or pockets of efficacy and efficiency, but, in general, things will continue to break down. In Part II, I will explain why I believe change is impossible. In short, I have no faith in this country’s future.
Ismail Lagardien is a former journalist and political economist from South Africa.
Source: Daily Maverick newspaper.
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