Cheer up, things will only get worse

William Saunderson-Meyer says we have a weak govt perched upon the top of a teetering state


Hitting South Africa’s happy, high notes

Caloo calay! It’s my final column for 2020 and after yet another year of being a curmudgeonly old bastard, it’s good to hit a happy, high note.

After all, hope has its own cycle. A fresh, new year beckons, the world economy continues to defy gravity, and the Rand has clambered to its knees to thwart yet another knockout count.

And optimism is essential. Foreigners often marvel at the apparently irrational optimism of South Africans, not comprehending that it’s a way of surviving hard circumstances. Without it, we’d just curl up and whither.

But, alas, I am sceptical. The almost palpable buoyancy that has manifested as we approach the end of this grim year is illusory. While most of the world will bounce back from the Covid pandemic relatively unscathed, a few countries are destined to experience a debilitating Long Covid. South Africa is one of them.

Being alert to threats and nimble at sidestepping them is key to animal survival in the wild. Among feral humans, if you’re not the strongest, meanest mothafucka in da hood, you gotta be sharp and quick. 

So, too, with governments. In a world undergoing tectonic shifts in technology, populations and power, speedy adaptation is of the essence.

Weak governments and weak states, however, are not nimble. They are reluctant to shift from comfortable positions and when the threat is so imminent as to prod them into lumbering action, they’re as likely to charge into danger as to avoid it.

South Africa has a weak government perched precariously at the top of a faltering state. Under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s well intentioned but ineffectual leadership we have belatedly bestirred ourselves in the face of imminent peril but are lurching the wrong way, towards greater hazard.

It shouldn’t be unnecessary to list the many examples of weak African National Congress governance. If you haven’t noticed, then you haven’t been paying even most cursory attention to what is happening around you. 

Here's a short list: the bankrupt national electricity generator and national airline; collapsing road, rail, water and sewage infrastructure; at least a dozen major SOEs and more than 80% of municipalities that probably are beyond rescue because there is neither the money nor the will and expertise among the perniciously corrupt ANC cadres that control and staff them; and an obscenely overstaffed, overpaid and underachieving public service.

Those are the tangible dangers, the ones that media harp on about all the time. But like those predators stalking a Springbok in the bush, they could conceivably be outmanoeuvred had South Africa the collective wit and will to do so. We don’t.

The ANC is consumed by the imperative to hold onto power. Despite its miserable performance, the populace continues to vote it into office and is still a long way from being willing to contemplate rational opposition alternatives. As in Zimbabwe and most of Africa, by the time that desire for electoral change awakens, it will be too late. This government, enamoured of its divine mission to bring about a National Democratic Revolution, has no intention of voluntarily leaving office. 

In any case, unless the fragmented and fractious opposition parties, of which there seems to be a new one every month — established for egotistical rather than practical reasons — get their acts together, the ANC’s boast that it will govern until Jesus returns has every possibility of coming true. Just this week, the Official Opposition, the amazing shrinking Democratic Alliance, was this trounced in by-elections for the second month in a row.

National spokesperson Siviwe Gwarube makes much of the fact that the party lost “only” two of the eight seats it held previously and ignores that the DA wrested none from other parties. One wonders how many more such great victories the DA can survive.

As if all these omens were not gloomy enough, it gets worse. As part of its calculated determination to make an alternative ideological future impossible, the ANC has stacked with cadres and fellow travellers the institutions that are supposed to guard our democracy. It has made them instead into mechanisms to protect the ANC’s narrow understanding of democracy. 

In their shared approach to the issues that shape our near future — the threat of racial violence; the growing discriminatory effect of black empowerment laws; the erosion of property rights by expropriation without compensation; and the disdain shown towards Indians, coloureds and whites, including the touchy issue of the survival of the Afrikaans language — the Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Court are steadily and readily sidelining minorities from the great South African experiment in ubuntu.

There is already taking place a fresh exodus of the middle class — not only of minorities but also of some black African professionals. Add looming government-directed investment portfolios, the scramble to increase and find new administrative taxes, and an enthusiastic lobby for a swingeing inheritance tax to stymie what Pierre de Vos, a likely future ConCourt appointee, describes as the transfer to your children of ill-gotten “intergenerational wealth”, and emigration is bound to increase.

Emigration will aggravate an economic trend that is reflected in two potentially explosive sets of statistics. Both were triggered during the Covid pandemic and lockdown and are likely to be long lasting and painful.

According to StatsSA, in the first three months of the lockdown more than a quarter of a million domestic worker jobs were lost. Add in the other exploited souls indentured into domestic servitude — gardeners, major-domos, factotums, pool cleaners, drivers and private security guards — and the total freed from slavery rises to 311,000. 

My prediction, admittedly based only on apocryphal evidence and journalistic hunch, is that most of these jobs will not be recovered, especially since the government is in the process of again increasing the minimum wage. Covid forced a change to many living habits and has made dispensable nice-to-have service workers, who sadly are disproportionately the sole breadwinners of their families.

The other scary figures are those for the collapse of the small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) that are the fastest, most efficient creators of jobs. A Finfind report a fortnight ago found that 43% of SMMEs surveyed across every sector had closed down during lockdown. Of those that survived, only a third expect to recruit any full-time employees and their hiring of casual workers has also dropped, from 51% to 24%.

One doesn’t want to belabour the point but all that the ANC and its alliance partners have managed in response to these rapid and ominous changes is to prattle about social compacts and the opportunities that now exist to “transform” economic and social relations. We have a government that is simply incapable of comprehending the plight that the country is in.

To get back to the bush comparison, our little Springbok is trotting determinedly towards the undergrowth where the predators lurk.

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The Jaundiced Eye column resumes on January 9, 2021