South Africa, Politics

Analysis: South Africa, a country of infinite differences

By Stephen Grootes 30 November 2016

The dominance of President Jacob Zuma and the ethical issues he raises for our society have tended to obscure some of the major dynamics that are playing out in our society. It is common at the moment to blame much of our current predicament, our lack of progress, our drift, our decay, on He whom the NEC shall not remove. To an extent, this is correct. Without Zuma’s particular personality, we would not have the various scandals and general deterioration. But perhaps the most important aspect of Zuma's misgovernance is his simple lack of interest in governance altogether. If it is not about him, he does not appear interested. This means that we are avoiding, or outright ignoring, some of the major structural reasons for our current situation. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There is a common lament in our country that we are all being held back from achieving our full potential. Capitalists blame government policy, and go on an investment strike. Individuals blame racism in the corporate world, or affirmative action or the Department of Higher Education for their lack of progress. And the one thing that unites the middle classes is their blaming of Zuma in particular, and to an extent, the ANC in general.

Many people are tempted to point to places like South Korea or Singapore as places that have achieved economic growth very quickly. China is an example that some people will also use, after it managed to lift 200 million people out of poverty in a relatively short space of time. But you cannot compare those examples to South Africa for a simple reason – they are not free places. They did not have free trade unions during their periods of quick economic development, and they did not have the freedoms that are guaranteed, correctly, in our Constitution. And much of their economic progress has been reliant on a form of crony capitalism. As China has recently demonstrated, this has its limits, and growth will inevitably stall.

Closer to home, people point to the African example of Rwanda. They marvel at the construction in Kigali, the speed of its mobile internet services, the “work attitude” of its people.

But they miss the fundamental point about South Africa that makes it different to nearly all of these examples. To a point these societies are relatively homogenous. Not just in terms of race, language and culture, but also in terms of economic class. It’s not just that everyone has a similar culture, and a shared history that is understood. It is that they speak the same language. They live a very similar existence to most of their fellow Rwandans. This means there is a commonality to what they are trying to achieve. Add to that a leader prepared to put police officers with machine guns on every major street corner, and you are likely to have relatively few violent protests.

Sometimes our real differences can be obscured by the racial lens through which we South Africans tend to view most events. Because of our poisonous history, we tend to miss the finer points of our divisions. If you had to put it to most South Africans that we don’t know each other’s history, they are likely to presume you are talking about race, about how white South Africans don’t know the history of black South Africans (and sort of vice versa, except for the fact that the white version of our history was forced down the throats of millions of black South Africans during apartheid). But it would be missing the fact that people who speak Sotho may not know the full history of those who speak Xhosa, that those who know all about Shaka (and the disputed histories of his time) may not know who Kgoshi Mampuru the Second was, and why he was executed at the prison that now bears his name.

Economically speaking, this is expressed not just in the huge inequality between massively rich white and incredibly deprived black, but through all the shades of economic inequality. Just try these rough categories: the very rich whites with inherited wealth, middle-class whites with privilege, middle-class black people with the same salaries but no privilege, Maserati-driving black people with “new wealth”, the new black middle-class created since 1994, the middle-class black people who had managed to enter the middle-class during apartheid, those families where the parents live in the township with one child, while another child lives in town and another is studying at university, the families with two people earning salaries as teachers, the families with one receptionist’s income, the factory worker with seven dependents, the Marikana miner with 12, and then through to the unemployed, those living on a social grant for themselves and their entire families, and those in informal settlements living on whatever they can scrounge. And those are just a few of the economic categories that you could divide South Africans into.

Imagine just one representative from each of those groups in a room, trying to work out economic policy for the entire country. It would be a screaming match, something that would make your average ANC NEC meeting (or any gathering involving both Bheki Cele and Nathi Mthethwa) look like a teddy bears’ picnic.

Imagine that playing out in a much bigger playing field, the poorest of the poor wanting, legitimately, what the richest of the rich have, the rich of all races defending the status quo, those in the middle not trusting anyone from the other side. Chuck in a hefty dose of our awful racial past, and you have the perfect recipe for the situation we have now.

Now, stop for a moment. Imagine any kind of national ANC gathering. Almost all of those above groups are represented in that gathering too. While Johann Rupert may not be there, plenty of other people with much to feel threatened about are. Along with people who claim to represent all of the other groups.

This, to a point, explains where we are right now. It suggests that what is happening is not necessarily so much about Zuma as we may think it is. That said, of course what he and other people in the ANC bring to this toxic brew is one of the nastiest ingredients of all. Corruption. Add that to the mix, and you then make it absolutely impossible for anyone to trust anyone else. You absolutely ensure that anyone who tries to change the current situation is not going to be trusted. And in the meantime everyone grows more fearful and more desperate.

To look at our situation in this way is to be reminded that while political personalities are important (try to imagine our transition without Nelson Mandela) they are often the product of the structures around them. Without apartheid, Zuma would not be the president now; without Zuma, we would not have as much corruption. But that does not necessarily mean our situation would be that different.

Because while the past may indeed be another country, it isn’t even past. DM

Photo: A soccer enthusiast from Australia has his face painted in the colours of the South African flag at the Cabanas Hotel in Sun City, South Africa, Friday 11 June 2010. EPA/ROLF VENNENBERND



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