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Reality bites: Johann Rupert’s disturbing moment of clarity

On Tuesday one of the country’s richest men, Johann Rupert, gave a presentation at Remgro’s annual general meeting in Somerset West, in which he suggested South Africa was going slowly bust. It would end, he thought, quite suddenly. We would wake up and, as a country, be bust. It’s the kind of comment that one used to hear from those who were doomsayers, the old white elite who couldn’t stand the fact there were black people at the Union Buildings. But now something has shifted: in a way, Rupert seems to have perfectly captured the gloominess of the public mood. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

An introduction to 2016 republication:

A colleague came to my desk on Monday and asked when I’d written this piece, about Johann Rupert and the increasing sense of despondency. In late 2014, I responded. He was surprised, suggesting it seemed like it was written yesterday. Reading through it again, I realised why he said that. It refers to the feeling we all have now. The economy is slowing. We are poorer than we were, and we feel that we are going to get much poorer. None of the problems referred to in this piece appear to have been fixed (with the exception that Pule Mabe was eventually acquitted… and then Collen Maine became ANC Youth League leader, hardly a better option). In a week in which interest rates are going to go up again, this piece actually explains how I feel right now, at the end of January 2015.

But, don’t get too despondent. For many reasons, some of which I have outlined on these pages before, I am optimistic. If just because the vote of each one of us has never been more valuable than it is now and that will either force the ANC to reform, or see some kind of change. – Stephen Grootes, Johannesburg, 25 January 2016.

The original article from 26 November 2014 is bellow:

As a member of the commentariat, it is now impossible to avoid the mood of despair. Perhaps it’s Eskom, forcing us to braai in the rain and the dark. Maybe it’s Tina Joemat-Pettersson clearly not giving a stuff about whether a fraudster takes over PetroSA. Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s Number One shirking his Parliamentary responsibilities and simply getting away with it. (And probably laughing.) It just seems that nothing is working at the moment.

As a country, we are used to negative headlines; they have been with us for decades. Some of us grew up during the early ‘90s, when friends’ parents were packing for Perth. Others remember the shock to the nation of the ’76 riots, as thousands of youngsters left to fight. But there has usually been a sense of hope. That in the end, some kind of moral righting would take place; that justice would be done. While that didn’t happen for those who ran the Apartheid regime, certainly, we thought we would never live through that kind of thing again.

And of course we’re not living through that now. But we are living through a situation in which it seems things are slowly winding down – as if we are running out of energy (literally); our national grid has no more reserve margin, in so many ways.

It’s infinitely depressing. Especially when we all had such high hopes, the Constitution was the best in the world, our banks worked, our leaders knew they weren’t born to be rulers.

It is amazing, as a journalist, to see how often someone breaks a major scandal: the misuse of government money, the complete abuse of citizens, the sheer ineptness of it all, displayed for all of us to see, Sunday after Sunday, and yet nothing happens. John Block is still leader of the Northern Cape ANC. Bheki Cele is still a free man. Someone as corrupt as Pule Mabe, who is accused of taking money from social grants, of all things, has come so close to running the ANC Youth League that Luthuli House has had to break all the rules to stop him. Just three out of hundreds of examples.

And at the centre of it all is Jacob Zuma. It’s not so much him, though. Somehow we seem to have just accepted that he is our president, despite all his flaws and the corruption charges that he has publicly said he is so keen to face but has proved so adept at avoiding. It’s really the sight of this once-fantastic liberation movement – something that many people might have once called the best thing ever to come out of South Africa – bending over backwards to defend him. We all know that what happened at Nkandla is wrong. And somehow, in the same way the party refused to move against Mbeki over his AIDS nonsense, the party has again just folded in the face of a strong leader.

It wasn’t always like this: the ANC has a glorious history of doing what is right. These days, it is sometimes hard to remember that.

It’s also important to remember that Rupert was not speaking as someone who is leaving the country. While he is rich enough to have a variety of options, he still has a substantial business here. There is the risk for him of a very serious cost in making these comments. Recently he appears to have played a quiet, but possibly pivotal role in the saga, through his shareholding in HCI, because of his belief in the importance of independent media. So this would not have been an emotional outburst, but a statement that was well thought through.

Being in South Africa, it is very easy to have his comments written off as coming from just another grumpy old white man. But his views are shared. Interviewed on the Midday Report on Wednesday, Renaissance Capital Senior Economist Dr Thabi Leoka seemed to share much of his pessimism. For her, it is about the economy: Eskom isn’t working, our education system isn’t creating the right workers, and there seems to be no substantial chance of reforming our economy. In addition, of course, our politics seems to be broken. She is someone who has worked incredibly hard to take full advantage of the way our country has changed over the last two decades. You can’t write her off as old and grumpy.

It’s hard to know sometimes where this is going to end. Are we going to “go bust” somehow? Will our society grow increasingly unequal, and until which level? Will violent crime just increase; will those who are rich be defined by their ability to put solar panels on their roofs? If the state is beginning to fail, and those with options are opting out, does that mean we are a failing state? Surely not yet. But perhaps what Rupert is really saying is that we may be reaching a point where it’s very hard to see how we do not become that.

At this point, you may be about to slit your wrists. If that is the case, and it’s an emergency, click here.

But South Africa is a democracy. There is, at some point, a political cost to political wrongdoing. It may be slow, it may be out of proportion, but it is there. Without it, we would become a dictatorship. And as we are seeing at elections, bad behaviour is being punished.

Hopefully, maybe, that will be a lesson to our politicians – that they are accountable to us. WE are Number One. If that is not the case, Rupert is surely right. And our hopes for that future we could have had, the future we should have had, are just going to slowly fade away. DM

Photo: Johann Rupert at the Laureus World Sports Awards held at the Parc del Forum in Barcelona, Spain on Monday, 22 May 2006. EPA/Guido Manuilo.


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