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Things fall apart … but we are the centre and we must...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Things fall apart … but we are the centre and we must hold SA together

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Nontobeko Hlela worked as a political science lecturer at the then University of Durban-Westville, as an intelligence officer at the then SASS, and as the First Secretary: Political at the High Commission of South Africa in Nairobi from 2010 to 2014. She currently works as a Researcher for the South African office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank with offices in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Delhi.

We moan, shake our heads, call in to talk radio stations and then turn around and do the same thing we have done for almost the last three decades – sit on the sidelines and twiddle our thumbs while South Africa burns.

South Africa has a deep collective investment in the saviour complex. From Nelson Mandela to Cyril Ramaphosa, we have lurched from hope in one big man to hope in the next.

When President Ramaphosa took office in early 2018, there was a widespread sigh of relief in most quarters. He assumed the presidency on a surging tide of optimism – there was tremendous goodwill and hope that, finally, here was someone who was going to lead the fight against the corrupt.

It was widely thought that he would bring his private sector “expertise” to bear and would get government working efficiently to ensure that South Africans would finally receive the services that the state must provide. 

Here was a person making South Africans feel the call of duty, wanting to respond: “Yes, thuma mina” – “Send me.”

Yet here we are, more than four years later, and there are devastating levels of unemployment and violent crime. The police service is a shambles, yet no one has been held accountable. The intelligence services have been rendered ineffective, yet recommendations from a 2018 report remain unimplemented. Parts of the country were scorched in July 2021 and the panel looking into this found Cabinet culpable, yet all the implicated ministers remain at the helm.

The lights are often off. We do not have enough teachers to teach our children. Children still learn under trees. Many schools do not have even the most rudimentary equipment to prepare our children. We do not have enough nurses to tend to our sick. We do not have enough doctors to treat our population. Our cities are filthy and are not being cleaned. The dehumanising bucket toilet system persists. Most children have no access to any recreational opportunities at school or in communities.

Our infrastructure crumbles in front of our eyes, while engineers sit at home because government refuses to spend money on infrastructure projects. The transport system is broken, sewage runs in our streets, there are towns and cities in this country that have daily “water shedding”, and yet everything carries on as normal.

Government still wastes money on the failed and corrupt tender system instead of Public Works employing people to do the work. Perhaps we should recall that the apartheid government directly employed people, thereby creating jobs, and having command and control over the work to ensure that services were delivered – although of course, only to some people.

In this moment of crisis, with biting austerity measures and the ever-increasing cost of living, many worry that a new round of riots may be on the way. This is especially so given the lack of any serious interventions to assist the millions of South Africans living in abject poverty who often do not know where their next meal will come from. 

We need a decisive break with our old ways of understanding things.

Songezo Zibi has kickstarted an important conversation about how we get out of the rapidly worsening crisis. An important part of his contribution is the idea that ordinary people need to shoulder responsibility for moving us forward. He focuses on the professional classes, who certainly have much to contribute and much to lose.

But we all have a stake in trying to rescue our country. Some poor and working-class people are well organised into social movements and trade unions. But very few middle-class people are organised in a way that can take us forward.

As middle-class people, we have, since the start of democracy, left the political scene and retreated into our enclaves – yet we pay some of the highest rates of tax in the world for some of the worst services. 

Despite paying such high taxes, we have to pay again for schooling, transport, security, healthcare and more because what we should be receiving from the state in return for our taxes is of such poor quality.

Many of us are sinking deeper and deeper into debt just to make ends meet and see no future for our children in South Africa. Many black professionals are emigrating.

When I started working for the state many moons ago, I went on a liaison and fact-finding mission with my then manager. We travelled to several west African countries, meeting our counterparts and civil society organisations. One of these trips was to Monrovia, Liberia, a couple of weeks after Charles Taylor had left the country. After a 14-year civil war, the country was decimated and completely looted, right down to the carpets and lights in the houses of parliament.

One other telling thing was the lack of visible light after dark. The only places that had light, or any type of electricity for that matter, were running on generators. I was reminded of this recently when I drove into my neighbourhood. It was pitch dark and from the houses that had lights, the unmistakable, horrible sound of generators could be heard. I couldn’t help but ask myself in despair, how had we gone so far down the rabbit hole so quickly?

All those years ago when I first went to west Africa, load shedding was a term that had not yet become standard in the South African lexicon. It has now become a swear word, used by adults and children alike.

Our hosts in the countries we visited would tell us that if we saw someone driving straight on most of the roads, it is because they were drunk – no sober person would risk damaging their car because of all the potholes. I look around our cities today, and it is now we South Africans who cannot drive straight on our roads.

One of the recommendations I had made in a report to my organisation on returning from that trip, was that we should form a programme where civil servants would be taken to visit some countries on the continent so they could see what might happen if we stopped doing our work properly and allowed things to fall apart.

We all remember how, as the political situation deteriorated in Zimbabwe under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe, South Africans would shake their heads in disbelief at the folly of Zimbabweans who kept voting for Zanu-PF despite ample evidence that it had lost any desire to be for the people.

Yet today that is exactly what we – as the South African citizenry – are doing. We moan, shake our heads, call in to talk radio stations, and then turn around and do the same thing we have done for almost the last three decades.

We are all guilty of sitting on the sidelines and twiddling our thumbs while South Africa burns, as if we are not inheritors of a long and proud history of struggle, activism and community organising. 

There is no big man who is our saviour and who will come and rescue South Africa. We have to revive civic engagement, become involved in our community organisations and become advocates for the South Africa we want. 

We are the only ones who can rescue our country and make it what we want. DM

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All Comments 5

  • Spot on; it is not one light, but rather the light of many, many torches that will rescue our country from the depths of despair; black, whites and all the shades in between and to the sides, men, women and all the variants thereto, young and old – we must all pull together and take the microphones away from those would would and do divide us.

  • “We are all guilty of sitting on the sidelines and twiddling our thumbs while South Africa burns, as if we are not inheritors of a long and proud history of struggle, activism and community organising. ”

    I am sorry but no. We are where we are because of the ANC. It’s really that simple. Other factors we could have dealt with, but the level of sustained destruction, looting and nepotism took those options from us. Does this mean that we should fold our arms and lean back? Of course not, but let’s be very clear on what the causes are for lack of progress since apartheid ended … and it’s definitely not us. That civic engagement you are talking is already happening and its all that is preventing immediate collapse.

  • Bravo – a truly honest and valid assessment, but my dear Nontobeko Hlela, you are not alone. I lived in Cape Town for ten years in the early 2000s but returned to UK when I retired. I write a weekly ‘Letter from Great Britain’ to my readers around the world charting the decline of our ‘once-upon-a-time’ great country emblematic of the West in general.

    Your essay might easily have applied to the state of Britain today, apart from power outages, but that’s to come, whilst some Brits are unable to afford the power and voluntarily switch the lights off – and many South Africans aspire to come here? My advice is to stay safe in the southern hemisphere (nuclear fallout generally remains in the north) and fix your nation from within using all the latent indigenous talent you have in abundance. I love SA and Cape Town (Simons Town) and if I was younger I would return in a heartbeat. Take a tour of Britain and be grateful for your sunny location – good luck:

  • I find it refreshing to read the common sense displayed in this article. Women in South Africa have remained silent for too long. Having been married for nearly 50 years my wife still assists in my business. She often sees solutions where I only see problems. I see England may soon have a women Prime Minister. Perhaps its time South Africa had the same.

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