Without further ado, here are South Africa’s three biggest, most crippling, problems:
It’s been on many people’s minds as SA’s most pressing problem and, in many direct ways, it most certainly needs to be addressed urgently. Daily Maverick’s Marianne Merten has estimated that the period of State Capture cost us R1.4-trillion, or close to one-third of our GDP – a devastating number, from which many a stronger country would struggle to recover. And yet, as massive and as devastating a problem as it is, corruption has not clogged every pore of our government and society. You can still get state services and expect not to pay for them, or at least pay a nominal fee. One can still get an ID or passport, or a Covid-19 test. A country is measured by how it treats its poorest and weakest – and it is not easy being poor in South Africa these days. But there are many, many countries that are worse off than us.
This is a big one. Although it goes hand in hand with corruption, often displayed by the same person, incompetence wreaks havoc on a much bigger scale. When corrupt officials and politicians decide that it is their time to eat, it is their callousness and incompetence that shield them so effectively from understanding the greater damage they are causing. When, for example, the rail network is brought to its knees and the corrupt groups score massive trucking tenders to supply coal to power stations, they damage the entire country by making electricity production more expensive, by causing environmental damage through burning fossil fuels and destroying the roads, all the way to the direct human toll exacted by increased traffic deaths on the roads jammed by sometimes 2,000 extra trucks a day between the coal mines and power stations.
Incompetence destroys so much more than pure corruption does. It devastates entire sectors of industry, drives government departments in the wrong direction, which sometimes takes decades to correct, and makes good and well-meaning projects vanish because of poor planning and execution. While pure corruption destroys a slice of the money pie, incompetence destroys the whole pie.
So, corruption and incompetence are massive and scary problems that can ruin entire countries and change the course of history. How can any problem be bigger than those two right now? This might sound a bit New Agey, but to destroy a nation’s soul is the biggest crime that an elite can commit. That’s why this country’s greatest challenge right now is:
To have no hope is to have no life. Hope makes waiting for things to get better bearable. Hope helps us survive through the darkest nights and gives us perseverance when faced with the greatest of challenges. Hope makes sacrifices meaningful and gives substance to love, care and loyalty.
For many years now, the ranks of the poorest of the poor in South Africa have been swelling, their existence harder by the day. Thriving has been replaced with stagnating. Many who got used to just treading water now struggle for basic survival.
While the process of decline started in Thabo Mbeki’s years, the Age of Zuma thoroughly ruined our people’s hopes for improved lives. The twin monster of previously mentioned corruption and incompetence has all but ruined South Africa’s infrastructure. The electrical network is under severe stress, as is Eskom’s power generation. The country’s water supply has crumbled under the “stewardship” of ministers like Nomvula Mokonyane. The roads, especially the local ones, are in terrible shape. The health system was already in bad shape, and then came the pandemic. As I write, the rail network is decaying and being ransacked.
The economy is on its knees and the national government, even before the pandemic, is suffering from a tremendous debt burden. Spending was cut everywhere – except when the pandemic hit, when a great percentage of the urgent spend was sliced away by the army of thieves connected to the ANC government.
It is exceedingly difficult to remain hopeful when everything around you is wasting away. As human beings, we can accept the harshness and the pain of today if we have a reasonable hope that tomorrow’s gonna be better. To know that tomorrow is not going to get better, and the day after tomorrow is probably going to be even worse, and that it is going to remain like that forever, is to live an existence that becomes unbearable for most of us.
It is not surprising that the people who lost hope will turn to anyone, any talented populist ideologue, at times like these. And when an exceedingly talented populist snake oil salesman like Donald Trump or Julius Malema comes along, they can wreak havoc. I should know that – the emergence of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, 34 years ago, led to the destruction of common values that is still unresolved to this day. Trump may be stopped in November, but it will take a long time to undo Trumpism. The jury is still out on Malema’s success, but the Zuma mess is still there for all to see.
And yet, it is not too difficult to inject hope back into a society, even if it feels as beaten down as ours. There must be a concerted effort to understand the problem and act upon it. Remember 14 February 2018, the day Jacob Zuma resigned? The jubilation was near-universal, with people’s minds full of bright possibilities all over again. Many felt the country of Nelson Mandela was back on track. Remember the new President Cyril Ramaphosa’s morning walks, with hundreds in tow? It was powerful. It was palpable.
But then, the return of Zuma’s acolytes to government, their effective control of Parliament, the betrayal of the nation’s trust in the early days of lockdown and the PPE tender scandals have once again brought the despair of hopelessness.
Still, that desperation can again be reversed into hope. It really is not too far-fetched. Corrupt politicians and businesspeople need to be arrested, and the sense of justice triumphing over injustice will soon return. Positive economic reforms need to be made, ones with real people’s wellbeing at heart and not the ideologues. The rhetoric of hatred must be replaced with a call to action with common purpose.
People of South Africa prefer love to hate. They will always rather be hopeful than hopeless. They are resourceful, tough and would always prefer to take care of themselves than depend on handouts. They would also prefer not to be exploited and lied to.
Given a fair chance, the people of South Africa will be able to rebuild their lives. All they need is never again to lose hope. DM