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Opinionista

SONA brings out the best and the worst in us

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

When Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of Nation Address on Thursday, he cannot ignore how far we have fallen as a society (not just in crude economic terms). It’s impossible to try to put a ‘price’ on violence against women and children in society. We cannot absolve the thugs who wilfully destroy the Red Location Museum, burn train carriages, and engage in banditry along the N1 or N3.

It’s the week of the State of the Nation Address (SONA). Everyone is agog. Yet, everyone is sceptical. Reality has sucked all expectations from everyone. Between diminished expectation and scepticism, there is a flurry of opinions and perspectives. Will the President have the courage? Can he do it? What will he do? What can he do? Could he? Would he? The truth is, nobody knows. Some of us care. Others are just silly. We will get to this silliness below.

At this point, 24 hours before SONA, all we have is conjecture, bitterness, pessimism and exasperation. Among the verifiable facts are that state-owned enterprises – and we can pick two, say Eskom and South African Airways – are a drain on the fiscus. Unemployment is dangerously high, with more job shedding likely in the coming weeks and months. Evidence shows that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Evidence also shows that this inequality is more or less congruent with apartheid’s former racial divide. These are the facts on which everyone can agree. Except, maybe, Gwen Ngwenya.

There are, of course, the eternally irascible who would raise any number of issues. One issue that comes to mind early (with respect to SONA) is the de rigueur red carpet fashion parade, which is especially cringeworthy when juxtaposed with people sleeping on the street along Plein Street – barely 100 metres away – and appalling levels of poverty, need and want on the other side of Cape Town, in Nyanga, Langa, Gugulethu, Philippi, Khayelitsha, Dunoon, Joe Slovo Park or Delft. But the show must go on. And a show it will be, in all its grotesquerie…

And so, while we wait, I picked up a strand of logic (illogic is probably a better word) that has its immediate roots in the woke sewage that has bubbled up from the broken sewers of society over the past few years and is slowly poisoning the land. Metaphorically, of course. But its deeper logic may be associated with a strand of economics rationalism that is particularly noxious.

Red Location Museum on fire

On Monday, Athol Trollip, the likeable former mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, sent out a tweet. He had received unconfirmed reports that the ill-fated Red Location Museum was on fire. Later that day, Port Elizabeth’s flagship newspaper, The Herald, reported that parts of the museum were, indeed, destroyed by fire, allegedly as a result of copper wire theft. We have become inured to these things…

What was astounding was one response to Trollip’s tweet. A tweeter (is that how we describe people who tweet?), whose Twitter handle is “Day 36 of #90dayswithoutSugar”, replied to Trollip with the following tweet. “What’s the point of a very expensive building when people are reminded of apartheid by their daily surroundings.” Now, I’m sure the tweeter meant well. Except, it reminded me of a statement made by a Nobel Laureate for Economics (20 years is a long enough period to adhere to a confidentiality agreement – even if it is unspoken). The statement was something like this: “If you improved the living conditions of people in squatter camps [provide electricity, potable water, sanitation etc] they will not afford to live there.”

By this logic it would be “economically rational” to let people continue living in squalid conditions, because improving their conditions is “beyond” their economic or financial reach.

The indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie

Let’s get back now to the tweeter and their tweet. The long and the short of it is “don’t build new infrastructure in poor areas because they live in appalling conditions” which remind them of apartheid. I’m desperately trying to see something good in that. It reminds me of those people who complained that the Rwanda government advertises on an Arsenal football shirt with the slogan “Visit Rwanda”. Here, then, are some questions.

Based on statements by the Nobel Laureate for Economics, the tweeter in response to Trollip’s tweet about the fire at the Red Location Museum, and those who complained about Rwanda advertising in England, should poor people, and poor countries continue to remain poor because “improving their conditions” means they “cannot afford” to live under better conditions?

Should there be no new infrastructure – museums, libraries and so on – because people continue to live in poor conditions bequeathed by apartheid? Should Rwanda not advertise abroad to attract tourism, presumably because the advertising money is going to a wealthy country, while people in Rwanda remain poor? This indiscreet charm of the bourgeoisie does my head in. I’m sure they mean well, but it was Brecht, I think, who said that when the middle classes tell the poor that things will get better, they (the rich and the middle classes – the bourgeoisie if you will), always speak with full stomachs.

Over to you, Mr President

The Red Location Museum in New Brighton was opened in 2006, as a tribute to the Struggle against apartheid. Over the years, vandals have stripped the museum piece by piece and damaged valuable artefacts. This is somewhat of an analogy of South Africa and how there have been concerted attempts to build a society, and a political economy, that was better than that which preceded it, without ever losing sight of where the country came from. This, I am trying to say, is what President Cyril Ramaphosa will do – or resume doing – with his SONA on Thursday. He can’t stop working to improve society, just because someone is trying to break it down.

While it is absolutely important to live and work within our means, it is equally important to accept that not everything is done “for economic reasons”. This economic determinism is as outdated as its Marxist and Adam Smithian antecedents. Good policies and courageous political decisions can be made to address injustice, improve the lives of apartheid’s legatees, and provide community safety, employment opportunities and promote prosperity and overall well-being. If we look, only, at the economic costs, or the discomfort of living in the shade of state-of-the-art infrastructure, like a museum or a library, then we might as well hand the country over to Gwen Ngwenya’s Democratic Alliance – and the Western economics rationalism that underpins her logic.

When Ramaphosa delivers his SONA on Thursday, he cannot ignore how far we have fallen as a society (not just in crude economic terms). It’s impossible (and offensive) to try to put a “price” on the violence against women and children in society. And, this is crucial, it is not up to Ramaphosa himself. We cannot absolve the thugs who wilfully destroyed the Red Location Museum, who burn train carriages, and who engage in banditry along the N1 or the N3.

In the simplest (almost banal) of terms, the state can provide schools, but people have to make sure their children attend school, and show an interest in their homework assignments, if they actually have textbooks. The state can provide rubbish bins, but people have to place their trash in the bins. The state can provide traffic lights and road markings, but drivers have to adhere to the laws. The state cannot, and should not, look over your shoulder every step of your daily life. This is what is meant by active and engaged citizenry.

It is unbearably horrific to live in squalid conditions, with no water, electricity or sanitation. A higher expectation is to believe that nothing can be done. A new library, or a new museum, is not a reminder of apartheid, it is a reminder of what can be done – across a wide array of interventions, starting with shelter, food and clothing. You cannot burn down a clinic if your headache will not go away. You cannot burn down a library if you have a grievance with the authority. You also do not need the crude rationalism of economics, and the performance imaginaries of wokanda. DM

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