Our national disease

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the impaired and delusional state of our collective psyche


An update on South Africa’s national emblems

Our national flower is the King Protea. The national animal is, surprisingly, still the Springbok; the national bird is the Blue Crane. And our national disease, that's schizophrenia.

The past week has given ample evidence of the delusional and impaired state of our collective psyche. Shortly after the two most influential international rating agencies downgraded South Africa’s creditworthiness and investment prospects into deeper junk status, the RMB/BER Business Confidence Index, which gauges the opinion of 1,800 business executives, hit its highest level in almost three years.

Partly, it’s the yo-yo effect. What goes down must come up. In the second quarter of this year, in the face of a Covid pandemic and a government intent on economic hara-kiri, business confidence was at its lowest ever — far lower than the deepest plunges of the apartheid years.

It’s also perhaps the likely response of someone inadvertently drowning in their own bathtub: “This is ridiculous. Surely this can’t be happening to me?”

But it is. South Africa is sinking below the soap-suds level and there are no responsible adults to kick the door down and to leap to the rescue.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is endearingly amiable but hopelessly timid. It might be true that he is the last hope to save the country, but it could only happen if the Constitution allowed a 20-year presidential tenure and populist discontent tolerated glacial progress.

In any case, as he has more than once readily admitted, his priority is to save the ANC. As if that were even possible. If one were looking for a compelling example of the need for mercy killing, it is this once vibrant organisation.

Not only is the African National Congress too enfeebled to lead — no superheroes are chaffing in the wings, eager to do what everyone knows needs to be done — but it has undermined the entire state, possibly terminally. South Africa’s institutional structures may now be too weak for it to survive as a modern democracy with a rational road towards shared economic growth.

The primary imperative of the nation-state is to ensure the safety of its citizens. South Africa can no longer do so.

Militarily, the country has become steadily weaker, to the extent that the government must be worried about its ability to deploy against external threats.

It is one thing to be able, with considerable support from the United Nations and the African Union, to police conflict in the far-removed Democratic Republic of Congo. It is quite another to have to prop up the government of neighbouring Mozambique, where a ferocious Islamic insurgency in the north is likely to move steadily south.

Internally, and more pressing, is the government’s inability to ensure to protect us from scandalous levels of criminal violence and, increasingly, political violence. The police service is, on many levels, dysfunctional or else compromised by political considerations in its ability to respond to do its work.

There are, again, glaring immediate examples. Just as the sclerotic, pandemic-impaired arteries of commerce have started flowing again, there are determined and sinister attempts to shut them down.

In the past 10 days, in protests aimed supposedly at foreign truck drivers taking jobs from locals, around three dozen truck-and-trailer rigs have been torched on major routes in KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng. Several drivers have been hospitalised and one, a South African, shot and then burnt to death.

According to the Road Freight Association (RFA), in the past two years, more 1,300 trucks have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, with at least 21 drivers or crew, many of them South African, killed. Last year, the N3 between Durban and Gauteng, the umbilical cord between the port and the economic heartland, was closed for almost 48 hours by gangs attacking, looting and burning trucks, while the police stood by, helpless or indifferent.

The RFA says that this is not a labour issue, that structures have been set in place between the road freight operators and various government departments to address driver dissatisfaction. Also, it is a relatively small proportion of truckers — 6,500 out of 60,000 — that are foreign nationals.

When I interview Gavin Kelly, the CEO of the RFA, to ask what, if not driver discontent, is the impetus for the attacks, he doesn’t his mince his words: “I can’t tell you why it’s happening, but I can tell you how. This is a planned, co-ordinated, destruction of the South African economy.

“These are co-ordinated, military-style attacks. They are preceded by ample warnings, with social media calls for action and letters circulated beforehand, inciting violence.

“The police are not acting on such intelligence to prevent the attacks and they are not acting when the attacks are happening. They are unable or unwilling to act.

“We have reports of the police simply standing and watching the petrol bombings happening. No arrests are made.”

This is not faceless violence. This week’s rampage through Durban streets and the blockade of the port was carried out by people purporting to be members of the All Truck Drivers Foundation and the ANC’s uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association.

As I wrote during the arson attacks in may last year, public violence in general — and in particular the trucker violence and that of the taxi industry — is becoming less random and more goal-directed. It is steadily better focused in its timing and placement to exert maximum pressure, thereby extract rapid concessions from the authorities.

During last year’s violence in KwaZulu-Natal — unleashed on eve of the annual Comrades Marathon, which is economically important for the province — the ministers of Police, Labour, Home Affairs, and Transport hastily met with representatives of the aggrieved truckers and the haulage sector. It was agreed that an end would be put to the illegal employment of foreign drivers and that the work permit system would be reviewed.

But this year, it is no longer about illegal foreign drivers. It is simply about foreigners. The truckers have issued an ultimatum, saying that from December 1 no truck not registered in South Africa, or driven by a non-South African, will be allowed to enter the Durban docks.

These are not new developments, they are part of a pattern of violent populism. One of the main orchestrators of protest actions that — oops! — spill into violence is the Economic Freedom Fighters and their “Commander-in-Chief” Julius Malema.

Last week the EFF seized on allegations of racism and segregation at Brackenfell School in Cape Town to obtain permission for a protest march of 100 people. Around 2,000 EFF cadres were bussed in and when they tried to breach the police barriers to enter the school, water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas were used.

Malema’s response was to turn on the SA Police Service with a spittle-flecked tirade of chilling threats. The EFF was not afraid of the police “cowards” and “fools”, he told his cheering followers at a rally, “We will go to their homes and fight them in their own houses with their own families.”

Police Minister Bheki Cele issued a statement in which he “noted with disgust, the reckless, irresponsible and dangerous statements calling for the attack on police officers” by Malema. “I think the EFF leader has crossed the line. You aren’t going to threaten the police and think they’ll just fold their arms … No one has the right to threaten the police when they conduct their work. The threat to the lives of police members and their families will not be tolerated…”

Fine sentiments, but no action. It was left to AfriForum and Solidarity — conservative, largely white civic action groups — to lay criminal charges of incitement to violence. As with previous attempts to curb EFF threats of violence, it is unlikely that Malema will face any meaningful sanction, since the ANC is clearly shit-scared of him.

Others lean over backwards to defend him. University of South Africa academic Dr William Mpofu explained to Sunday Times Daily that there was nothing harmful in the sentiments expressed by Malema. They were merely a “political metaphor”.

If you are willing to swallow that assessment, it’s time to seek an appointment with a psychiatrist. You may be suffering from the national disease.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye