Giving up on South Africa

Andrew Donaldson writes on Jenni Russell's recent take in The Times of London


ANOTHER tourist has complained of a holiday in South Africa ruined by load-shedding. Which is hardly earth-shattering news. “Been there, done that,” as the expats at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) may tell you. “Would probably have the T-shirt, too, if they had the power to print them…”

Except that in this case the visitor was no ordinary tourist but columnist and award-winning political journalist Jenni Russell, and her experience prompted a lengthy piece on the beggared state of the nation in the opinion pages of The Times of London.

The Johannesburg-born Russell has written of her previous visits. In November 2015, for example, she informed her readers of the rampant crime and wholesale corruption that had taken root in the country. 

This was a few days after gunmen had raided a birthday party at the Sandton Fire Station, robbing some 35 children and 40 adults. Russell reported that distraught parents were immediately suspicious; the firemen had all mysteriously disappeared before the incident, the CCTV was unaccountably not working, and the robbers had time enough to leave before the police turned up at this hitherto popular function venue.


“From top to bottom,” she wrote, “South Africa’s institutions are quietly crumbling, disintegrating under the weight of inefficiency, indifference, underfunding and corruption.” As her readers are perhaps accustomed to regarding the former colony’s affairs only through a comfortably narrow racial prism, Russell’s piece was helpfully headlined: “Zuma is the enemy of blacks and whites.”

In February 2017, she was back again, writing on the “last chance” hopes pinned on the incoming Cyril Ramaphosa. This time her inspiration appeared to be the dismissal a week earlier of Hazel Ngubeni, the South African high commissioner to Singapore. 

Ngubeni, you will recall, was a drug trafficker who, in 1999, was handed a two-year jail sentence in the US for smuggling cocaine while working as an SAA cabin attendant. Four years earlier, she was charged with smuggling 9kg of heroin into South Africa from Thailand, also as a cabin attendant. She was acquitted in January 1997 after a key witness, reportedly a Mozambican diplomat, refused to testify against her.

There was some irony in Ngubeni’s diplomatic posting. The amount of heroin she was charged with smuggling in 1995 was 600 times the amount that carries a mandatory death sentence in Singapore. 

They’re fairly harsh when it comes to smack in that former colony, and this business of not knowing exactly how the drugs came to be planted in your baggage doesn’t exactly wash with these people; if you’re found with 15g or more of diamorphine in your possession you’re presumed to be a trafficker, and it’s up to you to prove otherwise.

But, as Russell suggested, there were plenty more like Ngubeni in our diplomatic corps. She mentioned the high commissioner to Britain, Obed Mlaba. He was later fired for running South Africa House in Trafalgar Square “like a spaza shop”, abusing his position to swine up lucrative business deals for himself and squeeze businessmen for donations to his foundation back home. 

Mention could also have been made of the notorious homophobe Jon Qwelane, once our manly man in Kampala, but we got the picture — and so did Russell.

Stories like this, she wrote, were commonplace and caused little more than a ripple in a news feed stuffed with “so many daily accounts of lies and corruption that they cannot make an impact”. But, as she reported on Thursday, she had always returned from South Africa in a hopeful frame of mind:

“It surely can’t become too corrupt or inefficient, I think. The triple forces of capitalism, democracy and a free press will prevent it. Rotten politicians can be replaced; crooked state employees and the individuals paying them off can be exposed. Too many people and profitable businesses have an interest in keeping the state functioning, the trains running and the lights on for it to fall apart.”

No more, though.

“This year, as in the last, the lights are literally being switched off, and I’ve lost that confidence. For the first time I fear the country may be sliding towards irreversible decay. Corruption has siphoned so much money from the state and twisted so many people’s motivations that it has gone from being a private, hidden tax on the public to a burden that threatens everyone’s daily lives.

“It may have been the fifth power cut in five days that tipped me over the edge. Both the president and the national power company had assured South Africans in December that there would be continuous electricity until mid January. It was, it turned out, a baseless assertion.”

South Africa’s problems are of little or no concern to most folk in the UK. As one post in the comments thread below the Russell piece put it: “I don't follow South African affairs so this comes as an eye-opener. Certainly Mike Atherton has put none of this in his ‘colour’ pieces on the current England cricket tour.”

To be fair, though, public discourse here has been dominated by the “Meghxit” saga to the extent that Little England has no appetite for anything else. The hounding of the Duchess of Sussex by the tabloids, along with the racism and vitriol she has endured from the local commentariat, has been extraordinary. 

But, more importantly, Russell’s piece did appear just days before Monday’s UK-Africa Summit in London, where Cyril Ramaphosa will reportedly be continuing with his efforts to lure investment into the country.

In September last year, South Africa, along with several neighbouring territories, signed a deal with the UK to ensure post-Brexit trade continuity. This will apparently mirror conditions that the southern African states enjoy with the EU. The president will also be working hard to ensure that South Africa won’t be “elbowed out of the front of the queue”, as one report put it, as the UK’s principal investment destination in the region.

Well, good luck with that. The issues raised by Russell — that everything is broken, fraud and corruption are rampant, and government is powerless to do anything about it — will be uppermost in the minds of everyone that Buffalo buttonholes.

Meanwhile, two days later, on Wednesday, finance minister Tito Mboweni rocks up at the World Economic Forum in Davos along with trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel and international relations minister Naledi Pandor.

Davos, of course, is not an investment summit, but rather a useless beano where political and business elites gather on some cheesy 1960s après-ski jag and talk up a bit of shop before hitting the mulled wine. It is nevertheless a global event and Mboweni will be wanting to put a positive spin on the situation at home. He will, he told reporters this week, be assuring those he meets that the country is embarking on a programme of “serious structural reforms”.

Again, this is not going to be easy. It’s the WEF’s 50th anniversary, and Mboweni is going to have to fight hard for serious attention at Davos. 

The big headline-grabbing turn this year will be Greta Thunberg, who will be leading a group of young climate activists to put pressure on politicians to shot down their fossil fuel economies. What’s more, it’s been reported that Donald Trump, now only the third US president to be impeached, will also be there. 

Perhaps the two of them will get together for a friendly chit-chat. And why not? It’s not as if Tito and chums will be returning home with a bunch of goodies.