A fine line between optimism and wishful thinking

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the recent national mood swings in SA


Optimism is an important trait. Aside from its well-researched role in achieving one’s objectives, it’s also simply more wearying of the soul to try to navigate life’s treacherous currents without it.

But in politics, where perception is everything, optimism is more than important, it’s vital. The praise singers and Hallelujah choristers can hold reality at bay for a surprisingly long time. At least long enough to allow the elites to salt away their assets and scramble to safety ahead of the marauding mob. The last flight to Dubai is boarding now…

And in excess, optimism can cause a fatal disconnect from reality. It becomes the kind of whistling in the dark that one saw right next door, in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and then in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. There, large numbers of people, despite holding diametrically opposed ideologies, insisted in the face of all evidence to the contrary that everything was peachy and destined to get peachier still.

This is perhaps the situation that South Africa is in right now. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Poll after poll over the past few years has delivered the same findings. South Africans are despondent about their economic and social circumstances. They are desperately worried about unemployment, crime and corruption and increasingly, these blights have affected them personally or someone close to them.

They have little faith in the country’s institutions. South Africa’ governing structures, public representatives, the judiciary, the media, the police, the military, all the political parties and most political leaders, elicit low levels of confidence and trust.

Nor is there is much hope that matters will improve. An IRR poll last year found that 68% of respondents believe that state capture is continuing, despite President CyrilRamaphosa ostensibly making the rooting out of corruption a priority. Similarly, an Afrobarometer poll found that 64% of South Africans believe that corruption has actually worsened under Ramaphosa, including in the office of the president itself.

These trends will likely have worsened in response to growing public unrest and violent crime, unemployment levels steadily approaching 50%, and the sombre findings of the judicial inquiry into state capture. Yet, Ramaphosa’s support among key constituencies like organised business and much of the media remains buoyant. It is his personal popularity that, to the relief of his party, has limited the scale of African National Congress electoral setbacks.

Despite the provocations of a failing economy and accelerating deindustrialisation, the corporate sector is muted in its criticisms and remains invested — in every sense of the word — in Ramaphosa’s survival. So, too, the majority of media voices.

It’s instructive to look at the assessment of two influential commentators on Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week. While both expressed some faint reservations about the likelihood of his SONA promises coming to fruition, they are adulatory in their assessments of Ramaphosa’s performance.

News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson wrote that “even President Cyril Ramaphosa's biggest critics must admit that [it] was the most determined and confident display we have seen from him yet.” Ramaphosa is “a man on a mission” and “unwavering” in signalling that it is the function of business, not the state, to create jobs.

Vrye Weekblad editor and columnist Max du Preez wrote that SONA was “a tour de force of change, recognition of shortcomings and vision.” Du Preez’s caveat is that South Africans have been “blunted for nice words and promises — they have heard it too many times.”

As has been the pattern with Ramaphosa, the package contents never live up to the packaging. Ramaphosa will have disappointed the two men by, just days later, retreating from his “business not government” comments, the moment that he came under fire from his union and communist alliance partners. 

The issue here is not whether such enthusiastic assessments are accurate or not. Rather, the point is that not even seasoned analysts are immune to a desire to claim some rays of light in the gloom.

Ironically, given their frustrating inability to attract significant electoral support from the millions of disenchanted voters, there is light but comes from the opposition, not from the “reformists” in the African National Congress. The Democratic Alliance, which had been reduced by its habit for self-harm to a hobble, has suddenly caught the public imagination to a degree not seen in half a dozen years.

The breakthrough has been the DA’s taking control — through a coalition in Pretoria and crafty manoeuvring in Johannesburg — of the executive mayorships in these cities at the heart of the country’s economy.

While their hold on power may be precarious, the DA mayors have extracted maximum political benefit by delivering a short and sharp illustration of how gutsy leadership can make a difference. In both metros, the mayors simply ordered the disconnection of municipal services to non-payers.

In Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, Tshwane metro disconnected water and electricity to buildings housing the headquarters of the SA Police Service, the SA Revenue Service, the Department of Water & Sanitation, the Hatfield Gautrain station, an institute of the University of Pretoria, the State Theatre, the swanky Sheraton Hotel opposite the Union Buildings, shopping malls and luxurious gated estates. In several cases, the disconnecting officials, operating under the protection of armed metro police, found meters had been tampered with and slapped on additional spot fines of up to R621,000.

Despite splutters of indignation, claims of errant managing agents and missing payments, as well as litigation both real and threatened, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. In less than a week, Tshwane’s #NoFearNoFavour campaign has brought in R300m of its R17bn debtor’s book. Johannesburg’s #BuyaMthetho (#BringBackTheLaw) campaign, which only kicked off on Wednesday, recovered R6m of its R38bn debt in the first four hours.

If the response social media is any kind of gauge, the South African public hasn’t had such a mood lift since the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup in 2019. At last, goes the refrain on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, someone is doing something and not making excuses why it cannot be done.

This is obviously a good omen for the DA with a general election in 2024 and an ANC vote that last year dropped to 48%. And since the DA has illustrated dramatically how small steps can have big consequences, the obvious question is why ANC municipalities, drowning as they are in debt, have never done this?

As Johannesburg’s #BuyaMthetho hashtag indicates, it’s as much about changing a culture of impunity as it is recovering unpaid charges. But when a party’s entire existence revolves around cadre deployment, nepotism, graft and kickbacks, it’s well nigh impossible to change that culture from within, by dint of good intentions.

We all know that ANC crooks don’t get prosecuted. And if on occasion they do, they don’t get convicted. And if on occasion they do, they don’t get sent to jail. And if on occasion they do, they’re soon released.

In an ANC world, it’s all about the right person turning a blind eye or a whisper in the right person’s ear. If someone cuts off the water supply, all that is required is a quick phone call between ANC buddies and the problem goes away. 

Ramaphosa won’t ever change that culture because he has always been part of it and still is. So let's temper hope with realism, however depressing, and keep in mind that there’s a fine line between optimism and wishful thinking.

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