No happy New Year

Mike Berger says the country is in a bad, bad state

Our political landscape is dominated by a media blizzard of corruption scandals, misinformation, manufactured outrage, soap operatic political farces, racial incitement, conspicuous displays of virtue and contrived twitter storms. As part of this noisy political scene, local riots are a regular avenue of political expression for the vast army of the excluded.

Much of this diversion of energy and attention is designed to serve the interests of political elites and disguise deep-seated corruption. Unsurprisingly, the economy of South Africa has continued to stagnate, indices of social welfare continue to fall, the national mood has turned more cynical and serious attention to the fundamental conditions required for a stable and productive society seems a fool's errand. Fantasy has taken the place of a serious visionary politics.

At least half our population (what I have called the 'entrapped') is deprived of the basic conditions for a productive modern life: personal security, adequate and appropriate nutrition, a half decent education, basic health care, fundamental infrastructural services including sanitation and living space and a nurturing environment in the early years. Furthermore, they lack any realistic hope for improvement in the present political climate.

The millions of chronically unemployed and unemployable, entrapped in multi-generational poverty spirals, serve as voting fodder or mercenaries when required in local political clashes. The lavish lifestyles of ethnic power figures confer a vicarious source of self-esteem but the personal prospect of a dignified fulfilled life does not figure on the radar for at least half our population.

While the ancient traditional tribal dispensation has no place in a modern state, it has been replaced with the worst excesses and deep confusions of modern Western society. The rainbow fantasies and self-congratulatory spirit of the early post-Apartheid days have hardened into the politics of low expectation, media dramas, cynicism and the merry-go-round of dysfunctional special interest politics.

In many quarters the perception of inevitable state failure has taken root and those with skills, energy and youth on their side have or are making plans for decampment apparently greener pastures. Such people attract derision tinged with envy and anguish.

Public anger at betrayal and constructive rebellion against elite enrichment are diverted with fake narratives and a buzzing swarm of acronyms like WMC, EWC, BLF and, possibly worst of all, the looming shadow of NHI. With some exceptions big business understandably makes sure it remains persona grata with the current political power nodes and are thankful for the promise of some financial predictability - however precarious.

The consequences to South African society are painfully apparent in a restless, rootless and materially, intellectually and emotionally disempowered generation. Proposals for rational reconstruction and transformation receive scant attention by a media hungry for scandal, conflict and sensation. To talk of the national interest sounds positively quaint.

Thus, the South African condition mirrors the breakdown of social solidarity polarising the Western democracies. This is an immense topic but I draw your attention to a hard-hitting article entitled "The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats".

In it Nick Hanauer writes, inter alia, "Even the best of us, in the worst of circumstances, are barefoot, standing by a dirt road, selling fruit. We should never forget that, or forget that the United States of America and its middle class made us, rather than the other way around."

In more sober tones serious academics make the same point and while the USA is far from a SA carbon copy many of the dynamics resemble one another. Popular immiseration coupled with elite wealth and competition is a recipe for social breakdown.

South Africa, that strange product of tribal politics, Western liberal democracy and Western socialism, is tied into collapsing traditional structures, historical ethno-cultural divisions and acquisitive elites riding the rip tides of social chaos? There is little doubt that our country stands at a decisive bifurcation, one which will determine its fate for generations.

To state it bluntly we either continue with a failed ANC tied to disastrous policies or we break free and use the tools of democracy placed in our hands largely by the same party which has failed so dismally to use them for the national benefit. Ironies in post-revolutionary South Africa abound.

It still shocks and surprises me that after 25 years of ANC misrule there can be public confusion as to the actions required to escape our trajectory of failure. Even granting the often exaggerated missteps, both political and ethical, by the DA there cannot be the slightest doubt in any rational mind which party should receive the public endorsement in the 2019 elections. The idea that weakening the DA so as to bolster the shaky grip of Ramaphosa on an inept, visionless and corrupt ANC is breathtaking in its fatalism and cynicism.

Yet, if the IRR (Institute of Race Relation) snap poll published in Politicsweb (10 Dec 2018) is to be believed, that is precisely what is happening. The ANC position is strengthening on the back of Ramaphosa and a couple of less than utterly disastrous appointments, while support for the DA and EFF is falling.

No-one can bemoan the deflation of the overhyped EFF circus but the drop in DA support is a tragic cause for concern in a number of ways. Firstly, it puts at risk its recent gains in nationally-distributed metropolitan areas and even renders its previously assured control of the Western Cape/Cape Town somewhat moot. Indeed it may put the ludicrously named GOOD party of De Lille in the driver's seat in a province which, until now, represented a light at the end of the tunnel for a beleaguered South Africa.

More importantly it shows just how vulnerable our voting public is to negative media propaganda, identity politics and our incapacity to imagine a future for South Africa other than tottering mediocrity. How is it otherwise possible to once again embrace an ANC saviour after the lessons of the past and on such abysmally flimsy evidence?

I don't like writing about party politics. But the time comes in the history of a nation when the choice is stark and is a game-changer. This is one of them.

South Africa's choice hinges on its ability or inability to recognise the fundamental difference between a political party committed to the broad national interest and a party committed to African nationalism with an ineradicable history of greed and ineptitude. It hinges on being able to differentiate between a party demonstrably capable of delivery and a political party demonstrably incapable. It hinges on recognising that the DA in a position of power would immediately bring increased investment and overseas political confidence to the country.

A decisive strengthening of the DA's competitive position would represent a major step towards a modern, delivery-orientated government and a chance at a transformed, just society for all its citizens. It would open an avenue to escape the dead-end of our divided past and the insatiable historical narratives of injury and grievance through which the elites maintain their grip on the public mind.

We need to bear in mind that in our 25 years of post-apartheid politics only the DA has emerged as a radically transformatory party for the public good.

While the ANC was mired in failed socialist doctrines, intense flirtations with various despots and conspicuous acquisition and displays of wealth, Helen Zille took the DA by the scruff of the neck and converted it into an aggressively non-racial party committed to inclusive socio-economic transformation under the banner of opportunity backed by free enterprise and delivery.

In context, this represented radical and revolutionary politics and it transformed the South African political landscape. The DA success in Cape Town and the Western Cape showed that a political party could get elected on positive messaging and delivery of fundamentals in South Africa.

The danger Zille's DA represented to vested interests and burgeoning political ambitions was immediately apparent and she became the target of a concentrated smear campaign. This together with significant political missteps has been sufficient to put the DA on the back foot in the minds of a battered electorate. Even from within the ranks of its own supporters there has been a groundswell of tedious carping which feeds the public perception of a party that has lost its way.

There is scant time to turn the self-destructive tide of public opinion around. We will undoubtedly be subjected to a veritable blizzard of negative publicity concerning the DA in the coming months and given the realities of political cognition it will take an immense effort to counter such negative perceptions.

In my view the DA must stake everything on a radical uncompromising posture as the only inclusive, open opportunity and realistically creative party with an unwavering social commitment to the poor and the middle. It must emphasise the fundamental difference between the dangerous fantasies of the ANC and the DA's approach to leveraging the substantial pockets of functionality in South Africa to benefit the poor and ignored.

That the DA must cut down on clumsy mistakes which provide ammunition to its enemies goes without saying, but the sharp end of its efforts must go to providing a clear choice to an electorate desperate for realistic hope and political honesty. It needs to find a loud and uncompromising leadership voice with an unwavering message of old-fashioned, creative dedication to the national interest.

And let us pray for an electorate capable of distinguishing between that and the ANC's brand of cynical racial pandering, socialist fantasies and patronage politics.  

Mike Berger