There's nothing more depressing than optimism

Andrew Donaldson on the lunacy of maintaining all is tops when the bottom's fallen out

THERE is, as the American critic Paul Fussell once said, nothing more depressing than optimism. It's something we're well aware of here at the Mahogany Ridge where, to our eternal regret, the glass is only for the briefest moment either half-full or half-empty but thereafter -- and for quite some time, I hasten to add -- rather forlorn and empty.

The bartender's appalling service aside, what set us all pondering on the lunacy of maintaining that all is tops when, in fact, it's quite the opposite, was the reaction from certain quarters to the "pessimistic" cover story on South Africa and the scathing assessment of the country's prospects in last week's issue of The Economist.

The Presidency's Mac Maharaj was first out of the blocks -- and hard at it, too, claiming the magazine was misleading its readers into thinking we were all basket-casing here at an unseemly clip. Predictably, he maintained the opposite was the case. The country, Maharaj said, was moving towards prosperity "under the very able leadership" of President Jacob Zuma and his government. 

This was despite a downgrade from a couple of ratings agencies, which in the grand scheme of things -- what with all that nasty economic upheaval in the world at large -- was nothing really but the merest of mere trifles and as inconsequential as the flatus of a fruit fly in a thunderstorm. 

"We will," he said, "face hiccups here and there, and now and then because of existing inequalities and poverty and the economic climate globally, but we remain firmly focused on building a united, non-racial, non-sexist democratic and prosperous South Africa."

Was Maharaj being serious? He was. And so was the Finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, when he told reporters, before delivering his medium-term budget speech, that pessimism about the country's political future ahead of the ruling party's elective confererence in Mangaung in December was "misplaced".

Gordhan, if what I read is correct, was "irritated" by questions from foreign observers about the conference and its possible consequences. 

"We have tried to explain to many around the world that we do have a robust political culture and robust political debate," he said. Not only was it "robust", but there was also, where some issues were concerned, "a difference in philosophy, a difference in approach, a difference in emphasis and a belief that there might be different ways of solving a particular problem." 

There is the familiar whiff of mouldering ubuntu and other conceits with such blustery posturing, but the truth of the matter is, that while there may indeed be different ways to solve a problem, they all count for zip until such time as when said problem is, like doh, actually solved. 

It matters little, then, all this talk of a commitment to belt-tightening, infrastructural development and job creation when it remains just that -- talk. But, in this regard, it seems a wasted opportunity that Gordhan made no mention of developments at the Zuma homestead at Nkandla because here, truly, was an example of the Department of Public Works really putting their backs into it.

But try and explain that to a foreigner, hey? What do they know, them with all their money, poking around for investment opportunities? 

As Gordhan suggested, there were "too many people who are outside of this country who are making judgement calls on this country, who don't understand our history, who don't understand where we come from as a country and as a political culture, and who make negative pronouncements way out of line with the realities of political developments in this country."

However, on to the realities of other political developments, and the behaviour of the National Police Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the shootings at Marikana. 

On Monday, Phiyega joked with colleagues during proceedings at the Rustenburg Civic Centre, where relatives of the 34 slain miners heard how 14 of them were shot in the back or head by the police, and how wounded miners were "extrajudicially executed". The "light-hearted exchanges", as one report put it, only stopped when the families' legal representatives tore into the state's explanation of the massacre.

On Tuesday she was at it again, laughing with scant regard for the families as footage of the killings was screened. This time, it was the screams of horror from the widows and mothers that shut her up.

Phiyega was asked if she had any empathy and why she hadn't attempt to console the bereaved. "I am not here for that," she snapped. "I am here for the commission and the commission only." She wouldn't tell reporters what the joke was. But, ever the optimist, at least she saw the bright side of the matter.

This article first appeared in The Weekend Argus.

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