You will be assimilated
31 October 2014 10:56 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

How to live in this strange place? First, don't run away

  • Sipho Hlongwane
As much as we like to malign the escapism that sees certain suburbanites prefer not to live in this country, the likes of tripartite alliance parties do it too. What South Africa doesn’t need is for us to shy away from the difficulties by running or opting for “easy” solutions.

It is often fascinating to drive through a city and notice what atmosphere each part of it tries to evoke. I personally enjoy driving at night through places like Hyde Park, Bryanston and Sandton. It is always incredible to see what people will do to shut the rest of the world out of their lives. Even places like Melrose Arch and central Sandton with their ersatz architecture, despite being ostensibly “open”, are built for people who would rather live their entire lives in a shopping mall.

We all know who lives behind those high walls and security guards: them damn suburbanites with their heads in the sand, their Masterchef Australia, uncapped ADSL broadband Internet and never-ending fantasy worlds. Johannesburg isn’t allowed in. Dainfern and Fourways Gardens are fortified like medieval villages, almost as if to drive the point home. Money has bought them a little slice of, well, someplace else, right in the middle of South Africa. And when even that won’t do, it’s off to Australia.

Or so the story goes.

It’s all very well to criticise escapism on this incredible level, but the truth is we all do it too. On some level, none of us really wants to live in this squalid and violent mess we call South Africa. It’s depressing to think about the country’s problems, and what we would have to do to solve them. Nobody seems to be able to quite get a grip on “South Africa and all its friends”. Not even the National Planning Commission’s diagnostic report seems to be able to encompass us and this land in its entirety.

As a solution, those with the money choose to retreat to heavily fortified communities or leave the country altogether. Those who take upon themselves the task of finding solutions to our problems quickly revert to simplistic and one-dimensional thinking, hoping that by reducing the scope of their thinking, they will reduce the size of the problem.

I think this explains the ANC Youth League’s obsession with nationalisation of mines and the land. After spending some time speaking to some of the common members, they seem to have done a thorough job of selling nationalisation of mines, banks and the so-called “monopoly industries” as well as expropriation of land without compensation as an instant panacea to the poverty and unemployment that troubles all too many South Africans. Even if the top ANC Youth League leaders probably don’t believe this themselves. The conspiracy theory that explains why they’re pushing for nationalisation is all yours to come up with.

That sense still stays with me when I think of Cosatu and the extraordinary love-hate relationship the union federation engenders with South Africans. Though they are often positioned to tame the excesses of the ANC, they are still stuck in an outmoded way of thinking about economics. They still tend to view “capital” as a monolith whose primary aim is to screw workers over. They may even have reason to complain – such as the employment-unfriendly austerity measures being taken up all around the world – but literally crippling the economic boat that contains all of us is no solution.

I see nothing more than an organisation that chooses to deal superficially with a convoluted problem. How is this different to the escaping suburbanite?

Of all of South Africa’s political formations, the ANC probably comes closest when drafting policy documents to guide us in tackling the country’s problems. The resolutions taken at the ANC’s 52nd national conference in 2007 are a pretty good way of dealing with poverty and inequality – promising to focus specifically on health and education as priorities, and also promising to reaffirm the role of the developmental state to drive strategic areas of the economy.

The proof of all this is in the eating, of course, and the ANC-led government has not been as successful as it promised to be in implementing the resolutions of Polokwane. We’ve made strides in health, but not in education. The implementation of the developmental state plods along slowly. The national planning commission has made itself a bit scarce, and the economic development ministry even scarcer. Often, when implementing what is good for the country means displeasing key allies (like the fight over the youth wage subsidy with Cosatu), the ANC chooses to bow down to avoid a nasty confrontation. Escapism again.

How then, do I live in this strange place? It’s a question that has so many answers.

Let’s forget the politicians and trade unionists – how do you and I live in this beloved country? Wouldn’t a good start be to see South Africa for what it really is and then confront it accordingly instead of reverting to childish solutions like running away or pretending the problem can be swept away with a simple solution?

One solution for our daily lives is the concept of an “engaged citizenry”. Not in the tattle-tale, LeadSA kind of way, but by becoming involved in defining the issues and helping craft solutions to the problems that we face on a daily basis. It’s the little things like knowing who your local ward councillor is. It’s just knowing what is wrong in your community.

It’s things like realising that race is an area where we need to come together in frank discussion, not bloviating and obfuscating natter which means to avoid the difficulty of our dealing with our past.

And yes, it’s also about realising that we’re in the unique position to help those who are less fortunate than we are. Instead of shooing away the hoi polloi, we can talk to them and identify places where we can make a difference in their lives. Do I care? Is there a way I can help this person improve on their skills or find employment?

South Africa needs entrepreneurs to start small businesses. It’s not easy. Cosatu, crime, unskilled labour, government bureaucracy and poor telecommunications networks don’t make it easy. All the potential entrepreneurs could look at all this and give up – or they could fight for their country. They could decide that they won’t wait for the government to finally start doing something sensible and they could start leading the government themselves. It would be bloody tough going, but it would be exactly what South Africa needs. Imagine if we all lived like that in our private lives. This “problem” that we think is so insurmountable would be conquered. We would put South Africa on the correct path of growth and prosperity. DM

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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