While it is always intrinsically difficult to assess the mood of a nation as diverse as South Africa, it appears that we are moving very rapidly between glorious hope and devastating despair and all the way back again, sometimes depending on events within a single day.
Of course, everyone feels different about our prospects, but it can be valuable to try to examine the root causes of these emotions, as they may guide our future therapy.
To read the Sunday papers in South Africa is to go on an emotional roller coaster.
One columnist will be over the moon with the events of the last week or so, the new head of the Hawks, the commission into SARS, the general tone of Ramaphosa’s new government.
But the next writer will be extremely worried about relations between people of different races, and bemoaning, quite correctly, the complete lack of information about what really happened between Ashwin Willemse, Naas Botha and Nick Mallett.
It is absolutely human to feel that as a nation we are getting our act together and that we are torn apart at the seams, all at the same time.
There are important structural reasons as to why this is, and how those processes are likely to continue.
First, the hope. In 2017, at the height of the contest between Ramaphosa and now Presidency Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, a national poll revealed that only 16% of South Africans thought Dlamini Zuma would be a good leader for the ANC. When you consider that she lost and that Ramaphosa eventually won and then took power in the Union Buildings as well, it makes complete sense that most people now are feeling better than they did before December 2017.
And if one considers the possible consequences of a different result (Mosebenzi Zwane’s still in office rather than just squatting in his former ministerial house, the Guptas running roughshod over the country as they please, David Mahlobo signing a trillion-rand nuclear deal with the Russians, etc), it is also surely true that many in the middle classes were growing more and more worried about the slowing economy and the country’s debilitated international standing, and, at the time, the suspected deliberate damage that was being inflicted upon the country by the removal of first Nhlanhla Nene and then Pravin Gordhan from the position of Finance Minister.
The fact that even the national Treasury is revising its growth forecasts upwards shows that much has changed for the better.
There is also current polling data that suggests this is in fact the mood of the nation. An Ipsos poll published over the weekend shows that 79% of South Africans approve of the way Ramaphosa is managing the economy, and 76% approve of the job he is doing as President. Obviously, those are honeymoon figures, but they still demonstrate part of the real mood of the nation.
However, that is obviously not the whole story.
To follow the stories involving “land invasions”, alleged racism and other events in the news cycle is to despair. But this is also to be expected because they are the result of entirely structural problems the country is struggling to shake off, or just endure.
The land issue has been building for years; one could even say, for generations. It is really an element, perhaps the most important one, of racialised inequality. As a result of that, it was always going to be a massive political issue, once political leaders in the ANC started taking it seriously. They are doing it now, and that is one of the reasons for the dominating public discussion on the issue.
Just that it’s being discussed may be the enough for some people, those who currently benefit, to feel uncomfortable. But they should pay closer attention to the debate. As the ANC has shown through its land summit and its public comments on the issue after the summit, it is clearly going to manage this very very carefully. Ronald Lamola, a man with two Masters degrees in law, comes to radio interviews with a batch of documents that he knows intimately. It will not be rushed, and it will not be a “smash and grab” solution.
It also important to attempt to analyse what is happening around discussions around race in our public discourse. The comments by Willemse in the Supersport studio last weekend that he “won’t be patronised” and “I won’t be undermined” were surely the actions of a man who felt strongly he was being badly treated, and considered himself a victim of racism. Many people who were previously denied opportunities in the corporate world or other parts of our society would have known, and felt exactly how he had felt; black women particularly talk about how their ideas are only taken seriously in meetings when they are “echoed” by a white man. This would obviously translate into strong support for Willemse.
For some white people, figures like Botha and Mallett are incredibly important; they have played an important role in a sport that is more about culture than sport. This may mean that they feel concerned too – if people as “important” as Botha and Mallett can be taken off air for their behaviour, what could happen to them?
But at the same time, it should not be forgotten that Willemse was doing something about his situation perhaps because he felt he now could. The balance of power has, correctly, shifted. Ten or 15 years ago, he may not have felt as empowered to act. He may well have felt it better to bite his tongue in the past, with all of the internal frustration that would have brought upon him in the rugby world, which was still totally dominated by the white men. In other words, Willemse may also be proof that he was in a better, stronger position to do something about it than they were.
This is surely a good thing for modern South Africa. Twenty-four years into democracy, our society appears to have ended, or is ending the process of transition, and is now on the way of proper and fundamental transformation. For people who were always in the privileged spaces of the suburbs, boardrooms and offices, this could be an uncomfortable process. It is one thing for them to open the space to people who did not have access before. It is harder for them to witness a real, fundamental change and transformation of that space itself.
While there is surely no moral argument for them to try to stop this, there are likely to be parts of those communities who will try anyway. Arguments around issues like UCT’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes are very much a part of the difference between transition and transformation. It was tolerated by black students in the 1990s, but not by black students in 2016 because they could do something about it (it should absolutely not be forgotten that many white people will have changed their views about Rhodes over that time as well).
And unfortunately, this is where some of the extremes of our society come in to dominate the debate. Probably the worst in this regard is AfriForum, who are very well funded, and well organised. As a result, they are able to ignite arguments and issues in an entirely oppositional and unconstructive way, often relying on their international allies to externalise SA’s internal problems. They engage in a sort of zero-sum politics, where they see only “winners” and “losers” rather than any kind of mutual beneficial ending.
While the EFF may have more legitimacy than AfriForum, some of their rhetoric has also been less than constructive.
To examine the public comments on these issues, particularly on Twitter, and sometimes on talk radio, is to forget that those do not represent the views of the country. While Twitter may sometimes reflect only anger (much of it legitimate), it is not what is actually happening around the country. The processes of integration (of offices and our society generally becoming properly integrated) and transformation are continuing. That momentum is very much unstoppable. While some people may feel uncomfortable from time to time, if the economy grows strongly no one should end up worse off than they are now (even if they feel that some opportunities are now closed to them).
This means then that while it may appear that on issues such as race and racialised inequality there is only “bad news”, actually the longer-term processes surely provide cause for optimism. Twitter and talk radio are not the country. The best way to assess how people really feel is either through elections, or through proper, accurate polling. And that same Ipsos poll says 82% of voters with cellphones currently approve of Ramaphosa’s running of the ANC. This surely suggests most people are now optimistic about the future, even if they are angry with some of the problems and roadblocks on the road to proper transformation. At the same time, there is also very little evidence of a huge jump in support for parties like the EFF, who would surely grow if people were losing hope and growing more angry with the current situation.
All of this means that, taken together, when one compares the elements that make us lurch between hope and despair, the case for hope is actually much stronger. Despite our problems, progress is being made. And if the economy does start to grow and if solutions are found to some of our problems, or even if just agreements are reached, the case for hope will grow stronger still. DM
In 1952 Wernher von Braun wrote a paper where he believed a colony on Mars would be led by an individual named "Elon".