Frustration and desperation is far from quiet or muted and is reflected in the service delivery protests that grip our attention. For the most part this frustration is ignored until it sparks and spills over and by ignoring the systemic nature of this frustration we are complicit. We are reminded about this desperation when events unfold in Hammanskraal or the destruction of schools in Vumani.
South Africa will be consumed over the next three weeks by the promise of political actors of the good work they will do and the track record of their time in public office presiding over our municipalities. That frustration exists despite the enormous effort and money that has been spent in order to create new policies, institutions as well as the efforts to improve the delivery of public services to South Africans. However, the coverage and quality of those public services remain an enormous challenge for the Government.
The huge investment in development has had less impact than expected and the issues around inadequate services, unemployment, poverty and inequality will continue to feed this desperation and frustration. It is no surprise that South Africans are struggling to confront these issues. Our political minders seem unable to meaningfully provide a platform to achieve the promise of democracy or to come up with new ideas.
Complete reliance on trickle-down economics or nationalism on the other end of the spectrum is simply lazy and devoid of rising to the occasion. South Africa is burdened with the challenges of a developmental state, high levels of inequality, unemployment and quiet desperation. We need better solutions. The only way to address those challenges and to allow South Africans to flourish is if we collectively push ourselves to improve both our rhetoric, thinking and actions.
The thinking on both sides of the aisle, on the right, the left and even the centre is devoid of any new ideas. Those political actors put forward the tried and tested ideas of privatisation of public assets even though the outcomes of that process in the United Kingdom, for instance, failed to achieve anything except the enrichment of a small elite.
Then of course, there are the ideas of a magical world where government will manage everything, including the land, and act as an administrator yet the events in Venezuela are somewhat concerning. Then there is of course the business as usual approach, which includes ideas around trickle-down economics, but we only need to look around the country to realise that that too does not serve South Africa. We have a fractured approach to results.
That business as usual approach is demonstrated in the visible rot in PetroSA, SABC, National Prosecuting Authority, Hawks (Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation) and SAA where the only turnaround strategy is about recycling politically-connected individuals through the doors in order to fulfil the narrow interest of individuals and about shutting out, suspending and silencing any form of dissent.
Some would argue that the collective efforts by business and National Treasury to stave off the immediate threat of a credit downgrade demonstrates the unity and effectiveness of collective effort. The collective push is commendable, however, that effort does not demonstrate a consistent and coordinated effort to do better. Instead, far too many are happy to concern themselves only with their own self-interest and to simply make a few tweaks and formulaic changes in the hope that everything will just carry on.
The trouble is that the elite and those in power are happy to describe the water while people are drowning in that quiet desperation. We will need to look beyond elections, look beyond the concerns around credit downgrades. Instead we must confront the demons of this democracy. We need to sharpen our thinking and our resolve if we are ever going to survive. An extract from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village captures the mood of where we are:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade—
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
Yet, we carry on as if everything is fine. We are destroying our future and seem ambivalent about the consequences. DM