Flying the flag of a failed state

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the ANC's resort to symbolic issues amidst the ruin it has wrought


Political leaders need to be quick on the uptake and nimble in the execution. 

One moment you’re sitting at your desk plotting your country’s triumphant entry into the Eurovision song contest. The next moment, through the smashed window, there’s a T-64 tank barrel pressed against your temple.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has proved to be a quick study in agility, possibly because of his previous life as an actor and comedian. Within days of the invasion, he was winning hearts and minds with impassioned Zoom addresses to national assemblies around the world. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

And his governmental apparatus has been similarly impressive. Despite being deluged by Russian-inflicted chaos and carnage, streets are being swept, potholes repaired, and the streetlights— where still standing — are having their burnt-out bulbs replaced. 

Less impressive has been President Vladimir Putin, perhaps burdened as he is with a previous existence as a toenail extractor for the KGB. No mental agility or finesse here. 

But then again, there’s no need to charm friends when you pick up most African Union countries and the world’s despotic regimes as a bargain-price job-lot. Nor is good governance required in a country where for centuries a tiny elite has perfected the blunt skills necessary to keep the sullen masses in line.

The lesson is that if head of an authoritarian state, you can be thick and slow because you can get away with it. But if you’re a politician in anything vaguely democratic, you have to be alert and responsive.

Except, as we well know, in South Africa. Vaguely democratic? Box ticked. Alert and responsive to threats and opportunities to the national welfare? You must be kidding.

It’s no secret that South Africa has been in a depressing downward spiral for some time. While there is a determined chorus of columnists and business leaders who promise that all will be fine if only we learnt to be “positive”, you know you’re in the dwang when the government’s own a cappella praise singers are faltering on the high notes.

Last month, outgoing Treasury Director-General Dondo Mogajane was blunt. He told Parliament that a culture of self-enrichment among some South African politicians and public servants was putting the country’s democracy and post-apartheid promises of creating a better life for all at risk. Unless government, the public service and politicians “get off their high horse” and start doing the essential basics, “we can start calling South Africa a failing state, because the things that define a failing state are beginning to show”. 

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe, whom the Financial Mail describes as the “moral centre” of the governing party, has been similarly unsparing. South Africa today “is characterised by anarchy,” Motlanthe says. “There’s no order, to speak of.” 

He voices the once-heretical idea that matters were better managed by the apartheid government. The belief is justified that the government has “run down institutions that were managed efficiently in the past … now this dysfunction has spread to all levels of the state”, the FM records him as saying. 

Even President Cyril Ramaphosa last year told the Human Rights Council hearings into the July riots that “we are not a failed state, yet…”. Being a master of subtlety, he quickly grasped the implications of his slip, to hastily add “… and we will not get there”.

But Ramaphosa then compounded his unfortunate phrasing to compare the journey of SS South Africa to that of the SS Titanic. “We are not a failing state because we are rebuilding the capacity. It is like turning the Titanic around, it does not happen in one day.” 

Pollyanna journalists and corporate leaders desperate to curry political favour aside, none of this is news to ordinary South Africans. 

Enfant terrible of the mining industry, Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman, told Daily Maverick in an interview that “we are practically a failed state”. “There is a lack of people at the highest levels taking proper action against lawlessness, against crime, and it filters all the way down through the system.”

“There are no repercussions. Government leadership has created this problem and … there is neither the capacity nor the competence to deal with it,” Froneman said.

Last month, the august Institute of Risk Management published a report that weighed whether South Africa “will become a failed state or is already a failed state”. It concluded that South Africa risks becoming a failed state if its “lack of decisive, ethical, and courageous leadership” persists and no action is taken to bolster economic growth and address high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality. If South Africa continues to experience a continued breakdown of ethical and legal principles, unmanageable societal unrest and breakdown of the rule of law, complete economic collapse becomes almost inevitable.”

So, what’s to be done? Taking heed of his instructions to turn the Titanic away from the iceberg — “Starboard, damnit! Starboard!” — one of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet colleagues has just announced two major initiatives. 

The Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, announcing its performance plan for 2022/23, revealed that a “key focus” will be the renaming of towns and roads. “The pace with which the transformation of the naming landscape is progressing is very slow given the number of names of towns and cities that still reflect South Africa’s colonial and apartheid heritage.”

Name changes are a “key transformation feature” to address past injustices. “The advent of colonial and apartheid rules brought about the erosion and corrosion not only of our value system but also of original indigenous names … This meant that indigenous knowledge systems in their multifaceted nature were subjugated and marginalised.” 

The second critical intervention by Minister Nathi Mthethwa started last year already with a feasibility study. The Department has now “embarked on a process to conceptualise, design and ultimately install a national monumental flag, with a flagpole that will be more than 100 metres in height”.

This will serve to express South Africans’ identity and pride. “Once constructed, it will become a national landmark and a tourist attraction site that will serve to display the country’s brand image.”

“Rendering a national flag as a monument of democracy goes a long way in making it highly recognised by the citizens. This has the potential to unite people as it becomes a symbol of unity and common identity.” A bargain at R22m.

Truly, what can one say to such idiocy and a president that tolerates this kind of crap? 

Zelensky transmogrified from comedian to president. Ramaphosa seems intent on doing it the other way around.

Follow WSM on @TheJaundicedEye