A country out of its mind

RW Johnson writes on what is behind the incredible stories playing out in our press

The South African media is full of incredible stories. Some of these are actually true – snakes hiding in lavatories, lions basking in hammocks and so on – but the most interesting are those which exemplify various traits in the national psychology. Recently we have had a field day.

My own current favourite – it exists in multiple versions all over the place – are the bitter tirades against developed countries for red-listing Southern African countries over the Omicron Covid variant. Indeed, the refrain was taken up by President Ramaphosa who insisted that South Africa was being “unfairly discriminated against”, a no doubt conscious echo of anti-apartheid terminology.

And while this protest is made against all developed countries – a much softer tone is directed against African countries who have also cut transport links with southern Africa – a public apology is demanded from Britain alone, no doubt because it is the old colonial power.

(Similarly, some NGOs campaigning for reparations for slavery demand apologies from the Queen, ignoring the fact that slavery was practised by almost every country at one time or another.)

Those who write these angry articles insist that South Africa is being unfairly “punished” and demand the immediate reversal of their transport bans. Listen, for example, to Barney Mthombothi, usually the most sensible and level-headed of journalists. He accuses “the West, led by the UK, of “grinning and praising you to your face while plunging a dagger in your back”. The travel ban is, he says, racist. The West are “cowards, picking on the powerless”. They are hypocrites, bullies and worse.

This is matched by Lukanyo Mnyanda, another sound and level-headed man who nonetheless writes of how Western countries (he refers to them bitterly as “friends” in inverted commas) have staged “unjustified and damaging attacks on (our) economy”. Other journalists have written similar, mad monologues. Yet the list of countries operating such bans just keeps on growing.

Imagine that I have a trip booked to Belgium, then read there’s bad Covid there and cancel my trip. What do I think when I am accused of carrying out “an unjustified and damaging attack” on Belgium’s tourist industry? I think my accuser is absolutely crazy. I know that I didn’t give a moment’s thought to Belgium’s economy one way or the other and I’m certainly not changing my mind about not going.

It is all indescribably silly. No one is trying to “punish” South Africa. All these governments, from Japan to Mauritius to Canada are simply trying to protect their own citizens from the Omicron variant. One way of doing that is trying to minimise that variant’s spread.

Even if that never completely works, they can keep the number of cases small, making it easier to track and isolate them, and that will give them more time to conduct their own research and countermeasures. Some countries, like New Zealand and China, are still trying to remain “zero Covid”, so they have to keep infected foreigners out.

Even if you think such efforts are seldom successful, you can hardly blame them for trying. No one in their right mind would imagine that the motive for such measures is punitive. Indeed, the fact that so many South Africans appear to believe this nonsense merely attests to a large strain of paranoia in the national make-up.

There is also, frankly, a vain sense of self-importance. South Africa under ANC rule has so shrunk in economic and political importance that other countries are less and less conscious of its existence. South Africa used to get punished because of apartheid. Now that’s gone, no one is interested in that. But listen, again, to Ramaphosa. He accuses Western countries of “selfish behaviour”. (That’s what the Westphalian state system is all about: national governments put their own citizenry first and get punished if they don’t. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing too, Cyril.) “They kept giving us the crumbs from their tables”. (It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t asked for charity. Anyone who begs must expect to be treated as a beggar.)

Ramaphosa then tries to catch the following wind of Black Lives Matter: “our lives in Africa are just as important as their lives in Europe, North America and all over”. (He’s trying to racialize the matter: many African countries, starting with Zimbabwe, have also red-listed SA.) And Ramaphosa asks for a waiver of intellectual property rights so that SA can reproduce any of the Covid vaccines it wants, for free. (Hang on: the pharmaceutical companies have spent a fortune researching and then making vaccines at breakneck speed – a remarkable achievement. So now you want to punish them by taking away their profits, ensuring that they make a loss? This is entitlement on steroids.)

The fact is that South Africa’s vaccination effort has failed badly, leaving us wide open to recurrent waves of Covid and new variants thereof. If we really want to heal this situation we need to put maximum effort into full and, indeed, mandatory vaccination and booster shots. Instead of blaming others we should pull our own socks up.

A slightly similar story is the furious SAFA appeal to FIFA to annul and re-stage our soccer team’s game with Ghana because of “blatantly biased refereeing”. (Compare the equally bitter and self-righteous claims that “unfair discrimination” is being deployed against Caster Semenya, although actually she is dis-barred under rules which apply in general. Both these cases reveal a degree of paranoia.)

There is also a considerable degree of naivete about such claims. International sporting bodies are loath to uphold such claims for fear of opening Pandora’s Box. This is particularly the case with Africa for African sport is notoriously corrupt. Lamine Diack, the Senegalese who led the International Amateur Athletics Federation for sixteen years was a notorious crook. He and his son, Papa Massata Diack (for he was building a dynasty) were convicted for gross theft, bribery, involvement in doping, money laundering and a raft of other sins, some of them even pre-dating his term as an IOC official.

Similarly, Ahmad Ahmad, the Malagasy head of the Confederation of African Football, was last year banned for five years from all soccer-related activities for a similar list of offences. Naturally, the large sums which FIFA gives to help the development of African soccer were getting re-routed into private pockets.

This sort of thing is endemic in Africa because sports want global coverage so there has to be an African component and those officials who get on the relevant committees almost inevitably use their positions to feather their own nests. Soccer is particularly tainted because there’s more money in soccer than in any other sport.

South Africa is fully part of this scene. Currently there are corruption crises in South African tennis, athletics and soccer – FIFA has hardly forgotten the huge match-fixing scandal which SAFA was involved in prior to the 2010 World Cup but it has never handed out sentences partly, no doubt, because it fears what a full investigation might find. Did South Africa buy the staging of the World Cup? What of Mandela’s involvement?

Meanwhile no one has forgotten the match-fixing scandal in South African cricket. Indeed, at the moment Cricket South Africa is staging its own version of the TRC and, in predictable fashion, certain cricketers found guilty of match-fixing are attempting to re-write their biographies by depicting themselves as the hapless victims of racism.

Since court rules of evidence do not apply they are free to come up with whatever stories they want to tell and these have to be treated with great solemnity since being a victim of racism is sacrosanct territory.

One can’t help sympathising with FIFA. They doubtless know that in African soccer referees are often bribed, that witchcraft plays a considerable role with pitches getting doctored with all manner of muti, and that match-fixing and betting scandals are common. And so on.

FIFA does not want to open this seamy mess for public inspection. It may very well believe that South Africa’s recent game was rigged against them, but what else is new? FIFA is embarrassed by African pressure to hold more events in Africa but if the full truth were told no one would ever hold another event there.

As for SAFA’s complaint about the Ghana game, one can imagine how little credibility SAFA has with FIFA but the irony is that the more FIFA believes that SAFA’s complaint is justified the less it will want to investigate it.

Nothing, however, surpasses the make-believe which passes for analysis of South Africa’s economics and politics. Duma Gqubule, for example, writes frequently for Business Day advocating money-printing on a vast scale to finance mammoth schemes of public expenditure although presumably everyone at Business Day knows that this would result in Weimar-style inflation and economic collapse.

Even this is surpassed, however, by the extraordinary writings of Colin Coleman, the ex-CEO for Sub-Saharan Africa at Goldman Sachs. Coleman wishes to argue for an Unemployment Relief Grant of R800 a month payable to the 12.5 million unemployed at a cost of R120 billion a year, arguing that this will be a major stimulus to the economy and that a bit more debt won’t really hurt us.

In other words, he wants South Africa to borrow money abroad at over 10% interest in order to give it away back here as charity, getting no productive asset or investment at all in return for this very expensive money. And he wants that repeated every year ad infinitum. This is the economics of the madhouse. Coleman seems not to have noticed that this merely means the continuation of Zuma-nomics. That is, the ANC comes up with highly destructive policies which damage the economy and cause unemployment to grow. Then, in order to take the political edge off that the government increases social grants, claiming this will stimulate the economy.

This doesn’t actually work, as is shown by the experience of the last decade. In 2010-2014 growth averaged 2.2% and by 2015-2019 this had declined to 0.8% as Zuma ratcheted up the debt and increased welfare spending. So the welfare bill and unemployment kept going up while economic growth collapsed and the productive base shrank.

We are indeed well into another phase of this desperate cycle. The utterly shocking unemployment figures have just been published, showing that almost half the population is unemployed including nearly three quarters of the youth. The ANC says nothing and merely shrugs its shoulders since it is long past caring for the poor.

At the same time it prepares a whole raft of new measures all of which will further damage the economy and cause more job losses. EWC, the Employment Equity AmendmentBill, the localization craze, Mantashe’s latest attempt to force the Mining Charter down the throats of the mining companies, and the Competition Commission’s disallowing of foreign investments in South Africa – all have in common the fact that they will kill more jobs. So, right on cue, here comes Coleman wanting more welfare spending and more debt.....

Coleman wants this to be agreed by a “grand national pact” of government, unions, business and civil society. Businesses, he says, “will have to agree to unleashing investment”, although he must know that investment doesn’t work that way.

As for government, Coleman says airily, it “will have to fix systemic obstacles to economic growth such as energy and spectrum availability, fix SOEs and so on”. This is all said with the wave of a hand as if “fixing” energy, spectrum availability and SOEs can be done in an afternoon, although all these objectives have defeated the government for decades.

This is simply not serious and Coleman must know that too. He must also know that nowhere in the world is economic policy made in this way. His whole plan is an exercise in fantasy, the rather desperate escape plan of an ANC camp-follower who can see his party and thus his career choices going down the drain.

What explains the flight from reason common to all these stories ? A clue is to be found in the recent discovery by many of our commentators of Antonio Gramsci’s bon mot about how when the old society is dying and the new society is struggling to be born, a whole variety of morbid symptoms appears. (Truth to tell, there is a lot more to Gramsci than that – he is the most interesting of Marxist theorists – but all that our journalists seem to know is that one quotation.)

But there’s the answer: the hysteria over red-listing and about our mistreatment in sport, together with the completely wacky economic snake-oil “solutions” paraded in the public prints – they’re all just morbid symptoms.

All these things also derive from an ANC mind-set. There is a distinct pathology here. ANC activists remember only too well the glory days when they had “the moral high ground”, when they had the backing of world opinion, when they were supported by countries and organizations operating sanctions against SA – even though this was at a cost to themselves, and when they were treated like suffering heroes, showered with scholarships, donations, supportive demonstrations and so on.

All this has now disappeared, As Fikile Mbablula puts it, the ANC is perceived as “a party of thieves” and incompetent to boot. No one imagines they are heroes and there are few scholarships or supportive demonstrations. But the ANC has one card left: to proclaim their own suffering, to depict themselves as self-righteous victims of discrimination.

They have learnt that white guilt is a very strong force and so they play desperately to that, trying to shame their erstwhile supporters by saying they have proved to be false “friends” etc. It’s threadbare stuff but it’s all that’s left.

The problem is that South Africa is a middle income country and a G20 member. There are many much poorer countries. And South Africa isn’t demanding equal treatment: it wants special treatment, it wants Caster Semenya to be accepted whatever the rules about testosterone levels, it wants its losing soccer result nullified no matter how many matches SAFA fixed before the 2010 World Cup, it wants intellectual property rights to be waived in its favour and it objects to other countries trying to protect their citizenry in any way they see fit, arguing that they should have put the interests of the South African economy first. Some even seem to think that South Africa can be exempted from the laws of economics too.

All of these psychodramas are being played out in the South African media. Little, if anything, of these complaints will be heard beyond our shores. Perhaps that’s just as well. Special pleading is never attractive and displays of temper even less so. But this may not be all there is to it. The old society – the age of ANC hegemony – is indeed dying and the new society is still difficult to descry, so if Gramsci is right quite a lot more morbid symptoms may be on the way.

R.W. Johnson