South Africa

Op-Ed: Optimism in a time of load-shedding

By Stephen Grootes 2 December 2014

That things are tough at the moment in South Africa almost goes without saying. Power cuts are increasing, our economy appears to be slowing, the currency can’t move off eleven to the dollar, the daily life seems to be harder, and is definitely more expensive. Eskom’s board is fighting (about a New Age breakfast, nogal), the National Development Plan seems to be just a memory, our MPs think they’re a circus act. So, then, is there a case for optimism? Why our future could actually be much brighter than the present? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Sometimes it seems as if nothing is ever going to change in our society; that we are somehow doomed to inept leadership, or a leader who is permanently at war with our middle class. Is this how it felt to be HIV-positive in the Mbeki years? Like the nightmare is never going to end?

Much of the feeling of despair in the media may simply be because President Jacob Zuma is at the height of his political power at the moment, and the middle classes tend not to like him. For various reasons, he has simply not been trusted by them, and he doesn’t speak their language. Or show any interest in trying.

But that is about to change.

Firstly, our politics is beginning to show that there is a cost to making too many mistakes. If you do something that people don’t like, there will actually be a price to pay. Obviously the poster child for this is e-tolls. The ANC’s showing in Gauteng during the elections reveals how big an issue this has become. The fact that the Gauteng ANC itself is willing to take on its mother body in such a public way is another indication of how important this is.

Secondly, the opposition parties are beginning to get their act together. The introduction, loud as it was, of the Economic Freedom Fighters into Parliament has really energised all the opposition parties. And they are working together consistently to put pressure on the ANC (which is paying the price for pushing through the Protection of State Information Act – it was while that bill was going through Parliament that we saw all opposition parties voting against the ANC for the first time).

Add to these dynamics the weakening of the ANC through the split-up of Cosatu and the introduction of NUMSA’s workers’ party to the mix, and it’s obvious that the ANC will have to get its act together to retain power. That’s how politics should be.

It bears repeating that whatever happens over the next few years, we are going to see big changes in our leadership. Firstly, Zuma himself is very likely to end his ANC term in 2017 and his term as President in 2019. As former Business Day editor Peter Bruce pointed out a few days ago, Zuma is unlikely to repeat the mistake that Mbeki made and try to stay on. Considering that Zuma’s retirement is likely to be much more fraught than Mbeki’s (remember those pesky corruption charges) it is much more important for him to not make any enemies at this point in his career.

Which means that it seems likely Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa or even Zweli Mkhize will take over. All three of them have never been accused of taking money for personal gain (there have been scandals, sure, but never it seems for them personally; Zuma, as the Shaik judgment shows, may be slightly different). Which immediately means that the figurehead of our government is likely to engender more trust among those who have no trust in Zuma.

South Africans may like to think that somehow we are special, that we are different: people ask us how the country is doing in a way that is not asked of those in the UK or in the US, or in China or Equatorial Guinea. That’s odd, considering that the UK was nearly no longer the UK just this year. In the US, opinion polls now routinely show that fewer than half of those asked “believe the US is on the right track”. China has recently managed, it seems, to quell pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and Equatorial Guinea is still one of the world’s worst places in which to live (which hasn’t stopped African football body CAF from giving it the African Cup of Nations next year).

Look a little deeper, and if you are middle class in South Africa, your lot is probably better than in Europe. There, if you have managed to keep your job since the 2008 crisis, you are doing well. Here, the middle-classes still expect a salary increase every year, and generally get it.

On this point, it is sometimes forgotten what it may be like to grow old in Europe. In many EU states, government is supposed to provide a pension. But, as the baby boomers grow old, there are fewer workers to pay for their pensions. Generally, they are taking their pensions from the work of the younger generations. Here, most middle-class people are paying for their own pensions as they work, through products like RAs and pension funds, etc. As a result, when they retire, they’ll be using their money for pensions, and will have properly provided for their retirement. It could be very different in some parts of Europe over the next two decades.

It is also worth noting that does not appear threatened in South Africa. Judicial independence seems as firmly entrenched as it has ever been. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, instead of being the lackey that many of us (myself included) thought he may be, has in fact stood up for the courts, and stood up to government many times, both through his rulings, and through his public comments. In this he presumably has the support of most other judges. As a result, most people still trust our higher courts, particularly in political cases. There is no claim that any judge in, say, the Zuma Spy Tapes Case, has, or will be, paid off. Which means that despite the very real damage that has been done to the National Prosecuting Authority, the system is holding.

All in all, South Africa is currently in the rapids. It is tough, depressing, and at times, it seems our future is hopeless. That is wrong. There is plenty around us to give us hope. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma, 26 November 2013 at the ANC Youth League National Conference (Greg Nicolson)


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