Cyril sees the light!

Andrew Donaldson writes on the President's startling realisation when it comes to the Western Cape


SOUTH Africa goes to the polls next year. The country will accordingly face a barrage of suffocating idiocy as the ANC’s election campaign gets underway. This is par for the course with the ruling party, and we may well wonder how different our situation would have been had they devoted as much energy and attention to governance as they did in laying on rallies every five years where they routinely lie to voters.

Events of the past week suggest that there may however be a subtle difference in the rhetoric. Granted, there will still be the customary lunatic noise from all the usual suspects. A case in point is social development minister Lindiwe Zulu’s reaction to the devastating blaze in downtown Joburg in which 76 people died and scores more were injured. 

Addressing the media outside the gutted building in Albert Street on Friday morning, Zulu claimed somewhat predictably that apartheid was to blame for the disaster. “Whether we like it or not,” she said, “this is the result of apartheid that kept people apart in these conditions, and we are expected to change these conditions in 30 years?” ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Actually, yes. When you are voted into power on the basis of promises to improve the lives of the desperate and impoverished then that is frankly what is expected of you. You tackle these “conditions” pronto and not dither away for three decades, growing ever more fat-arsed and indolent. 

In another society, Zulu would have been forced to resign from her position. This tragedy took place on her watch, a catastrophic conclusion to the atrophy and neglect that has taken place over decades and reduced the inner city to a squalid dump. But here she is, the great Daphne, wittering on about criminals taking advantage of “desperate citizens”. It’s a terrible irony, but she could well have been talking about her own colleagues.

Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), the locals are gobsmacked that the mayor of the city hasn’t been lynched by an angry mob. All we expats can humbly suggest in their defence is that the angry mob may not know who exactly is the mayor this month.

Cyril Ramaphosa has also had a fatuous word or two about “criminal” elements which, he said, must be “rooted out”. The need to root them out is, of course, absolutely the desired response to criminal elements as recommended by nine out of ten professional traders in the political cliché. (Just saying.)

As the president put it: “It is these kinds of buildings that are overtaken by criminals, who then levy rent on vulnerable people and families who need accommodation in the inner city. Poor people need to live in the city, but there needs to be law and order in the city.”

A firm grasp of the situation, then. But, and back to that subtle difference in rhetoric, it does seem that, from his comments on a different issue this week, Squirrel is beginning to understand the bigger picture here. 

Responding to a question from DA leader John Steenhuisen on whether there were any plans to expedite the devolution of public transport responsibilities to competent metros like Cape Town, Squirrel said the Mother City could not act independently of national laws.

“Those who call for this type of devolution,” he said, “are essentially saying we want to be separate; we want to be secessionist, we want to be completely different.”

Well, glory be, and crack open a can of hallelujah! Squirrel sees the light!

Finally, it dawns on him after all these years that the Western Cape does not want to be ruled by an ANC government, and that is why they have consistently not voted for the party for most of this century. 

This is what people do when they regard your policies as being rubbish — they reject your policies. It is a simple democratic principle and not difficult to understand. Well, not difficult for normal people. But where the Western Cape is concerned, it would appear that that the province’s choice in government, one that basically works, is one that the ANC finds impossible to accept. 

This then is the way the Western Cape wants to be “completely different”. 

Unfortunately, it appears that Squirrel still has some distance to travel in learning the difference between secession and devolution, but have faith, he may yet get there.

Speaking of which, the Western Cape secessionists among us do have a strong case, dismaying as it may seem to blinkered nationalists. One argument they could proffer to advance their cause, and it is one that draws heavily on the ANC’s own ideology, is that South Africa should be broken up into separate self-governing territories because the country itself is a racist colonial construct — and is therefore illegitimate.

Technically, South Africa was ushered into being by a British act of parliament in 1909 that unified the British colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal with the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Free State. This union came about through the work of white delegates at a national convention that excluded black South Africans, Coloureds and those of Asian ancestry. Ergo, racist.

The South Africa Act, along with the constitution that duly emerged, was largely the work of John X Merriman, the prime minister of the then Cape Colony, and Jan Smuts, then colonial secretary of the Transvaal. “What we want,” Smuts said at the time, “is a supreme national authority to give expression to the national will of South Africa, and the rest is really subordinate.”

What was meant by “we”, of course, was “we whites alone”. The other big mistake made by delegates at this national convention was the rejection of a federal model and that South Africa be a unitary state instead.

Would a federation of independent “states” have been better than a union or republic? Would separate territories have benefitted through managing their own affairs rather than being administered by central government? It’s difficult to say, and it’s debatable, for instance, whether a province like Limpopo will ever be as prosperous as the Western Cape. But that would be a problem for the federal capital, Gauteng, and not the Western Cape.

Back in 1909, the decision to eschew a federal path was reached after poring over the constitutions of Canada, Australia and the United States. Federalism appears to have done them no harm. Cynics will note that these are territories where colonialism had devastated indigenous populations, all but wiping them out. Unfortunately for white supremacists, this did not happen in Africa.

Be that as it may, union was inaugurated on May 31, 1910. There was significant opposition to the discriminatory nature of the South Africa Act, but at the time it was felt that its political and economic advantages significantly outweighed its disadvantages. Black South Africans rejected this, and as a result of their frustration, founded the SA Native National Congress in 1912, which was later rebranded as the ANC.

The party rather proudly boasts that it is Africa’s oldest liberation party. In other words, it was also Africa’s least effective liberation party, having contributed only belatedly, in real terms, to realising the liberation of South Africans. Liberation from oppression, essentially, is not an area in which to tarry. This culture has been difficult to shake off, and the party has been just as ineffective in the decades since the coming of democracy, and this is a record they will defend at the polls next year.

Old Jozi

Like most of the “old school” correspondents reporting on the final days of apartheid for foreign publications, the British journalist Graham Boynton enjoyed nights on the town when not filing on the drama of the day. Write hard, party hard. So it went on the South Africa beat.

But write he did, and at some length, on unpalatable truths. His October 1990 Vanity Fair featureHow Bad is Winnie Mandela?, is a case in point. Published in the aftermath of the Stompie Sepei murder, the Mandela United Football Club’s reign of terror and the trials that followed, the piece perhaps held no surprises for activists on the ground in Soweto, but it certainly shocked the magazine’s elite US society readership, many of whom regarded the Mother of the Nation as a saint.

Boynton would later draw on his journalism experiences on the continent for a memorable bookLast Days in Cloud Cuckooland: Dispatches from White Africa (Random House, 1997). Soon after its publication, he returned to Johannesburg for a brief promotional visit. At the time I was writing for Style magazine and its editor, Marilyn Hattingh, wanted a feature on Boynton. 

I mention all this because, like my colleague David Bullard, I too have been gripped by a nostalgia for the Johannesburg I once knew following the tragedy at Albert Street.

As I recall, there wasn’t much local interest in Boynton, possibly because due to his book’s controversial conclusion: as bad as white rule may have been, it seemed that what followed in Europe’s former colonies was considerably worse, and the signs were there that South Africa would probably be no different. Books detailing ANC ineptitude and corruption would later come to fill the current affairs shelves in bookstores, but in the initial giddy flush of the post-apartheid era, such concerns were deemed anathema, reactionary and nostalgic for a racist past.

At Style, though, we splashed out a bit on Boynton. When he was based in Johannesburg in the 1980s, he’d had a keen interest in the local music scene and regularly took in the acts at venues like Hillbrow’s Chelsea Hotel and Le Chaim, on Nugget Hill. Our plan was to revisit those haunts with Boynton — a trip down memory lane, as it were — and conduct our interview in the back of a hired stretch limo as we toured what hopefully remained of the downtown Joburg demi-monde.

There was nothing left of it. We knew that at the time, of course. But even so, what we encountered in its place was deeply shocking. The high-density residential areas of the inner city were now high-density slums. The sheer filth and decay we encountered was staggering. The Chelsea was boarded up and behind razor wire, parts of Hillbrow stank of urine and, over in Yeoville, the once vibrant Rockey Street, bohemian hangout to many, was now a tip. 

That was in 1997, a lifetime ago. It got worse over the years, this criminal degeneration. Nothing was done to prevent it. A once-great city was allowed to rot and collapse on it itself. That, sadly, is the lesson of 80 Albert Street.