South Africa

Rage and complacency: SA’s good ol’ way of dealing with bad news and blackouts

By Ranjeni Munusamy 3 November 2014

The petrol price goes down this week – a rare bit of good news for South Africans ahead of the festive season. It is not easy to find more of it. This weekend’s announcement that rolling electricity blackouts are again effective across the country is the latest crisis story in a sustained negative news cycle. The murder of South Africa’s national football captain, Senzo Meyiwa, has put firmly on the national agenda what we have known for a while: serious and violent crime is on the rise again and not enough attention is being paid to the prevalence of illegal guns in our society. On a scale of one to Burkino Faso, South Africa remains in perpetual fire-fighting mode. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In 1994, Colombia experienced a seminal moment in its history. It came after the murder of its football captain Andrés Escobar after the FIFA World Cup. Escobar scored an own goal in a game against the United States. The US went on to win the game 2-1. On Escobar’s return to Colombia, three men confronted him outside a nightclub and began arguing with him. Two of the men, allegedly linked to drug cartels, took out handguns and Escobar was shot six times.

It was believed that Escobar was killed over the own goal and this provoked serious soul-searching in Colombia. His killing acted as a catalyst for the change in Colombia that came later, and a war on the drug cartels and FARC rebels that were destroying it. His funeral was attended by over 120,000 people and football fans still honour him as a national hero. During this year’s World Cup in Brazil, a shrine in honour of the Colombian player was unveiled in Rio. A football development project is named after him to help disadvantaged children learn to play the game.

Senzo Meyiwa did not disappoint the nation in any way. He was a national asset and there is no explanation for why he was killed – other than that in South Africa violent crime affects everyone and life is cheap. His funeral on Saturday was a moving send-off, one of the few things South Africa managed without a major hitch or controversy.

But now that the shock has worn off, how will South Africa deal with what happened? South African Football Association (SAFA) president Danny Jordaan says they want to champion a Senzo Meyiwa gun law to reduce the number of illegal weapons in the country. The incentive is that all illegal guns handed in will be burnt in a furnace and the metal used to make a statue of Meyiwa and SAFA House. It is a nice gesture, of course, and it might yield some results.

However, is this the only reaction of our society to such a dreadful incident that was reported around the world? Imagine if the captain of the English football team Wayne Rooney, Spain’s Iker Casillas or Ivory Coast’s Yaya Touré had been shot dead over a cell phone? Would life go back to normal and it would be business as usual in those countries in a few days?

It does in our country, because every day we get accustomed to a new abnormality.

The latest crime statistics show that incidents of murder, attempted murder and robbery with aggravating circumstances are on the rise. As the festive season approaches, and with mall robberies already on the rise, it is likely that there will be a further spike in crime levels. What can ordinary people do about it? Although it is quite clear that the South African Police Service (SAPS) does not enjoy the confidence of the public, people have resigned themselves to accepting the situation.

National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega insulted the nation’s intelligence with her sham of a performance at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. Twice. She is also clearly out of her depth in managing the police service, which is borne out in the crime statistics. The fact that in, the wake of Meyiwa’s death, a campaign arose for the reinstatement of the disgraced former commissioner Bheki Cele shows the public’s disenchantment with her. Cele cannot be reinstated as an inquiry found him unfit for that office. However, it would seem that putting up with Phiyega or making an unviable demand for Cele’s reinstatement are the only two options the public thinks they have.

With most issues that evoke public anger, people are only able to rebel to the point where they can complain about it on call-in talk shows and on social media. The opposition to e-tolls was strong as long as COSATU and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) were doing the heavy lifting. It is difficult to get ordinary citizens to participate actively in such campaigns.

The country has experienced the most outrageous scandals over the past few years. From the Gupta family exploiting their friendship with President Jacob Zuma to abuse a military airport, to the under-qualified Hlaudi Motsoeneng treating the SABC as his personal fiefdom, public institutions and facilities have been subjected to political manipulations. Yet South Africans have been able to see past their outrage and shrug it off.

It is this lack of public activism that has led to the monster scandal that Nkandla has become. Because people are generally reticent about speaking out and demanding accountability, people in the state believed that R246 million of taxpayers’ money could be spent on the president’s personal home and there would not be consequences.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on Nkandla spelled out in detail where the abuses occurred, who was responsible and what the remedial action should be. Yet seven months later, the public has watched Madonsela’s office being attacked, the report being subjugated and her recommendations being overridden by ANC MPs. People expect opposition parties to intervene to stop this, when clearly they do not have the numbers to do so. The result will be that the report saying that Zuma should not have to pay back the money will come before the National Assembly for adoption, while the South African public looks on.

This week will be a new test of South Africans’ tolerance levels as rolling blackouts resume across the country. This follows the collapse of a silo at the Majuba power station in Mpumalanga, resulting in the loss of 1,800MW of capacity. The strain on the power supply has been prevalent for several years and the threat of power cuts has been there since the electricity crisis in 2008. Every year government makes new promises about generating more power capacity, particularly through the new plants under construction, and every year there are further delays in the process.

The situation has now reached the crisis level it has because people down the chain, from Cabinet to Eskom executives to those involved in constructing the Medupi and Kusile power plants, have not felt public pressure to step up and deliver.

Now it will again be business, consumers and residents who will feel the pain as they work to restore capacity at Majuba. But this latest crisis could have a long-term damaging affect on the economy. The power supply is already having a major negative affect on economic growth and investor confidence. The new period of load-shedding could do more damage to South Africa’s sovereign credit rating and another downgrade would impede economic growth further.

This means more job losses, higher inflation and higher taxes. Poverty levels deepen and crime levels rise even higher. More people will be killed over cell phones.

It is difficult to believe that this was a nation that defeated Apartheid because people rose up in all sectors of society in defiance. South Africans are so scandal- and bad-news-fatigued that they accept whatever new horror or crisis develops. We get angry or broken-hearted the way we did over Meyiwa’s killing, and then learn to live with it.

The new trend in the world is for nations to put up with abuse for years on end and then suddenly erupt in mass uprising, as has happened in the Arab Spring and in Burkina Faso last week. But South Africa has an open democracy, which allows people to speak out and for institutions to be held accountable. The problem is that South Africans do not exercise their freedoms and their rights.

Unlike in Colombia, the killing of a major sporting hero will not result in society turning against those responsible and dealing with the underlying causes. The new normal is to live in an abnormal society besieged by scandal, crime and service delivery failures. We firefight and we move on.

It’s the South African way. DM

Photo: ANC president Jacob Zuma looks on at the National Assembly in Cape Town, September 25, 2008. REUTERS/Nic Bothma/Pool

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