Riding the SA roller coaster

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on how 1988 mirrors the year we are now in


The infamous Cobra ride at Ratanga Junction amusement park, now closed, was nothing in comparison. The most stomach-churning helter-skelter ride is simply living in South Africa. 

One gets so embroiled in the nerve-wracking vicissitudes of our daily politics that one easily forgets that it has always been thus.

This week I spoke at a supper club in a hamlet down the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. It was their 30th anniversary, so I allowed myself to wander down the byways of the past, back to 1988. 

Ah, those halcyon days. Our currency was still frisky, trading at R2 to a US dollar. A loaf of bread cost less than R1. To fill the car's 75-litre petrol tank was a mere R30. Most importantly for a harried journo, a 750-ml bottle of my favourite Famous Grouse whisky cost just R10.

But time puts a gloss on memory. 1988 was a dark year, one of the most tumultuous years in a country that was seemingly sliding towards the abyss.

The State of Emergency declared three years earlier had revealed the first cracks in the edifice of white power, with President PW Botha forced to declare a moratorium on the payment of SA’s foreign debt. The cracks had now widened to fissures that could not be papered over.

The country was roiled in turmoil. Liberation movement insurgents were engaged in daily acts of sabotage, bombing and assassination. The apartheid government’s special forces, in turn, that year struck its enemies in Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

It is not only time that distorts memory. The past is coloured also by the heart.

In our history books today, Khotso House in Johannesburg is writ large. This, the headquarters of the SA Council of Churches, was bombed in August of 1988 by undercover police officers, injuring 19 people.

There is virtually nothing in these same history books to mark the bombing in June 1988 of a cafe in the Poynton Building in Pretoria. This action by Mkhonto we Sizwe operatives resulted in injuries to two soldiers, two correctional services officers, and 13 civilians.

The Khotso incident featured in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, eight years later. Both the erstwhile police chief and police minister applied and received amnesty for their roles in the bombing, among other things. No one from MK ever sought similar amnesty for the Pretoria blast.

1988 also saw the battle of Cuito Canavale. The SA Defence Force went head to head with not only the Angolans, but for the first time was in direct combat with the Cubans, in the biggest military engagement on African soil since World War II.

Both sides claimed victory. It’s irrelevant whom you believe. What is incontestable is that the engagement triggered the withdrawal of SA forces, first from Angola and what was then South West Africa, by the end of that year.

Our hearts may sway our minds when it comes to distinguishing victors from vanquished, heroes from villains, but statistics are less malleable. and it is in the economic numbers that our growing woes are most clearly denominated.

In 1988, the population of SA was 29m and unemployment was a fraction over 17%. Today, the population has doubled to 58m and unemployment has increased by 60% to 27.2%.

The real situation is far worse than that grim statistic would suggest. If one takes the broad definition of unemployment, which includes those who have simply despaired of finding work, almost four out of 10 South Africans who should be working, aren’t. Among young people, under the age of 25, that rises to almost seven out of 10.

One could heap on the pain. Virtually every statistic, comparator and index — from the obvious fields of health, crime, education through to the arcane, such as car accident deaths and infrastructural maintenance — show a country that is sliding steadily downwards.

1988 was also the year that Alan Paton, anti-partheid activist and author, died. I often spoke with Paton, since he was a regular contributor to the commentary pages that I edited on the Sunday Tribune. 

Behind his fierce rallying calls in defence of human rights, his impassioned calls upon the white community to see reason, there was a different reality, I believe. By the time of his death in April of that year, I think he had pretty much despaired of his hopes for liberalism in SA.

It’s sad, then, that he missed the next switchback in the political roller coaster. Within two years FW de Klerk had struck the death knell of white domination and within half a dozen a more we had adopted a constitution that enshrined every single liberal value that he had fought an entire lifetime for.

Of course, since that high point, the roller coaster has gone into a steepening dive. The constitution is about to be amended to legitimate the state seizure of private property. Liberal values are being eroded, race relations are at a rancorous low, and the economy is going to hell in a handbasket.

In its turbulence and uncertainty, SA 2018 mirrors very well 1988. Been there, done that.

Follow WSM on Twitter @The Jaundiced Eye.