President Ramaphosa, what’s the price of Hope? We’re all broke, you know

President Ramaphosa, what’s the price of Hope? We’re all broke, you know

The Prez wants us to be ‘merchants of hope’. But setting a price list for the merchandise isn’t easy.

Oh, hope. Yes, we all need hope. This has become excruciatingly apparent during the past two years of plague, lockdowns and further economic decline in South Africa. But whatever is happening, whichever shit-storm is ravaging the land, we can’t do without hope.

It could be as simple as something to look forward to – having a nice glass of wine at the end of another day struggling to earn enough money to put petrol in your car, say, or, if you’re living on the streets, the hope of a piece of plastic to keep you dry.

It could also be somewhat more complicated, as it often is if we attach our hopes to large entities or important people. We might hope Ukraine will win the war against Russia, or that Vladimir Putin will finally get ousted by his oligarchs or shot by his bodyguards. We might hope that our own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, might stop licking the toes of the murderous dictator mentioned in the sentence before this one, or might actually start to tackle some of the corruption that has taken food from the mouths of the poorest and kept South Africa’s economy teetering on the edge of collapse.

I would in fact caution against building up hopes that are too big, because those are the ones that usually turn out to be forlorn. Either that, or you can enlarge your hopes to the cosmic scale and hope that there’s a benign God who’s directing human affairs with compassion and care, or that there’s life after death, say – cosmic hopes seldom get dashed because their fulfillment takes place in a realm beyond human understanding.

Either way, it’s clear to me that we need to be generating a lot of hope for South Africans in particular, though most of the rest of the continent could do with some too, and there are fairly large regions of the world beyond Africa also crying out for something to look forward to – but let’s focus our minds on home territory.

Scrounging about on the internet for some hope, as one does (though it often leads to more despair), I came across something I’d missed when I examined the President’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) a few months ago. It was a few months, wasn’t it? Feels like centuries have passed since that moment, a brave attempt to give hope to South Africans, broadcast from Cape Town City Hall because the Houses of Parliament had been burnt down just before Sona. At least the ravaging by fire of Parliament allows us to hope that it will eventually be rebuilt, and that South Africa’s democracy will one day be able to face itself in the mirror.

But that’s not what struck me about Sona. What struck me was one little phrase, a few words in which Ramaphosa struck precisely the note I am trying to strike here, though I take note that his note was perhaps a little flat.

Hope must be sold

We all have to be “merchants of hope”, said the President. Merchants of hope. Now that made me think. My first thought was that this shows very neatly that our President is truly the neoliberal that the ragged leftover left claims him to be. It is, after all, a central tenet of neoliberalism that anything that can be monetised must be monetised. So hope itself must now be sold, in some way, because that’s what merchants do – they sell things.

I began to wonder how this selling of hope might work. How does one place a monetary value on hope? Or any kind of value? Perhaps it’s a kind of exchange value, as befits a society in danger of sliding back into a barter economy.

Look at hope and elections. Now, during an election campaign some hopes may be relatively small, such as those who hope for a food parcel from the ANC or a free T-shirt from the DA, but there’s an exchange going on here. Your vote isn’t valueless, because you got a food parcel or a free T-shirt, right? That’s something to write home about, if you can write.

In exchange for the hope of “A better life for all”, in the case of South Africa’s first democratic elections, we gave votes to the ANC. We paid for our hope in votes. That hope may have proved illusory, but, as they say, hope springs eternal, and South Africans paid in votes again for the hope that Ramaphosa would counteract some of the depredations of the Zuma years and steady the ship of state. Voting is a form of hoping, and South Africans get that chance to hope by vote every few years. It’s in the Constitution.

The whingey bourgeoisie

In the recent local government elections, my hope certainly was that we could oust the useless ANC regime running the City of Johannesburg – a regime that spent pots of money on nothing in particular, a regime that can’t fill a pothole or send you the correct electricity bill. I hoped that my vote might generate the hope that Joburg can be fixed, that it can be made livable once more, not just for whingey bourgeois subjects like me but for the four or five indigents haunting every traffic light in the city.

But if we don’t have votes to trade for hope, what are we to do? We may not have any money to pay for those hopes, but we can at least neoliberally put a value on them, so that if one day enough of the population gets a job they can buy a little hope for themselves.

If I sell you the hope that every South African child can get a decent education, that hope is worth about R27-billion in total, which is our present budget for state-run educational institutions. But, as a merchant of hope, one is selling that hope to citizens one by one, so we’d have to divide that R27-billion by our population of 60 million – and that’s a mere R450 for each individual hope. A bargain, surely, if we’re talking about the future of the nation, or the hope that our nation actually has a future.

There’s the hope that our police force might actually be able to solve a few crimes and protect citizens instead of extorting money from the populace, harassing the aforementioned indigents and selling off all that cocaine recently seized at the airport. Call it R108-billion, overall, nationally budgeted for policing. Again, performing the calculation above, we can see that that hope would theoretically cost the citizens of the nation R1,800 each. That’s not an awful lot. It’s way less than the alcohol bill for one policy meeting of EFF office-bearers.

One can carry on performing such calculations, refined by province or local government entity, until the cows come home – the cows of hope, that is. We can work out exactly how much each hope is worth to us merchants of hope.

For example, Gauteng’s budget for human settlements is just under R6-million. Given that the province has about six million inhabitants, that’s a mere R1 per inhabitant to generate the hope that one day the provincial administration will build enough houses for those who need them. It’s certainly a cheaper hope than the hope of a decent education for all, or for competent policing, so that’s another lesson: if you restrict your hopes to your province, they cost little more than a few Chappies.

Still, that doesn’t look promising for the merchants of hope. At R1 per hope we’d have to sell an awful lot of hopes if we’re to cover our office overheads. Dear Cyril, how does neoliberalism work again? DM168

Shaun de Waal is a writer and editor.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Checkers, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.



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