South Africa is a place of unceasing intensity. Its extremes were incarnate last week in the torrential rains that poured down across the country and the rolling blackouts that accompanied them.
Early on Monday morning, Eskom announced that it would implement Stage 6 load shedding to protect the national grid as it had lost capacity at several plants. This decision was met with visceral rage, as mines were forced to halt their operations and people’s lives were disrupted for most of the day. It was also met with the humour and camaraderie that has become characteristic of our response to such events.
In a peculiar way, load shedding is a rare kind of shared national experience – it is almost unique in its ability to focus public attention on a single problem, mobilise anger and frustration, and encourage solidarity. Since 2007, it has become ingrained in the South African psyche.
And yet, somehow, this time was different. The severity of the power shortage was unprecedented. The fury that it provoked was more acute than before, more bitter and despairing. The sense of anxiety was palpable everywhere.
People are right to be angry. The past decade has decimated public trust in the institutions of the state and frayed an already delicate social fabric. Year after year, reports of brazen corruption exposed the very worst of this country. Eskom is the most prominent example of this, a once world-leading utility brought to its knees by poor choices (and indecisiveness), failures of governance, and looting on a grand scale. The most devastating effect of State Capture, though, was to dampen people’s hope for the future. The longer it continued, the more we lost faith in our own story.
Suddenly, halfway through February last year, everything changed. Overnight, the national mood lifted. There was a renewed sense of possibility, of enthusiasm, and of confidence in our success. It was a combination of relief and euphoria – a sense of jubilation at being able to hope again – that propelled the “new dawn”.
To some extent, the gradual dampening of this spirit was inevitable given the stratospheric expectations that accompanied the change in government. The new administration inherited a rapid economic decline and a state which had been systematically weakened over almost 10 years. It faced multiple crises of enormous proportions and a widespread expectation that these would all be fixed rapidly and simultaneously.
Today, the most common criticism of the government is that it has not done enough. “If the government just did X…” is a sentence I hear almost every day. What this criticism often underestimates, however – or makes only glib and passing reference to – is the scale and complexity of our challenges.
For a single company to recover from a decade of institutional erosion, pervasive corruption, and financial decline takes time. For an entire country to restore sound governance, shift its policy direction and achieve an economic rebound is a challenge of unparalleled proportions.
The reality is that South Africa faces a number of converging problems – a critical shortage of energy supply, rising public debt, a high rate of unemployment, and structural impediments to growth, from failing network infrastructure to a web of regulatory constraints. These problems have their roots in an apartheid system which – in addition to its brutal violence and depravity – did not build sufficient infrastructure to meet the entire country’s needs, produced an inefficient and unwieldy bureaucracy, and created a concentrated economy that was closed to global markets and not geared towards growth.
Add to this historical legacy a prolonged period of policy uncertainty, corruption, social tension and economic decay and you have a crisis. Born of a complex and fraught past, the problems that we confront today are wicked and intractable.
Of course, when Eskom announces Stage 6 load shedding, we do not think of the complexity of the problem or its deep historical roots. We do not console ourselves that we are headed in the right direction, or that in a few years’ time the utility will be on a sound footing. Instead, we want the problem to be solved now, immediately and completely.
This tension between the difficulty of the problem and the demand for quick solutions lies at the heart of our current malaise. The reality of governing is complex, as opposition governments in Johannesburg and Tshwane have recently discovered. It is easy to say that you can fix a problem quickly, and another thing to actually do it.
To put it a different way, the problem is that our problems are really hard.
It is not for lack of willpower or urgency that we find ourselves in a crisis. It is because it will take time to rebuild, and there are few short cuts.
The important thing, however, is that these problems remain solvable. We are a country of immense ingenuity and significant resources. We are the most resilient people on Earth, and we have accomplished more than this before.
A huge effort is underway, most of it unseen, to right what was once a sinking ship. We should measure success not by what has happened in the past week, but by where we expect to be in three years’ time. The question is whether we have the patience to let this positive change unfold.
It is true that there are some things that could, and should, be done quickly. There is no doubt that we must find ways to fast-track processes that would otherwise take time to unfold – we have to do in weeks what would take months, in months what would take years, and in years what would take decades. A crisis demands swift action.
But we must at the same time keep sight of the long term, and not discard our institutions and processes in pursuit of a short-term salve. You can erect a house quickly with plywood, and watch it blow down in the first storm – or you can take your time with bricks and mortar, and build a structure that lasts for a generation.
The first months of the sixth administration have laid the careful and deliberate groundwork for a step-change in government – appointing the right people to strategic positions across the state and SOEs (including at Eskom), addressing critical obstacles to investment like the visa regime and water licensing, and ensuring that everyone whose buy-in is necessary to success is brought along in the process.
Though some may yearn for a dictator, this is the right approach for this moment in our history. A slash-and-burn campaign might overcome the inertia of government in the short term, but it wouldn’t build a capable state – and that, at the end of it all, is what we need most.
“It’s not that I’m smart,” Albert Einstein famously said, “it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
It will take time to wrestle with our problems. We have stared at them all our lives. But we finally have a government that is in the ring, landing punches.
We may want the punches to come more quickly, or to land harder. But this is a long match, and we are only at the beginning. DM
"Those who will not reason are bigots; those who cannot are fools; and those who dare not are slaves." ~ George Gordon Byron