Our unhappy land

Andrew Donaldson says it has just been confirmed that we're a miserable lot


SOUTH Africans are a miserable lot. We know this because we‘re ranked 101st in the 2017 World Happiness Report. True, we were 116th last year, but we’ve still got a way to go if we want to be up there with the likes of cheerful Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

On the other hand, if you’re the glass half full sort of delusional, we are the seventh happiest country in Africa, after Algeria, Mauritius, Libya, Morocco, Somalia and Nigeria.

Somalia? Libya? I know, I know. But perhaps the bar wasn’t very high there in the first place. 

The report is based on surveys of citizens in more than 150 countries who are simply asked to rate the lives they are living on a scale from nought to 10. Researchers then used six measures in analysing the results: GDP per capita, life expectancy, support from relatives and friends, charitable giving, freedom to make life choices, and perceived levels of government and corporate corruption.

Dealing with Africa specifically, researchers warned that poor infrastructure and lack of service delivery not only contributed to lived poverty and depressed happiness in Africa, but it could undermine the continent’s “democracy project”.

“A case in point is South Africa’s relatively new democracy,” they said. “The latest Afrobarometer survey conducted there suggests that South African citizens might be willing to give up their democratic rights in favour of their living conditions being improved. 

“While almost two-thirds (64%) of South African respondents thought that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government, a similarly high percentage (62%) stated they would be ‘very willing’ or ‘willing’ to give up regular elections to live under a non-elected government capable of ensuring law and order and service delivery.”

This is very depressing. Not to state the obvious, that it is by voting we can elect a government that delivers, but it would appear that there is a direct link between unhappiness and ignorance of basic democratic principles.

Little wonder, then, that the curiously happy Jacob Zuma is able to prattle on without consequence about suspending the Constitution so he can put us all to rights. 

He did it during a trip to a Gauteng primary school last July, telling learners, “If you just give me six months to be a dictator, things will be straight. Right now, to make a decision you need a resolution, decision, collective, petition. Yoh! It’s a lot of work.”

To be fair, the President did add that he was a self-educated person. Which may explain some things. But we’ll leave it there. 

Jokes from politicians about their dictatorial urges are particularly unwelcome at a time when the global trend towards authoritarianism could serve as a fillip to the so-called African “strongmen”, the aging rulers who have clung to power for decades beyond their sell-by dates.

And they really are getting on. According to the World Happiness Report, there is a “dramatic disconnect” between Africa’s leadership and the continent’s youth.

“The age difference between leaders and the youth is striking,” the report said. “While the average age of Africa’s presidents is estimated to be about 70 years, 

some 70% of African citizens are younger than 30 years. Most of Africa’s leaders will have been born before the age of television and mobile phones and before the end of the colonial era. Given this generation gap, there is likely to be a mismatch between youth’s expectations of democracy, and the reality that confronts them.”

Africa’s leaders naturally don’t like to be told they’re too old and that it’s perhaps time for them to go. They can be a bit like teenagers that way. They know everything.

Like Rwandan president Paul Kagame. He took office in 2000 when his predecessor, Pasteur Bizimungu, resigned. Previously, he had commanded the rebel force that ended the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and was considered the country’s de facto leader when he served as vice president and defence minister from 1994 to 2000.

In 2015, he gained approval by a controversial referendum on changing the Rwandan constitution to stand for an unprecedented third term in elections in August this year, which means he could be in power until 2034. He would be 76 or 77 by then, a relative spring chicken compared to some other African leaders.

Kagame has in the past boasted that other African countries that change their leaders too often have not fared as well as Rwanda. It’s true that Rwanda does enjoy a degree of political stability and is, according to policy wonks, “business-friendly”.

But then it is also the fifth least happiest country on the planet. Only Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and Central African Republic are unhappier.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.