Analysis

South Africa, a better place

By Stephen Grootes 25 April 2018

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (C) walks with members of the public during an early morning walk to the Athlone Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, 20 February 2018. President Ramaphosa was sworn-in on 15 February 2018, after ex-President Jacob Zuma's resignation a day earlier, following intense pressure to resign amidst corruption and state capture allegations. EPA-EFE/STRINGER

It can be hard to measure how people feel in a country. It is entirely human to rely on headlines, to judge how things are going by what is being spoken about in the media, both mainstream and social. In a maelstrom, it can easily be forgotten that South Africa is an immeasurably better place than what it could have been.

To live and work in South Africa, and to consume media in this country, is not always a happy, or even comfortable, experience. Almost continuously, people are faced with extreme poverty and racialised inequality, while experiencing hardship in what could be simple things, such as getting a job, or paying for tertiary education, or sometimes, just surviving the day. This is partly driven by the actual physical violence we witness, and partly by the violence contained in the spoken and written words. It can easily be forgotten that generally speaking, right now there are processes playing out and having a significant positive impact. That in fact, many people in our country are finding that their situation in life is improving, even if rather slowly. A large part of this improvement is being driven by our politics, and what happened at Nasrec in December.

It can be hard to measure how people feel in a country. There are various opinion polls that sometimes feel accurate, and sometimes don’t. It is entirely human to rely on headlines, to judge how things are going by what is being spoken about in the media, both mainstream and social. This means that the last few weeks have been dominated by the fallout from the death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, by the sometimes incendiary rhetoric spread by politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema, and then, on Wednesday, by those leading the Saftu national strike.

And yet, the truth is that bad news is almost always events, and good news is almost always processes. As a result, the good news is hidden by the bad news (as an example, 50,000 people going home safely on the N1 is not a story, one person dying in an accident is). But there are other ways to gauge how people are actually feeling. And some of the best have to do with the economic measures that are actually available. This is because people are not asked questions that are inherently political, but rather asked about their economic well-being.

On Wednesday, new figures showed that South Africa’s consumer confidence figures had reached a record high. The survey, compiled by the Bureau for Economic Research and sponsored by FNB, showed that in the last quarter of 2017 the figure touched -8. In the first quarter of this year, the figure was +26. In other words, people and businesses are not just feeling more confident than they were last year; they’re feeling massively more confident.

It is not too much to describe this as a complete sea-change in attitude. And yes, it’s pretty obvious that the reason for this is because Cyril Ramaphosa won at Nasrec, and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma did not.

This would suggest then that South Africans generally, and consumers in particularly, are absolutely feeling the wave of Ramaphoria that the markets seemed to feel for a few moments. The consumer index suggests that people are feeling much more confident and happy about the future than generally felt in the national dialogue currently conducted on the traditional and social media platforms.

So why is our media so gloomy? A wave of opinion pieces examining what Ramaphosa has done in government so far appeared to be really a response to earlier columns complaining that he had not done enough, or that nothing was really changing. But for people outside of the South African media/political beltway, in fact, hopes are high that things will change.

It can sometimes be forgotten how close Dlamini Zuma came to winning. It was literally, out of about 5,220 votes cast, a sliver-like difference of 179. A closer contest is hard to imagine.

But perhaps the main reason for this renewed confidence is that there may be a realisation that the power of former President Jacob Zuma and the people around him has actually been broken. To see people like Ace Magashule as secretary-general and Jessie Duarte as his deputy may give the impression that not much has changed. But that misses the fact that often in politics, once someone suffers a public defeat, almost no matter how small, the actual long-term impact is huge. This is what has happened to Zuma. In just three months he went from being the dominant political force in the country to the indignity of having dinner with Black First Land First. After a detour through the Durban High Court, of course.

It could well be that what people are also imagining is what life could have been like if things had gone the other way. While playing “what if” politics is always fraught with danger, it is probably safe to make several predictions about what could have happened if Dlamini Zuma had won. Obviously, Zuma would still be in power. And along with him the power would have been wielded by people like Mosebenzi Zwane, Bathabile Dlamini, Des van Rooyen, David Mahlobo, Arthur Fraser, Richard Mdluli and Bongani Bongo (Who, you ask? A brief State Security Minister).

The Guptas would still be around, Tom Moyane would still pretend he cares about our taxes and our country. Dudu Myeni would enjoy a second run at SAA. Brian Molefe could be back running Eskom, or taking a shot at the Treasury’s top job. The Denel board would still be around, as would Trillian and Co. The New Age and ANN7 would be on their way. Heck, even Dr Iqbal Surve would have had an easier time finding fuss-free funding for his now-ailing empire.

If you like nightmares, keep pondering. Remember “Radical Economic Transformation”?

Then there are the other pressures in society that would have been intensified. Former Ambassador to the US and Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool said on Tuesday on SAfm that perhaps the biggest development over the last 10 years was the weakening of non-racialism in our society. That would only have intensified. With every weakening of the economy, every new exposé by the investigative media, would risk somehow being turned into a racial issue. Imagine someone standing at the President’s podium using the kind of language that Malema uses on a daily basis.

You think that the irresponsible linking of Stratcom with the criticism of the EFF and Sagarmatha is dangerous? It would have been a mere introduction in the parallel reality where NDZ would have won.

And, of course, there would have been a huge push-back to such, thankfully entirely hypothetical, developments. The ANC may well have split almost immediately. But that also would have been a bruising process which would have split the country too. Our headlines would be dominate by the war-talk, amplified with new claims and even newer counterclaims. The media would have come under huge pressure at every turn, with possible new measures against the independent media and the curtain being drawn over the SABC’s new dawn.

South Africa avoided all of that, and much more. It avoided, if not a complete collapse, a situation in which sections of society would have been turned against each other.

But still, to look at our real situation now it is easy not to feel uplifted. Too many of our people are poor, too many young people have terrible life choices through no fault of their own, and racial inequality is firmly entrenched. Yet, as Dr Miriam Altman from the National Planning Commission once explained, to look at a picture is not the correct method of research. You have to look at the processes, the video, to get an accurate picture of what is happening. And there you will see significant improvements.

Wednesday’s consumer confidence figures are a snapshot. A particularly encouraging one indeed. DM

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