In light of the never-ending succession of tales of government incompetence and corruption, and now the tragedy at Marikana, at what point should South Africans begin to entertain the possibility that our government lacks all legitimacy?
On 1 August, when Ferial Haffajee delivered the TB Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, I found it difficult to share the curiously optimistic tone of much of her presentation. Her talk was ostensibly on Zuma’s Spear—in my mind, one of the more depressing moments in a thoroughly unpleasant year for anyone who hopes for the Rainbow Nation rhetoric to one day mean something concrete or worthwhile.
The talk opened with pictures of medal winners at the London Olympics and contained various other examples of South Africans doing things that could also make one proud, assuming of course that “being South African” means anything to you. And why should it? Because when we get to the end-of-year news roundups, there will be far more there to make you angry than to make you proud.
Textbooks in Limpopo were dumped. Children are being taught under trees while government officials tie up deals for R2-billion presidential business jets. Such is the plethora of bad-news stories we South Africans know all too well. And then, last week, dozens of striking miners were shot and killed by police at Marikana.
The temporary balm of an Olympic gold medal or three is meaningless now, just as that Rugby World Cup victory 1995 became meaningless and just as those queues around polling stations in 1994 have become meaningless in light of a government that shows little concern for anything but its own status.
The first democratic elections at least retained meaning for a few years. By the time we got to the Rugby World Cup victory, meaning was perhaps preserved for a few months. Now we’re down to weeks or even days before a nation-building event like the success of our Olympians is overshadowed by something far more representative of our nation than sporting excellence.
Or maybe more representative than any sort of excellence, excepting perhaps excelling at things like hate, misunderstanding, selfishness and short-term thinking. The South Africa in which we’re ranked first in test cricket is not the one that most South Africans live in, nor a source of inspiration to someone who feels lucky to earn R5,000 a month.
Perversely, it’s no doubt true for many that they would consider themselves lucky to earn even that small amount and to be able to send half of it on to family even more desperate than they are. I remember a line from a Charles Bukowski reading: “One learns survival by surviving.” And such is the strength of this instinct to survive—and the cultural programming of considering it a good in itself to be alive, regardless of circumstance—that people keep on doing it, even though the life in question is probably never going to become more worth living.
A politician visiting Marikana can’t say things like these, of course. And while I realise there are standard diplomatic formulations for cases like there, I’d also like to think that a presidential spokesperson won’t take the opportunity to remind us of how busy and important Zuma is, in telling us he’s deigned to cut a trip short because he “is concerned about the violent nature of the protest” and is “sympathetic to calls for a commission of inquiry”. Just get there, preferably before the rabble-rousers like Malema do.
And perhaps advise your ministers to exercise caution when speaking to the media. After all, it’s not ideal to hear the Minister of Mineral Resource, Susan Shabangu, observing that these deaths are “unfortunate for the [mining] industry”, especially in light of platinum prices. Or better yet, consider appointing ministers who don’t need to be given advice like this in the first instance.
Besides anger and sadness, another reasonable reaction to a tragedy is perhaps to ask this question: when should South Africans begin entertaining the possibility that we have an illegitimate government? Not because they can’t magically fix poverty, but because some in government seem intent on breaking the things they could fix, like education. (Education—that would be one of the things that can help angry miners learn that it’s not true that a sangoma can make you bulletproof.)
And when they do break these things, they always keep their jobs, just as they do when they steal public money —so long as they support the right ANC faction, of course. So no, I can’t share the optimistic tone of Ferial Haffajee’s lecture. Today, I could say that I hate this country. In fact, I hate it enough to stay and to try to help break it, hopefully so that we can then start to rebuild it into something worth being proud of. DM
Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.