In search of some universal hope in this time of Thabo Bester and the disappearing Guptas

In search of some universal hope in this time of Thabo Bester and the disappearing Guptas
Credit: Created with AI illustrations by Kassie Naidoo through prompt input on Bing Image Creator.

The good news is that Thabo Bester is back behind bars and his sidekicks will also wear orange overalls. The bad news is that the Guptas are still on the loose and we are back to level 6 load-shedding. How about we start dreaming about the kind of hope that can change all of the bad news once and for all

Dear DM168 reader,

Thanks to my colleague Sukasha Singh very ably holding the DM168 fort, I was able to take a break with my family on a farm in Limpopo for the last week of my sons’ school holiday. We attended a beloved niece’s wedding ceremony on a deck overlooking the farm river with forests in the background. We swam, made fires, played guitars, danced, walked, talked, cooked, and feasted. My work laptop was packed far, far away in what seemed like another country. It’s amazing how joyful life is when you appreciate the abundance you have right in front of you. 

Away from Netflix, Showmax, emails, Slack, and WhatsApp, I also managed to read two books. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which many friends had encouraged me to read since its publication in 1998, but I never got around to it. The other book was Utopia for Realists (published in Dutch in 2014 and republished in English in 2017) by a contemporary young European philosopher Rutger Bregman. These two books took me on a journey to a past that still haunts us and a future that I really hope we will all one day have within our grasp.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver brilliantly unpacks the damaging role of so-called white saviours in Africa who have no clue or respect for local knowledge, beliefs, traditions, or skills. She does this by slowly unfolding the wreckage wrought by overzealous American Baptist missionary Nathan Price on his wife and four daughters in his quest to save the souls of Congolese villagers during the period of Congo’s independence from its Belgian colonisers. 

Her novel also alludes to the collusion of the US in removing the left-leaning, first elected president of independent DRC, Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961, and the West’s propping up of the brutal dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. All this interference for what? So Western businesses could keep a hand in the Congo’s rich mineral interests and keep the Soviet Union at bay? The book brings home why the DRC is still so conflicted and so many of its citizens flee to our country as refugees. A country rich with minerals and talented, beautiful people torn apart and impoverished by greedy, dirty, rotten scoundrels.

The news awash in Daily Maverick this week has been all about another bunch of greedy, dirty, rotten scoundrels – the Guptas who ripped off our country with the help of their friends in the ANC. It seems they somehow wangled their way out of being extradited from the United Arab Emirates to face the music in South Africa. This time round, all evidence seems to point to the complicity of Dubai officials. In this week’s paper, our foreign affairs writer Peter Fabricius gives you some insight into what went wrong in Dubai and what can be done diplomatically to bring the Guptas back. Whether stolen by white-collar criminals or murderous thieves, or extracted through state capture, ill-gotten gains in tax havens appear to be a passport to immunity and impunity. 

It’s not just greed though that lies at the heart of our darkness. It’s a lack of vision. An inability to dream and fight and work for a future that could be abundant enough for all, as opposed to an elite, connected few. While our political parties in the centre-right and right believe that the trickle-down effect of free market growth will save us from the impending disaster of what the World Economic Forum predicts will be the world’s highest global unemployment rate at 35.6%, those to the left and centre-left cling to notions of a Big Brother developmental state, with an overbloated civil service and a few social grant crumbs to stave off the hunger pangs of the poor.

The ANC is dead set on pouring billions down the drain of state-owned enterprises. This despite the fact that the government has failed to rescue state-owned enterprises like the Post Office, which it is now desperately trying to save from liquidation (as Ray Mahlaka writes in our business lead story this week). 

Let’s not forget Eskom, which has us at Stage 6 loadshedding, a situation our Electricity Minister insists is not because of corruption but technical problems. The Minister of Let There Be Lights is going to go cap in hand to Cabinet to ask for a lot more investment than the billions the ANC as the parastatal’s overlord has already thrown into Eskom but failed to plan for, manage and lead us into the light.

Instead, they oversaw revolving doors of CEOs and board chairs, who allowed corruption to gain a very strong foothold. (Has the Minister of Electricity still not apprised himself of the Hawks Eskom fraud arrests, the Zondo Report, or spoken to at least the last two CEOs, who arrived with zest and passion to serve but left the parastatal broken and disillusioned?)

Eskom also wasted a lot of money that could have been better spent on keeping our lights on longer. Case in point is Rebecca Davis’s lead story in DM168 this week in which she reveals that Eskom-owned properties worth hundreds of millions around Lephalale in Limpopo are unoccupied, abandoned, and falling into ruin. 

This story is the latest in an ever-expanding mega-terabyte pile of greed, waste, and corruption that the Daily Maverick and other media houses have painstakingly dug up, investigated, and written opinions about. 

We love our work, but exposing the rot and the rotten and seeing no visible consequences for their plundering of our resources does not bring us, you, our readers or any of the people of South Africa an iota of joy or hope for the future. This brings me to the subject of the second book I read over my holiday. 

Rutger Bregman gave me a totally different perspective on where the light of a brighter future might come from – if only every voter, every business, every trade union, every religious organisation, every political party in South Africa and the world applied our minds to achieving it. 

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman very, very convincingly argues with several examples of how giving the poor free money has worked to improve people’s lives in case studies around the world from Kenya to Namibia, Canada, the USA, the UK and more. He deftly dismisses the arrogant argument of the privileged who think the poor are poor because they are stupid or lazy, quoting economist Joseph Hanlon, who says poverty is not about stupidity, it’s about a lack of cash. 

In South Africa it is interesting that the DA’s shadow finance minister, Dr Dion George, has considered a conditional basic income grant, understanding that the inequality and poverty in South Africa will not go away by itself. But they argue taxes should not be increased to fund it, that it should be funded by economic growth. 

The ANC at its December conference spoke about the basic income grant, but only agreed on an extension of the paltry R350 Covid social relief grant to March 2024 while agreeing to “investigating modalities and affordability of the basic income grant”

The DA made some suggestions as to where costs could be cut to fund a basic income grant such as saving R15 billion by cutting New Development Bank funding by R5 billion each year and saving R60 billion over the MTEF period through more efficient procurement and a focus on reducing corruption.

I think a whole lot could be shaved off wasted expenditure on provincial governments and legislatures, failed parastatals and too many government departments that are not very good at their jobs and channelled directly into the pockets of the poor.

A universal basic income grant would also spell an end to black tax, the burden of so many newly middle-class Black South Africans who must support whole extended families on one income. 

Imagine the economic growth from more productive cash in the economy used on education, nutritional food, clothes and small businesses by the many, as opposed to only on mansions, exotic whisky and Champagne, Italian designer-label clothes and luxury cars by the very few. 

Hey, maybe just maybe this could lead us to imagine an end to corruption and the crazy conspicuous consumption culture the corrupt wear as “we have arrived” badges on their sleeves. 

Imagine everyone having a life of abundance, spending precious quality time doing work and learning what we are passionate about and interested in, be it playing a musical instrument, painting, raising children or connecting with friends or caring for family and community – as opposed to being consumed by dead-end useless jobs, being drawn to criminal syndicates for income that the free market or the government cannot provide, or being trapped in perpetual poverty by the accident of whom you are born to and where in a country or in the world you are born? 

Yes, this is far-fetched utopian thinking and might seem as crazy as dreaming that pigs can fly; but is it more far-fetched than Carl Benz’s dream of being transported by motorised cars as opposed to donkeys and horses in 1886? Or Leonardo Da Vinci’s fantasy of flying machines in the late 1400s? Or Elon Musk’s dream of manning a starship to Mars? Or that dream at Kliptown in 1955  that South Africa would one day become a non-racial democracy? 

Yours in defence of dreams and truth, 


PS Please write to me at [email protected] about your views on this and any other topic you don’t mind sharing with other readers of DM168


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