South Africa

LETTER FROM THE MIDDLE CLASS

A worm’s eye view of South Africa’s current despair

A worm’s eye view of South Africa’s current despair
(Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook) | (Photo: Flickr / Erik Törner)

Most commentary and opinion pieces addressing South Africa’s current crises are focusing on the big picture of the failure to provide reliable electricity and create a sense of real security for the nation’s people, and of the ongoing difficulties in achieving actual infrastructure improvements. But what do these collective failures feel like for average people living in a middle-class neighbourhood? And what does it portend for the future?

Before contemplating South Africa’s current distresses, I want to offer some reminiscences about another nation, as a kind of comparative baseline. This would be a nation that has just undergone a presidential election that effectively was boycotted by a large majority of would-be voters – people who apparently believed their governmental processes were too deeply flawed to bother with. 

A little more than a decade ago, I worked in Lagos, Nigeria, for a few months. I was based in a small guesthouse frequented largely by foreign business people from elsewhere in Africa. The clientele liked the place because it was reasonably comfortable, the staff were friendly and it was a relatively convenient, safe place to live in while they were engaged in their respective entrepreneurial prospects. And it came without all those overdone aspects (and costs) of one of the big international hotels. 

The inn’s staff were a mix of Nigerians, Cubans and Beninois, and it was managed by a resident Italian hotelier. The place had originally been set up to house architectural and engineering teams from Italy who were working on the planning and construction of Abuja, the new Nigerian capital.

It had a decent restaurant that, among other offerings, baked what were reputedly the best pizzas in Nigeria. It was located on a narrow side road that ran parallel to a much bigger main road. Right at its entrance gate was an enormous pothole. I once asked the manager why they didn’t just fill up the hole with some dirt and building rubble to make it so much easier to enter and leave the premises, especially since the city was obviously never going to get around to doing anything about it.

There was a perverse kind of deep wisdom in her answer. If we fill up the pothole, she told me, although it would be easier and safer for entering our premises, the traffic on our road would then rise exponentially to escape the crowds on the main road, and the noise and the resulting pollution would become unbearable for the inn’s clients and staff.

In the evenings, as we wound down after a challenging work day, we would be lulled to sleep by the gentle roar of generators from all around our part of Lagos as the city’s power grid instituted its nightly ritual of sequential power cuts to the city’s various districts. The only problem for sleepers was that each generator had a slightly different throb, pitch and rhythm as the power outages cycled around the city, all night long. Accordingly, the resulting soundscape was a constant jumble. 

Commuting to work across town, we would frequently be stuck in monstrous traffic jams. Well, actually, they were not unusual; they were routine, as in every day. I became used to the daily parade of street vendors in that traffic, selling gewgaws and odd bits of stuff imported from China, dodgy carbonated drinks, snacks, lottery tickets and punch card lotteries, and the inevitable cellphone recharge cards. People had to make a living, and this was just one more way to reach potential clients.

The basic rule was: You hustled – or you went without.

One day, I witnessed an extraordinary procession of men, selling men’s apparel. The first to pass by was a man proffering – suspended from long poles across both shoulders – men’s suits and traditional robes. He was followed by another man selling business shirts and ties, then yet another offering sandals, shoes and socks. It was an entire haberdashery on the go. 

On that day, coming up in the rear, this pedlars’ parade was completed by yet another person, this time a man with a treadle sewing machine balanced on his head, just in case the suit you had purchased on your way to work needed some immediate alterations while you waited for the traffic to inch forward again. 

Throughout the country, almost everybody was hustling (often in the very good sense of the word) for income, especially since the state appeared incapable of providing much in the way of social or financial support, or real help for those on the lower rungs of the income ladder. The basic rule was: You hustled – or you went without.

Despite Nigeria being one of the world’s major petroleum producing nations, refined petrol was often in short supply, since the country’s refineries were then non-functional. One day there was a huge conflagration in the centre of the city. It happened when people forced open a refined petrol pipeline that snaked across the city above ground and on through crowded neighbourhoods. Then, a spark ignited the volatile liquid in the pipeline under pressure. 


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More than 300 people were incinerated by the ensuing explosion. The column of smoke from the explosion was visible from space by real-time, remote imaging satellites, and I started receiving calls from US news organisations asking if civil conflict had broken out in downtown Lagos. There was, in fact, at that time, actual conflict in the southeastern part of the country where most of the oil was lifted, but where very little of the benefit ever reached the local residents of the region. In the northeastern parts of the country, the forces of Boko Haram were poised to inflict yet other grief with their reign of kidnappings and other acts. 

As for that catastrophe in Lagos, no guilty parties who had caused or contributed to the explosion or the conditions that had made the disaster possible were ever charged. And so it went. The signs that pointed to the potential for state failure were ever-present to people; it seemed obvious. And now the reality is that most citizens of voting age have simply given up on the illusion that a new government could capably address the country’s ills.

Meanwhile, for the past two decades, we have become residents of one of Johannesburg’s older suburbs. First declared as a township for the city’s growing artisanal and working class, it was enlarged after World War 2 with the construction of homes for returning white servicemen. (Coloured and African veterans received far less generous benefits for their sacrifices, of course.) There are still a few of those original veterans’ homes in the suburb. They were distinctly modest homes – two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a combined lounge and dining room. But they also had pressed tin ceilings, corrugated roofs and wood floors that are in vogue again.

Over the years, the area has become an increasingly favoured neighbourhood for younger professionals and “keyboard warriors” (or retired professionals downsizing from larger properties). Many people have rebuilt, expanded or updated the older homes in the suburb to meet their current needs and tastes. Sometimes it sounds like there is a home or two undergoing renovations or rebuilding on every street. 

Over time, the suburb’s high street has morphed from being home to a few bars and antique and bric-a-brac shops, to a space for fashionable clothing stores, art galleries and restaurants. In the neighbourhood there is also a government clinic, a small library, a recreation centre and several churches – although there are no mosques, temples or synagogues. It has continued to have a “village” feel about it, despite the changes.

For some, this peaceable evolution of a Johannesburg neighbourhood could almost be a version of what most people hoped urban South Africa was evolving towards.

In years gone by, it was an all-white neighbourhood (like so much of the country), except, of course, for the “invisible” presence of resident housekeepers. However, this suburb now is increasingly an integrated one, with black residents and mixed families becoming increasingly visible, and its restaurants are popular with people from every racial background from around the city and beyond. 

For some, this peaceable evolution of a Johannesburg neighbourhood could almost be a version of what most people hoped urban South Africa was evolving towards. The suburb is still without a high-end grocery store within easy walking distance selling designer arugula or aubergines, or exotic, organic spices, but there is a popular, old-style hardware store, a great wine shop and several excellent but informal restaurants.

But there has been trouble in such a paradise, just as there has been for the rest of the nation. The nearly broken national and city electrical grid, a usually invisible police force and the city’s indifference to maintaining the rest of its infrastructure have all been degrading life circumstances, essentially forcing residents to begin constructing what otherwise would be civic infrastructure. And – on our street – it is generating a growing argument about how best to provide sufficient security for the street so its inhabitants can live without increasing trepidation about the country’s rising crime rates.

By now, nearly everyone in South Africa has become grindingly familiar with the frequent power cuts caused by inadequate generating capacity on the part of the national power producer. But what is depressingly frequent as well are the unscheduled outages that continue for several days after a scheduled outage ends. 

In the past month alone, there have been three multi-day outages in our part of the neighbourhood. Residents dutifully report the outages to the city’s reporting centre, but, then, in growing desperation, they try to find a responsive local councillor, council employee or anyone else who might conceivably help. On several occasions, they have sought out someone with an industrial bolt cutter to gain entry to a damaged substation located inside someone’s backyard so city employees and contractors can reset a circuit breaker, repair damaged wiring or replace burnt-out components that are keeping the power supply from flowing again. 

Why the city has a substation locked away inside someone’s private property remains a total mystery. Repair crews eventually show up, but they have been forced to make the same repairs repeatedly. This points to the truth that the electrical backbone for significant parts of the city is simply wearing out – now especially under the stress of repeated, officially planned power outages. This is largely happening without the upgrades necessary to respond to population densification or even to carry out normal, routine maintenance and replacement cycles crucial for infrastructure such as electrical grids. 

As I type this, another wide-scale power outage affecting much of this suburb and a number of others has meant the power is out, yet again, from the day before, following a storm in the area. We await the verdict on whether we will successfully emerge from the next scheduled power outage, or if, yet again, we will endure another extended, unplanned outage

The truth is that even if the national power grid were to be completely healed and performed at optimum capacity, our neighbourhood would remain plagued by unplanned outages that can go unaddressed for days. So far, no matter which political party has held the reins of power, there has been little hope for a change for the better. That will almost certainly be the case at least until the city council’s infrastructure budget, its management and its forward planning are all very different from the way they are carried out now. Instead, if the current status continues, someday, someone will be electrocuted as they try, on their own, to fix some accessible part of this decaying system, after days of no-shows by city power crews. 

In response to this ongoing collapse of system and service, almost all of our neighbours have been installing inverters, solar panels or generators. Like everyone else, they need to cook, to work, to live; and now, no one really expects the city and the national government will deliver on what is supposed to be a core purpose of government. 

By now, someone reading this may think, “Ah, this is all just rich people’s first-world problems in a country that needs so much else done for so many.” But, instead, they should be thinking that this spiralling collapse is a civic “canary in the coal mine” – a heads-up to a coming, greater disaster.

As neighbourhoods such as this one receive so little real support, this example of civic incapacity will only discourage people even further in the city’s less well-endowed neighbourhoods, in their own hopes for renewal. In fact, we do know of other, less prosperous areas around the city where their power outages (along with piped water cuts because the pumping stations have no power) last even longer. Such neighbourhoods and rural settlements have even less leverage or agency with the powerful to get something fixed. Consider all the broken promises to end the use of those infamous and sometimes deadly pit toilets in the country’s rural schools. And that only generates yet more despair or alienation.

Something similar happens with road repairs and potholes. Instead of actual road resurfacing, once the complaints pile up, there is a quick patch job that lasts barely past the next summer rains. The foundations have eroded and the patching was simply a stop-gap solution. By contrast, consider images of 2,000 year-old Roman roads to reach the conclusion that, built correctly and maintained properly, a suburban street should not be worn down to the laterite soil beneath the original road, especially after it has been “repaired”, in just a few years.

Several years ago, at the closest intersection to our house, one particular pothole continued to grow as groundwater and a broken water pipe eroded to  about a metre deep, and around two metres in circumference. When it filled up with muddy water, it was nearly impossible to see in the dark that it was a pothole — especially since the street lights nearby had been out of operation for months. We kept waiting for a fatal accident to occur.  One irreverent spirit finally put a big tree branch in the hole to at least warn drivers, as they turned the corner, to be careful of this unlikely tank trap. It was not fixed with anything approaching urgency for months.

The discussion on our street — a cul-de-sac — is whether installing a boom gate would help keep crime at bay.

Finally, there is the question of security. Of course, most people in this area now have walls and gates – and burglar bars, wires and alarms. And most now contract with one of several private security companies operating in our neighbourhood – as people now assume the police will be able to do little in the event of a break-in, physical assault and robbery, or a carjacking — and the perpetrators will rarely be caught, convicted, and sentenced. But the unsettling sounds of gunfire coming in the night – from the main road and from the spruit that backs on to the neighbourhood – is generating increasing unease, bordering on panic, for some.

The discussion on our street — a cul-de-sac — is whether installing a boom gate would help keep crime at bay. There have been car thefts and chancers trying their luck at gaining access to homes, using fraudulent credentials and the story that they are checking house DB boards on behalf of the city. 

As things now stand, the street is divided between those who want to petition the city for the right to instal a boom gate versus others who believe in making use of more people-friendly, but active citizen-style measures. Without question, however, there is an emerging sense something must be done. If not a gate (which would make it complicated for visitors, repair people, even the police and fire in emergencies), then there must be stronger co-operative efforts among the private security companies serving the area, plus the installation of a serious speed bump – or two – and a set of those kerb protrusions that impede any kind of quick exit from the street. 

Here again, the fear and anger over neighbourhood security, just like the anger over a collapsing electrical grid or even modest infrastructure repairs, fuel an increasing disbelief about the ability of the government to do anything constructive. Such feelings and the unwillingness to believe in almost any government becomes corrosive to any success in achieving the social cohesion that the government so often appeals for. That, in turn, makes it a real question whether any government can hold – let alone build – the loyalty and support of its citizens, going forward. That, in turn, may fuel a further wave of emigration of the country’s most talented – the very people the government should be doing everything it can to encourage to stay and contribute. 

At some point, people may begin contemplating tax revolts, beyond the usual kinds of public street protests that have become the norm. While the government can use its public order policing units against street protests, what can they do in the face of a sustained tax revolt by those whose payments largely fund government? In future, in addition to all its other troubles, that may become a real question for the government to ponder, on top of everything else. DM

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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    “So far, no matter which political party has held the reins of power, there has been little hope for a change for the better.”

    Without context and some explanations who primarily is causing most of the problems (and yes it is 95% ANCs fault) this statement is simply wrong. It’s about time we start being honest and leave personal feelings about certain opposition parties out of these types of discussions.

  • brooks spector says:

    karl – you clearly do not know where my political sympathies lie (and, yes, I have and have had friendships with figures in many of the country’s political formations over the years). sadly, the real impact on human lives in the country’s heartland from politics more generally has been baleful.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    This article encapsulates the edge of the precipice for South Africa.

    Some days ago, the proverbial chairs were moved about on the deck of the Titanic – again.
    That same pantomime will take place time and again throughout Government, until the lights really go out. As much as outages currently last for varying times, the writing is on the wall. Lagos is coming to South African cities and the citizens will have lost any inclination to engage in a political process that offers no possible improvement. Why bash your head against a brick wall?

    The cry is to unseat the ANC. I agree that they are a blight on the country, however, what Party or Parties and who in them, will fill that space? The Devil we know, will be replaced by Devils we don’t want at all. And what may be predicted, will in reality, be far worse.

    Write down your predictions for South Africa in 5yrs and 10yrs. Seal them each in an envelope, with the dates and then open and share them at each anniversary. Writing them will be sobering. Reading them will prove that hope was a useless companion, and the reality far exceeds what you predicted.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    DM: your reply isn’t working.

    Brooks Spector: you are right I dont know where your political sympathies lie, but why then the very inaccurate statement about other political parties not being any better when it is clear they never had a decent chance to do so? Can one really say that if the DA actually would have proper influence, time and not a ruin of a municipality to start with that they are no better? I do think that if the DA would have proper control over finances (and we have seen that most disfunction comes from the ANC and other parties), things would get better.

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